By 1917, over forty different peace groups in the U.S.A. were agitating against involvement in the war. On the day that Wilson called upon Congress to declare war, 10,000 people had a peace rally in Chicago Coliseum, thousands of German-Americans demanded a national referendum and 1,500 pacifists protested in the Capitol. Civil War veteran General Isaac R. Sherwood made a futile appeal to Congress in which he reminded them of England’s attack upon the US during the Civil War. He warned that the American people would be going to war “as an Ally of the only nation in Europe that has always been our enemy and against the nation that has always been our friend.”
Wilson asked Congress to take up what would become the Espionage Act in his April 2, 1917 address as he asked for a declaration of war against Germany. Wilson and his allies needed to create a “war will” in the public. It had to become blindly devoted to the federal government, and true “patriotism” would require absolute loyalty to Wilson. Any criticism of either would be treason.
The congressional declaration of war was overwhelming. Amid the flag-waving, cheers and speeches, only six senators and fifty representatives voted against it. The Senate, however, did strike down Wilson’s request to give him power to restrain the press. He found ways around that obstacle.
Wilson won election as a peace candidate with the slogan “He kept us out of War,” but caved in to the pro-war camp so rapidly that there were rumors he was being blackmailed. In an effort to save face, it was crucial to quickly whip up war fever. He turned to old friend and muckraking journalist George Creel (pictured above) to head a propaganda ministry, the first of its type. The Center for Public Interest (C.P.I.) was created by executive order one week after the U.S. declaration of war.
In an era when much of the population did not read well (or at all) and there was no radio and television to rely upon for information, the CPI used every weapon available to spread their message to, as Creel would later say, “turn the American people into “one white-hot mass (of hatred) with fraternity, devotion, courage, and deathless determination.” The CPI would soon grow into a massive agency, digging into almost every aspect of daily life and later acting as a censor of almost all published material about the war. It helped to draft legislation such as the ‘Espionage and Sedition’ Acts which would effectively silence any opposition to the war. Like a secret police agency, it crafted an atmosphere which, in the process of war-mongering, intentionally created suspicion, fear, ethnic hatred and violence by inventing the German arch-villain.
The Creel Committee was not entirely responsible for converting a neutral American public into a hun-hunting mob. The wheels had already been set in motion by various special interest groups who had a financial stake in the war. Nicholas Murray Butler’s Carnegie Endowment for International Peace had been whipping up war fever for months and many prominent community and business leaders in the U. S. had been pro-Ally from the start. A “War Sabbath” had already beat the drum for war in some of the nation’s bigger houses of worship at the behest of wealthy donors.
George Creel was the civilian chair of the CPI. Secretaries of State Robert Lansing, of War Newton Baker and of Navy Josephus Daniels topped off the executive committee membership. The CPI had two sections: The foreign section, concerned with directing American propaganda activities overseas which established offices in over thirty countries, and the domestic section, which was composed of a mutating variety and size of specialized divisions to mobilize the home front.
At only 5 feet 7 inches tall, CPI general George Creel was a homely, mediocre publicist and Woodrow Wilson’s personal friend. Creel entertained Wilson, who was said to gleefully clap his hands at Creel’s mimics of old Southerners and uptight Yankees in Congress. A party hack, he went at his new job with zeal. He organized the CPI’s domestic division into nineteen subdivisions, each to target market specific groups of people. Using sales experts and psychologists, they flooded every possible channel of communication to create war fever using blatantly dishonest messages.
They were given credibility by the recruitment of respected figures such as John Dewey and Walter Lippmann under the wing of the CPI’s ‘Division of Civic and Educational Cooperation.’ This batch of scholars under the directorship of Guy Stanton Ford produced hundreds of publications and such writings as ‘The German Whisper,’ ‘German War Practices’ and ‘Conquest and Kultur.’
The ‘American Alliance for Labor and Democracy’ under Samuel Gompers of the American Federation of Labor eagerly agreed to keep peace in the unions in connection with the war effort, which later translated into government violence against striking workers. The CPI reached deeply into every available avenue of brain washing with a flock of crafty psychologists under the leadership of Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays. They went about indoctrinating the public by using well-studied psychological tactics until daily life in America was infused with hate and people were automatically conditioned to disgust and hatred for all things German.
