Home / Articles / Presenting the Modern World for the American Public: Maps and Public Education in World War II
Students of geopolitics know that maps are an essential tool for understanding global conflicts. They have also become an equally important tool for educating the public. The idea that war news should be accompanied by maps owed much to the World Wars, and particularly World War II. This represented a form of visual information very different to that of newsreels and the television, but one that helped prepare the way for aspects of the latter.
On September 9, 1939, Rand McNally announced that more maps had been sold at its New York store in the first 24 hours of the war than during all the years since 1918. Mapmakers responded to demand. In May 1940, the National Geographical Society brought out a map of Europe. There was another upsurge in map sales after Pearl Harbor. Moreover, popularizing geopolitics in a radio speech, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s address to the nation on February 23, 1942 made reference to a map of the world to explain American strategy, explaining that the war was different than earlier ones “in its geography. . . . It is warfare in terms of every continent, every island, every air-lane in the world.” He had earlier suggested potential listeners obtain such a map, which led to massive demand and also to increased publication of maps in newspapers.
Maps were used both to convey news and for propaganda purposes. The task of explaining engagement with distant regions posed a problem, but also offered opportunities for innovation in conception and presentation. As in World War I, newspapers printed large numbers of maps. Readers expected maps to accompany news stories, although the mapmakers faced the problems posed by strict deadlines and minimal resources. In the United States, the New York Herald-Tribute, New York Times, New York Daily News, Christian Science Monitor, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, and Milwaukee Journal all had their own cartographers, and their maps were reproduced in other newspapers. Crucial figures included Emil Herlin, whose maps were reproduced in The War in Maps: An Atlas of The New York Times Maps (1942), and Robert Chapin, Jr. in Time, whose war maps were also separately published by the magazine in much enlarged versions. Chapin’s maps made sense of developments in “Algeria” (1942), “Routes to Berlin” (1943), “Winter Projection” (1943), and “I Have Returned” (1944), the last about MacArthur’s return to the Philippines. Chapin’s bold perspectives were seen in his maps. He also liked the “Roads” idea, as in “Roads to Warsaw” (1944). For the Los Angeles Times, Charles Hamilton Owens, who was adept at bird’s eye views, produced close to 200 full-page color maps during the war. His was very much a global perspective. Atlases included the Los Angeles ExaminerWar Atlas: Color Maps of All Battlefronts (1942). The maps introduced readers to areas about which they knew little, notably, for the American and British publics, the Eastern Front in the Soviet Union.
Many maps were used to locate areas of conflict. They provided a more valuable addition to the text than photographs, and were especially useful for the detail not provided by atlases. Color photography was not yet an established part of newspaper publishing, so black-and-white maps were not overshadowed. The newspaper mapping of war subordinated all spatial considerations to the front line. Indeed, the key element was the location of the line. Linked to that came the employment of additional lines and shading to display the change in the front, and the use of arrows to show the direction of attacks and their possible follow-throughs. This approach ensured an operational focus in the cartographic presentation of the war, which was probably the focus that most interested contemporaries. Tactical-scale details and/or examples were not generally presented in newspaper maps, while the strategic dimension, although advanced, received less attention than its operational counterpart.
However, making the newspaper maps genuinely helpful was not easy. These simple maps reflected little of any tricky terrain or communication difficulties. For example, the detrimental effects of autumn rains, winter ice, and spring thaws on the roads at the Eastern Front could not be represented. So also with other weather features.
Moreover, the rather two-dimensional notion of an easily-rendered front line was not always appropriate. This was especially true of the Pacific, where a number of important Japanese bases, such as Rabaul and Truk, were simply bypassed by the Americans in 1943-45 thanks to superior air and sea power. Such a fluid and fast-moving situation was very difficult to capture adequately on a map.
The aerial dimension also encouraged the use of particular perspectives and projections for maps. The innovative cartographer Richard Edes Harrison (1911-94) had introduced the perspective map to American war journalism in 1935 when he produced maps to explain the Italian-Ethiopian war. His orthographic projections and aerial perspectives (also seen with Emil Herlin) brought together the U.S. and distant regions with great geographical imagination and visual flair, and were part of a worldwide extension of American geopolitical concern and military intervention linked to a reshaping of the world. Like Owens, Harrison worked from a globe. Color greatly assisted the impression possible through visual contrasts, for example of terrain.
