This 7-page paper looks at the profound change in the attitude of the American people from the rigid isolationist sentiments of President Wilson’s first term, to the overwhelming support for the war in 1917 and 1918 is of course a function of many factors. But historians are nearly unanimous in the opinion that the propaganda efforts of Wilson’s CPI deserve a great portion of the credit for such a dramatic change in public opinion in so short a time.
As the Great War dragged on in Europe throughout 1914, 1915, and 1916, an overwhelming majority of the American people were determined to stay out of a war they saw as none of their affair. America was still strongly isolationist and deeply reluctant to become involved in the disputes of the outside world. President Wilson had just won reelection to a second term based in large part upon his policy of staying out of the great European war, and was perceived as unlikely to allow the republic to be dragged into the bloody fighting across the Atlantic.
But as events coalesced in 1917 a stark and threatening future appeared imminent. The Germans had just launched unrestricted submarine warfare in an effort to starve Great Britain into submission, the French armies appeared about to collapse, and Russia had dissolved in chaos and revolution. By early spring it had become increasingly clear to President Wilson and his advisers that the United States had no choice but to join the allied cause. If America didn’t come to the aid of the Allies Imperial Germany was certain to win, with dire consequences for the future of democracy.
When America finally entered the war on April 6, 1917, it was very clear in Washington that unwavering public support would be crucial to the success of the wartime effort. So, as Pratkanis relates, (1999) within a week of the declaration of war President Wilson created the Committee on Public Information to promote the war domestically while publicizing American war aims abroad. The CPI recruited heavily from the business, newspaper, and art worlds, and blended public relations techniques with a sophisticated understanding of human psychology to disseminate propaganda on an unprecedented scale.
The first task of the new organization was research. CPI staff were set to work gathering information about the war, particularly material regarding German activities. This process was rather simple, due to the abundance of newspaper, magazine, diplomatic, and military reports covering in great detail the nearly three years of fighting.
As Tucker explains, (1998) the objectives of the fledgling propaganda campaign were basically two-fold—to arouse enmity and hatred against the new enemy, and to rally public support for the war effort through appeals to patriotism; in order to achieve the United States government’s identified goals of increased enlistment, greater industrial production, purchase of war bonds, and other practical measures which would bring the war to a victorious conclusion.
As Keegan discusses, (1999) CPI planning discussions explored a number of options, but soon revolved around implementing a program which relied upon indirect messages rather than overt, logical arguments. CPI efforts would focus upon a strategy which included making calculated emotional appeals, demonizing Germany, linking the war to the goals of various social groups, and, when necessary, perpetrating outright lies.
To execute its propaganda efforts and achieve these objectives, the CPI planned and programmed a number of activities. Some of its most important and widely-distributed work was done by the Division of News, which distributed more than six-thousand press releases and acted as the primary source for war-related information. On any given week, more than twenty-thousand newspaper columns featured material taken directly from CPI handouts.
Due to effective evaluation techniques, CPI staff people quickly realized that many Americans only glanced at the front page and headed straight for the features pages, so they created the Division of Syndicated Features and recruited the help of leading novelists, short story writers, and essayists. According to Winter, (1989) these popular American writers presented the official line in a clear and understandable manner, and their work was read by an estimated twelve million people every month.
Another important department was The Division of Civic and Educational Cooperation, which relied heavily on academic figures who churned out propaganda pamphlets with titles such as The German Whisper, German War Practices, and Conquest and Kultur.
But the CPI did not limit its promotional efforts to the written word alone. Acting upon the principle that a picture is worth a thousand words, The Division of Pictorial Publicity recruited many of the most talented advertising illustrators and cartoonists of the time, and these artists worked closely with publicity experts in the Advertising Division to create and publish powerful illustrations that appealed to American patriotic instincts and portrayed the enemy as brutal and uncivilized. Newspapers and magazines donated so much advertising space, that it was almost impossible to pick up a periodical without encountering CPI material. In addition, emotionally powerful posters, painted in bright patriotic colors, were plastered on billboards all across the country.
As Ross (1996) explains, it was quickly realized that moving images were even more popular than still ones, and the Division of Films ensured that the war was promoted in the new industry of motion picture cinema. The film profession suffered at this time from a sleazy reputation, and film producers grasped eagerly for the respectability that lending wholehearted support to the war effort would bring them. Hollywood’s contributions had a decisive impact, as Paris explained, (2000) and every individual at work in the industry worked long hours to do their share because they appreciated the golden opportunity that had been handed to them, and understood that the audience they were appealing to would stay with them long after the war was over. Through the clever use of slides, film leaders and trailers, posters, and newspaper publicity, they spread the propaganda that was so necessary to the immediate mobilization of the country’s great resources. Movies with titles like The Kaiser: The Beast of Berlin, Wolves of Kultur, and Pershing’s Crusaders flooded American theaters.