The ‘Division of Pictorial Publicity’ headed by Charles Dana Gibson formed on April 17, 1917 to deal with print media, notably posters, illustrations and ads in magazines and papers in which they received free ad space. Respected and talented artists such as N.C Wyeth were asked to channel their creative forces into recruiting for a violent and bloody war. They often produced huge patriotic paintings. James Montgomery Flagg concocted the famous ‘Uncle Sam.’ George Bellows also contributed to the inexhaustible effort to convince citizens that Germany threatened to impose what he termed its “barbaric and blood thirsty Kultur” upon innocent Americans.
‘The Four Minute Men,’ another tentacle of the CPI, managed 75,000 volunteer speakers in 5,200 communities. An amateur orators would speak wherever they could, even in churches. Over 7.5 million speeches provoking hate, fear and suspicion toward Germany and Germans were delivered to more than 314 million people, thousands having such dreadful impact that mobs sometimes formed afterward and vandalized German-American homes and businesses.
Using subliminal messaging rivaling that of today’s retail giants, the Four Minute Men also hired bi-lingual speakers to target specific immigrant groups, businessmen to gather support of other businessmen, farmers to sell the war to farmers and children to spread the hate to other children.
The CPI worked in conjunction with the Food Bureau and formed strong allegiances with editors of women’s magazines, most notably Ladies Home Journal’s editor Edward Bok, a loyal Wilson supporter. The patriotic and sentimental covers of The Journal enveloped ads, posters and sappy articles extolling sacrifice, thrift and an eagerness to send sons to war. Every issue of The Journal published at least one article specifically written by the staff of the CPI.
The Four Minute Men created a womens division to speak at womens groups and matinees to counteract any notions of war resistance, such as those displayed in the popular pre-war song “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier.” Bok’s views of women mirrored the CPI’s and shared the same goal: discrediting women reformers and portraying them as dupes of German propaganda. Some female pacifists eventually suffered violence as a result. The Saturday Evening Post, another of America’s biggest magazines announced that it was time to rid America of Germans, “the scum of the melting pot.”
American women were not told how badly living conditions within Germany had deteriorated since 1915 when the lethal British embargo caused a decline in food supplies. The diet in Germany, initially reduced to bread and potatoes, turned to turnips as a staple in 1916 when the potato crop failed. Only the very young or old, invalids or expectant mothers were permitted milk. 88,232 Germans starved to death in 1915, and 121,114 in 1916, and he toll kept growing.
The propagandists had no shame when it came to using children as a vehicle to spread their message, and the CPI psychologists did their work well: children in America were scared to death of the Hun. In fact, children were organized as “Four Minute Men” speakers in their schools! In 1918, 200,000 schools participated in a spring competition to promote the Third Liberty Loan drive. The “Division of Civic and Educational Cooperation” published a bi-monthly bulletin promoting “patriotism.”
The American public library in this era was very mush a middle to upper class institution and run more like a private club catering to a constituency mainly of white, professionals and businessmen. Especially when their biggest benefactors and patrons had a financial stake in Allied victory, librarians willingly became purveyors of propaganda. Donated books seen as “pro-German” or pacifistic were discarded and replaced with the Creel Committee’s pamphlets wherein well-respected history professors rewrote and grossly distorted German history.
The directors of libraries across the nation were “using their judgement” to purge the shelves of German books, including works by Goethe and other German cultural icons. The libraries were also used by the CPI to distribute Americanization Registration Cards to thousands of immigrants to be returned with signatures to the CPI’s ‘Division of Work with the Foreign Born.’ The libraries in the bigger cities also sponsored “story hours” to thousands of children on the Allied struggle using pro-war CPI material.
The Free Library of Philadelphia, for instance, reported that for the last half of 1917 it had provided 918 story hours to 56, 912 children on the topic of “stories of our allies.” Libraries staged publicity stunts: setting up actress Theda Bara in a Liberty Bond booth in front of the New York Public Library garnered $300,000 in one day. Other CPI war expositions featured acts with traveling “French officers” who told grim German atrocity stories.
Realizing that a good many Americans read the comics and not the rest of a newspaper, the CPI established a Bureau of Cartoons under George Hecht to “mobilize and direct the scattered cartoon power of the country for constructive war work.” Pro-war, Anti-German propaganda was planted in cartoon pages and supplements across the nation by the closely supervised doodling purveyors of hate. The “funnies” portrayed fat, traitorous German Americans waving a US flag out the window while drinking a stein of beer to “Hoch der Kaiser.” The lewd, greedy, violent “Germans” now sprouted snouts, tusks, hairy faces, red eyes and fangs and were ravaging maidens and killing babies.