The role of aircraft, dramatically demonstrated to American civilians (and everyone else) by the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, led to a new sense of space—which reflected both vulnerability and the awareness of new geopolitical relationships. Thus, the ESSO War Map (1942) emphasized the wartime value of petroleum products (“Transportation – Key to Victory” was the theme of the text, as one might expect from an oil company map!) and also provided an illuminated section, “Flattening the Globe,” showing how the globe becomes a map. North America was positioned centrally, which made it the central target and let Germany and Japan appear as menaces from the east and west, each more threatening thanks to the other. The map included sea and air distances between strategic points, such as San Francisco and Honolulu. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor increased the significance of the latter.
Using the same technique, F.E. Manning’s globular maps of 1943, “Target Berlin” and “Target Tokyo,” positioned the Axis capitals as vulnerable targets at the center of the map. These maps were printed and distributed by the American Army’s Orientation Course. The maps included explanations of how they were constructed and to be used, including, “This map is a photographic view of the world with the center at Berlin. Thus, with the detachable scale, distances can be measured along any line running thru Berlin. It should be noted that an inch at the center represents less mileage than an inch closer to the edges. The detachable scale has been designed to compensate for this and should be used only with the center on Berlin.”
The industrious Harrison’s maps included “One World War,” a map centered on the North Pole, of the war as on October 15, 1943, with the U.S. shown in a key position. The preface to his Look at the World: The Fortune Atlas for World Strategy (1944), an atlas published by the major New York house of Alfred A. Knopf that reproduced his maps from the magazine Fortune, explained that its “main purpose is not to locate supply lines. . . . Instead they try to show why Americans are fighting in strange places and why trade follows its various routes. They [the maps] emphasize the geographical basis of world strategy.”
Harrison’s maps put the physical environment before national boundaries, and also reintroduced a spherical dimension, offering over-the-horizon views: an aerial perspective that did not exist for humans in nature and was not to exist until the age of rocketry, but that captured physical relationships, as in his “Russia from the South.” The first edition of the atlas sold out rapidly, and Harrison’s techniques were widely copied and his maps used in training pilots. Fortune very much used color which made the images more vivid. The maps adopted aerial perspectives that shrank conventional ideas of space and thus emphasized the impact of land power.
Presenting the land from above both invited the viewer into the drama of the map, communicating excitement, and by bringing the topography into a high relief, thanks to a vertical scale that was out of proportion to that on the ground, emphasized the geographical factors stemming from the topography. This can be seen in Harrison’s “The Not-So-Soft underside,” Europe seen from Africa, which was published in Fortune on January 27, 1943 as the Allies prepared to battle German-Italian forces in Tunisia, providing American land forces with their first experience of combat with German and Italian units. The caption drew on the lesson offered by the topography:
No full-fledged military expedition since ancient times has succeeded in crossing the Pyrenees or the Alps from south to north and making the invasion stick. The great formative invasions since the time of the Romans have all come from east to west, from the Russian plains or the Anatolian plateau of Turkey. The “soft underside of the Axis,” the “unprotected belly of Europe,” is, then, a figure of speech that lacks geographical common sense. The mountains and sketchy roads of crippled Spain, the narrow, easily closed gap of the Rhône, the tunnels of Switzerland, the Nazi air force in Crete, pose terrifying problems of both military tactics and supply. From the communications officer’s view it is thus American dollars to Italian lire that Hitler’s Germany will not be invaded in force from North Africa.
… What did we get out of the African campaign? When the Mediterranean is cleared, it will save miles of shipping. But from the positive standpoint, it spreads Hitler thin all around the margins of Europe. He must defend Italy to keep Americans from taking over airfields within easily striking distance of the Skoda works in Pilsen and Munich. He must watch Turkey, lest the United Nations, with the compliance of Ankara, bypass Crete and the Balkan mountains for a thrust up through Bulgaria. He must keep an eye on Spain and Portugal, while he is also watching Rzhev and Rostov. In short, possession of the Mediterranean south shore gives the United Nations the opportunity to deliver confusing multiple blows – and Hitler’s own power of the initiative has been critically impaired.
