Thursday, April 13, 2017
Master of American Propaganda: How George Creel sold the Great War to America, and America to the world.
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.