Monday, November 15, 2010

American Propaganda in World War I

Words that Won the War, the Story of The Committee on Public Information,1917-1919, by James R. Mock and Cedric Larson, Princeton University Press, 1939.

In April 1918 the blockbuster film was not Tarzan of the Apes with Elmo Lincoln, or Mary Pickford in Amarilly of Clothesline Alley, but The Kaiser, the Beast of Berlin, a bloodcurdling film (now considered a lost film) that had theatre audiences raising the roof with hisses and boos. The film was not a spontaneous patriotic offering of the Hollywood stage but a manipulative piece of “hate” propaganda produced by the U.S. propaganda ministry “The Committee on Public Information” (CPI), which was active from 1917 to 1919. “Wild cheering marked every show when the young captain socked the Kaiser on the jaw… Street car signs were used; huge street banners swung over the crowds… and a truck paraded the streets with the Kaiser hanging in effigy and a big sign ‘All pro-Germans will be admitted free.’ None availed himself of the invitation.”

The Committee on Public Information, also known as the Creel Committee after its director, George Creel, a former cartoon gag writer, and founder of The Independent, strictly regulated the press and indoctrinated the American public through use of prepared news, pamphlets, books, cartoons, advertisements, movies, and lectures by Four-Minute Men throughout the country. The work of this massive “advertising agency” touched the lives of every man woman and child in the country, no matter how remote from the city they lived. George Creel held an unprecedented power in American life, he answered only to his close friend and president, Woodrow Wilson.

In the 1939 Preface to Words that Won the War the authors note that “France and England have become, at least for the time being, “totalitarian democracies,” and Americans ask themselves what may happen to this country if it is sucked into the maelstrom. As this book attempts to demonstrate, the advance of censorship power can be silent and almost unnoticed as wave follows wave of patriotic hysteria. If the record of the last war is to be taken, American resistance to repressive measures may not be great. The question arises whether, in the event of a new war, America would feel like indulging in the luxury of some “Creel Committee” to stand as buffer between military dictatorship and civil life.”

The CPI was created by Woodrow Wilson, with George Creel as civilian chairman, along with the Secretaries of State, War, and Navy. The censorship of news was “ironclad” and unlike Britain’s total censorship was, “voluntary,” although amendments to the Espionage Act gave the government powers to suspend any newspaper for 30 days for publishing any news of military operations. The newspapers complained but by the time America entered the war censorship of newspapers and magazines was absolute, every bit of war news was censored and controlled by the CPI.

The Advertising Division of the CPI provided advertisements for newspapers, magazines, farm papers, trade magazines, college papers, outdoor displays and theatre curtains. The leader of the Department of Pictorial Publicity was Charles Dana Gibson, Life magazine’s most popular artist, who worked at his own expense and mobilized the Society of Illustrators in the propaganda efforts of the war. They made public appearances and produced posters, murals, lithographs, prints, advertising art and cartoons. Every major illustrator in the United States worked under Gibson on pictorial publicity.

The Bureau of Cartoons was established 28 May, 1918, headed by Alfred M. Saperston at first, then succeeded by Gretchen Leicht. The unofficial supervisor was George J. Hecht, a non-salaried volunteer. The Bureau of Cartoons published the Weekly Bulletin for Cartoonists, mailed to 750 American cartoonists with suggested ideas and captions for cartoons.

One result of the propaganda war was that the innocent citizen suffered along with the guilty. A country-wide vigilante group worked under the protection of the Department of Justice. German Americans were one target, so were the Bolsheviks and the Wobblies. (Documented in a highly partisan book, The Web by Emerson Hough.) In the United States “The Katzenjammer Kids” title was changed to “The Captain and the Kids,” and in Canada “The Shenanigan Kids.”

The Bureau syndicated the war cartoons nationally through the Division of Syndicate Features, which called on the services of fifty leading writers including Booth Tarkington, Samuel Hopkins Adams, Rex Beach and Mary Roberts Rinehart. L. Ames Brown was the first director followed by western writer William Macleod Raine. In those pre-radio days the Four Minute Men were set up to speak nationally on CPI produced topics in movie theatres before every cinema attraction, many of which, documentary and entertainment, were produced by CPI’s Division of Films.

“The work, as a whole, was nothing more than an advertising campaign, Creel said after the war. He wrote his own account of the CPI titled How we Advertised America. The famous phrase war to end all wars, paraphrasing H. G. Wells, was a cynical slogan dreamed up in an advertising studio.

The CPI was reportedly disbanded at the end of the war. The amazing thing was that the CPI kept its work secret from the general public throughout the duration of that war. Every item of war news “had been censored somewhere along the line -- at the source, in transit, or in the newspaper office in accordance with “voluntary” news issued by the CPI.” At its basics the CPI was a huge advertising campaign aimed to mobilize hatred against the enemy(at home and abroad), preserve the friendship of allies, procure cooperation of neutrals, and demoralize the foe. The final result of all these labors was victory in the war, but also leads to the conclusion that the entire historical written and pictorial record from 1917 to 1918, American and allied news sources, books and cartoons, is useless to historical research except for the study of propaganda.

*Shenanigan Kids from the Montreal Standard, 1917.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, but things are different now. Efforts to manufacture public opinion in support of wars and repressive political agendas are anything but secret. However a majority of Americans welcome those efforts as expressions of patriotism while propaganda organs like Fox News are celebrated as "fair and unbiased."

    Sometimes it astonishes me how quickly Americans rush to sell their futures, their livelihoods, their property, their civil rights, and their children's lives to the lowest bidder. Then I remember that here "the past" has always meant "the last five minutes," and ignorance isn't just bliss, it's a national priority.