Selling the Great War:

The Making of American Propaganda


By Alan Axelrod


Palgrave Macmillan

New York, NY




X The Committee on Public Information (CPI) was created in April 1917 and dissolved June 30th, 1919.




George Creel was born Dec 1st, 1876 in Missouri.  He was surrounded by Southern colonels.  This implanted the truth in him that versions mattered more than facts.  1 - And, that “To create a persuasive verion of the facts was, therefore, to create history, and history, Creel believed, exerted a more powerful hold on people, shaping their sentiments, forming their loyalties, and promoting their actions.”


3 – By the time George was born, his father was on the way to bankruptcy and a terrible alcoholic. 


4 - His mother was classically educated filled Creel with enthusiasm for ancient and modern history. 


5 – From one biography book he learned IDEALISM.  Mingled with romance, realism, and the lure of a good story, idealism would drive a zeal for reform . . . Wilson was the ultimate idealist.


7 – When a teacher abused him, Virginia Creel took her son out of school and home-schooled him.


8 – His career consisted mostly of newspaper writing and editing.   


9 – He fought his way to NYC where he finally got a gig writing jokes.  Then he got some success as a comic writer.


12 – He made his was back to Kansas where he backed a certain candidate and became a muckraker.




One crusade had him using neighborhood schools as social and political centers for adults.


16 – His career, varied as it was, was always about moving the masses.  He went from yellow journalism to political journalism to being a publicist for Wilson.


17 – He ran a series about medical fraud.  But, whenever his enthusiasm dipped he hooked onto a “character.”


18- They set upon redeeming the world with university militant movement.  They were going to have a ‘Newsbook’ unmoved by profit.  A university of the people.


19 – It was a monumental flop. 


20 – He pulled, though, his old paper back from insolvency.


21 – He repeatedly, “found myself agreeing” with charismatic people.


Then another character had a dream of a train to Mexico.  That took him away.  They went to Mexico and met Porfirio Diaz.  The poverty freaked him out. 


Then two brothers sent him on a publishing crusade and a new Citizen’s Party. 


He moved to NY and got a job covering Midwest demagogues.  But, he never became a Greenwich Village NY sophisticate.  But, he hug with the libs like Goldman and Big Bill Haywood.

28 - Wanting to take on utilities he went to Denver.  When he unseated Big Mitt, Creel was tapped to be Police Commissioner.   But he made unpopular moves, cops couldn’t have billy clubs and the IWW could meet in Denver.


29 – He made a home to rehab prostitutes.    There he hired Josephine Roche.  This led to a crusade against STDs.


30 – Creel saw the individual and social good as one. This was the core behind all effective propaganda: self-interest and social purpose. 


31 – In Nov 1911 he married Blanche Bates, who was a nationally famous actress.  Not only not rich, when Creel attacked Big Mitt, they were socially ostracized.





In 1913 he left Denver to make some real money.  He started writing about Wilson.


34  - For Creel, the content of Wilson’s message was less important than its emotional and spiritual effect.


35 – Before leaving Denver, the Ludlow massacre had happened and so Creel organized 10,000 on the capital lawn. 


36 - He said bad things about Rockefeller. But,  by then Rockefeller had a secret weapon  - Ivy Ledbetter Lee, who with George Parker, founded, in 1904, the third PR firm in the US. 


37 – Famously, Lee told Rockefeller, “tell the truth, because sooner or later people will find out. And, if they don’t like it, change your policy to be in line with what people want.” (in fact, Lee manufactured this quote to promote his image and Rockefeller’s).


Lee flooded Colorado with a pamphlet entitled ‘facts’ full of lies.  It’s failure taught Creel that the truth was important.


38 – Creel realized he wasn’t so much a journalist as much as an activist / advocate.


For Creel, there were two types: skunks and the greatest men who ever lived.


From 1914 on he became more of a crusader. 

39 - Arthur Brisbane hired him to write the autobiography (J) of Jess Willard, the 6’71/2’’ white who knocked out Jack Johnson after 26 brutal rounds.  The work was to inspire the youth via Willard’s clean living. 


40 – There was only one problem . . . and the evils of liquor were to be included along side many things Willard ‘must have done.’


