Robert Kennedy's United States History Class
Lecture LO III
Learning Objective III
Discuss the development of propaganda and suspension of civil liberties during the war.
Until the advent of the Cold War in the 1950s, America traditionally maintained a relatively small standing army. Whenever war broke out, it was necessary for the country to mobilize—to recruit (and sometimes draft) troops, to train them, and to produce the arms, equipment, and supplies needed to fight. In other words, the US needed bodies, money, and time.
When Congress and the President declared war on Germany in April, mobilization took on extreme urgency. The government’s overarching task was to persuade Americans to invest in the war, both financially and emotionally. The financial contributions would be made by purchasing war bonds—loans to the federal government to be repaid at some future date, with modest interest. The emotional investment meant believing in the cause and demonstrating that belief through volunteer service (men for the military, women for the nurse corps), displays of patriotism, and through shared sacrifice.
To accomplish this feat, the U.S. government in 1917 felt compelled to promote a singular message, and to stifle any opposing message. The latter was done through new laws that put constitutionally questionable limits on free expression, and is discussed in another next section. The former—putting out a singular message, was done primarily through new government organizations, especially the Committee on Public Information, and the U.S. Food Administration.
George Creel was by all accounts a man of two faces. In private, he was personable, funny, and gregarious, one of the best story-tellers of his day, a truly likeable personality. In public, however, Creel was something of a berserker. His public speeches were so bellicose and bitter that once he was said to have been shocked to read in the newspaper the next day what he had said. Too outspoken and tactless, even his critics had to admit that Creel had energy and imagination. Although Congress authorized a budget of $1,250,000, Creel was heavily subsidized by the chief executive’s “President’s fund”. With near limitless cash at his disposal, Creel soon cranked up a massive propaganda machine.
Since the Great War took place before the advent of electronic mass media (which started with radio only a few years after the war), Creel relied heavily on visual forms of media. Posters were especially effective. An army of artists “rallied to the colors,” as Creel put it, and were put to work under the “Division of Pictorial Publicity”. Artists such as James Montgomery Flagg, Charles Dana Gibson, Harrison Fisher, and Joseph Pennell churned out patriotic works that even today are artistically stunning. (The patriotic efforts of artists were also evident on the huge catalog of songs published by private music companies during the war in the form of sheet music). Flagg’s iconic Uncle Sam “I Want You” poster remains today one of the most recognized patriotic images in America.
Creel also mobilized America’s advertising industry, including newspapers, magazines, and public advertising. Although the country had just absorbed some 13 million immigrants during the previous two decades, Creel’s campaign was calculated to reach anyone who could understand a picture. And they were everywhere—on billboards, the walls of subway stations, the sides of barns, anywhere an American might travel. Creel referred to his ad campaign as the “battle of the fences.” Creel also made effective use of the presses. Millions of pro-war, pro-Wilson leaflets, pamphlets, and propaganda booklets found their way into American homes, often written by historians and college professors.
Creel’s use of visuals extended to photographic media. He organized a motion picture division and created propaganda films with titles like, “Pershing’s Crusaders,” “America’s Answer,” and “Under Four Flags.” Hollywood took up the cause and was soon producing its own propaganda, and some of the biggest stars of the silent era promoted the Liberty Loan drives at huge public rallies. Creel expanded into still images and eventually sent thousands of photographs to newspapers and companies that made stereoview cards.
In an era when audiences still highly prized public oratorical skills, Creel created an army of 75,000 “four-minute” men (presumably an allusion to the minutemen of the American revolution), who delivered hundreds of patriotic speeches. Initially, these speakers performed at the new mass media phenomenon of the movie theater, where a still slide was shown on the curtain announcing the performance. Soon the service was expanded to reach audiences at lodge meetings, union halls, grange-meetings, churches, Sunday schools, synagogues, even lumber camps. Native American reservations, according to Creel, provided some of the most receptive audiences. The 4-minute men speeches often focused on a specific need. In the spring of 1917, When the bill to create the
military draft was in jeopardy, the minute men focused their energies on “Universal Service by Selective Draft”. At other times it was the Red Cross, the Farm and Garden initiative, Food Conservation, and selling Liberty Bonds. Once, Treasury Secretary McAdoo had President Wilson buy a $50 bond, and then Creel sent the 4-minute men around the country to challenge each American to match it. According to Creel’s own statistics, the 4-minute men delivered 7,555,190 speeches to a total audience of 314,454,514.
Given that the total population of the country was around 103,000,000, each American heard an average of 3 speeches during the 19-month war effort.
Creel also marshaled the country's musical talent. He personally prepared a list of songs designed to incite patriotism, and appointed a corps of band-leaders to take charge of motion picture theater orchestras (which, during the era of silent film, often played the film’s score “live” with each viewing of the film) and audiences. Finally, recognizing the need to promote the war effort as an Allied cause, Creel enlisted public speakers from France and England, including war heroes, to tour the country and give speeches to their American brethren.
And Creel’s propaganda did not end at ocean’s shore. His apparatus reached out to encompass all of Europe in what some of his subordinates called “selling America to the World.” He did so by inundating the continent with the speeches and ideas of his boss, President Woodrow Wilson. He specifically targeted the German people, overcoming efforts by the Kaiser to restrict the flow of ideas coming out of America.
By the end of the war 150,000 workers were engaged in Creel’s formidable “enterprise in salesmanship”. Was all of this propaganda effective? To answer the question, consider the words of Secretary of War Newton Baker. Speaking in retrospect after the war, Baker described the overall effect of the Committee on Public Information as “mobilizing the mind of the world.”