Whether the medium was a newspaper, billboard, magazine, or movie, the efforts predominantly focused upon calculated emotional appeals, or tried and true tactics like demonizing the enemy. CPI propaganda typically appealed to the heart, not to the mind. Emotional agitation is a favorite technique of the propagandist, because any emotion may be drained off into any activity by skillful manipulation.
Ross (1996) provides an example of the technique of demonizing the enemy, which was typified by a widely distributed propaganda poster that portrayed an aggressive, bayonet-wielding German soldier above the caption “Beat Back The Hun With Liberty Bonds.” In this example, the emotions of hate and fear were redirected toward giving money to the war effort.
Perhaps the most effective propaganda technique used by the CPI was demonization of the enemy. The propagandists realized that the psychological resistance to war in modern nations was so great that every war must be made to appear to be a war of defense against a menacing, murderous aggressor. There could be no ambiguity about who the public was to hate. One widely used and effective strategy for demonizing Germans was the use of atrocity stories, which have been employed with unvarying success in every conflict known to man, largely because they trigger such a deeply felt, self-righteous indignation toward the enemy.
The CPI campaign also targeted specific groups with specially focused approaches. Emotional appeals and simplistic caricatures of the enemy influenced many Americans, but the CPI recognized that certain social groups had more complex propaganda needs. In order to reach intellectuals and pacifists, the CPI claimed that military intervention would bring about a democratic League of Nations and end warfare forever. With other social groups, the CPI modified its arguments, and interpreted the war as a conflict to destroy the threat of German industrial competition, which satisfied business groups; that it was to protect the American standard of living, which satisfied labor groups; that it was to remove certain baneful German influences in our education, which satisfied teachers; and that it was to preserve civilization, make the world safe for democracy, crush militarism, and establish the rights of small nations, which satisfied nationalist, religious and idealistic groups.
A continuing evaluation process was carried out through 1917 and 1918 to gauge the effectiveness of the massive campaign. With all the sophistication of a modern advertising agency, the CPI examined the different ways that information flowed to the population and flooded these channels with pro-war material. The CPI’s domestic division was composed of nineteen sub-divisions, each focusing upon a particular type of propaganda.
These sub-divisions worked hard and conducted exhaustive studies of the impact of various public relations and propaganda techniques on the American people. But evaluation of the effectiveness of movie-related efforts could also be rather easy at times. Pratkanis (1999) writes of one particular picture, To Hell With The Kaiser, that was so popular that Massachusetts riot police were summoned to deal with an angry mob that had been denied admission. When something so dramatic occurs, when people will fight each other for the chance to see a propaganda product, it is readily evident that a masterful public relations campaign is being conducted.
Any critique of the Committee for Public Information’s propaganda campaign during the First World War can only conclude that the efforts of the men and women of CPI were very effective. The research phase was personally directed with diligence and thoroughness by George Creel, the muck-raking filmmaker picked by President Wilson to head CPI. A capable staff was hired and expanded with intense regard for their mastery of the psychology of the American public, and knowledge of public relations techniques. Objectives were identified with decisiveness and dispatch and immediate measures taken to attain them. CPI was organized in an efficient manner which maximized the administrative skills of its department managers and provided for the flexibility in decision-making at all levels which characterizes an effective, responsive organization.
The planning phase went smoothly, guided again by George Creel, who motivated his people with frequent encouragement and constant focusing on what they were going to do. This hands-on management carried through into the execution and programming of the campaign. CPI staffers always knew what they were expected to do, what was being done at any given time,
and what was being planned next.
Evaluation meetings consistently measured the effectiveness of CPI’s various techniques,
fine-tuned those that were not as successful as had been hoped, and increased the frequency
or scale of the techniques which were proving very effective.
As Winter explains, (1989) The profound change in the attitude of the American people from the rigid isolationist sentiments of President Wilson’s first term, to the overwhelming support for the war in 1917 and 1918 is of course a function of many factors. But historians are nearly unanimous in the opinion that the propaganda efforts of Wilson’s CPI deserve a great portion of the credit for such a dramatic change in public opinion in so short a time.
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Keegan, John. (1999). The First World War. New York: Knopf.
Paris, Michael. (2000). The First World War and Popular Cinema: 1911 to the
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Pratkanis, Anthony R. (1999). Age of Propaganda: The Everyday Use and Abuse of Persuasion. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company.
Rollins, Peter C. and O’Connor, John E. Hollywood’s World War One: Motion Picture Images. Bowling Green: Bowling Green University Press.
Ross, Stewart Halsey. (1996). Propaganda For War: How the United States Was Conditioned To Fight the Great War of 1914-1918. Boston: McFarland & Company.
Tucker, Spencer C. (1998). The Great War 1914-18. Indianapolis: Indiana
Winter, J. M. (1989). The Experience of World War I. New York: Oxford