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LIFE Magazine issued a wake-up call of sorts to its readership in their 2 March 1942 issue. I say “of sorts” because even though this hard article (entitled “Now the U.S. Must Fight for Its Life”) must have sorely sobered some of its readers, it started on page 15, following big ads for Listerine, Matrix (women’s shoes, Bell Telephone, Modess, Clapp’s Baby Food, Dot Snap Fasteners, Goodrich Tires, White Horse Scotch, Pompeian Massage (for shaving), Jack Benny/Carole Lombard’s “To Be or Not To Be”, Colgate, Yardley powder and Mimeograph, and a few interspersed puff pieces—and a Ginger Rogers cover photo. But once LIFE paid its bills1, the article got right to business, responding to a February article by sci-fi/novelist Philip Wylie2 on the possibilities of the U.S. losing the war.
Losing looked like something that could actually happen in pre- war-ready America3. The war in Europe had been on in earnest since the very end of 1939 (since 1933 in Asia), and the Axis had reached just about the fullest extent of their victories (though there would be more gains in the Pacific to come). By March of ‘42, we had Bataan, MacArthur leaving the Philippines and the fall of rape of Manila, the siege of Leningrad, Corregidor, Java Sea, the Brits leaving Singapore, Malaya, and so much more. The Axis powers in Europe were now in control of Austria, Czechoslovakia. Poland, Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, France, Norway, Yugoslavia, Finland, Greece, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and parts of the Soviet Union (Ukraine, Bylorussia, Crimea), and parts of North Africa; plus the allies of Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and Slovakia. There was also Italy, of course, controlling Sicily, Ethiopia and Libya., and of course the Japanese controlled large swaths of China, South East Asia, Indonesia and points in-between. The overall situation did not look very good.
The following maps appeared in a two-page spread, detailing ways in which the Axis powers could combine their efforts, focus on America, and take over the country. Maps such as these with arrows being drawn towards America were absolutely uncommon during this time.
1.This is almost universal SOP for war reporting for almost all media, and which continues today. The Illustrated London News delivered reports of success and disaster sandwiched between ads for socks and trifles, as did the Illustriete Zeitung (Leipzig and Berlin), the New York Times, and so on. I remember very clearly as a kid hearing the reading of the daily list of American soldiers killed in Vietnam on one of the Big-Three networks, somber and intoned, followed instantly by a ad for Coke or Mister Kleen.
2 Wylie (1902-1971) was an interesting guy with a wide reach. In addition to Hollywood-feeding work, interesting fiction, insightful scifi and social commentary, Wylie also provided the inspiration for the creation of Superman (“The Gladiator”, 1930) and Flash Gordon (When Worlds Collide, 1933).
3. Once the war machine in the U.S. got into hyper drive I think that it was impossible for this country to be defeated given its population, workforce, industrial capacity, raw materials, and of course scientific superstrucutre. Also there was also no other country in the world with the necessary (and enormous) components needed to construct an atomic bomb. This is a simplified statement that seems pretty homespuna dn jingoistic, but the fact of the matter is that the U.S. was the seat of overwhelming possibilities and capacities. And yes the Nazis had been slowed down mightily with the expense of dozens of millions of Russian lives and the entire British war machine and on and on—I’m just saying that in the end, the U.S. could not have been beaten.
MORE maps in the extended section, below: