Wartime Propaganda

– World War I Essay, Research Paper

Wartime Propaganda: World War IThe Drift Towards War”Lead this people into war, and they’ll forget there was ever such athing as tolerance. To fight, you must be brutal and ruthless, andthe spirit of ruthless brutality will enter into the very fiber ofnational life, infecting the Congress, the courts, the policeman onthe beat, the man in the street.”It is one of history’s great ironies that Woodrow Wilson, who was re- elected as apeace candidate in 1916, led America into the first world war. With the help of apropaganda apparatus that was unparalleled in world history, Wilson forged a nation ofimmigrants into a fighting whole. An examination of public opinion before the war,propaganda efforts during the war, and the endurance of propaganda in peacetime raisessignificant questions about the viability of democracy as a governing principle.Like an undertow, America’s drift toward war was subtle and forceful. Accordingto the outspoken pacifist Randolph Bourne, war sentiment spread gradually amongvarious intellectual groups. “With the aid of Roosevelt,” wrote Bourne, “the murmursbecame a monotonous chant, and finally a chorus so mighty that to be out of it was at firstto be disreputable, and finally almost obscene.” Once the war was underway, dissent waspractically impossible. “If you believed our going into this war was a mistake,” wrote The Nation in a post-war editorial, “if you held, as President Wilson did early in 1917, that theideal outcome would be ‘peace without victory,’ you were a traitor.” Forced to stand quietly on the sidelines while their neighbors stampeded towards war, many pacifistswould have agreed with Bertrand Russell that “the greatest difficulty was the purely psychological one of resisting mass suggestion, of which the force becomes terrific whenthe whole nation is in a state of violent collective excitement.”This frenzied support for the war was particularly remarkable in light of the factthat Wilson’s re-election had been widely interpreted as a vote for peace. After all, inJanuary of 1916, Wilson stated that “so far as I can remember, this is a government of thepeople, and this people is not going to choose war.” In retrospect, it is apparent that thevote for Wilson cloaked profound cleavages in public opinion. At the time of hisinauguration, immigrants constituted one third of the population. Allied and Germanpropaganda revived old-world loyalties among “hyphenated” European- Americans, andopinions about US intervention were sharply polarized. More than 8 millionGerman-Americans lived in this country, and many were sympathetic to the cause of theirhomeland. Meanwhile, anti-German feeling was strong among the upper classes on theAtlantic coast, and was particularly intense among those with social and businessconnections to Britain.The Committee on Public InformationThe absence of public unity was a primary concern when America entered the waron April 6, 1917. In Washington, unwavering public support was considered to be crucialto the entire wartime effort. On April 13, 1917, Wilson created the Committee on PublicInformation (CPI) to promote the war domestically while publicizing American war aims abroad. Under the leadership of a muckraking journalist named George Creel, the CPIrecruited heavily from business, media, academia, and the art world. The CPI blendedadvertising techniques with a sophisticated understanding of human psychology, and itsefforts represent the first time that a modern government disseminated propaganda onsuch a large scale. It is fascinating that this phenomenon, often linked with totalitarianregimes, emerged in a democratic state.Although George Creel was an outspoken critic of censorship at the hands ofpublic servants, the CPI took immediate steps to limit damaging information. Invoking the threat of German propaganda, the CPI implemented “voluntary guidelines” for the newsmedia and helped to pass the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918. The CPI did not have explicit enforcement power, but it nevertheless “enjoyed censorshippower which was tantamount to direct legal force.” Like modern reporters who participatein Pentagon press pools, journalists grudgingly complied with the official guidelines inorder to stay connected to the information loop. Radical newspapers, such as the socialistAppeal to Reason, were almost completely extinguished by wartime limitations on dissent. The CPI was not a censor in the strictest sense, but “it came as close to performing thatfunction as any government agency in the US has ever done.” Censorship was only oneelement of the CPI’s efforts. With all the sophistication