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George Creel and The Committee on Public Information

George Creel, a progressive journalist who in 1916 was heavily involved in Woodrow Wilson’s reelection campaign was named to head the Committee on Public Information created April 12, 1917, only 6 days after The United States formally declared war.

“The publicity bureau was created by executive order and sought to be a clearinghouse for information on government activities that would mobilize the propagandistic skill of artists, intellectuals, journalists, and other media professionals from around the country.” [1]

Walter Lippmann was instrumental in laying out the specifics of the plan for the bureau that included rallying “a wide range of communication specialists, including people working in the motion picture industry to support the war effort. He also advocated intelligence functions for the bureau that would monitor foreign press and track down rumors and lies. The bureau, he felt, would be able to advertise the war as one to “make the world safe for democracy”[2].

Why Was WWI Propaganda Needed?

Prior to the United States entering the war, there existed a conscious and articulate political opposition, typified by the Poem “Red Feast” penned by Ralph Chaplin, a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW)

Tear up the earth with strife
And give unto a war that is not yours;
Serve unto death the men you served in life
So that their wide dominions may not yield.
Stand by the flag-the lie that still allures;

Lay down your lives for land you do not own,
And spill each other’s guts upon the field;
Your gory tithe of mangled flesh and bone.
But whether in the fray to fall or kill
You must not pause to question why nor where.
You see the tiny crosses on that hill?
It took all those to make a millionaire.

“Working -class and radical organizations, pacifists, anarchists and many socialists, maintained that this was noting but a “rich man’s war”. [3]

WWI Propaganda Posters, WWI Propaganda films And More

George Creel built a wide sweeping propaganda apparatus with the help of advertising agencies “that, in scope and conception, transcended anything that had previously existed”… To achieve the ideological mobilization of an entire nation and to sell America’s vision of the war globally, an extensive fabric of persuasion would have to be knit.” [4]

“How could the national emergency be met without national unity?” Creel inquired rhetorically. “ The printed word, the spoken word, motion pictures, the telegraph, the wireless, poster, signboards, and every possible media should be used to drive home the justice of America’s cause.”

Propaganda Goal: impregnate the entire fabric of perception with the message of the war.

Here are WWI Propaganda examples of this extensive apparatus…

Propaganda Techniques

Division of News– channeled press releases through the mail and telegraph wires 24 hours/day

Syndicated human interest feature pieces were also distributed

Foreign News Division- Offices in over 30 countries distributed “news” internationally

Published its own newspaper “Official Bulletin” targeting public officials, other newspapers and any agency that distributed information

Advertising Division created hundreds of advertisements and billboards pressuring newspapers to devote free space for the CPI

Division of Pictorial Publicity- volunteer artists, painters, sculptors, designers, illustrators and cartoonists were conscripted for the cause.

Division of Films-maintained a “scenario” department which drafted story outlines that were given to film producers for feature film production and distribution. The end products were Pershing’s Crusaders, America’s Answer, Under Four Flags.

Academics- conscripted to write “authoritative” pamphlets on behalf of the war effort.

Division of Four Minute Men-CPI enlisted support of local leaders, businessmen or professional men, to give speeches in extemporaneous settings to local communities with whom they had influence. They were given detailed guidelines and sample speeches that included specific information or ideas to be conveyed.

Junior Four-Minute men- held speaking competitions for elementary and secondary schools.

National School Service Bulletin– provided teachers with topics for regular classroom discussion.

Smothering Dissent

Censorship is of course another propaganda technique.

“Part and parcel of the committee’s success in mobilizing America’s intellectual and curative resources for war was the simultaneous establishment of an ambience of censorship, calculated to discourage or punish impure thought.”[5]

Policing function- Four Minute men were encouraged to identify, interrogate and even report people in their communities who expressed antiwar sentiment.

Espionage Act (1917) upheld censorship of ideas considered deleterious to the war effort Sedition Act (1918) -made any criticism of the Wilson’s administration illegal.

Sample Four-Minute man Speech

While we sit here tonight, enjoying a picture show, are you aware that thousands and thousands of people in Europe–People not unlike ourselves-are languishing in slavery under Prussian masters? If we are not vigilant, their fate could be ours.

Now, then, do you folks here in Portland want to take the slightest chance of meeting Prussianism here in America? If not, then you’ll have to participate in summoning all the resources of this country for the giant struggle. in addition to buying Thrift Stamps, and War-Savings Stamps to support our boys overseas, we must also hold fast the lines here at home.

To do this, we must remain alert. We must listen carefully to the questions that our neighbors are asking, and we must ask ourselves whether these question could be subverting the security of our young men in uniform. You have heard the questions:

Is this a capitalists’ war?

Was America deliberately pushed into the war by our captains of industry, for money-making purposes?

Are the rich coining blood into gold while the poor are taking on the greater burden?

Take heed. These questions are not innocent. They can not be ignored.

These are questions constantly whispered by German sympathizers, openly asked by many others who simply do not understand. Our response to these questions is plain.

Our democratic system of income tax insures that the rates paid by those who are most well-off are greeter than those rates paid by Americans who are less well–off. Tell those who ask such questions, that all Americans are sacrificing to defeat Prussianism, to make the world safe for democracy.

When you hear such questions, take heed. Do not wait until you catch someone putting a bomb under a factory. Report the man who spreads pessimistic stories, or who asks misleading questions, or who belittles our efforts to win the war. Send the names of such persons–even if they are in uniform-to the Department of Justice in Washington. Give all the details you can, with names of witnesses if possible.

Show the Hun that we can beat him at his own game. For those of you who are concerned for your own, or your family’s safety, I can assure you that the fact that you made a report will never become public. Make the world safe for democracy! Hold fast the lines at home! [6]

Imagine What They Can Do Now?

If you are more than a little bit surprised at the magnitude of effort, organization and rhetoric used to sell the First World War you are not alone. WWI stands as the first comprehensive propaganda example that the world has known.

George called the efforts of the Committee on Public Information ” a plain publicity proposition, a vast enterprise in salesmanship, the world’s greatest adventure in advertising.” [7]

The committee on Public Information was disbanded soon after the end of the war but the knowledge of mass persuasion techniques gleaned during this era would be harnessed by political and corporate leaders forever going forward and would profoundly change the landscape of civic life in the republic. Public attitudes could now be manufactured with almost as much precision as physical items. There was no more need for reason and discourse, slow and tedious methods of persuasion.

Do you seriously think that after witnessing the incredible power that coordinated campaigns could have on public attitudes that men of power would summon them only once to support the first world war and cease to use them again?

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Sources used for this article include:

[1-6] Ewen, Stuart. PR!: A Social History of Spin. New York: Basic, 1996. Print.

[7] Creel, George. How We Advertised America; the First Telling of the Amazing Story of the Committee on Public Information That Carried the Gospel of Americanism to Every Corner of the Globe. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1920. Print.

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