Why We Fight is a seven-part series of World War II documentaries directed by Frank Capra (of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington fame). Created during the war, they served the dual purpose of educating American troops about the enemy and the causes behind the war, and raising morale. The basic idea Capra had was that Nazi propaganda films like Triumph of the Will was so effective that he decided the best way to answer them was to take those films, and twist them in such a way as to use the Axis' own messages to support the Allies.
The films were quite effective, and were eventually released to the general public. The first, Prelude to War, received an Academy Award.
The films are still interesting today for different reasons. On one hand, they provide genuine and valuable lessons on the origins and progress of the war. On the other hand, the movies are also a good example of old-timey racism and wartime paranoia as a well as a classic historical example of film propaganda.
As works of the US government, the movies are in the public domain, and available online:
- Why We Fight - Prelude to War
- Why We Fight - The Nazis Strike
- Why We Fight - Divide and Conquer
- Why We Fight - The Battle of Britain
- Why We Fight - The Battle of Russia
- Why We Fight - The Battle of China
- Why We Fight - War Comes to America
See also The Negro Soldier, a 43-minute documentary film produced by Capra, focusing on the role of black Americans in both the present war and America's previous military history.
Not to be confused with Euegene Jarecki's 2015 documentary feature about the US military-industrial complex.
Episodes with their own work pages:
This series provides examples of:
- Always Chaotic Evil: Imperial Japan is portrayed as this in some parts of the series. Most noticable in The Battle of China and in War Comes to America.
- Asian Buck Teeth:Narrator: At the same time, start across from the Scandinavian countries, to hook up with [Hitler's] bucktoothed pals coming over from Siberia, to join in the conquest of the United States.
- Awakening the Sleeping Giant: War Comes to America details how America slowly comes out of its isolationist attitude. As the opinion of the American public changes in response to Axis aggression, the United States moves from nominal condemnation of the Axis to arms dealing with the Allies and rearmament, culminating in a full entry into the war after Pearl Harbor.
- Bilingual Bonus: Axis politicians are sometimes shown speaking untranslated, with the narrator usually characterizing what was said afterwards. Those who speak German, Italian or Japanese will note they don't always match up.
- Blatant Lies: The Axis nations used these intentionally, as a preliminary step to conquest, propaganda designed to confuse, divide and soften up their victims and thus make them easier to attack when the time came. This is visually represented by a radio tower, whose broadcast waves have the word "Lies" emanating out, while Walter Huston narrates the process dramatically..."Put them on the defensive! Scream you're abused! Shout you're oppressed! The world's wrong, you're right! If you shriek loud enough and often enough, they'll believe you. Above all, use their free press and their free speech to destroy them."
- Ahead of his plan for German domination of Europe, Hitler made specific promises not to go after countries on his hit list. See also: Chronic Backstabbing Disorder. In The Nazis Strike, about the conquests of Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland...(on Austria) "The assertion that it is the intention of the German Reich to coerce the Austrian state is absurd."
(on Czechoslovakia, after annexing the Sudetenland area) "I have no further interest in the Czecho-Slovakian State, that is guaranteed. We want no Czechs."
(on Poland) "Germany has concluded a Non-Aggression Pact with Poland. We shall adhere to it unconditionally."
- In Divide and Conquer, the same thing happens with Scandinavia and the Low Countries (and is preceded by a statement from Joseph Goebbels that stated Germany didn't want a war at all; it was Britain and France who caused all the trouble)...(on Denmark) "We have concluded a non-aggression pact with Denmark."
(on Norway) "Germany never had any conflict with the Northern States and has none today."
(on the Netherlands) "The new Reich has always endeavored to maintain the traditional friendship with Holland."
(on Belgium) "The Reich has put forth no claim which may in any way be regarded as a threat to Belgium."
- In Divide and Conquer, the same thing happens with Scandinavia and the Low Countries (and is preceded by a statement from Joseph Goebbels that stated Germany didn't want a war at all; it was Britain and France who caused all the trouble)...
- In War Comes to America, at the very moment Pearl Harbor was being attacked, a Japanese delegation hands American Secretary of State Hull a document accusing the United States of a litany of aggressions against Germany, Japan, and Italy, and ordered the country to desist. Hull recalls how he skimmed the document and called the Japanese delegation out on this trope:Hull: I have never seen a document that was more crowded with infamous falsehoods and distortions, on a scale so huge that I never imagined that any government on this planet was capable of uttering them.
- Ahead of his plan for German domination of Europe, Hitler made specific promises not to go after countries on his hit list. See also: Chronic Backstabbing Disorder. In The Nazis Strike, about the conquests of Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland...
- Captain Obvious:Narrator: "China has been around for 4,000 years. That's a long time."
- Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: The basic set-up of Divide and Conquer. In the opening of the film, Hitler is said to have made promises of peace or non-aggression pacts with various countries. As each is invaded by Germany, the audience is reminded of the promises Hitler had made mere months earlier, and that the peoples of the invaded countries "will not forget."
- Climactic Music: Each film ends with some form of patriotic music during the final summary.
- Contrast Montage: In "Prelude to War", film clips of American children doing innocent kid things like playing ball are contrasted with clips of children in Axis countries receiving military training in groups like the Hitler Youth.
- Curb-Stomp Battle: How the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, the Italian invasion of Ethiopia and Germany's invasion of everything (except Russia) is portrayed.
- Dark Is Evil: The series is the Trope Codifier for representing Axis forces as pure black. Axis rule is literally shown oozing into other countries.
- Dark Reprise: In War Comes to America, a instrumental version of My Country, 'Tis of Thee is played over an explanation of US history. Later, a dark version is played over scenes of a burning Pearl Harbor, morphing into a Triumphant Reprise during FDR's "Date of Infamy" speech.
- Dig Your Own Grave: The Battle of China has a shot of Japanese soldiers forcing Chinese civilians to do this.
- Eagle Land: Flavor one, of course.
- False Flag Operation: The Mukden Incident, a staged event in which the Japanese blew up their own railway line in 1931 to justify the invasion and conquest of Manchuria, is dramatized.
- Idiosyncratic Episode Naming: Film #4 began the The Battle of ... naming system, but the seventh movie broke the pattern.
- Invaded States of America: The films posit this as the inevitable result of American defeat in the European and Pacific theaters.
- Japan Takes Over the World: According to the films, Japan's ultimate goal was to conquer all of Asia, before turning east to link up with the Nazis in the Americas.
- Opposing Combat Philosophies: Divide and Conquer proposes this as one of the reasons for France's quick defeat at the hands of Germany. Germany's commanders believed in concentrated, highly mobile assault forces. France's commanders believed in building massive, static fortifications on the border. When German forces puncture the defensive lines by going through the Ardennes, France is lost.
- Perfectly Cromulent Word: The title cards read "information film", where people today might say "documentary" (or "propaganda").
- Propaganda Machine: Japan, Italy, and Germany's propaganda machines are covered in detail. Arguably, America's own Office of War Information behind these movies.
- Public Domain: The entire series is public domain, as a government production.
- The Purge: The "Night of Long Knives" in which Hitler purged troublesome members of the Nazi Party in 1934 is mentioned.
- Rape Pillageand Burn: The Japanese Imperial Army did this to the Chinese then-capital of Nanking. Needless to say, it is meant to evoke disgust and hatred of the enemy.Narrator: "In their occupation of Nanking the Japanese again outdid themselves in barbarism. The helpless populace was trapped by the city walls and could not flee. The Japanese soldiers went berserk; they raped and tortured, they killed and butchered. In one of the bloodiest massacres in recorded history, they murdered 40,000 men, women, and children."
- Soundtrack Dissonance: After explaining the way of life in the Axis countries, Nazi marching scenes from Triumph of the Will are shown with a repetitive military march playing. After the melody has repeated a few times, the whole affair starts looking very silly.
- Similarly, in The Battle of China, the soundtrack makes liberal use of The March of the Volunteers, which was a Communist marching song (and now the national anthem of the People's Republic of China) in a film mostly lionizing Chiang's Nationalists.
- Spreading Disaster Map Graphic: Used repeatedly throughout the series to illustrate Axis aggression both before and during the war. Sometimes accurate, like in the German conquest of continental Europe, and sometimes less accurate, like a fanciful sequence that imagines the Germans and Japanese landing in North and South America and attacking the United States directly.
- Stock Footage: The films make use of footage from enemy propaganda films, and historical footage, so many shots are necessarily reused.
- Talking Heads: These are occasionally brought out, such as Secretary Hull explaining diplomacy (or lack thereof) with the Japanese.
- Triumphant Reprise: See Dark Reprise above, which it is coupled with.
- Trojan Horse: Divide and Conquer accuses Nazi Germany of doing this in Norway. The Germans sent merchant ships to Norwegian ports that were secretly loaded with troops and supplies—which is Blatant Lies, by the way.
- Un-Installment: War Comes to America was slated to be a two-parter, and the title card still includes "Part One". However, it was felt that a second part covering America's part in the war would be unnecessary, as people already knew about it from the news. World War II ended two months after the first part's release.
- V-Sign: Each film ends with a large V (for Victory) being displayed, sometimes accompanied by Beethoven's 5th, the opening notes of which can be interpreted as Morse for the letter V.
- Yellow Peril: Interestingly, this is played straight for Japan, characterized as a menace and racially insulted, yet averted for China, which is shown to be a heroic people with a great and traditional society.