America’s media found that the gorier and more sensational the stories, the more magazines and newspapers they sold. In a typical CPI book, ‘Why America Fights Germany,’ Germans penetrate into America and advance toward Lakewood, New Jersey, where they demand beer and money (and maybe even sausage!) and hang a feeble old woman who tries to hide her paltry 20 dollar savings. The town’s maiden school teachers meet an even worse fate at the hands of the Huns, predators of virtue that they were, and a Catholic priest and Methodist minister are thrown into a pig-sty while the German soldiers laugh. 50 leading citizens are then lined up and shot. The dirty, sexed-up, gorilla faced “Germans” then burn the lovely town and move on to maraud another.
One of the CPI’s 19 domestic divisions centered its efforts on music and hired thousands of song writers. Government composers were identified only as “Army Song Leaders.” Most tried to portray an ethnically diverse United States (which racially segregated its own troops) railing against the arrogant, haughty “German Race.”
They infused the music with anti-German lyrics and imagery, coupling grotesque looking Germans with pro-war messages printed on sheet music. There were over a hundred anti-Kaiser songs produced by Tin Pan Alley such as the cheerful ditty “We Are Out for the Scalp of Mister Kaiser.” The very day after Wilson’s declaration of war against Germany on April 16, 1917, George M. Cohan was ready with “Over There,” one of the most successful American propaganda songs for which Cohan was later given a special Congressional Medal of Honor. Irving Berlin played a huge role in the pro-war propaganda. Even John Philip Sousa provided patriotic inspiration with his music (often lifted from German songs and marches) at Liberty Loan rallies and Red Cross relief drives.
German language publication in the USA now faced large-scale assaults. The Atlantic Monthly accused the German language press of disloyalty and the New York Times agreed, relentlessly claiming that German-language newspapers slyly supported Berlin’s cause. The Times, claiming that “any book that comes to us from a German printing press is open to suspicion,” suspended all publications from Germany because “the German microbe is hiding somewhere between its covers.” Publisher Irving Putnam vowed: “I am opposed to opening the markets of America to the products of Germany for the next 25 years, and I will knowingly buy and use no German-made goods in the said period of time.”
In September, 1917, Congress sneaked in a rider to an unrelated bill which gave the government even greater control over the expression of opinion among German-Americans and Wilson signed it on October 6th. German-language newspapers were now required to supply the post office with English translations of “any comments respecting the Government of the United States... its policies, international relations or the state and conduct of the war.” One of the worst abusers of the public right to privacy was Postmaster General Albert Burleson who abused his wide discretionary powers in denying many socialist, pacifist, and anti-war publications access to the U.S. mail.
By the end of 1917, the CPI was sending every newspaper in California alone an average of six pounds of propaganda paper a day and gushing out over 20,000 columns a week. Second rate artists, authors and journalists now had a change for instant fame (or at least a paying job) with sensational atrocity stories. John R. Rathom wrote articles and spy stories in the Providence Journal which were so sensational it was said that he was coached by the British Secret Service. He also gave numerous lectures and in 1917/18 he led a campaign against “German sympathizers” and exposed German spy plots in America. In 1918, there were suspicions that his articles were fakes and by 1920 he was accused of circulating falsehoods, which he reluctantly admitted. He was finally discredited, but not until after “Rathomania” had achieved considerable success in molding the public mind.
Other media lies circulated in 1918 included: German airplanes dropping poisoned candy for kids, Germans raping Belgian nuns, cutting off the enemy’s ears and feeding Americans tuberculosis germs. In St. Louis, Missouri, newspapers reported that the Germans gave children hand-grenades to play with and then frolicked in glee when the grenades exploded and blew up the kids. Several patriotic newspapers began printing black lists of local German-Americans (including their addresses) which were headlined “German Enemy Aliens.”
Despite even General Pershing and the US War Department absolutely debunking the absurd atrocity fabrications, many of these same stories were introduced as the basis of war propaganda movies that had the blessing of Wilson himself: The CPI’s Films Division itself produced over sixty official feature films delivered to an average weekly movie audience of 80 million people, ending the day at the movies with its weekly newsreel the ‘Official War Review.’
In just a few short months, the age old, generally good public image of the German people would be completely turned on its head by thousands of propagandists working tirelessly from both sides of the ocean at this carefully structured diabolical task.