Honesty in Advertising: “To be killed in action.”

The recent drip of think pieces regarding the resurrection of conscription inspired me to revisit the antiwar ads featured below.

They are some haunting stuff designed to tug at the heartstrings. I first ran into them while researching at the Hoover Presidential Library, specifically while pouring through the Senator Gerald Nye Papers. As you can see, the images feature a mother tossing their smiling child with the text “To be Killed in Action” superimposed above.

The center image and the one on the right are posters/flyers related to a speaking tour put on by Senator Gerald Nye in order to sell the public on the newly proposed Neutrality Act, itself the result of his famed “Special Committee on Investigation of the Munitions Industry,” colloquially known as the Nye Committee.

The Nye speaking tour poster and flyer make explicit and repeated references to the Great War as a mistake, one not to be repeated. Lost in the “Good War,” mythologizing the once apolitical and visceral opposition to the war in the United States in the wake of World War I, sentiments that carried through in Congress.

I’ve looked into the ad’s origins and cannot pin it down for certain, although it appears that it at least ran in Esquire magazine. 

I have not found anything on the ad’s origins except for one other appearance on a vintage ad blog that places its origins in 1939, which can’t be correct as the copies I ran into have it at least as early as 1935. According to said blog:

The ad from a group called World Peaceways, in NYC is from 1939 before America entered WWII is remarkable in the fact that it ran as a full-page advertisement in an issue of  “Woman’s Home Companion,” a mainstream woman’s magazine. It appeared alongside recipes for the 1930’s housewife for husband pleasin’ meals and advise on hanging dainty curtains. The contrasts between the usual vintage advertising to women and a daring war protest ad was startling.

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If you’ve come this far, read the ads; they’re jarring historical documents. And even if you possess a completely orthodox view of “isolationism” and America’s entry into the war, I hope you can glean a modicum of sympathy for those who desired to stay out of Europe’s growing travails. Most simply didn’t want their children to die half a world away.

Is that so hard to comprehend?

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