Media History Exchange, 2018 Joint Journalism and Communication History Conference

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Before the Flag-Raising: Media Scripts and the Iwo Jima Photograph
Matthew Pressman, James J Kimble

Last modified: 2018-01-26


Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal’s shot of Marines raising the American flag at Iwo Jima in February 1945 is arguably the most famous news photograph in history. But most historical accounts misconstrue the picture’s impact. They state that the novelty of seeing such a dramatic image shocked and energized the American people. It was supposedly that jolt of surprise—in addition to the image’s aesthetic qualities—which led to the rapturous reception that greeted Rosenthal’s photo (hundreds of newspapers printed it on page 1, and the U.S. government used it to promote its final war bond campaign).

Our research suggests a different reason for the Iwo Jima photo’s tremendous impact. It was not a bolt from the blue but rather the satisfying culmination of a narrative that the press had been crafting since the beginning of 1945. Even as experts and some government officials warned that the war in the Pacific could drag on for several more years, the public and the press felt certain that U.S. troops would conquer Japan in 1945. Newspapers and newsreel scripts declared that American actions in the Pacific represented the “beginning of the end” for Japan and that American forces were on the “road to Tokyo.” Headlines spoke of the “collapse of Japan” as imminent.

Imagery hammered home that message even more strongly, often using the American flag as a symbol of the impending victory. Newspapers printed huge maps showing American flags (used to represent the movement of forces) dotting the seas around Japan. One editorial cartoon, published just two days before Rosenthal’s photo appeared, showed a pair of hands planting an American flag into a rock labeled “Iwo Jima.” The actual photograph of U.S. Marines raising the flag on Mount Suribachi represented the gratifying fulfillment of a narrative that Americans had been following for weeks. It was not a revelation but a confirmation.

The American people believed that narrative—opinion polls showed most expecting a speedy end to the war with Japan in 1945—but it was highly misleading. Iwo Jima may have been a stepping stone to Japan, but there were several more after it, and each would be progressively harder to conquer—to say nothing of the difficulty of invading Japan’s home islands. Were it not for the atomic bomb, the war against Japan almost certainly would have lasted into 1946 and beyond.

Our research for this article will draw upon digitized historical newspapers and magazines, along with historical newsreel footage. We also hope to incorporate archival material from the Associated Press archives, the FDR Library, and the records of the Office of War Information. We think it will interest an interdisciplinary community of scholars because it focuses on a broad array of media forms (text, video, photography, editorial cartoons) and because it addresses big questions that remain relevant today, such as: how does news coverage shape public attitudes? How do people’s existing beliefs affect how they absorb new information (confirmation bias)? How should American journalists cover their own military at war?

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