of a modern advertising agency,the CPI examined the different ways that information flowed to the population andflooded these channels with pro-war material. The CPI’s domestic division was composedof 19 sub-divisions, and each focused on a particular type of propaganda. Acomprehensive survey is beyond the scope of this paper, but the use of newspapers,academics, artists, and filmmakers will be discussed. One of the most important elementsof the CPI was the Division of News, which distributed more than 6,000 press releases and acted as the primary conduit for war-related information. According to Creel,on any given week, more than 20,000 newspaper columns were filled with material gleaned from CPI handouts. Realizing that many Americans glided right past the frontpage and headed straight for the features section, the CPI also created the Division ofSyndicated Features and recruited the help of leading novelists, short story writers, andessayists. These popular American writers presented the official line in an easily digestibleform, and their work was said to have reached twelve million people every month. The Division of Civic and Educational Cooperation relied heavily on scholars whochurned out pamphlets with titles such as The German Whisper, German War Practices,and Conquest and Kultur. The academic rigor of many of these pieces was questionable,but more respectable thinkers, such as John Dewey and Walter Lippmann, also voicedtheir support for the war. Even in the face of this trend, however, a few scholars refusedto fall in line. Randolph Bourne had been one John Dewey’s star students, and he feltbetrayed by his mentor’s collaboration with the war effort. In one of several eloquentwartime essays, Bourne savagely attacked his colleagues for self-consciously guiding thecountry into the conflict. “The German intellectuals went to war to save their culture frombarbarization,” wrote Bourne. “And the French went to war to save their beautifulFrance!… Are not our intellectuals equally fatuous when they tell us that our war of allwars is stainless and thrillingly achieving for good?”The CPI did not limit its promotional efforts to the written word. The Division ofPictorial Publicity “had at its disposal many of the most talented advertising illustratorsand cartoonists of the time,” and these artists worked closely with publicity experts in theAdvertising Division. Newspapers and magazines eagerly donated advertising space, and itwas almost impossible to pick up a periodical without encountering CPI material. Powerful posters, painted in patriotic colors, were plastered on billboards across thecountry. Even from the cynical vantage point of the mid 1990s, there is somethingcompelling about these images that leaps across the decades and stirs a deep yearning tobuy liberty bonds or enlist in the navy.Moving images were even more popular than still ones, and the Division of Filmsensured that the war was promoted in the cinema. The film industry suffered from a sleazyreputation, and producers sought respectability by lending wholehearted support to thewar effort. Hollywood’s mood was summed up in a 1917 editorial in The Motion PictureNews which proclaimed that “every individual at work in this industry wants to do hisshare” and promised that “through slides, film leaders and trailers, posters, and newspaperpublicity they will spread that propaganda so necessary to the immediate mobilization ofthe country’s great resources.” Movies with titles like The Kaiser: The Beast of Berlin,Wolves of Kultur, and Pershing’s Crusaders flooded American theaters. One picture, ToHell With The Kaiser, was so popular that Massachusetts riot police were summoned todeal with an angry mob that had been denied admission.The preceding discussion merely hints at the breadth of CPI domestic propagandaactivities. From lecture hall podiums and movie screens to the pages of popular fiction andthe inside of payroll envelopes, the cause of the Allies was creatively publicized in almostevery available communication channel. But this is only part of the story. The propagandatechniques employed by the CPI are also fascinating, and, from the standpoint ofdemocratic government, much more significant. Demons, Atrocities, and LiesPropagandists usually attempt to influence individuals while leading each one tobehave “as though his response were his own decision.” Mass communication tools extendthe propagandist’s reach and make it possible to shape the attitudes of many individualssimultaneously. Because propagandists attempt to “do the other fellow’s thinking for him,”they prefer indirect messages to overt, logical arguments. During the war, the CPIaccomplished this