Selling the Atomic Soldier: The Birth of Army Marketing

April 19, 2020 Topic: Security Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: U.S. ArmyAll Volunteer ForceMarketingArmy RecruitmentMilitary

Selling the Atomic Soldier: The Birth of Army Marketing

"The Army’s brand is best represented not by the space satellites, radars, and cyber systems depicted in its current commercials, but by a vision that’s as old as the Battle of Trenton: a group of dirty, freezing soldiers, scared, wet and tired, taking the fight to the enemy."

Late last year, the U.S. Army announced a new functional area focused on marketing the Army as a modern fighting force, relevant in combat and peacetime today and into the future. This kind of promotional effort is not new; for decades, the Army has promoted itself as an opportunity for ambitious American high school graduates eager to make something of their lives by learning new skills and engaging with the nation’s latest technology.

From the All Volunteer Force’s “New Army,” focused less on shined boots and haircuts and more on innovation, to the clunkily-phrased “Today’s Army Wants to Join You,” campaign of chief of staff William Westmoreland, through “Be All You Can Be,” “An Army of One,” to the ill-fated “Army Strong,” the service has promoted itself as a state-of-the-art enterprise and a salubrious influence in American life. So it has become, in both perception and reality. More than a function of government, more than a land force, the American public recognizes the Army as a golden American institution, a social benefactor offering young men and women discipline, an education, job skills, upward mobility, and a grand purpose.

The Army’s current “Warriors Wanted” campaign highlights new technology, new job opportunities, and new domains. This writer hopes service marketers do not lose sight of the dark and tender humanity at the heart of the Army’s call to serve. The notion of American triumph in ground combat, after all, is the underpinning of the romantic poetry of our Army’s history.

Army leaders did not always get this right. Army marketing was born of necessity, amidst questions about the continuing need for a sizable land-based service and against the backdrop of a looming atomic apocalypse. Initial efforts, enamored with the marketing advantages of emerging technology, abandoned the ground troop almost entirely.

A New Look: The Rise of Air Power

Before the Cold War, the Army worried little about brand promotion. The draft saw to it that military-aged American males filled the ranks when needed. The successful test of Soviet nuclear weapons in 1949, however, ushered in a new kind of great power war, one in which airpower and the atomic bombs would take precedence over a land force.

The American strategy of avoiding nuclear catastrophe and defeating communism through a policy of global containment served to define American grand strategy starting in the final years of the Truman presidency. Containment, first articulated in a 1946 telegram authored by George Kennan, the American charge d’affaires in Moscow, to the Department of State, advocated the employment of all instruments of national power to prevent the spread of communism abroad without engaging in an actual shooting war. To adjudicate this global competition, the United States adhered to the Truman Doctrine: America would assist any nation fighting communism while developing a nuclear arsenal capable of wiping out the Soviet Union.

Upon assuming the presidency from Truman in 1953, Dwight Eisenhower adopted many of the philosophical underpinnings of NSC-68 and containment. His sweeping “New Look” policy pivoted on the twin goals of maintaining a robust domestic economy capable of outlasting the Soviet empire and building an atomic capability so destructive it would prevent the Soviet Union from using its own. An American defense industry facilitated both aims, pumping out jobs and money while shrinking the federal defense budget, and developing the latest in nuclear technology.

Strategic Air Command (SAC) was New Look’s showpiece service. SAC, a major command of the Air Force, could deliver a nuclear strike and, therefore, the deterrence capability needed to keep the Soviets at bay. In its eighth year, the Air Force suddenly represented the future of warfare while the Army, bogged down in the mud of Korea, represented a dying way of warfare. The Airman was advanced technology and strategic power. The Army soldier was a fading throwback to a type of war long gone, represented comically by the cartoon strip Beetle Bailey featuring a lazy group of soldiers led by hapless officers and non-commissioned officers. The Army was also represented by images of wounded and killed soldiers coming out of Korea while the Air Force made it through relatively unscathed by comparison.

Resourcing reflected this dynamic. By 1956, the Air Force budget nearly doubled that of its rival service. Meanwhile, successive defense budgets cut the Army from a 1.5-million soldier, 20-division colossus in 1953 to a manageable 859,000-man force with 14 divisions by the time Eisenhower left office. The Army's purpose was a bit uncertain; many divisions trained to seize terrain and secure limited resources, water, and energy, in a nuclear-devastated battlefield. Within most war plans, the actual fighting had culminated by the time Army units arrived.

