When the United States entered World War I formally in 1917, the government recognized the need to raise money for the war effort. Already about $3,500,000,000 in debt to foreign creditors, the nation would need a significant amount of capital to loan funds and equipment to the Allies, as well as to supply and send troops overseas. To motivate Americans to loan money to the government, William Gibbs McAdoo, Secretary of the Treasury and Woodrow Wilson’s son-in-law, created the Liberty Loan Bonds in 1917. Over the course of the war, the government issued four series of these war bonds. Five months after Armistice, the Treasury authorized a fifth and final series, the Victory Liberty Loan, on April 21, 1919. According to one pamphlet from the time, the money raised from this series would bring soldiers home from overseas, assist wounded veterans, and pay for wartime munitions.
Those in charge of Victory Liberty Loans needed to convince Americans to keep giving to a war that had already been won. This would require a dramatic change in marketing. Both pre- and post-war propaganda appealed to the public’s sense of patriotism, but where wartime advertisements had pressured people to buy bonds from support for democratic ideals or from fear of German domination, the Victory Liberty Loan campaign celebrated American valor, gumption, and solidarity.
Three posters in the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library collection show how Victory Liberty Loan propaganda used faith in American values to persuade the people to continue buying war bonds.
One poster, a vibrant portrayal of victory at sea by L.A. Shafer, inspires confidence in a legacy of heroism. This artwork depicts a damaged German U-boat surrendering to an American destroyer that protects a US troop transport ship. The dynamic contrast of the three ships, along with the message “They Kept the Sea Lanes Open: Invest in the Victory Liberty Loan,” encourage viewers to celebrate victory by investing in the continued cause of national defense.
In contrast, a poster by Gerrit A. Beneker honors the role of the common man at the home front. Next to a heading that declares, “Sure! We’ll Finish the Job,” stands a worker with campaign buttons representing the four previous Liberty Loan series pinned to his overalls. The man’s plucky grin suggests American persistence, as the poster hints that just a little old-fashioned elbow grease will pay off the war debt.
Finally, “Americans All!” by Howard Chandler Christy reminds the nation of unity in diversity. In this poster, a woman symbolizing America hangs a memorial wreath over the names of fallen soldiers. These surnames are ethnically diverse, honoring previously marginalized immigrant groups for their service during the war. In a time when an unprecedented influx of immigrants had caused controversies over what makes a true American, Christy’s poster memorializes American soldiers of every nationality. He implies that just as these soldiers united in death for the sake of their country, every citizen, regardless of ethnic background, should unite to help the nation recover from the war.
Although the Victory Liberty Loan campaign was not as successful as its predecessors, the combined efforts of all five series of war bonds were vital to post-war financial recovery. The American people paid off about $21 billion of an approximately $32 billion debt simply by purchasing bonds, which allowed the United States to rally from the financial devastation of World War I.
Post written by WWPL intern Rachel Dark