by making calculated emotional appeals, by demonizing Germany, bylinking the war to the goals of various social groups, and, when necessary, by lyingoutright.Emotional AppealsCPI propaganda typically appealed to the heart, not to the mind. Emotional agitation is afavorite technique of the propagandist, because “any emotion may be ‘drained off’ into anyactivity by skillful manipulation.” An article which appeared in Scientific Monthly shortlyafter the war argued that “the detailed suffering of a little girl and her kitten can motivateour hatred against the Germans, arouse our sympathy for Armenians, make us enthusiasticfor the Red Cross, or lead us to give money for a home for cats.” Wartime slogans such as”Bleeding Belgium,” “The Criminal Kaiser,” and “Make the World Safe For Democracy,”suggest that the CPI was no stranger to this idea. Evidence of this technique can be seen ina typical propaganda poster that portrayed an aggressive, bayonet-wielding Germansoldier above the caption “Beat Back The Hun With Liberty Bonds.” In this example, theemotions of hate and fear were redirected toward giving money to the war effort. It is aninteresting side-note that many analysts attribute the failure of German propaganda inAmerica to the fact that it emphasized logic over passion. According to Count vonBernstorff, a German diplomat, “the outstanding characteristic of the average American israther a great, though superficial, sentimentality,” and German press telegrams completelyfailed to grasp this fact.DemonizationA second propaganda technique used by the CPI was demonization of the enemy. “So great are the psychological resistances to war in modern nations,” wrote Lasswell”that every war must appear to be a war of defense against a menacing, murderousaggressor. There must be no ambiguity about who the public is to hate.” Americanpropaganda was not the only source of anti-German feeling, but most historians agree thatthe CPI pamphlets went too far in portraying Germans as depraved, brutal aggressors. Forexample, in one CPI publication, Professor Vernon Kellogg asked “will it be any wonder

if, after the war, the people of the world, when they recognize any human being as aGerman, will shrink aside so that they may not touch him as he passes, or stoop for stonesto drive him from their path?”A particularly effective strategy for demonizing Germans was the use of atrocitystories. “A handy rule for arousing hate,” said Lasswell “is, if at first they do not enrage,use an atrocity. It has been employed with unvarying success in every conflict known toman.” Unlike the pacifist, who argues that all wars are brutal, the atrocity story impliesthat war is only brutal when practiced by the enemy. Certain members of the CPI wererelatively cautious about repeating unsubstantiated allegations, but the committee’spublications often relied on dubious material. After the war, Edward Bernays, whodirected CPI propaganda efforts in Latin America, openly admitted that his colleaguesused alleged atrocities to provoke a public outcry against Germany. Some of the atrocitystories which were circulated during the war, such as the one about a tub full of eyeballsor the story of the seven-year old boy who confronted German soldiers with a woodengun, were actually recycled from previous conflicts. In his seminal work on wartimepropaganda, Lasswell speculated that atrocity stories will always be popular because theaudience is able to feel self-righteous indignation toward the enemy, and, at some level,identify with the perpetrators of the crimes. “A young woman, ravished by the enemy,” hewrote “yields secret satisfaction to a host of vicarious ravishers on the other side of theborder.”Anti-German propaganda fueled support for the war, but it also contributed tointolerance on the home front. Dachshunds were renamed liberty dogs, German measleswere renamed liberty measles, and the City University of New York reduced by one creditevery course in German. Fourteen states banned the speaking of German in public schools. The military adversary was thousands of miles away, but German-Americans providedconvenient local scapegoats. In Van Houten, New Mexico, an angry mob accused animmigrant miner of supporting Germany and forced him to kneel before them, kiss theflag, and shout “To hell with the Kaiser.” In Illinois, a group of zealous patriots accusedRobert Prager, a German coal miner, of hoarding explosives. Though Prager asserted hisloyalty to the very end, he was lynched by the angry mob. Explosives were never found.The War to End All WarsEmotional appeals and simplistic caricatures of the enemy influenced manyAmericans, but the CPI recognized that certain social