Master of American Propaganda
How George Creel sold the Great War to America, and America to the world.
By Nicholas J. Cull
In 1917, on the brink of the U.S. entry into the Great War, a man named George Creel wrote a letter to President Woodrow Wilson. Creel was a journalist who had dabbled in politics, most notably as the Commissioner of Police in Denver, where he earned national attention for his efforts to clamp down on police brutality and prostitution. He thought highly of Wilson. In 1912, Creel had campaigned for the future president in Colorado; in 1916, he’d written a book supporting his re-election. Now, the journalist had learned that some in the U.S. military were calling for strict censorship of the wartime press. Creel’s memorandum to the president outlined an alternative policy, focused on asserting positive values and the encouragement of patriotism. Wilson was impressed, and invited Creel to apply his policy as chairman of a new Committee on Public Information.
As chairman of the Committee on Public Information, Creel became the mastermind behind the U.S. government’s propaganda campaign in the Great War. For two years, he rallied the American public to the cause of war and sold the globe a vision of America and President Wilson’s plans for a world order. He was a controversial figure in wartime Washington, but his efforts changed the ideological landscape at home and abroad, and many of the methods and approaches he pioneered became a standard part of U.S. statecraft.
Creel’s CPI drew together a generation of great American communicators from advertising, graphic arts, and newspapers. Artists involved in the campaign included Charles Dana Gibson — creator of the iconic Gibson girl illustrations of the ‘ideal’ American woman — who led the Division of Pictorial Publicity. Writers who joined the CPI included future Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Booth Tarkington, noted muckraker Ida Tarbell, and renowned newspaper editor William Allen White. Edward Bernays, the future “father of public relations,” chaired the CPI Export Service. CPI strategies included spectacular exhibitions, posters, and upbeat leaflets. Hollywood played a part, too. Not only did it produce movies for the CPI — feature-length documentaries like Pershing’s Crusaders and America’s Answer — the industry also became, for the first time, a consideration in American foreign policy. The CPI blocked the export of films that depicted American crime or even Wild West banditry, and insisted on positive, educational images. At the same time, Creel’s committee used access to Hollywood product as leverage to persuade foreign exhibition circuits to cease showing German films. The tactic effectively closed off what had been a large market for Germany in some northern European countries.[i]
Creel understood the susceptibility of Americans to celebrity, and recruited some of the best known people of the era to speak for his cause. But he also knew that Americans placed great credibility in their neighbors. To that end, he established a network of 75,000 “four minute men” lecturers — citizens primed to deliver talking points provided by the CPI in neighborhood movie theaters across the country. The network of venues eventually included churches, lodges, colleges, and even schools, which had their own junior team of lecturers.
The CPI also worked beyond U.S. borders. Its programs included an international news service called “Compub,” which ensured that American speeches and articles were distributed throughout the world. The full texts made it much harder for German propagandists to distort Wilson’s messages. Key cities also had CPI offices staffed by expert communicators, often the American descendants of migrants from that country, sometimes helped by wounded soldiers of the same background. The future mayor of New York, Fiorello LaGuardia, was part of the team in Italy. In Switzerland, Creel deployed the women’s suffrage campaigner Vira B. Whitehouse. The CPI’s agent in Denmark, Danish-American journalist George Riis, was even able to slip American propaganda materials into Germany with a remarkably simple ruse; a fluent German speaker ordered a courier leaving the German embassy in Copenhagen to deliver a stack of propaganda pamphlets to a series of press and political addresses in Hamburg ‘on the minister’s orders.’[ii] The CPI also opened American libraries and reading rooms — there were seven libraries in Mexico alone. These international efforts proved effective. Woodrow Wilson’s ideas about democracy were embraced around the world, and when the American president arrived in Europe after the war to oversee the peace process, he enjoyed rapturous receptions
While World War I propaganda is often remembered for stoking the fires of anti-German prejudice — most especially through the circulation of atrocity propaganda — Creel largely avoided this approach, toning down ethnic rhetoric and ensuring that all official CPI statements about German behavior could be proven from multiple local sources. Anti-German themes were, however, a major part of military recruitment drives and commercial media treatment of the war. But for all his stated desire to be fair to the Germans, Creel still used the derogatory word ‘Hun’ in his output — and, for that matter, his memoirs.
As the war’s end, Creel joined Wilson at the Versailles Conference, where the Allied victors were hammering out peace terms for a new world order. After Wilson left office, Creel returned to journalism, while continuing his political activity. He moved to California, where he challenged Upton Sinclair for the Democratic nomination for governor in the writer’s famous, but ultimately unsuccessful, 1934 campaign. Creel was not recalled to national service in World War II. He died in 1953.
One of the salient features of American political life is public mistrust of an official government presence in the media. There are few clearer demonstrations of this than the haste with which Congress wound down the CPI at the end of the war. Propaganda became, and remains, one of the dirty words of American politics. Even so, subsequent emergencies — World War II, the Cold War and the War on Terror — have necessitated similar international campaigns to engage domestic and foreign publics. Creel is today remembered as a pioneer of a distinctive American approach to public diplomacy: telling America’s story with a flourish, but doing so with an emphasis on truth.[iii]
Nicholas J. Cull is professor of Public Diplomacy at the University of Southern California. Originally from Britain, he is a historian specializing in the study of propaganda and the role of communication in international affairs. His books include The Decline and Fall of the United States Information Agency: American Public Diplomacy, 1989–2001 (Palgrave, 2012) and Selling War: British Propaganda and American Neutrality in World War Two (Oxford, 1995).
[i] On Hollywood see Creel, How We Advertised America: the first telling of the amazing story of the Committee on public information that carried the gospel of Americanism to every corner of the globe, pp.117–32.
[ii] Creel, Rebel at Large, p. 173.
[iii] For a modern take on Creel see John Brown, ‘Janus Faced Public Diplomacy: Creel and Lippmann during the Great War.’ In Deborah L. Trent, Nontraditional US Public Diplomacy: Past Present, and Future. The Public Diplomacy Council, 2016, pp. 43–72