While explaining the significance of the conflict in Tunisia, the first clash between American and German army units, this was very much a map dependent on the text, and vice versa, although geography was overworked. For political reasons, to note one important example, there was no likelihood of invading Spain.
Strategic choices were repeatedly outlined as Harrison introduced his readers explicitly to his themes. For example, “Japan from Alaska” carried the text:
This map, together with the three that follow, show in perspective the various approaches to Japan. The first of the series, “Japan from Alaska,” shows how the direct northern route cuts into the heart of the Japanese Empire. “Japan from the Solomons” . . . is a reminder of the vast distances in the southern Pacific and of the importance of the Japanese stronghold of Truk. “Japan from China” . . . shows the huge continental mass that Japan is trying to subdue; it indicates the close geographical relationship that can be put to work in Allied offensive action; at the same time it demonstrates the difficulties of supply – all U.S. material must now pass into China over the worst succession of mountain ranges in the world. The fourth map, “Japan from Siberia” . . . shows not only how close Siberia is to Japan, but also how vulnerable Vladivostok and the Maritime Provinces are to attack from Manchuria.
While arresting, the maps were in practice deeply flawed as guides to strategy, and for physical as well as political reasons. Alaska might offer a route to the Kuriles, Hokkaido, and the remainder of Japan, though it was far from the most likely route. Similarly, the orthographic projection used for the map “The Aleutians: Vital in North Pacific Strategy,” published in the New York Times on May 16, 1943, depicted the American island chain that had been attacked by the Japanese as the center in a span stretching from China to San Francisco. This presentation made apparent the islands’ potential strategic importance, but also exaggerated it.
However, as a military prospect, the route was greatly limited due to the problems for America of building up supplies in Alaska and the Aleutians and, more generally, the issues posed by cold, ice, and the dark winter. Politically, the route was not viable unless the Soviet Union cooperated, and it had a non-aggression treaty with Japan, which was not broken until 1945. In cartographic terms, Alaska might be closer to Japan than was California, but the logistical possibilities of the latter were far greater.
The reporting and presentation of war, especially the dynamic appearance of many war maps, for example those in Fortune, Life, and Time, with their arrows and general sense of movement, helped to make geopolitics present and urgent. Far from the war appearing to American readers as a static entity, and at a distance, these maps showed how a dynamic battlefront moved. The maps also made the war seem to encompass the spectator visually, through images of movement, and in practice by spreading in their direction. In turn, the Office of War Information, in its A War Atlas for Americans (1944), offered perspective maps, part of the process by which the government produced maps for public consumption.
American public attention was being globalized, and maps helped to counter isolationism by linking distant regions to American interests. The film Casablanca (1942) began with a map sequence in which the zooming in moves from the entire globe to a street in Casablanca. A very different film, Victory Through Air Power (1943) saw Walt Disney use animated maps to present the ideas of Alexander De Seversky’s book of that name published the previous year. Air power was presented in terms of hurtling arrows. Public interest and the sense of national interests had to be focused.
At the same time, there were practical issues, as so often with mapping. Thus, the Mercator projection was unhelpful in the depiction of air routes: great circle routes and distances were poorly presented, as distances in northern and southern latitudes were exaggerated. That projection was also criticized as distorting the world and, in particular, exaggerating the isolation of the U.S. from Europe while minimizing the threat from Japan by making the Pacific appear bigger than it was. In August 1942, Life described the projection as a “mental hazard,” while, in February 1943, the New York Times pressed for its replacement by “something that represents continents and directions less deceptively.” In the Saturday Review of Literature on August 7, 1943, Harrison wrote in favor of azimuthal projections and attacked what he presented as the misuse of the Mercator projection. This discussion, which echoes into current disputes about the proper presentation of global realities, helped frame the American understanding of the world, not only at the time but ever since.