The earliest instance of “truth, justice, and the American Way” that I can find is from Episode 331 of The Adventures of Superman, which aired in September of 1942, well after the United States had entered World War II. The Superman cartoons of Fleischer and then Famous Studios never adopted “truth, justice, and the American Way” at all, despite releasing new episodes well into 1943 (in fairness, that’s likely more because it allowed them to just re-utilize the same intro for each cartoon thus keeping costs down, but it’s still important to understand that “the American Way” was far from official doctrine for the character).
Once the war ended, “truth, justice, and the American Way” were dropped from the radio show’s intro. In fact, I can find no trace of the signature phrase by October of 1945, just a few short months after the end of the war.
As for the comics themselves, despite the fact that both Action Comics and Superman magazines were routinely putting patriotic, pro-war, and anti-fascist themes on their covers and in their stories all through World War II, as far as I can tell “truth, justice, and the American Way” never even makes an appearance on the page. But DC (then known as National Periodical Publications) was clearly intent on making sure their flagship characters were symbols of tolerance, producing public service messages where the Man of Steel or Batman would talk about the importance of welcoming refugees into your community, and speak out against religious and racial intolerance.
DC even partnered with the Institute for American Democracy and the National Social Welfare Assembly to produce posters and paper textbook covers for schools. And Superman’s idea of what made a school All-American? Well, see for yourself…
Truth, Tolerance, and Justice
The character’s very first appearance in live action, Columbia Pictures’ 1948 Superman serial starring Kirk Alyn, continued to omit “the American Way” and instead added something else to Superman’s mission. In the opening chapter, Pa Kent tells Clark that he must use his powers to fight for “truth, tolerance, and justice.”
While the Man of Steel’s conflict with underwhelming villain the Spider Lady in this serial was a far cry from the politically charged adventures like “The Hate Monger’s Organization” or “Clan of the Fiery Cross,” you can’t help but notice how appropriate “truth, tolerance, and justice” feels.