The pervasive use of the Uncle Sam image as a symbol of determined American military might during World War II served as a rallying point on the home-front. During World War II, Nazi Germany intelligence forces even used “Samland” as a code name for the United States.
The distinct image of Uncle Sam also, however, left a permanent impression on the minds of people across the world.
As the six decades of the post-war era proceeded, the appropriation of Uncle Sam by the media and governments of adversarial nations turned him into an increasingly less benevolent a figure.
Whether ruled by czars or commissars, Russian and Soviet depictions of Uncle Sam as the representative of the United States extend back at least a century to when seeds of mistrust were sown by American support of Japan in that nation’s war with Russia.
Some two decades later, however, when now under the rule of “Red Russia,” the United States provided enormous humanitarian relief of food supplies to a starving population there, Sam was suddenly shown as benevolent.
During the pre-communist years when hundreds of thousands of impoverished Russians were streaming into the United States as immigrants, Uncle Sam was shown as welcoming and warm towards Russians.
As allies during the second World War, there was no derision of Uncle Sam by the Soviets.
That all changed in the Cold War era which followed.
In the decades following the end of World War II, the Soviet Union invariably showed a skinny and sinister Uncle Sam as a poster boy of capitalist American greed with lust for global war by nuclear bombing. Perhaps communist propagandists were a bit too obvious, however. Invariably, their version of Uncle Sam has him dressed in black, without any blue – and certainly with no sign of red.
In more recent years, anti-American sentiment in communist Cuba and other Latin American nations in sympathy with it, invariably show an Uncle Sam prone to violence and greed. Since its 1979 revolution, Iranians have carried Uncle Sam in various forms of effigy through the streets of Tehran, whether as a burning stuffed dummy or as an evil force seen on color posters.
And, upholding a tradition which began once Great Britain and the United States fought their last battle during the War of 1812, English depictions of Uncle Sam and its own John Bull remained friendly – though Sam was often “inappropriately” dressed in colors other than the red, white and blue.
The post-Civil War period first began the period when many citizens began to question the motives and wisdom of the American government’s role in big industry and immigration policy.
It was the decidedly imperialist seizure of the Philippine Islands, following President McKinley’s leadership of the Spanish-American War that Uncle Sam began to increasingly be shown in cartoons which offered skepticism about the U.S. taking an increasingly dominant role in world affairs.
There seems to be practically no example whatsoever of any depictions of Uncle Sam from either World War I or World War II which casts him in a critical way. The patriotism felt across the nation during those two wars was seemingly so universally supported by the vast majority of the people that no even mild criticism was conveyed by Uncle Sam.
All that changed in the years which followed, whether it was a large or small manner in which the United States became involved in a foreign conflict. It culminated with the Vietnam War, which increasingly drew bitter criticism and calls for withdrawal under both Democratic and Republican administrations.
Although the generalized cynicism among American citizens towards its federal government, whatever political party may be in the White House, has never entirely evaporated since the acrimonious Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, as the 1970s went on towards the end of the century and into the new one, Uncle Sam was again revived to portray less bitter topics of national policy – like the fight for Equal Rights Amendment passage to ensure gender equity and the emergence of more powerful African-American political base.
Flagg’s classic Uncle Sam, however, was also put to use for less patriotic motives and more as Pop Art advertising.
In fact, the increased commercialization of seemingly every aspect of American life found Uncle Sam appropriated as a symbol that did everything from raise money for a local zoo to hawk cupcakes.
While the commercialization was intended to be light-hearted, it often seemed to strike a discordant note about what path the American nation had taken. The lingering cynicism about the government was combined with an overall disenchantment about the values which guided national life which was increasingly fixated on consumerism and status.
Increasingly that disenchantment was found in displays of Uncle Sam, be he blissfully ignorant of larger, underlying issues creating a sense of unhappiness among the richest nation on earth – or angered, frustrated and enraged at the way he was now being treated by powerful interests focused primarily on profits regardless of how the cost was affecting the citizens.
Uncle Sam saw a dramatic return when the nation was galvanized in shock and horror in reaction to the Islamic terrorist attacks on the U.S. on September 11, 2001. Quickly, however, he was also depicted cynically again, as if in a house of mirrors: the opinion that Uncle Sam was actually exploited by the Bush Administration Iraqi War and intelligence policies, some of which would be continuing under the Obama Administration.
With the election of Barack Obama as the first African-American President, there were occasional glimpses of Uncle Sam much more like his old self – a figure of hope proud of the traditional ideal of equality being realized. With the sense that a small minority were benefiting from a recovering economy while the vast majority still lived with a financial insecurity it had never known to linger as long as well as a shrinking middle-class, Uncle Sam remains a dichotomous and ambivalent figure, summoning a sense of promise and goodness with the reality that such intentions are not always so readily achieved.