An Arsenal of Words: Victory Speakers Spread the Word
Speaking "Straight From the Shoulder"
Newspapers, radio programs, pamphlets, posters, movies, and other media carried the government's message calling on citizens to join the war effort, but none of these had quite the immediacy of the messages carried by the civilian army of 100,000 Victory Speakers across the country during the war. These volunteers brought information about the war's most vital issues directly to millions of Americans in meetings, forums, and luncheons right in their own communities. Inspired by the great speakers of the day such as President Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, they sought to provide "trusted and familiar voices" to "help to stir the American people to the enthusiastic cooperative action this war is demanding."(1)
In the footsteps of the "Four Minute Men"
Much of the planning for Victory Speaker Bureaus was inspired by the "Four Minute Men" of World War I. During 1917 and 1918 local volunteers would stand up in theaters and speak on war topics for four minutes, roughly the amount of time it took to change a reel of film. These speakers came from a wide range of backgrounds such as government officials, businessmen, and war heroes. Speaking topic titles included: Why are We Fighting?, the Liberty Loan, the Red Cross, Food Conservation, What Our Enemy Really Is, Unmasking German Propaganda, and The Nation at Arms. The program became so popular that it expanded beyond theaters to churches, civic groups, colleges, and other venues. By the end of the war, more than 7,500 branches were sending out 75,000 speakers across the country. Oregon's Four Minute Men organization began in June 1917 and grew quickly. During the three weeks of the Fourth Liberty Loan Campaign in the fall of 1918, the Oregon Four Minute Men sent out 800 speakers and reached 400,000 people.(2)
Early program goals
Although officials during World War II embraced the value of other media, they contended that nothing compared to the uniquely persuasive appeal of a Victory Speaker: "Neither the press, nor the radio, nor the mass meeting with its roaring amplifier - though each is vitally important in spreading information - is any substitute for this multitude of small meetings in which men and women are addressed face to face by Speakers whom they know to be men and women of character." As a testimonial to the power of the lectern, officials pointed to one county defense council that appealed over the radio and through the press for volunteer civilian defense workers and only got 3,000 responses. After they organized a Victory Speakers Bureau and fanned out across the county spreading the word, they had "every one of our 9,000 defense jobs filled, and 6,000 on the waiting list."(3)
Early efforts in Oregon to create a Victory Speakers Bureau centered in the office of Bob Smith, who ran a Portland advertising company and also worked in the Information and Public Relations Division of the Oregon State Defense Council. He essentially saw the job of running the state bureau as a clearinghouse, organizing speaking engagements from lists of speaking volunteers and lists of organizations looking for speakers. In August 1942 he foresaw a big role for the Rotary Club in the process, since the organization already had a functioning statewide speakers operation: "I conceive of your using the members of the Rotary Club Speakers Committee as our speakers committee in every town.... You may want to seek out other organizations in other towns, but the Rotary membership is large enough to give us a 95% job."(5)
Oregon coordinates with the federal plan
Meanwhile, the federal Office of War Information (OWI) and Office of Civilian Defense (OCD) joined forces to develop and promote a nationwide Victory Speakers program in 1942. Noting the spotty nature of state speaker programs, regional federal officials urged western states to cooperate with the new federal plans. Of course, this made it incumbent on states to conform to federal requirements such as lengthy and frequent reports, leading to considerable grumbling by Oregon officials. State Defense Council Coordinator Jerrold Owen gave voice to the complaints:
Local defense councils are being driven
into open rebellion by the insistence of the OCD on report in detail of
every activity entered into by volunteers. It would take a large paid
staff on every defense council merely to answer questionnaires and appeals
for information from OCD offices, information which is of little practical
value and merely enables some bureau head to get out a pretty report to
justify his or her salary.
We would like very much to see reports cut to the very minimum. We can see no reason why the Sector Office in Seattle, San Francisco, or Washington D.C. should know anything about who talked to who and when and what about. It appears to us that at the very most the only information which should be required would be the number of talks made and the approximate number of people reached.(6)
With integration into the federal program, state officials discovered that there was much more to running a speakers bureau than just matching up lists of speakers and organizations. In addition, they were expected to set up local bureaus in the counties, print and distribute information releases and other materials for use in the program, organize conferences throughout the state, and, of course, regularly collect local reports and submit state reports to federal officials. Among numerous other duties, local Victory Speaker Bureau directors were obliged to keep card files on local groups and organizations, build a roster of trained speakers, coordinate with local civilian defense programs such as salvage and war bonds to provide speakers, and "promote and arrange unusual opportunities for speakers before special groups." They were also required to "keep a record of reaction, response to, and ability of each speaker," as well as "to constantly observe, by editing, that no speaker allows his imagination to carry beyond the rules of censorship, to give credence to rumor, or to unknowingly spread misinformation." Meanwhile, each Victory Speaker was urged to "accept whatever speaking schedule the Director of your Bureau prepares for you," study the content of programs to be covered in speeches (e.g., salvage, war bonds, etc.), and be on the lookout for new speaking engagements.(7)
Don't, Don't, Don't, Don't.