42 – The shooting that started WW I is a good lesson on globalism (treaties) versus localism (the shooting). 


44 – Though Wilson and we were neutral, dealing with the allies was a better business deal. We had loaned 2.5 billion to them and only 45 million to Germany. 


As part of Wilson’s re-election campaign Creel was hired and used popular figures like Edison to shore up Wilson’s neutrality.  Edison also gave him a good tag line, “Wilson blunders, but he always blunders forward.”


He then was to rehab a Wilson cabinet member who banned alcohol in the navy.   He used the Surgeon General who cited lots of court martial’s for drunkenness and that the law was already in existence, only now being enforced. 


48 - As the War started, Creel’s position on the war turned 180.  How?  He was dedicated to Wilson.  He considered it a test of self-government.


49 - Propaganda of truth undermines baseless rumors that the crowd spreads.   But the author, Axelrod, says propaganda is not people thinking for themselves.   And, it was self-serving of Creel to always see his side as having the truth and the other being treasonous.  But, it was idealistic, not cynical in origin.


50 – Wilson was against the military solving every dispute, his was a fight for a rational and just civilization. A war to end war. 


51 – Creel marshaled some facts and left others out.  He attributed America’s lack of preparedness to ‘yellow journalism.’  It was not.


52 – In his book, Wilson and the Issues, Creel contrasted Hysteria with Facts!


53 – Creel used the same soaring rhetoric to back Wilson’s neutrality as to advocate war.  It is mind boggling.





Why did Wilson change?  The Lusitania was functioning as a military cargo ship.


58 – But Wilson’s attempts at mediation were not working. 


59 – Then U-Boat aggression moved him to “armed neutrality.” Then the Zimmerman note.


60 – When Wilson decided, he was worn down and had to fight with himself.


61 – He thought it odd that people applauded his declaration of war. It is a declaration of death for our young men. 


63 – Creel liked the phrase ‘white-hot mass’ and ‘war-will’  He had to instill the universal “conviction that the war was not the war of an administration, but the war of one hundred million people.”  That understanding needing to be popular justified not calling his bureau a ministry or department or bureau of propaganda, but a “committee for public information.’


64 – Unity was not foregone as we had more Germans than any place outside of Germany.  Until late 1916 many ‘bund’ groups donated to Germany and supported the war effort.   The Irish were into anyone fighting their enemy, Britain.


Wilson was not the first censor. Adams signed the Alien and Sedition act of 1798.  Lincoln suspended habeas corpus.  But, Wilson did sign the Espionage act and tradition with the enemy act and sedition act.    

Creel said he dissuaded Wilson from censorship, but, he kind of didn’t. 


65 – In Creel’s words, Germany was, though, ‘autocracy’, and we were ‘democracy.’


Creel’s argument against censorship was it would be impossible to enforce, it would not reign in big paper’s bold infractions and it would lead to abuse of power .  But it also creates a vacuum that rumor fills. 

66 - We need, ‘expression, not suppression.’  We needed to flood the media with positive media useful   We needed this because people were still isolationist and some saw this as a rich man’s war. 

67 – We needed “propaganda in the true sense of the word, meaning ‘propagation of faith.’


68 – But Creel did wield prosecution / reporting powers.  And, his fine line was symptomatic of a democracy. 


69 – And, once the war was announced, most German-American societies rushed to show their loyalty to the US.


71 – Laws did allow suppression of false reports or statements with intent to interfere with the war effort.  2,000 cases were prosecuted under this Espionage bill.


72 – Creel was a member of the censorship board.


73 – An amendment punished work slowdowns. The CPI was not so much an alternative to censorship as an alternative form of censorship. 


75 – But, our “first and only ministry of propaganda would prove to be an enterprise of great inventiveness and boundless exuberance, yet also of thoughtful deliberation and remarkable integrity.”





CPI’s mission was to oversee a program of voluntary censorship and flood the media with official news. 


81 – It was a small office.  Creel saw himself as the nation’s cheerleader.


82 – Brainwashing is a term that did not come into the English language until the 1950s.


