144 Primary Source Images: World War II

The 1930s and 1940s were trying times. A global economic crisis gave way to a global war that would become the deadliest and most destructive in human history. Perhaps 80 million lost their lives during World War II. The war saw industrialized genocide and nearly threatened the eradication of an entire people. It also unleashed the most fearsome wartime technology that has ever been used in war. It And when it ended, the United States found itself alone as the world’s greatest superpower, armed with the world’s greatest economy and looking forward to a prosperous consumers’ economy. But of course the war would raise as many questions as it would settle: it unleashed new social forces at home and abroad that would confront new generations of Americans to come.

Tuskegee Airmen (1941)

Tuskege Airmen (African-American pilots) stand at attention in front of their aircraft.
Photograph, 1941. Via Wikimedia.

The Tuskegee Airmen stand at attention as Major James A. Ellison returns the salute of Mac Ross, one of the first graduates of the Tuskegee cadets. The photographs shows the pride and poise of the Tuskegee Airmen, who continued a tradition of African Americans honorably serving a country that still considered them second-class citizens.

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WWII Posters

Recruiting posters for the U.S. Marines and the Women's Army Corps.
Recruiting Publicity Bureau, US Women’s Army Corps Recruiting Poster (1943); Unknown, “Let’s Go Get ‘Em.” Beck Engraving Co. (1942).

This pair of US Military recruiting posters demonstrates the way that two branches of the military—the Marines and the Women’s Army Corps—borrowed techniques from advertising professionals to “sell” a romantic vision of war to Americans. These two images take different strategies: one shows Marines at war in a lush jungle, reminding viewers that the war was taking place in exotic lands, the other depicted women taking on new jobs as a patriotic duty. Bradshaw Crandall, “Are you a girl with a star-spangled heart?”


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