There's no avoiding the U.S. flag these days. Since September 11 it's been on the cars and jacket lapels of citizens who hold a wide range of political opinions, men and women who under normal circumstances would find little to agree upon. This is hardly surprising. The flag has always played a hugely symbolic role. Photographs of it are among the most charged images of our history: the flag raised at Iwo Jima, for example, and now the tattered flag found in the rubble of the World Trade Center.
The flag's ubiquity over the past eight months is striking, but it pales in comparison to July 1942, when some 300 to 400 American magazines placed paintings, drawings, and photographs of the Stars and Stripes on their covers. The range of those magazines was extraordinary, and included such dissimilar titles as Time, Gourmet, and Popular Mechanics. The magazine industry initiated the drive as a show of fellowship - and as a way to increase sales - and the U.S. treasury department endorsed it, setting up special newsstand displays to promote the sale of war bonds.
This unusual campaign might be forgotten today if it weren't for the efforts of Peter Kreitler '65, who started seriously collecting the covers ten years ago. Almost 100 magazines from Kreitler's collection of about 325 are now on display at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. The exhibition, titled "July 1942: United We Stand," will run through October 27. It coincides with the Smithsonian's ongoing restoration of the flag that inspired "The Star-Spangled Banner."
The BAM caught up with Kreitler, an Episcopal priest who lives in Pacific Palisades, California, the week the exhibition opened. Kreitler is executive director of Earth Service, a nonprofit environmental corporation, and host of a TV show, Earth Talk Today, which airs on government channels in twelve cities and is going national this spring. He recently published a selection of the covers in United We Stand: Flying the American Flag (Chronicle Books).
BAM Why did you start the collection?
Kreitler Twenty-seven years ago I was given a magazine - it happened to be Yachting - with the American flag on the cover. It was published in July of 1942, the month and year of my birth. Many years later I came across an old Time in a bookstore. I said, "This is interesting - it's the July 1942 issue, and it, too, has a flag on the cover." Then I found Look magazine, a magazine called Liberty, and Life magazine - all from July of 1942 and all with American flags.
BAM Then what happened?
Kreitler I left the bookstore with about five magazines, got home, and started reading, curious to find out what was going on. In Life there was this wonderful paragraph telling me - and the world - that there would be 300 magazines celebrating the Fourth of July with a flag on the cover, representing patriotism and a united effort following our entry into the Second World War. I said to myself, "This is fascinating. I'm going to try to collect all 300."
BAM How did the campaign come about?
Kreitler What I found in Newsweek, which spelled it out best, was that a fellow named Paul MacNamara, a thirty-five-year-old publicist at the Hearst Corporation, had an idea for how to sell more magazines during the war. This was a time when people were focused on things other than buying magazines, and paper was in short supply. He said, "Let's put a flag on the cover." This was roundly endorsed, and the Hearst Corporation asked other publishers to do it, too.
BAM How wide-ranging was the campaign?
Kreitler It represented the full spectrum of America in 1942. Children's comics portrayed superheroes with the flag. You had the standard magazines that we've come to love - National Geographic, Life, Look, Time. There were also the esoteric and the unusual ones - Steel, American Lutheran. You had the service magazines from the American Legion and the Elks. Many of the major industries - General Motors, Boeing, Gulf - participated through their trade magazines. Then you had women's magazines - House and Garden, Ladies' Home Journal, and more unusual ones like Linens and Domestics. Hollywood magazines - Movie and Radio Guide, Silver Screen - showed attractive Hollywood personalities with a flag. Of course there were service-personnel magazines like Our Navy and Our Army. Then you had things like Poultry Tribune, a small farm magazine that pictured a little lad, about seven years of age, with a platoon of eggs and toy rifles, the lead egg carrying a tiny American flag, and the child saluting.
BAM Why do you think the image was such a powerful one at that time?
Kreitler The flag was a rallying point. People saw in the red, white, and blue certain meanings: white represented purity, blue loyalty, red the blood that generations before us shed to preserve our freedoms. The flag became identified with the fact that we might lose these freedoms if we all don't participate.
BAM Why is collecting - and showing - these covers so important to you?
Kreitler My hope is that resurrecting the campaign of '42 will encourage us to look at what patriotism means. Patriotism is not about flag-waving. That is very clear in the magazines: Calling All Girls starts out saying that patriotism is not flag-waving, then goes on to say that patriotism is more about sacrifice. Don't tell me you love your country when all you do is wave your flag and complain.
BAM What is patriotism then?
Kreitler Raising the flag is important, but of more importance to me is working hard to ensure that what those red, white, and blue colors represent is preserved for my kids and grandkids.
BAM What are your favorite covers from your collection?
Kreitler Graphically I love the Vogue and the Harper's Bazaar. Symbolically I love the Poultry Tribune, because I'm working hard to preserve both patriotism and the environment for my grandkids, for the little kids growing up today. I think the Modern Industry cover is also very powerful. It shows a huge flag, representing everybody, and then all the workers standing together with three soldiers, one from each of the services, and the words "United We Stand."
BAM What did the "United We Stand" slogan mean to Americans in 1942?
Kreitler The magazine campaign of July 1942 was the first time "United We Stand" was a predominant theme on the national level. Our war effort was not just about the fighting forces in the Pacific Theater and the European Theater, but also about the unarmed, ununiformed workers back home, the supportive group behind the war effort. Standing side by side was the concept of that whole campaign.
BAM Why did you bring the magazines to the attention of the Smithsonian?
Kreitler I knew of the project [at the National Museum of American History] to restore the flag that flew over Fort McHenry when Francis Scott Key wrote "The Star-Spangled Banner" on September 14, 1814. I thought it would be neat to have the magazines displayed when the restoration takes place. I sent thirty covers to Marilyn Zoidis [curator of the Smithsonian's Star-Spangled Banner Project]. She was effusive in her comments about their historical relevance. She even wrote that we have saved a piece of American history. The exhibit was to be purely an adjunct to the unveiling of the restoration, but then two disparate events coincided: First, the unveiling of the restored Star-Spangled Banner was delayed - it's going to be another two years. And then came September 11. What a time to show the most important patriotic event in the history of our country - exactly sixty years later.
To learn more, go to http://americanhistory.si.edu.
Emily Gold is the BAM's senior writer