The Victory Speakers Manual distributed by the OCD listed four "don'ts" to be avoided by Victory Speakers:
"1. DON'T shout, "Be calm." Emphasize instead how we can prepare for the blows when they fall. Then we won't need pep talks about being calm and confident.
2. DON'T anticipate exaggerated horrors --yet be realistic. Show how the British and Chinese have withstood total war for years and have come through stronger and more determined than ever.
3. DON'T state, 'We must exterminate the German, Japanese and Italian beasts.' Fanatic hatreds can make us unnecessarily suspicious of our foreign-born fellow patriots and even promote the divide-and-conquer program of the Axis. Preach instead a firm, intelligent resolve to crush and abolish forever the Axis plan of tyranny and aggression.
4. DON'T fall to rumors. Our democratic government is engaged in a strategy of truth, but we must remember, in the words of President Roosevelt, 'We are not going to provide information which will give aid and comfort to the enemy.' Only totalitarian governments are forced to lie to their own people."(15)
Training and outfitting Victory Speakers
Speakers could come from various backgrounds but they needed to be matched properly to the audience. Officials recommended the formation of local advisory committees to search for new volunteer speakers. The new speakers could be recruited just about anywhere, but churches, labor groups, fraternal organizations, and civic clubs were good starts, "and most definitely, do not forget the women's groups." However, these speakers had to be well matched to their audience to be effective, as a training manual admonished: "Never use an office worker or professional person for a laborers' group. A welder or shipfitter has his own particular appeal and method of reaching his own type and group. Use a housewife to speak to housewives or a business or professional person to speak to a like group." In areas with large foreign language groups, such as some defense plants, the manual urged local bureau officials to "use one of 'Their Own'" Moreover, since many plants ran 24 hours a day, officials were encouraged to select speakers to give talks at different shifts, even to accommodate the 4 a.m. union meetings of shipyard workers.(8)
Speakers benefited from other real world advice as well. One suggestion was to "get your back to the wall" to not "let anyone behind you steal attention from you." Thus, if the chairman "sits behind you, the audience will watch him to see how he's taking it. If he doesn't listen with rapt attention, why should they? If he lights his pipe, that's a show and they watch without regard for what you are saying." Speakers were also told to "keep your props [visual displays] under cover" and therefore keep the element of surprise: "If you don't, the boys and girls may read it and get a partially baked idea of its meaning." Moreover, speakers were reminded not to "promise to do something in a minute: Don't say 'I'll cover that in a few minutes.' The boys and girls hope to adjourn in a few minutes. If you plan to talk about something after a while, keep it a deep, dark secret. Take it up in its turn without any advance ballyhoo." Finally, speakers were told not to send an assistant out in the audience to set up a projector while the speech was in progress: "Remember, always, that anybody doing anything is more interesting than a speaker."(10)
Federal authorities provided numerous sample speeches, outlines, and talking points to Oregon Victory Speakers but state officials sometimes judged the quality harshly. Jerrold Owen betrayed his frustration in July 1943 in a letter to the director of the state Victory Speakers Bureau, the contents of which he then summarized to federal officials:
Mr. J.C. Stevens, Director
Speakers' Bureau, Oregon State Defense Council
I am in 100 per cent agreement in believing, with you, that there is absolutely no point in sending to our local speakers any tripe which can be of no possible value, either directly or indirectly, in winning the war. Just as our office endeavors to screen out the non-essential and boondoggling programs which come to us from Washington, D.C., we are relying on you to do the same sort of job with the mass of material sent to us from various sources for the use of speakers. Such supplies of pamphlets mentioned in your letter as are received here will be confined to the waste basket.