groups had more complexpropaganda needs. In order to reach intellectuals and pacifists, the CPI claimed thatmilitary intervention would bring about a democratic League of Nations and end warfareforever. With other social groups, the CPI modified its arguments, and interpreted the waras “a conflict to destroy the threat of German industrial competition (business group), toprotect the American standard of living (labor), to remove certain baneful Germaninfluences in our education (teachers), to destroy German music – itself a subtlepropaganda (musicians), to preserve civilization, ‘we’ and `civilization’ being synonymous(nationalists), to make the world safe for democracy, crush militarism, [and] establish therights of small nations et al. (religious and idealistic groups).” It is impossible to makerigorous statements about which one of these appeals was most effective, but this is theadvantage that the propagandist has over the communications scholar. The propagandist isprimarily concerned with effectiveness and can afford to ignore the methodologicaldemands of social science.DishonestyFinally, like most propagandists, the CPI was frequently dishonest. Despite GeorgeCreel’s claim that the CPI strived for unflinching accuracy, many of his employees lateradmitted that they were quite willing to lie. Will Irwin, an ex-CPI member who publishedseveral confessional pieces after the war, felt that the CPI was more honest than otherpropaganda ministries, but made it clear that “we never told the whole truth – not by anymanner of means.” Citing an intelligence officer who bluntly said “you can’t tell them thetruth,” G.S Viereck argued that, as on all fronts, victories were routinely manufactured byAmerican military authorities. The professional propagandist realizes that, when a singlelie is exposed, the entire campaign is jeopardized. Dishonesty is discouraged, but onstrategic, not moral, grounds.Post-War PropagandaIn the final months of 1918, as the war drew to a close, the CPI fell underincreasing scrutiny from a war-weary American public and from the Republican majoritythat had gained control of Congress. On November 12, 1918, George Creel halted thedomestic activities of the CPI. The activities of the foreign division were ended, amidstgreat controversy, a few months later. One might assume that the wartime propagandiststhen put down their pens and paintbrushes and returned to ordinary life. This was not thecase.According to Lasswell, many former agents of the CPI stayed in Washington andNew York and took advantage of their skill and contacts. Two years later, the Director ofthe CPI’s Foreign Division argued that “the history of propaganda in the war wouldscarcely be worthy of consideration here, but for one fact – it did not stop with thearmistice. No indeed! The methods invented and tried out in the war were too valuable forthe uses of governments, factions, and special interests.” Sigmund Freud’s nephew,Edward Bernays, took the techniques he learned in the CPI directly to Madison Avenueand became an outspoken proponent of propaganda as a tool for democratic government. “It was, of course, the astounding success of propaganda during the war that opened theeyes of the intelligent few in all departments of life to the possibilities of regimenting thepublic mind,” wrote Bernays in his 1928 bombshell Propaganda. “It was only natural, afterthe war ended, that intelligent persons should ask themselves whether it was not possibleto apply a similar technique to the problems of peace.”This peacetime application of what was, after all, a tool of war, began to troubleAmericans who suspected that they had been misled. In The New Republic, John Deweyquestioned the paternalistic assumptions of those who disguised propaganda as news. “There is uneasiness and solicitude about what men hear and learn,” wrote Dewey, and the”paternalistic care for the source of men’s beliefs, once generated by war, carries over tothe troubles of peace.” Dewey argued that the manipulation of information wasparticularly evident in coverage of post-Revolutionary Russia. The Nation agreed in 1919,arguing that “what has happened in regard to Russia is the most striking case in point asshowing what may be accomplished by Government propaganda… Bartholomew nightsthat never take place, together with the wildest rumors of communism in women, and ofmurder and bloodshed, taken from obscure Scandinavian newspapers, are hastily relayedto the US, while everything favorable to the Soviets, every bit of constructiveaccomplishment, is suppressed.”When one considers the horrible legacy of the war, it is tempting to pin completeresponsibility for American involvement on