The March Toward War: The March of Time as Documentary and Propaganda

Wood, Mary Margaret , Department of English, University of Virginia
Howard, Alan, Department of English, University of Virginia
Balogh, Brian, Department of History, University of Virginia

Beginning in the 1920s, Henry Luce's media empire, including Time and Fortune magazines, reached an audience of millions and offered a trend-setting format that blended news and feature-writing. Luce then expanded his empire by creating The March of Time, a radio show founded in 1931 primarily to advertise magazine and later Life magazine. In 1935 Luce further entrenched The March of Time brand with a dramatic monthly newsreel of the same name, which by 1937 played in over 9,800 theaters in America and was seen by as many as 26 million people each episode.1 Part drama, part journalism, the radio show and newsreel, with its synergistic relationship with Life magazine, may have had unprecedented influence over its audience. The newsreel presented its makers' partly objective, pro-Americanist point of view in the documentary tradition established during the 1930s. With its over-the-top dramatizations, the radio show presented highly fictionalized presentations of current events. The newsreels, made in monthly installments, offered more "real" footage, but filled in gaps as necessary with re-enactments. The ever-present narrator of both formats, the Voice of Time, guided audiences in how to think about the facts they "saw" and "heard."

The shows' distinct points of view are evident in its treatment of international events in the lead-up to World War II from 1935 until the war began. While cautious and reflective of Americans' desires for neutrality during the mid-1930s, the programs steadily built toward an indictment of the Axis countries' values. They made the threat of war and specter of suffering overseas seem more real than print coverage had during prior wars. Radio audiences heard whistling bombs bearing down on them as the Spanish Civil War was underway; theatergoers saw the (carefully re-enacted) dead bodies of Chinese civilians killed by the Japanese. Dramatic audio and visual clues led audiences to consider the threat presented by Germany, Italy, and Japan. In its more discursive role, The March of Time criticized European counterweights for failing to act in time to halt the onset of war. The League of Nations and Great Britain had failed to stem the tide, and who would? By June 1940, 67 percent of Americans were in favor of aiding the Allies, but only 27 percent were ready to go to war.2

The March of Time's makers were writing their own script about who Americans were, preparing them for the role they would soon assume. Radio shows and newsreels could offer audience members a stake in a national cause, and a chance to become a part of the story. Their message propagandized America to Americans, as well as to democratic nations abroad. The March of Time ensured that when Americans were finally ready to go to war to defend the scripted values portrayed in the show—freedom of speech, freedom to assemble, freedom of religion, democracy, equality—they knew why.

MA (Master of Arts)

Originally published on the XRoads site for the UVA American Studies program. Years range from 1995-2005. Content is captured at the level of functionality available on the date of capture.

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