PhotoMajor wars shape the way a nation sees the world. From World War II, Americans gained the vocabulary and metrics for a “good war” fought with steely determination against clearly defined enemies.

The legacy of that war, which the U.S. officially entered 69 years ago, on the date of this posting, can be seen even in today’s national debate over climate change, in the charges and countercharges of “climate change appeasers,” “climate change deniers,” and “climate change fascists.” More useful, but for some equally polarizing, is the aspirational “World War II-scale effort.”

The call for a WWII-scale effort on climate change has been made most forcefully by Lester Brown, but abbreviated versions of it have been offered by Al Gore, Bill McKibben, Joseph Romm, and, implicitly, Time. Within months of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the analogy runs, American factories were producing armaments at a rate that surpassed even the most optimistic projections; the country needs a similar effort now to develop and disseminate low-carbon technologies.

When Lester Brown makes this case in Plan B 4.0, he provides precise figures for the bombers, fighters, and tanks American factories had produced by the end of the war, but the pre-conditions for such productivity are never spelled out. The media coverage, for example, is never quantified. When Americans mobilized for the war in the early 1940s, how much of what they heard and read from the media of the day was about the war? What, in short, does World War II-scale coverage of a World War II-scale effort look like? And what can a measure of that coverage tell us about the prospects for a World War II-scale effort on climate change?

Provisional answers to these questions emerge in three major findings from an analysis of one publication’s coverage of World War II. First, the coverage given to World War II by even secondary sources of news and opinion, like The Atlantic, is several multiples higher than what is now being given to climate change. Second, the pre-conditions for a World War II-scale effort are much more difficult to meet than proponents of the analogy have acknowledged — and not merely for the very different sort of challenge posed by climate change. Indeed, an examination of WWII-era articles and advertisements may lead one to question whether the U.S. is still capable of such an effort.

Third, notwithstanding those differences, journalists and others involved in communicating climate change can learn from The Atlantic‘s efforts to respond effectively to a vast and complex topic under shifting economic conditions.

The Atlantic‘s Coverage of World War II

As one of a small number of monthly American magazines published during WWII and still being published today, The Atlantic can provide a sample of the second-order coverage that accompanied the original WWII-scale effort. (See “Why The Atlantic?” below) And the measure that sample provides for WWII-scale coverage is this: For the three most critical years of America’s involvement in the war, from July 1942 through July 1945, on average, nearly 50 percent of the total content (articles plus advertisements) referenced the war in some way. (A graph of these figures for the 85 issues published during the war can be accessed here. Methods are explained here.)

This number, however, does not tell the whole story. The Atlantic was also physically transformed by World War II — twice.

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Back-cover Cruise Hawaii ad in January 1942 issue.

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the January 1942 issue of The Atlantic was already in route to or lying on the coffee tables of its subscribers. The four-color ad on its back cover provides additional evidence, if any were needed, that the attack came as a surprise: The Hawaii Tourist Bureau invited the magazine’s readers to experience the islands’ “bracing air” and sunny beaches. But with the U.S. now embroiled in wars across two different oceans, overseas travel bureaus and cruise lines would not be buying full-page color ads. The Atlantic thus faced the challenge of covering one of the biggest stories in history without the revenue provided by two of its core groups of advertisers (the others were book publishers, New York City-area hotels and service businesses, and railroads).

The Atlantic had not ignored the war to that point. Even in July 1939, three months before ground combat began in Europe, the lead article was on “The Next War.” In that pre-war issue of The Atlantic, roughly 19 percent of the articles and 18 percent of the numbered pages were devoted to the war.

In the months that followed, after necessary allowances for the magazine’s production schedule, one can match the bursts of open letters, reports, and analyses with the major events in the European theatre. By the fall of 1941, roughly 40 percent of each issue’s articles, constituting 25 percent of its pages, reminded The Atlantic‘s readers they were living in a time of war.

After Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, these percentages rose again — to an average, for the spring of 1942, of 48.5 percent of the articles and roughly 40 percent of the total content.

But it is with the July 1942 issue that The Atlantic‘s coverage of World War II reached its pinnacle.

