As anyone who has ever watched any sports broadcast can attest, nothing is more American than beer. Served ice-cold on a hot summer day. In tandem with baseball, perhaps, or maybe church. Better still — over Memorial Day weekend, or beneath fireworks on the goddamn Fourth of July.
The root of our beer-soaked nationalism is surprisingly recent. European immigrants brought brewing technologies (and, in some cases, lager yeast) on their pilgrimages to the New World, and indigenous Americans fermented corn into a beer-like drink called tiswin long before that. Our contemporary associations with cold beer and star-spangled swagger, however, originated during World War II.
Circa 1942, as American troops engaged in foreign theaters, a group called the Brewery Industry Foundation launched a series of advertisements that in no uncertain terms linked beer to patriotism. Under the banner,“Morale is a Lot of Little Things,” the campaign implored consumers to lift wartime spirits via simple, everyday acts. Namely, purchasing and consuming beer.
Cracking open a cold one, the ads hedge, improves your personal morale. In doing so, you aid the war effort! Giving your husband an extra-big kiss goodbye, helping someone named Little Sue carve a pumpkin, or sending V-mail letters are all similarly virtuous endeavors.
“A cool, refreshing glass of beer — a moment of relaxation … in trying times like these they too help keep morale up,” reads the meandering copy of one missive.
“Morale is a Lot of Little Things” effectively conveys the sorts of Rockwellian ideals that might inspire GIs living off cigarettes and C-rations to recall America as the land of plenty. Moreover, it encouraged American consumers to equate beer with nationalism — no small feat in 1942, just nine years after the repeal of Prohibition.
It also moved product. The campaign, coupled with a subsequent series called “Beer Belongs,” apparently increased American beer sales by two-thirds from 1940 to 1950. It’s worth noting that half of this decade was characterized by wartime austerity. During WW II, American rationing was such that posters reading “Food Will Win the War” were hung throughout communities, encouraging citizens to reduce consumption and allocate resources for soldiers.
To contemporary consumers, advocating increased alcohol use while many Allied civilians conserved appetites might seem counterintuitive, manipulative, or both. Nevertheless, “Morale is a Lot of Little Things” reportedly won praise from the U.S. Army, Navy, and Marine Corps.
Successive generations of American boosters followed suit. Labels such as Schlitz donated cases of beers to troops stationed in Vietnam, with estimated rations of two cans per soldier per day. “While we loved the Red Cross Donut Dollies and the little red Christmas bag with toothbrush and disposable razor from the Red Cross, the free beer was tops with us,” recalled A Modest Scribler, a blogger and retired Vietnam veteran in Phoenix, Arizona, in 2013.
According to one estimate, soldiers in Vietnam consumed approximately 32 million cans of beer each month. Those that were not donated were purchased at gargantuan logistics compounds beyond the front lines, totalling nearly $4 million of combat pay monthly.
“Active military personnel drink a lot of beer,” Matthew Phillips*, 29, an Army paratrooper currently stationed in northern Italy, wrote in a message. “After a long training rotation, you really need to blow off some steam.” He clarified that today’s soldiers are not given beers or permitted to drink while on duty.
Other annals of America’s beer-soaked patriotism include the vintage “This Scud’s for You” T-shirts currently available on eBay. A play on a popular 1979 Budweiser advertisement, “This Bud’s for You,” the maxim was a swaggering response to Saddam Hussein’s use of Scud missiles in the first Gulf War. “Most masculine associations in our culture have to do with the military in some way,” Phillips added.
Today, American beer companies market patriotism on the homefront. Budweiser issued a limited-edition fleet of camouflage-wrapped bottles last spring. Positioned as a tribute to the U.S. armed forces, the packaging replaced standard branding copy with verse from “The Star Spangled Banner” and “E Pluribus Unum.”
Budweiser also made a bid to capitalize on the 2016 Presidential election and Summer Olympics by briefly rebranding itself “America.” Budweiser vice president Ricardo Marques told Fast Company that the confluence of events made mid-2016 seem like “maybe the most American summer ever.”
The Washington Post’s opinion page noted that Budweiser’s parent company, Anheuser-Busch InBev, is based in Belgium and its CEO is Brazilian. Regardless, Anheuser-Busch InBev reported more than 1 billion earned impressions in the two days following the announcement on May 9, 2016. Then-candidate Donald Trump took credit for Budweiser’s America campaign, disregarding 75 prior years of nationalistic beer branding.
Ours is certainly not the only nation to celebrate beer heritage. Yet compared to the patrimonies of Belgium, Germany, or the Czech Republic, American beer culture is decidedly muscular.
Machismo, like morale, results from a lot of little things. Super Bowl commercials, Sam Elliott voice-overs, and generations of branding statements involving superlatives like “the most interesting man in the world” and “King of Beers.”
If Little Sue could see us now, would she recognize this nation of swashbuckling hop heads? Probably. From the Greatest Generation onward, American patriotism has fit neatly in a can.
* – Name has been changed.