One of the interesting things about the run-up to America’s involvement in World Wars I and II is how much the media avoided taking a stance on the war.
This was back in the days before the US saw itself as the world’s policeman. We stood apart from Europe—the old imperial powers and monarchies with their shallow petty wars were nothing to do with America, the shining city on the hill. And making movies that advocated for war was seen as crossing an unacceptable line.
In the 1915 film Battle Cry of Peace, for instance, pacifists undercut American efforts to build up the nation’s defenses, and the film culminates with armed invaders overrunning New York. They’re never actually identified but as one critic put it, “they are certainly not Portuguese.”
And that’s how it played out a couple of decades later in the 1930s. Advocating to get us into another European war (or as some people saw it, a “Jewish war” for the benefit of Jews) could bring down a lot of heat. In motion pictures, the Production Code forbade films stirring up hate against other nationalities, races, countries, etc. and Joe Breen, the head of the Code Authority, used that to discourage anyone from making films about the war in Europe (Breen tended to the “Jewish war” side of things). And Hollywood wasn’t too keen on it anyway: they made escapist films, not current-events dramas, and they weren’t sure the public wanted anything else.
So what we got in a lot of media were evil dictators who looked suspiciously like Hitler, but came from Torania or the like. That was the case with an early Superman story in which it’s fairly obvious the Man of Steel is competing in games based on the 1936 Munich Olympics (and needless to say humiliating the Master Race athletes), but they don’t actually use the name so it gets by.
Or we have the tactics in Meet Boston Blackie (1941) in which the villains are a spy network for a European power but it’s never spelled out exactly which. Of course they were certainly not Portuguese, but the movie didn’t target any specific nation or side in the war, so no big.
In Doc Savage’s Devil on the Moon (which I’ll be reviewing soon) from 1938 the plot involves an aggressive nation that recently invaded one of its weaker neighbors, while using a freelance spy group to whip up troubles in another unnamed nation’s colonies to keep it from intervening. It’s fairly obvious the first nation is Germany, and presumably the second would be Great Britain (I’m thinking the colonial problem would have been the India independence movement, but I don’t know for sure), but as no real nations were named, honor and neutrality are satisfied. (cover by James Bama, all rights to current holder)
It’s the same logic by which movies could show a prostitute (Dead End) or imply a suicide (Les Miserables) but as long as they didn’t spell it out (the woman is dressed as a hooker, but nobody says the word; Javert in Les Miserables is shown by the side of the water, then not there, but it doesn’t specifically say he drowned hmself), the production code didn’t crack down. In case you’re wondering, Hollywood was terrified the Catholic Church would condemn movie-watching as sinful, so the code was written with an eye to Catholic concerns. Ergo, no suicides.
If you read or watch a lot of stuff from the 1930s, sooner or later you’ll come across this sort of thing. The dam began cracking even before we got into the war (Captain America debuted months before pearl Harbor) and once we were in it, naming names was perfectly acceptable. After the war, movies about our enemies on the world stage (i.e., the Commies) were actively encouraged (or South Africa or China or whatever the bad guy of the day might be). And so it’s remained since.