Political Appeal

Elizabeth Monk
September 01, 2002
poster for US Tank Corp with cat and fire
Howard Chandler Christy (Penn State Special Collections)

Posters are powerful. Eyes will draw a viewer to the image, says Tom Bonsaint, and bold colors and slogans can convey a message to the masses.

"I was on the Security Council representing the United States," says Thomas Bonsaint, referring to his first brush with politics—a model United Nations in high school. "It was one of the primary spots—I loved it."

Before enrolling at Penn State, Bonsaint attended the World Affairs Council Summer Institute, a week-long program at Duquesne University. His first year at Penn State he made connections with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a think tank in Washington, D.C. where he worked on such projects as the economic effects of a conflict between the United States and China. He spent the following summer working for the Department of State, then interned for the Department of Defense, writing memos and giving pre-sentations to high-level officials. "Working at the Pentagon really gave me a chance to apply what I had learned at Penn State," he says.

For his honors thesis, Bonsaint is comparing the United States' domestic propaganda campaigns during World War I and the Vietnam War. "I wanted to better understand how the government gets people to go along with the
cause. Propaganda is such a pejorative term," he remarks. "My thesis is not about whether or not you should do this to your own population. My point is that some things work and some things don't work."

World War I, Bonsaint says, had a strong propaganda campaign. He emphasizes the role of the Four Minute Men, a nationwide group of locally respected men—mayors, businessmen, etc.—trained by the government to give short, "four minute" speeches. The government's propaganda (the Committee of Public Information) tightly regulated the speeches' content. "The speakers reported on different aspects of the war," Bonsaint notes, "such as progress of the troops or publicizing when a big city had been taken." By the Vietnam War, television had made live speakers obsolete. The government did not control what was reported; instead, the news media "put a face on the horror of war." Posters for World War I (two are shown on this page) were also more effective than those used during the Vietnam War.

I want you for the navy poster with girl in navy jacket
Howard Chandler Christy (Penn State Special Collections)

If the public doesn't understand why their country is at war, Bonsaint says, then they won't support it, and such support is crucial to a war for many reasons. If the public supports the war, more people are likely to join up—and a military filled with people who believe in the cause is apt to have better commanders and fighters. Public support also affects the amount of money contributed through the sale of war bonds.

In these terms, Bonsaint concludes, "World War I is representative of everything going well. As for Vietnam, well, everything just went wrong."

Thomas Bonsaint received a B.A. in international politics in May 2002, with honors from the College of the Liberal Arts and the Schreyer Honors College. His adviser is D. Scott Bennett, Ph.D., associate professor of political science in the College of the Liberal Arts,112 Burrowes Bldg., University Park, PA 16802; 814-865-6566; sbennett@psu.edu. Writer Elizabeth Monk will graduate in May 2003 with a B.A. in Letters, Arts, and Sciences.

Last Updated January 10, 2014