In the years before America entered the war, The Atlantic was a 6-1/4 inch by 9-1/4 inch magazine. The July 1942 issue introduced a new and larger Atlantic: 7-1/2 inches by 10-1/2 inches. Emblazoned across the cord-framed table of contents of the duo-tone cover was a full-color American flag. Immediately inside was the first of many war-themed full-page ads and the first page of a new monthly feature, “The Atlantic Report.” This 32-page report “On the World Today” was subdivided into five sections: “European Front,” “The Pacific War,” “Latin America,” “Washington,” and “The Round Table.” Interspersed among these five sections were 15 full-page ads, including three in color.

These ads — all but one referencing the war effort — represented a broader spectrum of American companies than had previously appeared in The Atlantic. The production values of the “Report” were also unprecedented, but the costs implied by these values were almost certainly exceeded by the revenues from the nearly three-fold increase in full-page ads. (See second graph in the sidebar below.) The Atlantic‘s expanded wartime coverage appears to have been profitable.

From July 1942 through and beyond the end of the war, each issue of The Atlantic began with “The Atlantic Report.” And from July 1942 to July 1945, nearly 50 percent of the content of these issues, on average, was “about” the war.

Beginning in the summer of 1945, however, The Atlantic‘s editors faced a new economic challenge. As it became easier for Americans to imagine the end of the war, advertisers began to do likewise. Companies now were advertising domestic products and services instead of their contributions to the war effort. By the spring of 1946, less than 20 percent of the full-page ads mentioned the war. Many companies stopped advertising in The Atlantic altogether; by July 1946 the number of full-page ads had fallen by nearly half. (Evidence of the resulting cost cutting can be seen in the bands of browned pages that alternate with glossy in these archival volumes.)

By contrast, the number of war-related articles increased. Many returning soldiers were eager to recount their experiences, and readers wondered how the post-war world would develop. Subheadings in “The Atlantic Report” became more specific. Instead of the “European Front,” The Atlantic‘s subscribers read reports on “Rome,” “London,” “Paris,” or “Berlin,” and instead of “The Pacific War,” “The Far East,” “India,” or “China.”

The WWII-Scale Effort Analogy

The significance of these numbers can be gauged by comparing them with numbers from the 2010 issues of The Atlantic: 10.5 percent of the full-page ads, 9 percent of the articles, and 7 percent of the pages referenced the environment. In other words, if a WWII-scale effort on climate change is the goal, then at least a five-fold increase in coverage is the corollary.

Several objections can be raised at this point.

The first objection is one of kind: climate change is not war; it cannot attack us nor declare war on us. And it cannot be defeated. One might respond that a pattern of dramatic meteorological events, which is what models predict, could serve as a kind of Pearl Harbor, and the goal of this WWII-scale effort is an acute attempt to implement the measures needed to manage a chronic condition.

The remaining objections are historical. The articles and especially the ads in the WWII issues of The Atlantic point to four major differences:

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Bell Tel: Be Calm, Courteous, Effective
  • The Economy — Manufacturing and agriculture dominated the WWII-themed ads, and labor leaders and issues figured prominently in the articles. Such an economy would be easier to mobilize than one based on consumer goods and services.
  • The “New” Media — Telephones and radios, still relatively new media at the time, seem to have unified rather than divided the public. Party phone lines required cooperation; national news broadcasts created a sense of unity. Today’s new media often create echo chambers for partisan worldviews.
  • The Background — The precursors for WWII were the Great Depression and WWI. Both events shaped Americans’ attitude toward government. Even the Chamber of Commerce was willing to countenance higher taxes, and every American was urged to “Buy War Bonds!” The background for climate change, by contrast, is two decades of internal debate over the role of government.
  • Military Service — American families supported the war effort because family members, whether through enlistment or conscription, were now at risk. The original WWII-scale effort included a draft. Current calls for a WWII–scale effort on climate change do not — but neither have the recent calls for war.

Having first provided a metric for WWII-scale coverage, this analysis now suggests also that achieving that level of coverage will not, by itself, result in a WWII-scale effort.

Lessons from World War II for Climate Change?

