THE CREEL COMMITTEE
The Committee on Public Information
March 1917, when United States entry into the war seemed inevitable
(the declaration came one month later), rumors circulated in Washington
that military leaders were again advocating censorship of the press.
Beginning in June 1916 President Woodrow Wilson's attorney general,
Thomas Gregory, had pushed for measures to punish members of the press
found guilty of espionage and strictly limit freedom of the press and of
speech. He tried again in February 1917, but on each occasion Congress
balked. The administration tried again following the declaration of war
and found the mood in Congress much more receptive. Newspaperman,
muckraker, and Wilson adviser George Creel sent the president a memo
urging a voluntary agreement with the press to control information
rather than the institution of formal censorship. Wilson agreed and
created the Committee on Public Information (CPI), with Creel as its
chairman. The other members of the committee would be the secretaries of
war, state, and the navy, who had themselves suggested such a committee
to the president on 13 April 1917, writing that Americans ought to be
"given the feeling of partisanship that comes with full, frank
statements concerning the conduct of the public business." Given Creel's
background as a crusader and his fiery temperament, many observers felt
that putting him in charge of rallying public opinion for the war was
most unwise. Wilson's stated fear—that once into war the American people
would "forget that there was ever such a thing as tolerance"—was
realized in part because of the work of the CPI. It prevented formal
censorship on the home front (not in the combat theater, where strict
censorship reigned) but raised serious questions about where the line
lay between public information and propaganda.
Expert Communication or Propaganda?
CPI organized a speaker's bureau of seventy-five thousand people, known
as the "Four-Minute Men." They traveled all over the country making
short speeches to rally the public for the war effort. By 1918 they were
being told to make liberal use of war atrocity stories in their
speeches. Creel recruited advertising experts and prominent journalists
such as Ida M. Tarbell, Ernest Poole, Ray Stannard Baker, and Will Irwin
to publish a daily newspaper with a circulation of one hundred
thousand, known as theOfficial Bulletin. A government wire
service supplied official information from all over the world. To some
observers Creel expertly mobilized every form of communication in the
cause of the war. To others he incited the "righteous wrath" of the
public against the "Hun" and the "Boche." Writer Raymond B. Fosdick (who
was also head of the Commission on Training Camp Activities) summarized
the attitude of the American people: "We hated with a common hate that
was exhilarating." Fosdick ob-served a church meeting where a speaker
demanded that the kaiser be boiled in oil, and the congregation rose to
feet in hysterical approval. Such spectacles chilled civil libertarians.
Pamphlets, Publications, and Movies
CPI regularly issued publications with titles such as "German War
Practices" and "The German Whisper," written as exposés of enemy
tactics. They certainly inflamed the public. At the outset of the
publicity campaign, the committee made films with innocuous titles such
as Our Colored Fighters and Pershing's Crusaders. By war's end they had turned to producing movies such as The Kaiser: The Beast of Berlin, and The Prussian Cur.
Creel sent the writer Lowell Thomas to Europe to collect stories that
could be used to stir appropriate sentiment. When the Western Front
proved too gory for good recruiting material, he went on to the Middle
East where T. E. Lawrence was fighting along with the Arabs against the
Turks. Thomas's romanticized dispatches about Lawrence helped to shape
one of the indelible myths to come from the war, that of Lawrence of
Arabia. Lawrence called Thomas, who grew rich off creating the legend,
"the American who made my vulgar reputation; a well-intentioned,
intensely crude and pushful fellow."
While avoiding formal censorship, the CPI's Official Bulletin
certainly blacked out information that did not reflect favorably on the
war effort. In the aftermath of the war the public and Congress grew
progressively more outraged over having been, as they saw it, "duped"
into war in the first place. Despite all the criticism Creel received
personally for his temper during the war, the CPI became far more
notorious as a source of foul and misleading propaganda after it had
been disbanded. When the United States mobilized for World War II,
President Franklin D. Roosevelt designed his public information policies
in large measure by trying not to duplicate the mission and the spirit
of the CPI.
THE FALSE ARMISTICE
Roy Howard, the president
of the United Press wire service, left Paris for Brest on 7 November
1918 to board an army transport for home. He knew that the warring
parties had worked out the terms of the armistice but had not yet
announced them. In Brest he found celebrations in the streets. Adm.
Henry B. Wilson, the commander of the U.S. Navy in France, showed Howard
a telegram from the U.S. embassy announcing the signing of the
armistice. With the admiral's permission, Howard immediately filed a
report to the United Press (UP).
The dissemination of the report
in the United States set off furious celebrations there as well, but
lacking further corroboration, many editors viewed it with caution.
Later that day the Associated Press reported that the Germans had not
yet agreed to the armistice terms. At about the same time a courier
reached Brest cautioning Adm. Wilson that the previous telegram could
not be confirmed. Wilson that the previous telegram could not be
confirmed. Wilson filed a correction, but the wires were jammed and it
did not get through for several more hours.
While the UP had acted
in good faith, indignation against the wire ran high, especially among
its competitors. The source of the erroneous telegram remains a mystery.
John Hohenberg, Foreign Correspondence: The Great Reporters and Their Times second edition (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1995).
George Creel, How We Advertised America (New York: Harper, 1920);
David Kennedy, Over Here: The First World War and American Society(New York: Oxford University Press, 1980);
Stephen Vaughn, Holding Fast the Inner Lines: Democracy, Nationalism, and the Committee on Public Information (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980).http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3468300537.html