(December 1, 1876–October 2, 1953) An investigative journalist,
politician, and most famously, the chairman of the U.S. Committee on Public
Information, a propaganda organization created during World War I.
Volunteers authorized by President Woodrow Wilson to give public speeches
on topics assigned to them by the Committee on Public Information. Topics
focused on the American war effort and were presented during the four minutes of
reel changing in movie theaters across the country.
independent U.S. government agency, also known as the "CPI" or the "Creel Committee," created to influence public opinion
regarding participation in World War I. Over just 28 months, from April 13, 1917,
to August 21, 1919, the CPI used every medium available to create enthusiasm
for the war effort and enlist public support against foreign attempts to
undercut America's war aims.
to influence public opinion favorably toward American participation in World
War I, President Woodrow Wilson established the Committee on
Public Information (CPI) through Executive Order 2594 on April 13, 1917. Tasked
with creating a prolonged propaganda campaign, the group that became known as the "Creel Committee" consisted of politician and journalist George Creel, the committee chairman; Secretary of State Robert
Lansing; Secretary of War Newton D. Baker; and Secretary
of the Navy Josephus Daniels.
The CPI at first used factual information,
but manipulated—or “spun”—the material to present an upbeat picture of the
American war effort. The avenues of distribution for the message included newspapers, posters, radio, telegraphs,
committee also used direct human media in the form of about 75,000 "Four
Minute Men," volunteers who delivered positive public messages about the
war. Using their own words and avoiding "hymns of hate" that seemed
negative, the Four Minute Men covered topics such as the draft, rationing, war bond drives, victory gardens, and America's reasons for joining the fight. These talks were kept to four minutes—which was considered
the ideal length of time the average human attention span could be effectively
maintained—and often occurred when film reels were being changed in movie theaters. By the end of the war, the Four Minute Men had made more than 7.5
million speeches to 314 million people in 5,200 American communities.
CPI staged other personal events designed for specific ethnic and class groups.
In one example, Irish-American tenor John McCormack sang at Mount Vernon before
an audience representing Irish-American organizations. Endorsed by labor-union
leader Samuel Gompers, the committee also targeted American
workers, filling factories and offices with posters designed to promote the
critical role of American labor in a successful war effort.
The CPI was so thorough that some
historians used a typical Midwestern farm family to explain the reach and
impact of the committee’s activities:
"Every item of war news they
saw—in the country weekly, in magazines, or in the city daily picked up
occasionally in the general store—was not merely officially approved information
but precisely the same kind that millions of their fellow citizens were getting at the same moment.
Every war story had been censored somewhere along the line— at the source, in
transit, or in the newspaper offices in accordance with ‘voluntary' rules
established by the CPI. "
nascent American film industry produced a variety of propaganda films. The most
successful was 1918’s The Kaiser, the
Beast of Berlin, a "sensational creation" designed to rouse the
audience against the German ruler. There were also comedies, including the
animated Mutt and Jeff series and hits such as At The Front. The greatest success, also in produced in 1918 and considered
a landmark in film, was Charlie Chaplin's Shoulder
Arms, which followed the star from his induction into the military, through his
accidental penetration of German lines, to his eventual return after capturing
the kaiser and German crown prince and winning over a pretty French girl.
just 28 months, from April 1917 to August 1919, the CPI’s campaign produced intense
anti-German hysteria among Americans and left big business deeply impressed with large-scale propaganda’s obvious
potential for controlling public opinions and tastes.
Following the war, however, propaganda
and its obvious misleading nature gained a growing negative connotation. The Creel
Committee became so unpopular that Congress ceased its activities without even providing
funding to organize and archive its papers. The effectiveness of the committee’s
techniques was not forgotten, though, as World War II saw revived use of propaganda and information “spin” as a
weapon of war, notoriously by Hitler's top polemicist, German Minister of
Propaganda Joseph Goebbels, and also by the British Ministry of Information and
the U.S. Office of War Information.