“Excellent Education against a Negotiated Peace”: Imperial and Totalitarian Violence in the Office of War Information’s Hollywood

Sunday, January 10, 2016: 8:50 AM
Room A601 (Atlanta Marriott Marquis)
John M. McCallum, University of Chicago
Mobilizing for total war in the 1940s forced U.S. moral sensibilities into an imaginative reckoning with many forms of violence. While only a tiny minority of Americans rejected the war as unjust, the boundaries and meaning of acceptable killing were often fraught and contested. Moreover, “good violence” was complicated not just by the novelty of new weapons, but by the entanglement of immediate war aims with a world of racially hierarchical empires and by the historical and ongoing realities of imperial violence. One locus for these conversations was World War II Hollywood, where state actors and cultural producers collaborated on combat pictures while coming into sharp conflict over representations of U.S. and colonial slavery, Western expansion and the scramble for Africa, and even individual political murders.

This paper explores how Office of War Information (OWI) reviewers judged good and bad violence in their evaluation of Hollywood feature films, focusing particularly on “Empire” films, Westerns, and the nascent film noir genre. Where historiographical and philosophical disputes over wartime ethics often address narrowly-defined questions of bombing and civilians, OWI officials and filmmakers considered a dizzying array of problems ranging from French counterinsurgency in North Africa to guerrilla warfare in “bleeding Kansas” and slavery in the Congo basin. The effort to make moral sense of the years 1942-45 ultimately conjoined liberal justifications of totalitarian violence with centuries of illiberal imperial practice, revealing important continuities and ruptures between 19th century empire and post-1945 world order.