Spotlight: Hollywood Goes to War

Just prior to Pearl Harbor, a military lecture series was created to educate new draftees and volunteers. The series covered important topics such as world military history and the principles of democracy. But the lecture series and outdated films that accompanied it failed to capture the audience’s attention. Instead of boosting moral and educating service members, it bored them.

With America’s entry into WWII, it became vital to gain the support of soldiers and civilians, the current educational material would need updated. To do this, General George Marshall, despite resistance, enlisted Hollywood to create exciting short movies meant to justify America’s involvement in the war. Marshall called upon Academy Award winner Frank Capra, a Sicilian-American director, to create the Why We Fight  series.

Why We Fight totals seven propaganda films created to explain to soldiers and eventually the public why they were fighting, the nature of the enemy, the causes of the war, and why America was involved. Each film covers a different topic which is explained at the beginning; they include a dramatic score, interesting footage, and enthusiastic narration all meant to keep the attention of the audience.

Why We Fight Title Page

Why We Fight: Prelude to War

The first film in the series explores the background of World War II. It gives an overview of the major causes of the war such as the bombing of Pearl Harbor, London air raids, cavalry and tank battles in Russia, and Panzer and Luftwaffe operations in western Europe. Footage also shows Fascists in Italy and Nazis in Germany as they riot and parade. Major characters of the war are also shown such as Adolf Hitler, Hermann Goring, Rudolph Hess, and Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto.

Why We Fight: The Nazis Strike

This motion picture film covers the growth of German aggression, 1934-1940. German tactics, the mobilization of German industry and manpower, and the construction of the Siegfried Line are explained. Footage of the capture of Austria and Czechoslovakia and the invasion of Poland is also included.

Why We Fight: Divide and Conquer

Divide and Conquer focuses on the German military offensive, 1939-1940. Panzer units roll across Denmark; armored, naval, and air power strikes Norway and Germans parade in Oslo. In reel 3, French troops man the Maginot Line in 1940, there is an analysis of the weakness of French morale, and a dramatization of German propaganda. Footage also shows the French defensive strategy, Nazi airborne troops landing at Rotterdam, and armored columns racing across Holland. Reel 6 shows Allied troops being evacuated at Dunkirk, Winston Churchill inspects the survivors, Italian troops invade France, President Franklin Roosevelt deplores the action, and Benito Mussolini speaks. General Henri Philippe Petain, Pierre Laval, Adolf Hitler and Hermann Goring are shown as the French surrender is signed.

Why We Fight: The Battle of Britain

Film four focuses on the British defense against German aerial warfare. The courage of the British people and the skill of the Royal Air Force are emphasized.

Why We Fight: The Battle of Russia

The war in Russia is the topic of film five, The Battle of Russia. Russia’s military history is discussed starting with Alexander Nevsky defeating the German knights in 1242. The invasion of Russia in June 1941 is explained and Russia’s strategy is analyzed. It also discusses the Siege of Leningrad and the subsequent retreat of Nazi forces.

Why We Fight: The Battle of China

This motion picture film explores Japanese aggression and plans for world conquest. Footage of a Japanese munitions factory, a fleet at sea, troops marching, the Army occupying Manchuria, views of the League of Nations as the action is condemned, the Great Wall of China, and other military actions are included.

Why We Fight: War Comes to America

War Comes to America examines world events that pulled the United States into World War II.  It also dramatizes the formation of the U.S., the signing of the Declaration of Independence,  and  later European migrations while stressing the strength brought to the U.S. by her immigrants. It also depicts educational facilities, recreational activities and prohibition era scenes.

Why We Fight was successful in boosting morale and persuading Americans of the importance of their involvement in WWII. The series won Capra the Distinguished Service Medal and Prelude to War received an Oscar for Best Documentary (short subject).

The propaganda films created by Capra for the Why We Fight series are available on the National Archives YouTube channel. Other films produced by Hollywood for the United States Government can be found by searching the National Archives catalog. If you would like to learn more about Hollywood’s involvement in WWII, a lecture by Mark Harris the author of the book Five Came Back, is available here. You can also read more here about the First Motion Picture Unit (FMPU), which produced instructional films during World War II.