On This Day in 1943: The Man Behind the Gun Fires Into American Living Rooms

Well, if my “Do Not View” list over at blogexplosion may be drawn on as ocular proof, the blogosphere is the stomping ground for today’s self-styled propagandists. Operating in the relative anonymity of the internet, webjournalists have seized the new medium as their Hyde Park Corner, a space where they can whine and opine vociferously while hiding behind the latter-day scarves of generic skins and colorful pseudonyms. How effective is such ranting, however relevant or worthwhile the cause? Is debate, so rarely encouraged by loudmouthed badmouthing, still possible among the media-blitzing nobodies of feuding weblocs and those permitting themselves to be caught in between? That I don’t have any ready answers only makes such questions all the more worth raising.

Radio, the mass medium Gerald Nachman labelled “yesterday’s Internet,” was the first such means to penetrate the domestic stronghold and stranglehold the mind. Prior to World War II, the propagandistic uses of broadcasting were curtailed by the FCC, which apparently had fewer qualms about the sister art of sly manipulation known as advertising. The act of selling ideas was deemed more dubious or sinister than the peddling of wares, no matter how harmful.

During the war, however, the US government did much to exploit wireless omnipresence, radio’s firm and welcome entrenchment in the American home. Wartime movies, like the clever To Be Or Not to Be I watched last night, took far longer to make and were decidedly more costly to produce than broadcast dramas; and while magazines cajoled the public with bold-printed memoranda (such as the less-than-subtle war bonds appeal shown above), the airwaves carried jingles and jingoist speech that could penetrate the recesses of the mind more deeply and with greater frequency than film and print, shaking the complaisant or calling the recalcitrant to arms. And while Esther Williams was still poised on her swing, ready to leap into some technicolored Lethe, radio recruited everyone from Amos ‘n’ Andy to Young Widder Brown for war duty.

Even the commercials began to don camouflage. On this day, 28 March, in 1943, for instance, the Elgin National Watch Company reminded its former customers that it, too, had “gone to war,” turning out “tools of victory.” Being “completely devoted to the production of precision instruments for war,” it now manufactured compasses, tachometers, and time fuses.

And whether they were on civilian wrists or in the gun turret, Elgin watches, across whose faces the second hand swept “towards the zero hour,” were steadily measuring that “priceless ingredient of victory: time.” Few listening to such con-fusings of corporate greed and patriotism would have thought that the campaigners for Elgin had lost their marbles. It was all part of the war game no American could afford to lose.

The aforementioned war-time piece maker sponsored a program called The Man Behind the Gun (previously discussed here), which declared itself “dedicated to the fighting forces of the United States and the United Nations.” It was “presented in the hope” that its ostensibly “authentic accounts of men at war” might give civilians a “better understanding and deeper appreciation” of American and allied “fighting forces everywhere in the world.”

The noisy, in your face plays written for the series by Ranald MacDougall achieve a remarkable verisimilitude, despite the fact that sound recordings of wartime machinery were either unavailable or off-limits to civilians, as Jim Widner’s Adventures in Radio Podcast reveals in an introduction to another episode of the series. And since the radio, unlike the internet, gave home audiences little opportunity to talk back or speak up, MacDougall decided on second-person narration forcefully to transport listeners into the action. Quite literally, listeners were being shipped off to battle in a war fought in the air, on the waves, and on the airwaves.

To those who think that so-called old-time radio in America was all “Hi-Yo Silver” and “Jell-O everybody,” such less frequently circulated frontline dramatics might be an eye-opening earful indeed. I hope I am not being too blatantly manipulative when I suggest you keep that in mind should you care to respond to the current broadcastellan survey.

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