The Last Smithsonian Exhibit to Go Up Before the Shutdown Was an Old Government Ad Asking Americans for Money

The World War II-era poster for defense bonds was on display for a day before federally funded museums closed their doors.

National Journal
Oct. 8, 2013, 8:58 a.m.

The latest in­stall­a­tion at the Smith­so­ni­an Na­tion­al Mu­seum of Amer­ic­an His­tory is a gov­ern­ment-is­sued bill­board from World War II, re­as­sembled and re­stored to its ori­gin­al, vivid con­di­tion. The sig­nage, which went on dis­play the day be­fore the gov­ern­ment shut­down forced all Smith­so­ni­an mu­seums to close, is a vic­tim of un­for­tu­nate tim­ing. Pres­id­ent Roosevelt’s call, “We can”¦ We will”¦ We must!” seems at odds with the rhet­or­ic of the cur­rent na­tion­al con­ver­sa­tion.

The bill­board is a rem­nant of a 1940s fed­er­al cam­paign to rally na­tion­al sup­port for World War II and fin­ance U.S. mil­it­ary op­er­a­tions. Many slo­gans and im­ages tapped in­to con­sumers’ sense of pat­ri­ot­ism to per­suade them to buy gov­ern­ment bonds, known as de­fense bonds be­fore the at­tack on Pearl Har­bor, and dubbed war or vic­tory bonds after. In re­turn, cit­izens re­ceived a cer­ti­fic­ate that guar­an­teed their money back after the war was won.

This bill­board, cre­ated by artist Carl Paulson for the Treas­ury De­part­ment, de­b­uted as the war broke out, ap­pear­ing in more than 30,000 loc­a­tions in March and April of 1942.

The United States doesn’t bom­bard its cit­izens with col­or­ful ads and pat­ri­ot­ic slo­gans to help cov­er its de­fi­cit any­more, but people can buy Treas­ury bonds any time. Their will­ing­ness to do so, however, may change in the com­ing weeks. If Con­gress fails to raise the debt ceil­ing, the gov­ern­ment will run out of money to pay its bills. When that hap­pens, the value of Treas­ury bonds, which the gov­ern­ment uses to bor­row money, will plum­met.

The ex­hib­it, along with the rest of the Smith­so­ni­an’s col­lec­tions, re­mains in the dark un­til the gov­ern­ment re­opens. Un­til then, here’s a video about how cur­at­ors re­as­sembled the 12-piece poster.

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