hate-mongering militarists in the CPI. Suchretroactive condemnation is no more complex than a wartime slogan. Ultimately, theirguilt is less important than the questions their activities raised about the role ofpropaganda in a democratic society.Democratic theory, as interpreted by Jefferson and Paine, was rooted in theEnlightenment belief that free citizens could form respectable opinions about issues of theday and use these opinions to guide their own destiny. Communication between citizenswas assumed to be a necessary element of the democratic process. During the first worldwar, America’s leaders felt that citizens were not making the correct decisions quicklyenough, so they flooded the channels of communication with dishonest messages thatwere designed to stir up emotions and hatred of Germany. The war came to an end, butpropaganda did not. For the past seven decades, those who lead our nation, along withthose who seek to overthrow it, have mouthed the ideals of Jefferson while behaving likeBernays.Is propaganda compatible with democracy, or does it undermine the population’sability to think critically about world events? What happens when simplistic, emotionalappeals are endlessly repeated? During the war, Bourne complained that “simplesyllogisms are substituted for analysis, things are known by their labels, [and] our heart’sdesire dictates what we shall see.” Could this description apply equally to a politicalclimate in which slogans like “Three Strikes, You’re Out,” “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and”Just Say No” are treated as if they were actual policies for dealing with social needs?What of the propagandist’s argument that the complexity of the modern worldmakes obsolete the Enlightenment faith in popular wisdom? It is impossible for one personto simultaneously be an expert in foreign policy, labor disputes, the environment, theeducational system, health care, constitutional law, and scientific regulation. Even thePresident is forced to rely on the advice of key advisors. Should America follow Bernays’prescription and accept the wisdom of “a leadership democracy administered by theintelligent minority who know how to regiment and guide the masses?” Or is “leadershipdemocracy” simply one stage of our democratic development? Could it someday bereplaced by something more far reaching?What contribution will emerging communication technologies make to thedissemination of propaganda? Does the myth of “interactivity” legitimize an unbalancedsocial relationship, or does it make it possible for the audience to challenge thepropagandist? The hosts of radio talk shows claim that theirs is a democratic medium, butcallers are screened in advance and filtered through a three-second time delay. Are trulyinteractive tools on the horizon?The important difference between our “leadership democracy” and a totalitarianstate is that we are allowed to raise questions such as these. However, history shows that,in times of political crisis and social dislocation, this freedom is one of the first todisappear. As we approach the end of the twentieth century, finding answers to thesequestions is more important than ever. BibliographyChase, Stuart. Guides to Straight Thinking. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1956.Combs, James and Nimmo, Dan. The New Propaganda: The Dictatorship of Palavar inContemporary Politics. New York: Longman Publishing Group, 1993.Doob, Leonard. Propaganda: Its Psychology and Technique. New York: Henry Holt andCompany, 1935.Edwards, Violet. Group Leader’s Guide to Propaganda Analysis. New York: ColumbiaUniversity Press, 1938.Ellul, Jacques. Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes. New York: VintageBooks, 1965.Hummel, William and Huntress, Keith. The Analysis of Propaganda. New York: WilliamSloane Associates, 1949.Institute for Propaganda Analysis. Propaganda Analysis. New York: Columbia UniversityPress, 1938.Institute for Propaganda Analysis. The Fine Art of Propaganda. New York: Harcourt,Brace and Company, 1939.Lee, Alfred McClung. How to Understand Propaganda. New York: Rinehart and Company, 1952.Lowenthal, Leo and Guterman, Norbert. Prophets of Deceit. 1949. Palo Alto: PacificBooks Publishers, 1970.Miller, Clyde. The Process of Persuasion. New York: Crown Publishers, 1946.Pratkanis, Anthony and Aronson, Elliot. Age of Propaganda: The Everyday Use andAbuse of Persuasion. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company, 1991.Rank, Hugh. Language and Public Policy. New York: Citation Press, 1974.Thum, Gladys and Thum, Marcella. The Persuaders: Propaganda in War and Peace. NewYork: Atheneum, 1972.


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