Some time in 2000, Northumberland bookseller Stuart Manley bought a boxload of antique books at auction. While unpacking them, he discovered a poster folded up at the bottom of the box. It was plain red, and bore bold white lettering beneath a crown. It read “Keep Calm And Carry On.”
The British government had printed more than two million such posters as war with Germany loomed in 1939, but never ended up distributed them. Thinking it looked nice, Manley framed it and put it up in his shop. When customers began enquiring about it, he made a few prints to sell on the side. It has since become one of the most recognised, reproduced and parodied images of all time.
That simple, nearly forgotten poster is a reminder of the unsung genius that often labours in the graphic design divisions of official communication. It is not the only one: the anonymously run website GovernmentAttic.org, which pesters the U.S. government with Freedom of Information requests, recently disinterred a trove of variously quaint and menacing “motivational posters” produced by the National Security Agency during the 1950s and ’60s.
When most people think of the propaganda of the Cold War period, they tend to think of the Soviet Union and its pious, kitsch tableaux of ruddy-cheeked peasants beaming ecstatically at combine harvesters. Government Attic’s find confirmed that those interested in shoring up morale in the free world were at least as convinced of the powers of propaganda, and perhaps even more inventive in producing it.
Among the 136 posters released this June, there are some straightforward commands to knowing your enemy – the rearing bear, emblazoned with a hammer and sickle, accompanied by lines from Rudyard Kipling’s cautionary ‘The Truce of the Bear’. (Kipling had written that poem nearly two decades before the Russian Revolution, but the NSA clearly thought the lesson held.) There are also some diversions into the strange and surreal: “Mona only smiles about her secrets. Keep smiling” reads one bearing da Vinci’s muse, drenched in an inexplicable deep crimson.
Mostly, though, the posters take the form of upbeat affirmations, as if attempting to elevate ‘security’ to the all-American pantheon alongside mom and apple pie. “Don’t fumble,” says an image of an American football player, “security is in your hands”. “Security, companion of liberty,” reminds an image of Revolutionary War drummers.
These, however, are not the posters that the NSA could make most profitably available at its gift shop (and there is one – at the National Cryptologic Museum near the NSA’s headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland). Any number of whimsical inner city cafés would be tempted by the designs that might be best categorised as hailing from the “How do you do, fellow kids?” school. There’s a cartoon of a John Travolta-ish figure with the caption “Security fever – catch it!”, and one of a modishly dressed (for 1975) young woman urging the beholder to “Make security your thing,” in a cheerily bulbous font of the sort which often adorned “discotheque” albums of the period.
It is regrettably unknowable whether any of these posters successfully discouraged NSA staff from making indiscreet remarks within earshot of trench-coat-clad spooks. They endure, however, as postcards from a more suspicious, if less complex, age, when America’s foremost intelligence agency tasked a group of designers with churning out nice-looking variations on a paranoid theme. And for that, the Bear would have been proud.
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