If not the aspirational goal of a WWII-scale effort, what lessons can climate change communicators learn from The Atlantic‘s coverage of World War II?

First, that to follow a complex, world-wide, and ongoing story, readers want both chronicle and commentary. With “The Atlantic Report,” the redesigned magazine created a regularly updated chronicle of the war, with each of the major storylines carefully delineated. Each month, readers encountered this first; the commentary came after, as needed.

Some daily news services, such as The Daily Climate, do divide their coverage by sector (mitigation, impacts, adaptation, negotiations), but none creates a chronicle. Even a monthly column, with a standard set of subheadings, could make a start on the prominent, regular, and systematic coverage that any serious-scale effort on climate change requires.

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July 1945 Matson cruise line ad hints at Americans’ changing mood.

Second, the business managers of modern publications must anticipate the changing economic conditions of their advertisers. Caught off-guard by Pearl Harbor, The Atlantic quickly caught the current created by the mobilization but then seems to have been surprised by its ebb at the war’s end. How will the shift to a low-carbon economy affect the business model for news and commentary? It will be hard to contemplate this question amid all the creative destruction of the Internet, but it should still be asked.

Here, too, this review of The Atlantic‘s coverage of World War II might prove helpful. Given the carbon footprint of air travel, this might be a good time for the business side of publishing ventures to be talking with cruise lines.

This report has offered several reasons to question the call for a WWII-scale effort on climate change, including the daunting scale of the coverage that accompanied the original effort. But there are still very good reasons to ask, in particular as we think back to Pearl Harbor, whether we want again to be a country that is at least capable of such an effort.

Why The Atlantic?

The Atlantic is one of a small cohort of American magazines published during WWII, still published today, and widely collected by university libraries. Aimed at the center of the political spectrum, The Atlantic is a natural choice for this analysis. Its participation in the Climate Desk, a joint effort to upgrade coverage of climate change, makes the comparison with its coverage of WWII particularly relevant.

Much more preliminary analyses of other magazines published during WWII suggest that the percentages calculated for The Atlantic are not exceptional.

In fall 2009, students in my university writing classes tallied the feature articles in the January – December 1942 issues of The American Scholar, The Atlantic, Foreign Affairs, Harper’s, Nation, National Geographic, The New Republic, Newsweek, Science, and Time. The rough results of these quick counts indicate that even specialized magazines — such as The American Scholar, National Geographic, and Science — adjusted their content for the war. WWII-related content in general interest magazines averaged 50–70 percent of the total. Averages for the newsweeklies ran even higher. Brief reports on these counts can be found here.


This study relied on bound volumes of WWII-era issues of The Atlantic. Issues published from January 1939 to December 1946 were consistently grouped and bound in half-year volumes (Jan-June and Aug-Dec); however, inconsistencies in the preparation of these volumes necessitated the careful matching of front and back matter with the featured content.

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After the pages for each issue had been identified, the full-page ads, feature articles, and pages were counted. Then separate counts were made of the ads and articles that referenced the war in some way. The pages for these ads and articles were then totaled in order to calculate the percentage of war-related content in that issue.

The decision to limit the ad counts to full-page ads was purely instrumental, but independent spot checks of the half- and quarter-page ads indicated that few referenced the war.

Similar considerations prompted the decision to focus on feature articles. Spot checks of the front and back sections in several issues did find some material on the war; thus, the focus on feature articles likely results in an under- rather than an over-count. From July 1942 forward, the separate subsections of “The Atlantic Report,” each as long as a medium-length article in the body of the magazine, were counted as feature articles about WWII.

An article or ad was counted as “war-related” if the war or the domestic war effort was a significant point of reference within the piece. In most cases, the determination was clear; in others, the final decision rested on the strength of an analogy or on a secondary connection to the war effort. The perfunctory inclusion of a slogan, such as “Buy War Bonds,” was not sufficient.

Although the number of war-related ads included in each issue remained fairly stable after July 1942, their percentage of the total dips each winter and each spring when publishers purchased more full-page ads to promote holiday or summer-reading releases.

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Michael Svoboda, Ph.D., is the Yale Climate Connections books editor. He is a professor in the University Writing Program at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where he has taught since...