Civil Liberties

How America Was Sold on World War

Remembering George Creel, the founder of modern war propaganda


George Creel is largely forgotten in American history. In the first half of his career, he skipped from Georgism to civic reform activism and journalism; from writing jokes and comics for the Hearst newspapers to helping set up feckless reform organizations like the "National Fellowship of the University Militant."

Creel found his place in history running the Committee on Public Information (CPI), founded during President Woodrow Wilson's second term. CPI ran the most comprehensive and sophisticated program of war propaganda the world had yet seen, drafting historians, P.R. experts, journalists, and tens of thousands of ordinary citizens to harangue each other in movie theaters, or anywhere they could get a crowd. Long distrusted by more individualist and isolationist historians, Creel's story is told for the first time in over 60 years in the new book Selling the Great War: The Making of American Propaganda by Alan Axelrod, a prolific author of popular histories from Patton on Leadership to The Real History of World War II.

Axelrod takes a nuanced view of a character easy to hate, given how he, as Axelrod notes, sought "the total monopolization of information, shaping news, shaping images, shaping emotions to create a reality in which President Wilson's war emerged as not merely desirable but inevitable"; who propagandized for Wilson in 1916 as the man who kept us out of war, but within a year became an equally enthusiastic proselytizer for getting us into it.

Although the machinery of information control Creel created, buttressed with the legal powers of the Espionage Act and Sedition Act, helped send thousands of Americans to jail for speaking their minds, Axelrod on the whole came out seeing him as an honorable man seeking idealistic—though possibly wrongheaded—goals that he hoped would overtake the need for actual censorship.

Senior Editor Brian Doherty interviewed Axelrod by phone this week, discussing what Creel did and how, why it may have been a mistake, and how it's unlikely another Creel could achieve what he did.

Reason: Who was George Creel, and why write (or read) a book about him?

Alan Axelrod: George Creel was a crusading journalist of the generation of muckrakers at the start of the 20th century. When President Wilson first ran for the White House in 1912 he became a passionate supporter. Wilson was a progressive reformer, and Creel wrote an entire book in defense of Wilson's decision to avoid entering World War I. [Wilson and the Issues]

In 1916, Wilson ran on the slogan "he kept us out of war." When within a few weeks after Wilson was inaugurated for a second term he went to Congress to request a declaration of war, Creel offered his services to Wilson to help in any way he could. Wilson had initially wanted to impose absolute censorship on the press; he was concerned, he said, about espionage.

Creel countered that if censorship was imposed the government would lose the support of the people, and he proposed as a counter to this, in effect, complete control of the news—not censoring things but controlling what was released to the public. Not stopping anything from getting out but creating all of these stories that got out. Creel was put in charge of the newly created Committee of Public Information, the first ministry of propaganda the U.S. had ever had.

Within a very short time an organization of about 100,000 people, an instant bureau of the government, was in operation. Using various quite brilliant tactics that included recruiting the pioneers of the emerging industry of Public Relations—most significant among them Edward Bernays, pretty much the father of American P.R.—Creel created an organization that was responsible for virtually every scrap of info about the war that reached the American public and much of the world.

Reason: I detected a certain nuance, or even sympathy, toward Creel in your book, a character that lots of individualist historians have mistrusted and criticized. After all, who likes a professional "propagandist"?

Axelrod: As Creel saw "propaganda," it wasn't a bad thing. He defined it as creating the faithful in a good cause. World War I was a kind of quasi-religious endeavor. For Woodrow Wilson and I think for a lot of Americans, democracy is a kind of secular religion, linked to a God-given right to be free that is to be disseminated through the world and, if necessary, imposed on the world.

Creel believed this, and he believed Wilson's problem was to sell what was essentially America's first ideological war. The U.S. wasn't directly menaced by Germany, but Wilson wanted to promote the idea that Germany was attacking democracy and therefore posed a threat to the U.S., and that it was the duty of the U.S. to promote democracy around the world. Propaganda became a way of managing—Creel would say of educating—the American people, a way of managing their perception of what was worth fighting for.

