Wartime Propaganda: World War I
The Drift Towards War
Lead this people into war, and they’ll forget there was ever such a thing as tolerance. To fight, you must be brutal and ruthless, and the spirit of ruthless brutality will enter into the very fiber of national life, infecting the Congress, the courts, the policeman on the beat, the man in the street.
It is one of history’s great ironies that Woodrow Wilson, who was re- elected as a peace candidate in 1916, led America into the first world war. With the help of a propaganda apparatus that was unparalleled in world history, Wilson forged a nation of immigrants into a fighting whole. An examination of public opinion before the war, propaganda efforts during the war, and the endurance of propaganda in peacetime raises significant questions about the viability of democracy as a governing principle.
Like an undertow, America’s drift toward war was subtle and forceful. According to the outspoken pacifist Randolph Bourne, war sentiment spread gradually among various intellectual groups. With the aid of Roosevelt, wrote Bourne, the murmurs became a monotonous chant, and finally a chorus so mighty that to be out of it was at first to be disreputable, and finally almost obscene. Once the war was underway, dissent was practically impossible. If you believed our going into this war was a mistake, wrote The Nation in a post-war editorial, if you held, as President Wilson did early in 1917, that the ideal outcome would be ‘peace without victory,’ you were a traitor. Forced to stand quietly on the sidelines while their neighbors stampeded towards war, many pacifists would have agreed with Bertrand Russell that the greatest difficulty was the purely psychological one of resisting mass suggestion, of which the force becomes terrific when the whole nation is in a state of violent collective excitement.
This frenzied support for the war was particularly remarkable in light of the fact that Wilson’s re-election had been widely interpreted as a vote for peace. After all, in January of 1916, Wilson stated that so far as I can remember, this is a government of the people, and this people is not going to choose war. In retrospect, it is apparent that the vote for Wilson cloaked profound cleavages in public opinion. At the time of his inauguration, immigrants constituted one third of the population. Allied and German propaganda revived old-world loyalties among hyphenated European- Americans, and opinions about US intervention were sharply polarized. More than 8 million German-Americans lived in this country, and many were sympathetic to the cause of their homeland. Meanwhile, anti-German feeling was strong among the upper classes on the Atlantic coast, and was particularly intense among those with social and business connections to Britain.
The Committee on Public Information
The absence of public unity was a primary concern when America entered the war on April 6, 1917. In Washington, unwavering public support was considered to be crucial to the entire wartime effort. On April 13, 1917, Wilson created the Committee on Public Information (CPI) to promote the war domestically while publicizing American war aims abroad. Under the leadership of a muckraking journalist named George Creel, the CPI recruited heavily from business, media, academia, and the art world. The CPI blended advertising techniques with a sophisticated understanding of human psychology, and its efforts represent the first time that a modern government disseminated propaganda on such a large scale. It is fascinating that this phenomenon, often linked with totalitarian regimes, emerged in a democratic state.
Although George Creel was an outspoken critic of censorship at the hands of public servants, the CPI took immediate steps to limit damaging information. Invoking the threat of German propaganda, the CPI implemented voluntary guidelines for the news media and helped to pass the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918. The CPI did not have explicit enforcement power, but it nevertheless enjoyed censorship power which was tantamount to direct legal force. Like modern reporters who participate in Pentagon press pools, journalists grudgingly complied with the official guidelines in order to stay connected to the information loop. Radical newspapers, such as the socialist Appeal to Reason, were
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Wartime Propaganda: World War I