American Recruitment and Social Sentiment During World War I


Artist: James Montgomery Flagg (1877 – 1960)

Date: 1917

Originally Published: July 6, 1916 – Leslie’s Weekly: “What Are You Doing for Preparedness?” 



Images have always had power over words; words merely outline a situation, they allow for the mind to create its own scenario to fit those words. While everyones’ interpretation of an image can be different, the physical image itself remains the same. Historically, images have been used to change social opinions, motivate social change, and point out wrongdoings in society. During World War I, the United States Military utilized images to urge enlistment in the allies’ cause. The purpose of the photos were to villainize the central powers, and exalt the allies.

Uncle Sam is a well known character. His face still appears in many cartoons, comics, and news articles today. Many view uncle same as a personification of America, a physical embodiment of freedom and justice. Due to Uncle Sam’s plethora of interpretations, the United States realized he could be the perfect tool for war propaganda.

World War I was viewed as the war against the central powers,the last remaining empress of the world, “a war to end all wars” (H.G. Wells). By having such anti-democratic enemies, the United States used Uncle Sam to motivate social change and inspire the youth of America. Americans have always viewed themselves as the world’s policemen, and it is from World War I which that belief began to seed. A simple cartoon of a manly character outfitted in the stars and stripes was the perfect social motivator. The cartoon inspired men from across the country to enlist and protect the world from the central empires. By the time that the United States entered World War I it was 1917. The war had been ongoing for three years, and with the aid of America, the war of attrition came to an end. Uncle Sam’s embodiment of American democracy and strength was a driving force behind the U.S. Military’s recruitment campaign.

I find myself somewhat inspired by Uncle Sam. I can relate the the generations of the 1910’s and 20’s. I can see how the 1920’s brought about record high stocks, endless parties, and amazing literature. Uncle Sam made that American generation realize that they live in a country that promotes democracy and freedom. In addition, I can also see how the poster was successful. Physically, Uncle Sam’s serious demeanor and pointed finger appear as if he is addressing the viewer specifically. It appears as if, while viewing the photo, the viewer is the sole subject. The text also reads, “I want YOU for U.S. Army,” further suggesting that he artist intended for the viewer to be the sole focus. Moreover, the lack of background in the poster is suggestive of the meaning the poster was trying to get across: the eradication of injustice and imperial powers in the world. What are your thoughts? I would like to know why you think Uncle Sam was such a successful propaganda campaign. What do you think lead the U.S. Military to choose Uncle Sam as the figurehead?


5 thoughts on “American Recruitment and Social Sentiment During World War I”

  1. I agree that Uncle Sam’s figure is inspiring and motivating. I get these feelings because he appears as a generic form of a great American leader, similar to the Founding Fathers. However, using the real Founding Fathers would be a perversion of their beliefs, so the government settled with an Uncle. Using an Uncle is important as well, he is distant enough of a relative so as not to replace say a father or a brother, but close enough for young men to be swayed by his words. An Uncle cares about you and wants the best for you, and they create a sense of family obligation to consider their words. Uncle Sam made everyone feel a part of the great Family of America, a family where everyone does their part and cares for one another. Posters like this make me proud to be a member of the great American Family.

  2. Without any research, I would imagine that Uncle Sam was chosen because he’s an old yet intense looking guy. He has that “Hey you listen to me, I want you.” Kind of look on his face. It’s an intimidating look, but it also gives off a sense of pride. Uncle Sam is an old patriotic tough guy and it kind of make you want to be part of that tough patriotic spirit. This is probably the most famous propaganda in American history. Unlike some of the propaganda posters that have been posted this one encourages the viewer to join the military, whereas others I have seen accuse the viewer of doing something to coerce them into joining. Definitely interesting how the Military used different tactics. It’s obvious why Uncle Sam is considered a success, and the other posters aren’t as well known.

  3. Jbquigley2014, I’m glad you picked this poster. Most people think it’s simple because it is so widespread, but it’s actually interesting to discuss. Your analysis is great…there’s not a lot I can add to that, but I’d like to answer your question. I think that a big reason why the Uncle Sam campaign was so successful is Uncle Sam’s resemblance to Abraham Lincoln. Ashton touched on this as well. The top hat, the scraggly hair, the elderly look–it all screams resurrected Abe Lincoln. Now, more importantly than the visual image is the connotation of the visual image. Lincoln was a uniter and as some would argue, the savior of the US. This poster’s historical allusion to one of the nation’s greatest patriots is what makes it so successful in catalyzing citizens’ patriotism and desire to serve their country.

  4. Uncle Sam appealed to its intended audience, White Americans. WW1 showed how racism was far from over as blacks could only fight alongside French or another nations soldiers. This bargain was struck as the French needed more troops and whites did not want to fight alongside there black counterparts in the US army. Do you think Uncle Sam shows how racism was still alive and well in the US?

  5. His presence as a older man definitely influenced many soldiers as well as him overwhelming pride and sense of spirit towards America. He represents everything that is American is the way he’s dressed and his demeanor in all of the pictures or posters he’s shown in. Alike any other campaign there has to be a “so what” when looking at the advertisement and whenever Uncle Sam is shown he’s always trying to reach out to everyone possible because he brings that personal touch. The finger point and his facial expression promote his eagerness to recruit citizens to serve and protect the people of America. It is personal in the sense that it makes it seem like he’s only talking to one specific person but in reality it’s trying to engage a nation of people.

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