President Woodrow Wilson struggled to maintain United States neutrality with the outbreak of war in 1914. Social and political forces lobbied for supporting intervention or isolation. Despite restraining the country for three years, the declaration of war in April 1917 fundamentally altered federal domestic and foreign policy. President Wilson understood that to maintain public support, the US government needed to create an agency that centered on public affairs. An independent agency would be solely responsible for interpreting and creating messages about the home front and the war and on April 13, 1917, President Wilson signed Executive Order 2594 creating the Committee on Public Information (CPI). For the next two years, the CPI was responsible for running a propaganda campaign for the sole purpose of maintaining positive public support for American intervention in Europe.
President Wilson installed both Secretary of War and Navy, Newton Baker and Josephus Daniels respectively, as government ex officio directors. President Wilson established the CPI as an independent agency of the Executive branch, but rather than having it run by a Cabinet member, a civilian would serve as the sole operating director. The committee’s chairman George Creel, a Midwest newspaper man, embarked on a national propaganda campaign that incorporated nearly every type of medium; newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, advertising, radio, and early films to spread a positive message about war. This was crucial because Creel claimed to interpret the definition of ‘propaganda’ differently than the German style, which he described as: ‘not propaganda as the Germans defined it, but propaganda in the true sense of the word; propagation of faith.’ Creel’s previous career as a journalist influenced the CPI’s method of information gathering and emphasized they base their message on factual evidence rather than embellishment. This did not rule out the CPI’s practice of spinning factual evidence to make a positive observation however. Building stories on evidence was paramount to Creel as he wanted to separate the CPI from more xenophobic organizations such as the American Defense Society.
Over 75,000 people, mainly volunteers, served the CPI during the war. One signature practice Creel developed to efficiently disseminate pro-war support was the Four Minute Man program whereby public speakers gave a four-minute presentation on multiple topics in social settings. Four Minute Men Director William McCormick Blair managed thousands of speakers who developed succinct, compact speeches that could be altered to fit a specific top and audience.
This formal, personal tactic combined with a deluge of daily propaganda through news and radio, demonstrated the effectiveness of CPI propaganda methods. Four Minute Men speeches were arguably the first instance of ‘viral marketing’ by modern standards. By the end of the war, over 7 million speeches were delivered to over 5,000 communities. Simultaneously, Creel argued that what the CPI practiced was not propaganda, but that it was meant to educate people rather than willfully deceive. Creel believed that the German propaganda was filled with unsupportive lies while the CPI went to great lengths to ensure truthful accuracy; ‘We did not call it propaganda, for that word, in German hands, had come to be associated with deceit and corruption. Our effort was educational and informative throughout…’
Despite this however, messages were still crafted to show only the positive aspects about the American home front and the viciousness of the enemy. The thoroughness by which the CPI distributed its message and using every medium available, the war became part of one’s daily life.
Creel, George, Rebel at Large: Recollections of Fifty Crowded Years, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, 1947
Creel, George, How We Advertised America, Harper and Brothers, New York, 1920