Stretching the world at the end of a war

ArticleA Newsmap from December 1945 shows how cartographic projection promoted the U.S. view of itself as a global power

Rachel Mead and Garrett Dash Nelson
December 30, 2020
940 words

One goal of our current exhibition, Bending Lines: Maps and Data from Distortion to Deception is to help you make sense of the maps that appear in the news. Although the number of maps produced every day has exploded with the rise of television and social media, older forms of publication also churned out maps at a formidable pace, using them to tell people about far-off wars or newsworthy phenomena at home.

The U.S. armed forces produced their very own periodical during World War II that emphasized the link between mapmaking and news in its title: Newsmap. We feature two issues of Newsmap in Bending Lines. But there are many more issues of this Newsmap that also show how clever cartographic tricks were used to spin the official perspective on world events.

This December 17, 1945 issue of Newsmap from the University of North Texas’s collections is a great example. It features an “unwrapped” globe, using an unfamiliar projection to highlight important elements of world events near the end of the war, at a time when the US was emerging as a superpower with global ambitions. “Never before has the United States been so active in world affairs,” reads the text.

Newsmap, December 17, 1945. University of North Texas

Newsmap, December 17, 1945. University of North Texas

The author of this map chose their layout very carefully. Like the influential polar projection promoted by Richard Edes Harrison which we discuss in Bending Lines, this particular flattening of the globe deliberately emphasizes a geography of warfare and politics that spans thousands of miles. “United States diplomacy already is engaged throughout the world in seeking solutions to complex postwar problems,” the caption reads, and it was at just this time that the United Nations was being formed as the institutional representation of this new global system.

The cities that this Newsmap describes as central to world events are mostly laid out along the same latitude, around the 40th parallel. In December of 1945, the war had ended and a dramatic reorganization of world affairs had begun. It was several months after the US bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing well over 100,000 people and introducing a type of weaponry which utterly reshaped the spatial reach of modern warfare. In the aftermath, the US occupied Japan and worked to demilitarize it, among other changes.

The capitals of the Allied powers are circled, along with Nuremberg, site of the Nazi trials

The capitals of the Allied powers are circled, along with Nuremberg, site of the Nazi trials

This period was also the beginning of the Nuremberg trials, bringing Nazi war criminals and collaborators to justice in Europe. Because of these and other events which the Newsmap publishers saw as the focus of the immediate postwar period, the Northern hemisphere—and the 40th parallel in particular—are the perspectival center of this map. This logic may have been somewhat circular; it was the countries of what we now call the Global North that had immolated themselves in a bloody and destructive conflict, and thus they considered themselves to be the most important players in the postwar order as well.

A note on the map explains the projection

A note on the map explains the projection

In small text at the bottom, the map gives a short lesson about map projection, noting that the projection shown here minimizes distortion at 40 degrees north. Newsmap often included material about geographic education, seeking to inculcate a sense of world-spanning knowledge in Americans that would equip them for a new national mission as the “global policeman.”

Much of the Southern Hemisphere is falling off the map, as this projection would have otherwise badly distorted shapes in southern latitudes

Much of the Southern Hemisphere is falling off the map, as this projection would have otherwise badly distorted shapes in southern latitudes

On the other hand, the continents below the equator are distorted and literally falling off the map, relegating these nations to a less important status. All map projections have some kind of distortion, either of size or shape of land and water, or some combination of both. It’s always important to note which parts of a map are represented accurately, and which are stretched and skewed.

The fact that South America and southern Africa are out of the frame is not surprising given the pro-western, Eurocentric nature of maps in the American press—and in particular those published by the military. The only point of interest to the mapmaker south of the equator is Uruguay. Along with Korea, Palestine, and Iran, the whole country is labeled rather than any specific city, unlike the circled points in Europe.

This view from 1945 anticipated the decolonial struggles which would, over the course of the next decades, see the liberation of dozens of nations from colonial rule. The U.S. wanted to promote itself as the guarantor of national independence, noting on this map that it had already scheduled the independence of its own colony in the Philippines and was insisting on the independence of Iran. Desperate to prevent the Soviet Union from courting the allegiances of colonized nations, the U.S. presented itself as a global power that wasn’t an empire—a topic which we discussed with Daniel Immerwahr last month.

In many ways, this map, with its bold title of “U.S. Role in World Affairs,” was a potent visual symbol of the way that the United States conceptualized the “American century” that had been ushered in by World War II. This was thus a map projection which was also a metaphorical projection—an imagination of U.S. foreign policy seen through a stretched-out globe.

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