(This post owes much to Donald V. Coers Introduction to the Penguin Twentieth Century Classics Edition)
Prior to World War II, the OSS hired John Steinbeck to write propaganda and the resulting novelette was The Moon is Down. Last week, I analyzed whether it is propaganda (it isn’t) but did not answer the most important question of any piece of propaganda, did it work?
Released a few months after Pearl Harbor, when America was at its lowest, most demoralized point, it sparked, according to Coers, “the fiercest literary debate of the second World War.” Critics, including James Thurber, decried Steinbeck’s soft, realistic portrayal of the German occupiers and the novelette’s fuzzy “fairy tale” plot. Critics, called into question “[Steinbeck’s] artistic instincts, but, far worse, his political acumen.” In short, Steinbeck wrote art and intellectuals, commentators, and book reviewers blasted him for doing so.
But the book wasn’t meant for Americans, it was meant for the occupied. Did it work for them? The answer is an enthusiastic yes. The Germans, of course, banned it almost immediately in any of the countries they occupied. Meanwhile, the occupied peoples “regarded [The moon is down] as far more effective than the prevailing formula propaganda, which struck them as comical because it was so absurdly exaggerated.”
The numbers behind the book prove its effectiveness. “Hundreds of thousands” of copies circulated behind enemy lines. Dissidents illegally printed and distributed translated copies by the thousands in every occupied country. So popular, they were sold to fund resistance efforts. Weeks after Norway was liberated, the official version of the book was released and sold out two massive printings. The little book spanned the globe; translated copies reached occupied China.
What are we to take from this? As a fitting conclusion to our Propaganda week, it shows that dumbing down any work of art, even to create propaganda, is useless and ineffective. People aren’t dumb, and recognize reality. “Crude oversimplifications of most propaganda are, after all, patronizing.” For the people of the resistance who had daily contact with the Germans, they wanted reality. Steinbeck gave it to them, and they loved it.
Ironically, appropriately, truth is the best propaganda.