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Wartime Propaganda: World War I

The Drift Towards War
“Lead this people into war, and they’ll forget there was ever such a
thing as tolerance. To fight, you must be brutal and ruthless, and
the spirit of ruthless brutality will enter into the very fiber of
national life, infecting the Congress, the courts, the policeman on
the beat, the man in the street.”
It is one of history’s great ironies that Woodrow Wilson, who was re- elected as a
peace candidate in 1916, led America into the first world war. With the help of a
propaganda apparatus that was unparalleled in world history, Wilson forged a nation of
immigrants into a fighting whole. An examination of public opinion before the war,
propaganda efforts during the war, and the endurance of propaganda in peacetime raises
significant questions about the viability of democracy as a governing principle.
Like an undertow, America’s drift toward war was subtle and forceful. According
to the outspoken pacifist Randolph Bourne, war sentiment spread gradually among
various intellectual groups. “With the aid of Roosevelt,” wrote Bourne, “the murmurs
became a monotonous chant, and finally a chorus so mighty that to be out of it was at first
to be disreputable, and finally almost obscene.” Once the war was underway, dissent was
practically 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 the
ideal outcome would be ‘peace without victory,’ you were a traitor.” Forced to stand
quietly on the sidelines while their neighbors stampeded towards war, many pacifists
would have agreed with Bertrand Russell that “the greatest difficulty was the purely
psychological one of resisting mass suggestion, of which the force becomes terrific when
the whole nation is in a state of violent collective excitement.”
This frenzied support for the war was particularly remarkable in light of the fact
that Wilson’s re-election had been widely interpreted as a vote for peace. After all, in
January of 1916, Wilson stated that “so far as I can remember, this is a government of the
people, and this people is not going to choose war.” In retrospect, it is apparent that the
vote for Wilson cloaked profound cleavages in public opinion. At the time of his
inauguration, immigrants constituted one third of the population. Allied and German
propaganda revived old-world loyalties among “hyphenated” European- Americans, and
opinions about US intervention were sharply polarized. More than 8 million
German-Americans lived in this country, and many were sympathetic to the cause of their
homeland. Meanwhile, anti-German feeling was strong among the upper classes on the
Atlantic coast, and was particularly intense among those with social and business
connections to Britain.
The Committee on Public Information
The absence of public unity was a primary concern when America entered the war
on April 6, 1917. In Washington, unwavering public support was considered to be crucial
to the entire wartime effort. On April 13, 1917, Wilson created the Committee on Public
Information (CPI) to promote the war domestically while publicizing American war aims
abroad. Under the leadership of a muckraking journalist named George Creel, the CPI
recruited heavily from business, media, academia, and the art world. The CPI blended
advertising techniques with a sophisticated understanding of human psychology, and its
efforts represent the first time that a modern government disseminated propaganda on
such a large scale. It is fascinating that this phenomenon, often linked with totalitarian
regimes, emerged in a democratic state.
Although George Creel was an outspoken critic of censorship at the hands of
public servants, the CPI took immediate steps to limit damaging information. Invoking the
threat of German propaganda, the CPI implemented “voluntary guidelines” for the news
media 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 censorship
power which was tantamount to direct legal force.” Like modern reporters who participate
in Pentagon press pools, journalists grudgingly complied with the official guidelines in
order to stay connected to the information loop. Radical newspapers, such as the socialist
Appeal 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 that
function as any government agency in the US has ever done.” Censorship was only one
element 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 and
flooded these channels with pro-war material. The CPI’s domestic division was composed
of 19 sub-divisions, and each focused on a particular type of propaganda. A
comprehensive 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 elements
of 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 front
page and headed straight for the features section, the CPI also created the Division of
Syndicated Features and recruited the help of leading novelists, short story writers, and
essayists. These popular American writers presented the official line in an easily digestible
form, and their work was said to have reached twelve million people every month.

The Division of Civic and Educational Cooperation relied heavily on scholars who
churned 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 voiced
their support for the war. Even in the face of this trend, however, a few scholars refused
to fall in line. Randolph Bourne had been one John Dewey’s star students, and he felt
betrayed by his mentor’s collaboration with the war effort. In one of several eloquent
wartime essays, Bourne savagely attacked his colleagues for self-consciously guiding the
country into the conflict. “The German intellectuals went to war to save their culture from
barbarization,” wrote Bourne. “And the French went to war to save their beautiful
France!… Are not our intellectuals equally fatuous when they tell us that our war of all
wars is stainless and thrillingly achieving for good?”
The CPI did not limit its promotional efforts to the written word. The Division of
Pictorial Publicity “had at its disposal many of the most talented advertising illustrators
and cartoonists of the time,” and these artists worked closely with publicity experts in the
Advertising Division. Newspapers and magazines eagerly donated advertising space, and it
was almost impossible to pick up a periodical without encountering CPI material.