83 – Elmer Davis ran the Office of War Information during WW II.  In WW II there were many more agencies.  CPI starting from scratch meant they could control much. 


The small staff left private life for CPI and worked day and night. 


Some newspapers at Creel’s editor’s meeting chaffed at voluntary censorship.  But, his guidelines were mostly about not leaking info that could help the enemy.  So, this was largely understandable. 


91 – Creel fought to get reporters ‘embedded’ in the War effort.   Having so many reporters met with military resistance. But, Creel wanted coverage. 

And, he did not only censor, but supply content.  A lot of it was haphazard.  The Gibson girl guy set up the Division of Pictorial Publicity and Donald Ryerson the 4  - minute men.


92 – There was a domestic and a foreign section.


The foreign newspaper section monitored foreign language papers in the US as well as giving foreign papers content in their language. 


93 - There was also the Division of Civic Educational Cooperation by Guy Stanton Ford – a distinguished historian.  And, The National School Service for schools.  And, a film division.  As well as the Bureau of War Expositions.


94 – There was a weekly bulletin for cartoonists, to ‘guide’ political cartoonists in making cartoons helpful to the war effort.


There was also an advertising bureau. 


95 – There was a  division of  Women’s War Work which created and distributed news stories and other info relating to the role of women in the war.   They wrote 50,000 letters to women answering questions. 


There was also a Division of Work with the Foreign Born. 


The Foreign section was smaller than the domestic one.





During the progressive days, Creel was a solid trustbuster. 


Yet, the Espionage Act left him America’s most visible judge and censorship enforcer.


98 – Even before the Espionage Act, an April 25th, 1917 directive told local postmasters to report suspicious characters and utterances.    Wilson clamped down on radio too.


100 – The Press may have been ambivalent because even though they agreed to voluntary censorship, Wilson continued to push for more censorship. 


101 – Creel continued to insist that only info that would help Berlin was verboten.


102- He said some info was Dangerous, some Questionable and some Routine.  Dangerous was military secrets.  Questionable was vague.  An epidemic outbreak at a camp, for example.  Routine needed no prior approval.


104 – Creel, all knew, had the ear of the justice department and could suggest prosecutions. $10,000 and 20 years in prison were fines.


105 – There was no more room for a ‘scoop’.  War news was common property, calling for common issuance.


106 – They wanted to create what has come to be called ‘buy-in’ from papers.  And, Creel swore prominent newspaper men into government service. 


The trouble with conventional censorship is that it created a vacuum.  The CPI provided info that kept the American public full. 


107 – Creel wanted good as well as bad news to be published.  He knew from his early crusading days that trust required that reporters eschew the slightest trace of bias.  It was to be seen as a government news bureau, not a press agency.  His ‘spin’ would come from an absence of an appearance of ‘spin.’ (to use modern language).


108  - This was sold to the US media as a great time saver for them. And, it allowed independent investigation.  But, small town papers had no access to global reporting, so the CPI provided lots to choose from.  No one had to subscribe to this service, yet more than 12,000 papers did. 


111 – The CPI battled to have more correspondents in Europe.  And, they fought to have full id of those wounded available to papers. 


112 – For all the suspicion, the nation’s papers came to rely on the CPI. 


The whole debt of the CPI was below 77 thousand.  It was ridiculously cheap.



PAGE 113


There were 75,000 four-minute men (4mm).


114 – 4 minutes was the time it took to change a reel, when showing a feature length film. 


It took Creel ten minutes to make Ryerson the head of the 4mm. 


115 – Creel wore many hats, he was not a philosopher. He used the word propaganda quasi-religiously, gathering and disseminating facts for propagating truth among the faithful.


Edward L. Bernays enters!  He was the dean of PR by the start of WW I. 


116 – Foreign born, it took months for the military intelligence to clear him. 

As the editor of the Medical Review of Reviews, he led a campaign to get women to abandon their corsets for health.  Advertisers should NOT appeal directly to people, they should appeal to experts – doctors. This use of experts was propaganda. 


118 - He promoted a play that was against corsets in the name of doctors.


119 – Bernay defined propaganda as “a consistent, enduring effort to create or shape events to influence the relations of the public to an enterprise, idea or group.”


