UNCLE SAM IS DEAD

Summary:

Both a famous and infamous embodiment of American values – specifically the idea that America ‘has a special mission in the world’[1] – Uncle Sam’s long history as a national icon has seen his original purpose as a recruitment tool transformed into cynical expressions of frustration with a faded ideal.

uncle sam 1

Uncle Sam is next.

Copyright information:
Copyright information: “Uncle Sam Wants You For the Nearest Recruiting Station” – by J. M. Flagg. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Unclesamwantyou.jpg.

Uncle Sam is perhaps the most famous personification of America. Used originally in 1917[2] as a recruitment poster for World War I he represents the patriotic ideals used to drive enlistment. But more recently he has become the poster-boy for a growing sense of frustration towards the U.S. government, something that sharpened after Vietnam. A powerful symbol both in support and derision of American values, Uncle Sam has now entered the popular culture often accompanied by a mocking tone. Let us take a closer look at him…

Uncle Sam is pointing at you. YOU! He engages directly with his audience – young men of recruitment age in the lead up to WWI. Addressing them through their sense of patriotism Sam also wears the colours of the U.S. flag. The bold red ‘YOU’ also evokes the flag. His clothes – while respectable – are not as crisp as they could be, and he hunches tiredly forward, lines darkening his eyes. Sam exemplifies America’s self-image of a dedicated and benevolent guardian (an ‘uncle’) working ceaselessly to move the world forward.

He is no longer a young man, but a ‘long-suffering […] good-natured [and] wise’[3] figure, reminiscent in appearance of Abraham Lincoln and Benjamin Franklin – Presidents remembered fondly. His egalitarian appeal to ‘YOU’ – to the everyman rather than an unfamiliar elite – is reinforced by his expression, which hovers somewhere between exhaustion and determination. Such feelings are linked symbolically to the meritocratic ideals of average America – that if you work hard enough you will succeed. And by representing both the everyman and the American government, Sam functions as non-discriminative bridge between his audience and the American government.

However, it is this suggestion of a partnership between the everyman and a benevolent government that has allowed Sam to be transformed so effectively from a symbol of pre-Vietnam idealism, to one that represents the era of cynical disillusionment that followed America’s most divisive war. The sardonic tone with which Sam is often appropriated reflects a wider dissatisfaction and loss of faith in not only the U.S. government, but also the mythologies formerly used to wage ‘just wars’ such as World War I and II.

Much of the power the image once had was lost after America’s war in Vietnam shifted the post-WWII image of America as benevolent world protector. Intervention in Vietnam (and more recently Iraq and Afghanistan) destroyed America’s post-WWII status as a nation that didn’t lose wars or commit atrocities, but worked tirelessly for democracy.

This is powerfully evident in Vietnam-era parodies of Uncle Sam, which specifically undermine the egalitarian appeal suggested in 1917 by pointing out that Vietnam was fought predominantly by poor and working-class Americans rather than the American ‘everyman’[4];

Copyright information:
Copyright information: “Uncle Sam Wants You Nigger” – Vietnam Solidarity Campaign. Public Domain, via McMaster University Libraries – http://pw20c.mcmaster.ca/vietnam-solidarity-campaign-periodical-1967.

[5]

And this decline in Uncle Sam’s former patriotic appeal is evident in the words of an African American draftee – ‘I think we were the last generation to believe […] in the honour of war…there is no honour in war’[6]. Another draftee mirrored these words when he called Vietnam ‘the biggest nothing in history’[7].

Not only this, but the national mythology Sam once embodied and the scrutiny of it brought by Vietnam is evident in jarring contradictions such as his 1942 appropriation to recruit not soldiers this time – but nurses to patch up soldiers Sam had  already dispatched.

1 Front_Cover
American National Red Cross, ‘Uncle Sam Needs Nurses’, Illinois Digital Archives, (1942) < http://www.idaillinois.org/cdm/ref/collection/isl3/id/16340&gt; p. 2, accessed 8 September 2014.

‘Nurses of America – we count on you’[8] reads a pamphlet entitled ‘Uncle Sam Needs Nurses’. And modern appropriations such as ‘I Want You…to Get Me A Beer’[9] reflect a further move from cynicism to apathy.  

But it is Uncle Sam’s direct address to the individual is his most powerful characteristic. Individualism being both a celebration and criticism levelled at American culture, his image embodies contradiction. It is simultaneously subtle and blunt, emotional and pragmatic. Having been both the personification of everything right and everything wrong with America, Uncle Sam has become both a subjective and objective figurehead.

Sources: 

[1] Curti, Merle, ‘Uncle Sam as a Missionary’, The Journal of Higher Education, vol. 11, no. 9 (1940), p. 472.

[2] James Montgomery Flagg, Uncle Sam Needs You [image], (1917) <http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/treasures/images/tlc0090.jpg&gt;, accessed 28 August 2014.

[3] Merle Curti, ‘Uncle Sam as a Missionary’, The Journal of Higher Education, vol. 11, no. 9 (1940), p. 472.

[4] Christian Appy, ‘A Working Class War’ in Robert McMahon (ed.), Major Problems in the History of the Vietnam War,(U.S.A: Cengage Learning, 2008) , p. 251.

[5] Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, Uncle Sam Wants you Nigger [image], (1967) <http://pw20c.mcmaster.ca/vietnam-solidarity-campaign-periodical-1967> accessed 28 August 2014.

[6] Author unknown, ‘An African American Draftee Reflects on the War’s Impact, 1984’ in Robert McMahon (ed.), Major Problems in the History of the Vietnam War,(U.S.A: Cengage Learning, 2008) , p. 517.

[7] John Kerry, ‘A Vietnam Veteran Opposes the War, 1971’ in Robert McMahon (ed.), Major Problems in the History of the Vietnam War,(U.S.A: Cengage Learning, 2008) , p. 413.

[8] American National Red Cross, ‘Uncle Sam Needs Nurses’, Illinois Digital Archives, (1942) < http://www.idaillinois.org/cdm/ref/collection/isl3/id/16340> p. 2, accessed 8 September 2014.

[9] ‘Uncle Sam Wants You to Get Me a Beer’ [image], (2008) < http://www.zazzle.com.au/uncle_sam_want_you_get_me_a_beer_tshirt-235232917531688370>, accessed 8 September 2014.

Author: 

Pamela Silvan,

La Trobe University,

2014.

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1 thought on “UNCLE SAM IS DEAD”

  1. “but nurses to patch up soldiers Sam had already dispatched” A powerful sentence that I believe boils down your entire argument quite well, the dangers of nationalism and associating it with imagery, and the inevitable backlash and re appropriation of these images, a great post, reading your words is a joy. X

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