With the Army suffering tremendous blows to its funding, prestige and public image, Americans were volunteering for service so they could enter the Air Force and avoid conscripted Army duty. What remained in the Army was a morale-depleted force of idlers looking to exit the Army as soon as their mandatory two-year-tour was complete.

Without a clear mission in the New Look strategy, the Army was in the wilderness, fighting for relevance. Morale and discipline plummeted. Most conscripts departed the service after a single term. Enterprising American teens sought an Air Force commission over an Army commission. The image of the bumbling, unserious Master Sergeant Ernest G. Bilko in CBS' sitcom, the Phil Silver Show resonated with many American audiences. To survive, the Army needed to turn to a new field, just beginning to burgeon in response to post-World War II consumerism: mass marketing.

Marketing a Modern Force

Beginning in 1956 and lasting through the end of the decade, the Army marketed itself to its countrymen and their elected officials as a future-looking force critical in the atomic age. Using a public relations campaign mirroring the booming Madison Avenue advertising industry, the service met its citizenry where they were: on television, at the movies, and in magazines.

The primary focal point for this campaign was the Army’s Office of the Chief of Information (OCI, today is known as the Office of the Chief of Public Affairs). The effort was vast: under the OCI, the Army developed its own song, rolled out a new dress uniform, and produced television advertisements, brochures, film clips, and television programs promoting new experiences and career opportunities.

Not only was soldier life a promising way to learn critical skills but, according to this effort, a good deal of fun. No longer a dour, rigid experience, Army service was enjoyable and exciting. Just like the men and women of today’s “What's Your Warrior” ads, the late-1950's American soldier was on the cutting-edge of technology. Army bands toured cities, and commanders encouraged G.I.s to participate in the Hometown Release program, which sent newsworthy information about troops back to their hometown. The OCI reached out to Hollywood to influence the depiction of the service in upcoming movies. 

Another component of this multi-layered public relations campaign was Army training. The Army of the late-1950’s developed extravagant, division-level training events that served more as public theater than preparation for an actual war. Posts shuttled in observers, community leaders, local press to observe operations involving helicopters, enormous maneuver formations, and newly-fielded rocket launchers. These exercises prevented units from actually preparing for combat, as they sucked up enormous amounts of time and resources and did not replicate realistic combat conditions.

These exercises matched perfectly with the Army's focus on rebranding. The image of the World War II Army was a vision of a particularly American kind of brawler: a dirty, freezing soldier fighting his way onto Omaha Beach, a hell-raiser no one would want to cross in a bar fight, a scrappy fighter who crawled through the mud to kill Nazis in hand-to-hand combat. By contrast, the new soldier was much less grit and more glamor. The professional-looking Joe was an immediate priority for Gen. Lyman Lemnitzer upon becoming chief of staff of the Army. On military posts and television and movie screens, Americans saw uniformed men and women who were mounted, educated, and surprisingly clean.

Flexible Response

After eight years, the seventy-year-old Dwight Eisenhower left the presidency, and Washington, DC altogether, on January 20, 1961. With it went his New Look philosophy of massive retaliation for nuclear war. Out was the Pentagon’s blinding faith in deterrence. In was the forty-three-year-old John F. Kennedy, the thirty-fifth American president. Kennedy felt Eisenhower’s approach to be ludicrously simplistic, unable to react to aggression beneath the level of global nuclear conflict. More critically, Ike’s grand strategy, and marginalization of the Army, left the nation with no reasonable option outside of nuclear force or catastrophic defeat (the sobering contemporary phrase was Henry Kissinger’s “suicide or surrender).”

Kennedy’s policy of “flexible response” would require a disparate Army capable of triumph across the full spectrum of armed conflict. Again, the Army would remake itself, this time into a force capable of guerilla warfare, counterinsurgency fights, support to host nation militaries, on up to a traditional face-off with the Soviets. In an attempt to glamorize ground forces, over internal Army objections, Kennedy approved Army Special Forces wearing Green Berets early in his administration, a move Ike had long rejected.