He was not central to CPI, but the best theorist.


120 - Creel and Ryson made the Councils of Defense for each state. COD.


The 4mm position was sought after.  It gave one authority, recognition. 


121 – There was a 4 mm bulletin.  Bernays called propaganda, the regimenting of the public mind.  But, there was little regimenting among the 4mm.


122 – People did not read speeches, they look like and were, people who spoke their mind.  Members of the community expressing ideas the community already felt.


To get them to connect with the audience, the 4mm were advised to get their friends to criticize them pitilessly.  


123 - They really had to stay under 4 minutes and were advised to be of the community, if not just a tad ahead.  They could not speak down to anyone.  Slogans were avoided.


124 – They gave over 7.5 million speeches.


125 – There were contests for best junior speaker in over 200,000 schools.  Many speeches were delivered in foreign languages.


126 – To avoid many cooks demanding theater time, these 4mm were made official reps of the US government.


One problem was turnover as many speakers and leaders, Ryerson included, went overseas to fight.


128 – When people complained that the CPI was a partisan organization paid for out of Wilson’s appropriation, Creel went to Congress and fought for funds. This shut critics up.  It was brave.


129 – Creel was alarmed by the anti-German tone erupting.  The 4mm were to avoid promoting illegal acts of discrimination and talk against ‘foreigners.’


130 - “No hymn of hate accompanies our message.”  Still some pushed the envelop and spoke of German spies.


131 – By 1917 the US was called a nation of salesman.  So the 4mm was a familiar icon.


132 – Fuller brushes were big and AIDA: Attention, Interest, Desire, Action was a widely known acronym. 


133 – This propaganda was born of the culture of salesman.  And, they did not put their sales pitch in terms of cost, but of value.


134 – Whereas the SS propaganda made no one feel like a civilian and everyone feel paramilitary, the 4mm worked in America’s decentralized culture, but we were to feel a tad like an army – for a time.



PAGE 135


Charles Dana Gibson, creator of the Gibson Girl, got Creel’s telegram asking him for help, ½ way through a gathering of illustrators asking what they could do to aid in the war effort.


136 – He was joined by Howard Chandler Christy, creator of the Christy girl.   The Christy girl is more conventionally feminine. 


137 – Gibson was so famous he could draw other illustrators.


139 - Ultimately he gathered 279 artists and 33 cartoonists, including N.C. Wyeth. 


140 – Washington was so bad he found himself begging Congress for the right to submit art.


141 – These images were to trigger emotion. And, to depict the spiritual side of the fight.


143 – Some showed ostracism of the non-helper.  Liberty Loan posters were big in opening hearts and wallets.


145 – James Mongomery Flagg’s’we want you’ Uncle Sam (self-portrait) is the most famous outcome.


146 – At Pershing’s request, 8 artists went to France with the troops.


147 – There was a Bureau of War Photographs and one of slides. The slides accompanied magic lantern (projector) shows. It made and distributed over 200,000 individual slides.


148 – When the war was declared there were already at least a dozen war films in the theaters.  These were encouraged as long as films did not discourage the war. 

149 – Movie folks were less resentful over potential censorship than newspaper folks.  And, the top stars made whirlwind tours of the nation selling liberty bonds.


150 – To help CPI collected and distributed footage and photos, to give the feel of war to film makers.  The film were made and distributed globally. 


151 – The division of Films created scenarios for commercial films and worked to create documentaries and issued permits to make war films and did distribution globally.


153 – They employed 17 sales reps for their own films.


154, the Foreign Film department distributed 6,200 reels. Since you could not export without permission, they worked closely with film producers to get licenses.


155 – Many were not war films at all, but portrayed ‘wholesome views of American life.”  But, little was not liked by the CPI as the film industry was with the cause.   One was too harsh on Japan – an ally of sorts and so banned.    


156 – Odder still was a film, The Spirit of ’76 that was deemed too anti-British.  The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the ban. 


157 – CPI had major exhibitions in 21 cities that drew over 10 million and earned a profit of over $400,000.   They featured military materiel that made people feel like they were in the great crusade.