Administrator, Oregon State Defense Council(11)
In addition to the countless and sometimes routine speeches given by Victory Speakers, from time to time special speakers made the circuit of large and small Oregon cities. One such speaker, Ivan Jacobsen, made quite an impression on tens of thousands of Oregonians during an extended tour of the state in May and June of 1943. Jacobsen, a native of Morton, Washington, graduated from the University of Washington and planned an ill-advised bicycle tour of Europe in 1939. He was in Norway in April 1940 when the Germans invaded. Jacobsen joined the staff of the American embassy in Oslo and helped evacuate American citizens from the war zone. In December 1940 Nazi Gestapo agents arrested him and threw him in a jail designed for 150 people but holding about 350 Norwegians. During four months of solitary confinement, Jacobsen resolved to escape. He faked a case of appendicitis, was taken to a Norwegian hospital, and fled. He soon returned to the prison on his own "when the Nazis threatened to take reprisals on some innocent Norwegians in whose home he had hidden." His next escape plot came when he deliberately broke his arm and was again sent to a hospital. Before he could escape, he heard that he would be sent to Berlin, and in his mind a "concentration camp." However, his luck turned for the better when American authorities arranged to exchange him for a German agent. After returning to the United States, Jacobsen embarked on an ambitious speaking tour of the country, spreading the word about Nazi crimes.(12)
Oregonians responded strongly to his story and came out in droves as he made dozens of speeches across the state, while assuming near celebrity status. Fred Arnold, the president of the Portland Realty Board, said the speech "drew the largest attendance we have had in months at our luncheon meeting today." He judged that Jacobsen delivered his tale "in a masterly, finished manner" and added that the audience "listened utterly silent and absorbed as he told his story, and upon conclusion the prolonged applause echoed to the ceiling." The 22-year-old delivered his speech to packed halls across Oregon, usually to crowds of more than 100 people. On May 10 he drew an audience of 920 at the Milwaukie High School. He packed in 700 at a Forest Grove town meeting on May 6 and saw 550 in the audience at the State Theater in La Grande on each of two separate days in June. The largest crowds recorded for his tour came in Lebanon where he pulled in 1,100 people at Lebanon High School in the afternoon of May 21, took a break, and drew an audience of 800 for an evening town meeting.(13)
Watching a good program just "fade away"
Despite its successes, by the summer of 1944, the Victory Speaker program had pretty much run out of steam in many parts of Oregon, a victim of competing interests and confidence about the coming end of the war. While speakers in the Portland area and much of the Willamette Valley remained reasonably active, according to program director J.C. Stevens, "in the remainder of the state the Speakers Bureau seems to have relapsed into innocuous desuetude [disuse]." Stevens displayed his weariness in a letter to the acting administrator of the State Defense Council when he wrote that "perhaps it is just as well for as the war draws to a close these activities will naturally fade away. In spite of the kidding, cajoling, and coaxing, and flattering I've been unable to get reports from more than three counties outside of Multnomah."(14)
1. "Victory Speaker: An Arsenal of Information for Speakers" Newsletter, U.S. Office of War Information and U.S. Office of Civilian Defense, December 18, 1942. Pages 1, 18, Folder 16, Box 35, Defense Council Records, OSA.
2. Ibid., Page 3; Oregon at War, World War I and the Oregon Experience, Oregon State Archives Web Exhibit, viewed April 18, 2006. <http://arcweb.sos.state.or.us/exhibits/war/index.html>.
3. "Victory Speaker: An Arsenal of Information for Speakers" Newsletter, U.S. Office of War Information and U.S. Office of Civilian Defense, December 18, 1942. Page 2, Folder 16, Box 35, Defense Council Records, OSA.
5. Letter from Robert Smith to Dr. Henry Fixott, August 19, 1942. Folder 20, Box 31, Defense Council Records, OSA.
6. Letter from Jerrold Owen to Dr. Henry Fixott, December 24, 1942. Folder 20, Box 31, Defense Council Records, OSA.
7. "Victory Speaker: An Arsenal of Information for Speakers" Newsletter, U.S. Office of War Information and U.S. Office of Civilian Defense, December 18, 1942. Pages 22-23, Folder 16, Box 35, Defense Council Records, OSA; "Victory Speakers Manual," U.S. Office of Civilian Defense, 9th Civilian Defense Region, circa 1943. Page 2, Folder 16, Box 35, Defense Council Records, OSA.
8. "Victory Speakers Manual," U.S. Office of Civilian Defense, 9th Civilian Defense Region, circa 1943. Pages 5-6, Folder 16, Box 35, Defense Council Records, OSA.
9. "Preparation for Victory Speaking for Use by War Speaker's Bureau" Manual, circa 1943. Pages 1-9, Folder 21, Box 31, Defense Council Records, OSA.
10. "What Every Seller of Ideas Should Know" Article Reproduced from The Printer's Ink Monthly, circa 1943. Folder 20, Box 31, Defense Council Records, OSA.
11. Letter from Jerrold Owen to J.C. Stevens, July 10, 1943. Folder 20, Box 31, Defense Council Records, OSA.
12. Ivan Jacobsen Speaking Tour Advance Flyer, Royal Norwegian Information Services, 1943. Folder 3, Box 13, Defense Council Records, OSA.
13. Letter from Fred Arnold to Jack Hayes, June 18, 1943. Folder 3, Box 13, Defense Council Records, OSA; Attendance Reports Re: Ivan Jacobsen Oregon Speaking Tour, May-June, 1943. Folder 3, Box 13, Defense Council Records, OSA.
14. Letter from J.C. Stevens to Jack Hayes, July 1, 1944. Folder 20, Box 31, Defense Council Records, OSA.
15. "Victory Speakers Manual," U.S. Office of Civilian Defense, 9th Civilian Defense Region, circa 1943. Page 21, Folder 16, Box 35, Defense Council Records, OSA.