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Powerful posters, painted in patriotic colors, were plastered on billboards across the
country. Even from the cynical vantage point of the mid 1990s, there is something
compelling about these images that leaps across the decades and stirs a deep yearning to
buy liberty bonds or enlist in the navy.
Moving images were even more popular than still ones, and the Division of Films
ensured that the war was promoted in the cinema. The film industry suffered from a sleazy
reputation, and producers sought respectability by lending wholehearted support to the
war effort. Hollywood’s mood was summed up in a 1917 editorial in The Motion Picture
News which proclaimed that “every individual at work in this industry wants to do his
share” and promised that “through slides, film leaders and trailers, posters, and newspaper
publicity they will spread that propaganda so necessary to the immediate mobilization of
the 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, To
Hell With The Kaiser, was so popular that Massachusetts riot police were summoned to
deal with an angry mob that had been denied admission.
The preceding discussion merely hints at the breadth of CPI domestic propaganda
activities. From lecture hall podiums and movie screens to the pages of popular fiction and
the inside of payroll envelopes, the cause of the Allies was creatively publicized in almost
every available communication channel. But this is only part of the story. The propaganda
techniques employed by the CPI are also fascinating, and, from the standpoint of
democratic government, much more significant.

Demons, Atrocities, and Lies
Propagandists usually attempt to influence individuals while leading each one to
behave “as though his response were his own decision.” Mass communication tools extend
the propagandist’s reach and make it possible to shape the attitudes of many individuals
simultaneously. Because propagandists attempt to “do the other fellow’s thinking for him,”
they prefer indirect messages to overt, logical arguments. During the war, the CPI
accomplished this by making calculated emotional appeals, by demonizing Germany, by
linking the war to the goals of various social groups, and, when necessary, by lying
Emotional Appeals
CPI propaganda typically appealed to the heart, not to the mind. Emotional agitation is a
favorite technique of the propagandist, because “any emotion may be ‘drained off’ into any
activity by skillful manipulation.” An article which appeared in Scientific Monthly shortly
after the war argued that “the detailed suffering of a little girl and her kitten can motivate
our hatred against the Germans, arouse our sympathy for Armenians, make us enthusiastic
for 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 in
a typical propaganda poster that portrayed an aggressive, bayonet-wielding German
soldier above the caption “Beat Back The Hun With Liberty Bonds.” In this example, the
emotions of hate and fear were redirected toward giving money to the war effort. It is an
interesting side-note that many analysts attribute the failure of German propaganda in
America to the fact that it emphasized logic over passion. According to Count von
Bernstorff, a German diplomat, “the outstanding characteristic of the average American is
rather a great, though superficial, sentimentality,” and German press telegrams completely
failed to grasp this fact.
A 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, murderous
aggressor. There must be no ambiguity about who the public is to hate.” American
propaganda was not the only source of anti-German feeling, but most historians agree that
the CPI pamphlets went too far in portraying Germans as depraved, brutal aggressors. For
example, 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 a
German, will shrink aside so that they may not touch him as he passes, or stoop for stones
to drive him from their path?”
A particularly effective strategy for demonizing Germans was the use of atrocity
stories. “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 to
man.” Unlike the pacifist, who argues that all wars are brutal, the atrocity story implies
that war is only brutal when practiced by the enemy. Certain members of the CPI were
relatively cautious about repeating unsubstantiated allegations, but the committee’s
publications often relied on dubious material. After the war, Edward Bernays, who
directed CPI propaganda efforts in Latin America, openly admitted that his colleagues
used alleged atrocities to provoke a public outcry against Germany. Some of the atrocity
stories which were circulated during the war, such as the one about a tub full of eyeballs
or the story of the seven-year old boy who confronted German soldiers with a wooden
gun, were actually recycled from previous conflicts. In his seminal work on wartime
propaganda, Lasswell speculated that atrocity stories will always be popular because the
audience 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,” he
wrote “yields secret satisfaction to a host of vicarious ravishers on the other side of the
Anti-German propaganda fueled support for the war, but it also contributed to
intolerance on the home front. Dachshunds were renamed liberty dogs, German measles
were renamed liberty measles, and the City University of New York reduced by one credit
every course in German. Fourteen states banned the speaking of German in public schools.

The military adversary was thousands of miles away, but German-Americans provided
convenient local scapegoats. In Van Houten, New Mexico, an angry mob accused an
immigrant miner of supporting Germany and forced him to kneel before them, kiss the
flag, and shout “To hell with the Kaiser.” In Illinois, a group of zealous patriots accused
Robert Prager, a German coal miner, of hoarding explosives. Though Prager asserted his
loyalty to the very end, he was lynched by the angry mob. Explosives were never found.
The War to End All Wars
Emotional appeals and simplistic caricatures of the enemy influenced many
Americans, but the CPI recognized that certain social groups had more complex
propaganda needs. In order to reach intellectuals and pacifists, the CPI claimed that
military intervention would bring about a democratic League of Nations and end warfare
forever. With other social groups, the CPI modified its arguments, and interpreted the war
as “a conflict to destroy the threat of German industrial competition (business group), to
protect the American standard of living (labor), to remove certain baneful German
influences in our education (teachers), to destroy German music – itself a subtle
propaganda (musicians), to preserve civilization, ‘we’ and `civilization’ being synonymous
(nationalists), to make the world safe for democracy, crush militarism, and establish the
rights of small nations et al. (religious and idealistic groups).” It is impossible to make
rigorous statements about which one of these appeals was most effective, but this is the
advantage that the propagandist has over the communications scholar. The propagandist is
primarily concerned with effectiveness and can afford to ignore the methodological
demands of social science.
Finally, like most propagandists, the CPI was frequently dishonest. Despite George
Creel’s claim that the CPI strived for unflinching accuracy, many of his employees later
admitted that they were quite willing to lie. Will Irwin, an ex-CPI member who published
several confessional pieces after the war, felt that the CPI was more honest than other
propaganda ministries, but made it clear that “we never told the whole truth – not by any
manner of means.” Citing an intelligence officer who bluntly said “you can’t tell them the
truth,” G.S Viereck argued that, as on all fronts, victories were routinely manufactured by
American military authorities. The professional propagandist realizes that, when a single
lie is exposed, the entire campaign is jeopardized. Dishonesty is discouraged, but on
strategic, not moral, grounds.
Post-War Propaganda
In the final months of 1918, as the war drew to a close, the CPI fell under
increasing scrutiny from a war-weary American public and from the Republican majority
that had gained control of Congress. On November 12, 1918, George Creel halted the
domestic activities of the CPI. The activities of the foreign division were ended, amidst
great controversy, a few months later. One might assume that the wartime propagandists
then put down their pens and paintbrushes and returned to ordinary life. This was not the
According to Lasswell, many former agents of the CPI stayed in Washington and
New York and took advantage of their skill and contacts. Two years later, the Director of
the CPI’s Foreign Division argued that “the history of propaganda in the war would
scarcely be worthy of consideration here, but for one fact – it did not stop with the
armistice. No indeed! The methods invented and tried out in the war were too valuable for
the uses of governments, factions, and special interests.” Sigmund Freud’s nephew,
Edward Bernays, took the techniques he learned in the CPI directly to Madison Avenue
and 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 the
eyes of the intelligent few in all departments of life to the possibilities of regimenting the
public mind,” wrote Bernays in his 1928 bombshell Propaganda. “It was only natural, after
the war ended, that intelligent persons should ask themselves whether it was not possible
to apply a similar technique to the problems of peace.”
This peacetime application of what was, after all, a tool of war, began to trouble
Americans who suspected that they had been misled. In The New Republic, John Dewey
questioned 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 to
the troubles of peace.” Dewey argued that the manipulation of information was
particularly 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 as
showing what may be accomplished by Government propaganda… Bartholomew nights
that never take place, together with the wildest rumors of communism in women, and of
murder and bloodshed, taken from obscure Scandinavian newspapers, are hastily relayed
to the US, while everything favorable to the Soviets, every bit of constructive
accomplishment, is suppressed.”
When one considers the horrible legacy of the war, it is tempting to pin complete
responsibility for American involvement on hate-mongering militarists in the CPI. Such
retroactive condemnation is no more complex than a wartime slogan. Ultimately, their
guilt is less important than the questions their activities raised about the role of
propaganda in a democratic society.
Democratic theory, as interpreted by Jefferson and Paine, was rooted in the
Enlightenment belief that free citizens could form respectable opinions about issues of the
day and use these opinions to guide their own destiny. Communication between citizens
was assumed to be a necessary element of the democratic process. During the first world
war, America’s leaders felt that citizens were not making the correct decisions quickly
enough, so they flooded the channels of communication with dishonest messages that
were designed to stir up emotions and hatred of Germany. The war came to an end, but
propaganda did not. For the past seven decades, those who lead our nation, along with
those who seek to overthrow it, have mouthed the ideals of Jefferson while behaving like
Is propaganda compatible with democracy, or does it undermine the population’s
ability to think critically about world events? What happens when simplistic, emotional
appeals are endlessly repeated? During the war, Bourne complained that “simple
syllogisms are substituted for analysis, things are known by their labels, and our heart’s
desire dictates what we shall see.” Could this description apply equally to a political
climate 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 world
makes obsolete the Enlightenment faith in popular wisdom? It is impossible for one person
to simultaneously be an expert in foreign policy, labor disputes, the environment, the
educational system, health care, constitutional law, and scientific regulation. Even the
President 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 the
intelligent minority who know how to regiment and guide the masses?” Or is “leadership
democracy” simply one stage of our democratic development? Could it someday be
replaced by something more far reaching?
What contribution will emerging communication technologies make to the
dissemination of propaganda? Does the myth of “interactivity” legitimize an unbalanced
social relationship, or does it make it possible for the audience to challenge the
propagandist? The hosts of radio talk shows claim that theirs is a democratic medium, but
callers are screened in advance and filtered through a three-second time delay. Are truly
interactive tools on the horizon?
The important difference between our “leadership democracy” and a totalitarian
state 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 to
disappear. As we approach the end of the twentieth century, finding answers to these
questions is more important than ever.

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