PAGE 159


Guy Stanton Ford was an academic historian who created syllabi and suggested commencement themes for high schools.


160 – He was part of the Division of Civil and Educational Cooperation.   They wrote 105 political works which ran into 75 million prints.


161 – These ranged from brochures to 321 page books.  All the academic publishing was done by 3 men and a stenographer. 


These folks popularized moments in history. 


162 – One popular one was “The War Message and the Facts Behind It.”  This explained and footnoted Wilson’s war speech.


Ford asked locals to tell him what info they wanted.  Once he got a request, he’d send it to the scholar he thought best able to pull it off.


163 – There was one telling of the loyalty of German – Americans. It asked folks to look beyond parochial nationalism to ideology.  Democracy, not autocracy. 


164 – German militarism and its critics was another.  Another pictured a German invasion of the US. 


166 – In the Sisson affair the CPI authenticated and publicized evidence that the Germans were behind the Bolshevik revolution.  This caused a scandal as it weren’t true.


Another, “Conquest and Kultur: Aims of the Germans in Their Own Words,” was 160 pages in length.   German War Practices was another big seller.


167 – They made simpler brochures for farmers. 


168 – 9 – In Sept of 1918 the National School Service was launched.  Photos and info were to be shared with parents. 


169 – Recently  people have called WW I, Wilson’s War. But, they called it “the People’s War.”  This was contrasted with “The Junkers” war.


But, strikers called it “Capital’s War.”


170 – Some thought the German government had done more for workers than the US government.


Rather than just info and German lies, the CPI tried to get employers to not take advantage of the national emergency. 


171 – And labor was going to be asked to look past mere technical rights.


On January 14th, 1918 Creel wrote the National Americanization Committee saying it was doing what it could to prevent strikes without giving the impression that they were prohibited.


171 – But they knew many employers put greed in front of patriotism.


172 – They organized the American Alliance for Labor and Democracy (AALD). 


172 – The AALD  had three departments, Organization, Literature and Public speaking.  They had 150 branch offices.  And, like the NAC, they did pay envelope messages.


174 – They also gave workers service flags to put in their windows. 



PAG 175


175 – 178 A German named Robert Paul Prager was lynched by Americans.  


178 - Of a US population of 100 million, 14.5 were foreign born and another 17.5 were first generation Americans.


179 - People aiming at ‘hate at home’ in the press were enemies of the cause. 


180 – Creel believed the ‘foreign-born’ had to be shielded from jingoistic ‘Americanizers” and shown instead the “real America . . . its drama of hope and struggle, success, and blunders.”   He studiously avoided “the professional “Americanizers.”


Instead, he worked from the inside of communities, with loyalty leagues, using existing community leaders and infrastructure. 


But  persuading non-immigrant folk to not hate would be an even harder propaganda task.


The temperance movement had been very anti-German and seen them as drinkers and brewers.


181 – The Treasury Department harassed banks with German American in their name and liberty cabbage (saurkraut) was born.  Streets were renamed. 


The Federal ‘Trading-with-the-enemy Act gave the government the ability to license foreign language papers. 


A CPI surrogate “Friends of German Democracy” argued that German language papers were mostly loyal.   


William Harding, governor of Iowa, passed the most draconian laws, banning all public use of foreign languages.  This was the Babel Act.


182 – All German – language instructors were fired and their textbooks burned.   Freedom of speech is guaranteed, in ENGLISH!


This was the Babel proclamation. And, phone calls had to be in English.  Operators turned people in. 


183 – The CPI translated into German and sponsored loyalty societies. 


184 – The CPI pushed the celebration of the 4th of July.


185 – Much of this was organized by Josephine Roche under the Division of Work with the Foreign Born.  Each bureau was headed by a person of the appropriate nationality.


They disseminated info about foreign heritage folk’s heroics on the Allies’ side. 


186 – Being cut off from German news, the Division of Foreign Language Newspapers had success providing stories.    They also called meetings and had rallies. 


187 – Wilson said democracy was worth fighting for no matter what your heritage.



PAGE 189


Wilson’s team told the isolationist US that this was a ‘fight for the mind of mankind.”


