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Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Happy Fourth of July: A look back to when Uncle Sam was at the anvil, sharpening an ominous sword

Uncle Sam blacksmith World War II
In mid-1941, the United States was still politically neutral as war erupted in Europe, North Africa, and Asia. The Atlantic wasn't safe for US ships anymore. So the popular Liberty magazine cover became a billboard for one side of the debate. Artist Arnold Freberg had Uncle Sam take off his long-tailed jacket, and roll up his sleeves. Is he forging this sword blade, from a plowshare, reversing the words of Isaiah in the Old Testament? Or is he determined to turn that sword into an instrument of peace?

It's the Fourth of July. So, why, back in 1941, did Liberty Magazine have this blacksmith hammering on a sword on its cover? The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was still six months in the future.

Just for background, Liberty was a very popular magazine back in its day. It was second only to the Saturday Evening Post in the hearts of Americans. Its subtitle was "A weekly for everybody." In the upper left of this cover art, you can see a tiny Statue of Liberty and the words "The American Way of Life".

The Fourth of July in 1941 was the last one before the US declared war on Japan, and then on Germany; thousands of American men were soon drafted into the military. For the next four years, the nation technically battled two wars, one in the Pacific and one in Europe and North Africa. Yet this cover doesn't reflect any innocence of pre-war days. It's calling for a fight.

When this issue of the magazine was published, Winston Churchill was begging for help as London crumbled beneath the blitzkrieg bombs. Jewish refugees continued to plead for rescue. British and Soviet forces invaded Iran to protect access to oilfields needed to fuel their armies and air forces. Japan occupied Saigon and it looked like Thailand would be next.

At first glance, this cover seems to call for the United States to enter the war. But Pearl Harbor was still five months away, although no one knew it was coming.

The week before this magazine appeared on newsstands, a German U-boat attacked an American warship in the Atlantic for the first time. President Roosevelt gave the Navy permission in the future to fire back, if fired upon first...if that wasn't too late.

In the age before television and the Internet, magazine covers were powerful billboards, whether they reassured Americans of a peaceful way of life on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post, or called for political or military action--without saying a word--like this striking cover of Liberty.

What's was the artist's method? He removed Uncle Sam's trademark long-tailed jacket and rolled up his sleeves. He is intent on his job, fully focused on the accuracy of his blow; one eye is even closed to sharpen his aim. The veins in his arms are visible. His suspenders are taut. An invisible wind is blowing his long hair back. He's not smiling.

Behind him, you can see a factory bellowing smoke, symbolizing rearmament of the US military and general preparation for war. And the eagle? He looks pretty angry, too, underneath those super-sized wings.

Uncle Sam the blacksmith

The blond-haired, blue-eyed, muscled-up Uncle Sam--which the editors must have thought personified America's vision of itself better than the usual elderly, gray-haired one--was fine-tuning his sword blade to go out into the world and wage war, as well as to liberate Asians and Europeans and Africans who looked nothing like him.

Likewise, most of the young men drafted to do the job would look nothing at all like this Uncle Sam.

This is one of the most politically charged magazine covers in history, yet it is rarely shown and its artist is uncelebrated. Maybe it's buried in our grandparents' attics for a reason, or maybe it needs to be dusted off, looked at, and discussed, as if we're seeing it for the first time.

To learn more:

If you watch Ebay or haunt flea markets, you can find a copy of this edition of Liberty, or sometimes just the cover, framed. It obviously inspired people. Including me!

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