Reason: Did Creel seem of particular interest to you to write about in the Iraq War context?

Axelrod: My initial interest in Creel predated the Iraq War. He was a figure who had received very little attention, yet who single-handedly created a vast propaganda machine that was so impressive it became a model for the Nazis. Joseph Goebbels told a reporter who conveyed this to Edward Bernays, that Goebbles read all of Bernays books, and Hitler himself in Mein Kampf cited the propaganda efforts of America in World War I as a model for what propaganda would do.

The Bush administration's manipulation of media did become increasingly naked and obvious. This whole idea of taking correspondents and embedding them with troops [arose from a precedent Creel set]. Reporters who were honest talked of the psychological effect of being embedded: You instantly take their side, you are one of them, you are co-opted even if no one tells you you have to be.

Reason: Anytime I've come across Creel's name and project, especially from libertarian-leaning historians, it has generally been in a pretty negative context, but your book is by no means dedicated to attacking the guy.

Axelrod: I decided Creel was an honorable man, and that the news that he reported was probably as accurate as any that any fully independent set of correspondents would have gathered. There really was an attempt to be honest, to simply present the facts and deal these out on a perfectly equal basis to all media outlets.

The slant came in the P.R. part of the operation, which sought directly to shape public opinion by giving them a stake in the war, in this idea of a world safe for democracy. Creel wrote a book, How We Advertised America, but it really was not advertising that CPI did—it was P.R. The difference being that advertising will promote a product, but P.R. seeks to shape opinion.

I certainly understand libertarian objections to Creel, but from his point of view CPI was very American, because it was an alternative to the un-American idea of clamping down and censoring news. He wanted to create and control news and he swore to be honest about it. And I concluded that his organization was probably as honest and objective about the facts of the war in terms of battles, in terms of what happened at the front, as anybody could have been. But in trying to shape public opinion, they created an apparatus that reached into every aspect of American life, into news, movie theaters, schoolrooms, churches, the lodge halls, everything.

Creel came before commercial radio; the only real mass media were newspapers and movies, and it was a big effort to control them, but they could be controlled. It was done with a sometimes not so subtle combination of legal threat and patriotic shaming and also supplying media outlets with really good products that were very well-written and well-reported.

But was it creepy for government to do this? Yeah. Is it dangerous to declare war on ideological grounds, is it dangerous to take for granted that democracy is a good thing that everyone should have whether they want it or not? Yes, that's very dangerous, and I think it was a mistake for America to enter World War I. I came away after much thinking, and not just while writing this book, but studying the subject for years, to think it was a mistake, a war of choice that was unnecessary. And had we not gone into that war Germany would have won and there's every chance the world would have been spared World War II.

Reason: Would a repeat of Creel's efforts be able to replicate his success in the 21st century?

Axelrod: I just heard in the last few days about the Chinese government paying thousands of bloggers to blog favorable things about China. That reminded me of something like the "Four Minute Men" Creel had created, this army of ordinary people who would make a patriotic war-related speech tailored to fit exactly within the four minutes it took a projectionist to change reels, which made four minutes of dead time [during movie showings] when speakers could address audiences about war-related topics. The Four Minute Men were issued talking points but they would speak as part of the community. It was sheer genius. The speakers were ordinary yet respectable members of the community perceived by audiences as one of them, speaking the government line yet in their own words.

If the government can get supposedly disinterested ordinary people, bloggers, to blog the party line…but I tend to doubt it could really work in the U.S., and on balance having a means of disseminating information to a mass audience that is not directly controlled by corporate entities or government entities, that's not a one-way broadcast medium like TV, makes it inherently more difficult to seize control of mass media the way Creel was able to do.

Senior Editor Brian Doherty is author of This is Burning Man (BenBella), Radicals for Capitalism (PublicAffairs) and Gun Control on Trial (Cato Institute).