Arthur Woods was the head of the CPI’s Foreign Section.  He was replaced by Will Irwin who Creel credited with starting Americanization Day !!!


190 – The Foreign Section also did espionage, distributed Propaganda, also sent them into Mexico, went into revolutionary Russia and propagandized allies.


191  - Trench propaganda was aimed at enemy soldiers.  First they tried to find weaknesses in enemy morale.


192 – It showed how well rationed US soldiers were.  The leaflets had to be disguised as any German seen reading a US leaflet was to be shot on sight.


193 – Unmanned baloons were used.  They time released 10s of thousands by the end of the war.   They were dropped during air raids, but pilots thought such messages dangerous and often dropped them early. 


194 – Allies were suspicious of cooperating on propaganda as they thought the US was angling for power.


195 – They got Roche to work with loyalty groups to get info back home, such as resolutions in support of enslaved Germans. 


197 – Neutral nations and the USSR were propagandized. We distributed films in Spain and Italy.  We gave out translated dispatches. 


198 – We helped turn the attitude in Spain away from Germany. But the British and the French resented Wilson’s popularity. 


199 – They tried to distribute films in Russia. But, they were blocked from entry. 


200 – There was a problem in that the first film sent to Mexico was about Pershing who had recently, under Wilson’s orders, chased Pancho Villa into Veracruz.


Bernays was made the dean of the Latin American efforts.  Since there was widespread illiteracy, film was needed.


201 - They changed the name of Pershing’s Crusaders to America at War, but the original title was leaked.  Billboards and photos in medicine packets were used, again to work in an environment of illiteracy.   


202 – And, as was Bernay’s want, they used influential Mexicans to disseminate pro-American views. They created the vague, Remember, the US cannot lose” slogan.


The Mexican government carried CPI info postally at no cost.  And, used the same techniques as were used in the US. 


203 – nearly 7 million Russians were killed or wounded in the War.  We tried to influence Russia, but  were blocked. 


204  - Films couldn’t get in as Sweden was blockaded.   


205 - Then there was the Sisson affair wherein he said Germany was behind the Russian Revolution. That backfired.


206 – This created hostility to Creel in Congress. 


207 – Germany spent $5 million annually trying to get Italy to quit the war effort. 


208 - And the French liked Wilsonian idealism, but the British Chaffed at potential US influence on the peace process; especially the Tories who saw Wilson’s self-determination as a threat to the empire. 



PAGE 211


Within hours of the armistice, Creel ordered immediate cessation of all CPI activity.    He said the CPI was a war instrument only.   War is simple, but in peace there are many competing objectives and parties and the CPI was inappropriate. 


212 – But the need for propaganda continued.  It is astounding that Creel did not see this.  Creel went to Europe with Wilson, ostensibly to help dismantle the foreign section of CPI.  


213 - But, the press saw it as furthering propaganda to sell the League of Nations.  He should have known it would be perceived this way.  Americans hated the idea of a standing army and a standing propaganda apparatus.  Getting rid of these are what Harding meant by a ‘return to normalcy.’


It was announced that the Postmaster was going to take over the transatlantic cable communication to and from the peace conference and all heck broke loose.


214 – Amid the negative publicity, Wilson and Creel agreed that Creel should leave Paris. 


215 – Creel thought propaganda helped win the war but the free press contributed to losing the peace.


216 – Except for a letter from Wilson, Creel was never honored for the work he had done.  He was an NRA head in the 1930s and in 1934 lost the Democratic nomination for governor of California to Upton Sinclair. 


217 – Evidence (a paper in a used book) indicates that WW II propaganda folks read about Creel.


218 – But Congress wanted no hint of propaganda after WW I and WW II’s info team had to be built from scratch. 

Bernays made a fortune applying the lessons to business.


And, when Hitler said, in Mein Kampf, he got propaganda techniques from the enemy side, he must have meant CPI.


219 – Goebells mentioned Bernay’s book Crystallizing public opinion, in a private conversation.


220 – Axelrod sees similar spin in Bush’s Iraq media strategy.


223 – This is especially in the use of biased ‘authorities’ shaping public opinion.


224 – Creel made the world ‘safe for propaganda.’