Committee on Public Information, America's WWI Propaganda Agency

Government Office Worked to Sell Americans on Need to Fight World War

Photo of Boy Scouts promoting war bonds during World War I
Committee on Public Information photo of Boy Scouts promoting war bonds.

 FPG / Getty Images

The Committee on Public Information was a government agency created during World War I to distribute information intended to influence public opinion to inspire support for America's entry in the war. The organization was essentially a propaganda arm of the federal government, and was presented to the public and the Congress as a reasonable alternative to government censorship of war news.

The administration of Woodrow Wilson believed a government office dedicated to providing favorable publicity for the cause of entering the war was necessary. Americans had never sent an army to Europe. And joining the war on the side of Britain and France was a concept that needed to be sold to the public the way an ordinary consumer product might be sold.

Key Takeaways: Committee on Public Information

  • Government propaganda agency was created to convince American public of the necessity of the U.S. entering World War I.
  • Public and Congress believed that the CPI would ensure no censorship of the press, and that reliable information would be provided.
  • Agency provided tens of thousands of public speakers, arranged events to sell bonds and promote the war, created posters, and published booklets.
  • Following the war there was a backlash against the agency, and excesses of war fervor were blamed on it.

In its few years of operation, the Committee on Public Information (CPI) fed material to newspapers and magazines, commissioned advertising campaigns, and produced propaganda posters. It even arranged for thousands of public speakers to appear all over the country, making the case for Americans to fight in Europe.

Overcoming Skepticism

A rationale for creating the CPI, as it became known, was rooted in controversies which arose in 1916, when the U.S. government was becoming increasingly concerned with suspected spies and saboteurs. Woodrow Wilson’s attorney general, Thomas Gregory, proposed controlling the flow of information by censoring the press. Congress resisted that idea, as did newspaper publishers and members of the public.

In early 1917, with the issue of censoring the press still being discussed, a magazine writer with a reputation as a crusading muckraker, George Creel, wrote to President Wilson. Creel proposed forming a committee that would provide information to the press. By having the press voluntarily agree to being fed information it would avoid censorship.

Forming the Committee

Creel’s idea found favor with Wilson and his top advisers, and by executive order Wilson created the committee. Besides Creel, the committee included the Secretary of State, Secretary of War, and Secretary of the Navy (what today would be the Defense Department was still split between Army and Navy departments).

The formation of the committee was announced in April 1917. In a front-page story on April 15, 1917, the New York Times reported that the three cabinet secretaries on the committee had sent President Wilson a letter, which was made public. In the letter, the three officials said America’s "great present needs are confidence, enthusiasm, and service."

The letter also stated: "While there is much that is properly secret in connection with the departments of the government, the total is small compared to the vast amounts of information that is right and proper for the people to have."

George Creel, head of the United States Committee on Public Information
George Creel, head of the United States Committee on Public Information. Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images

The letter also put forth the idea that two functions, identified as “censorship and publicity,” could happily coexist. George Creel would be the head of the committee, and could operate as a government censor, but it was assumed that the newspapers would happily accept war news as distributed by the government and would not have to be censored.

CPI Key Messages and Techniques

Creel quickly got to work. During 1917, the CPI organized a speaker’s bureau, which dispatched more than 20,000 individuals (some accounts give much higher numbers) to give short speeches supporting the American war effort. The speakers became known as The Four-Minute Men for the brevity of their speeches. The effort was successful, and gatherings from club meetings to public performances, soon featured a speaker talking of America’s duty to join the war in Europe.

The New York Times, on December 30, 1917, published a story about the Four-Minute Men which indicated how common they had become:

“The work of the Four-Minute Men has recently been extended to that representative speakers appear weekly in almost every moving picture house. The subject matter is prepared and the speaking is directed from Washington… In each state there is an organization of Four-Minute Men.
“The number of speakers now totals 20,000. Their topics are matters of national importance connected with the war plans of the government.”

Creel believed the more lurid stories of German atrocities would not be believed by the public. So in the early months of his operation he directed speakers to focus on how Americans would be fighting to support freedom and democracy in the face of German brutishness.

By 1918 the CPI was urging its speakers to make use of wartime atrocity stories. One writer, Raymond D. Fosdick, reported seeing a church congregation cheer after a speaker described German atrocities and called for the German leader, Kaiser Wilhelm, to be boiled in oil.

On February 4, 1918, the New York Times published a brief news story headlined "Bar 'Hymns of Hate.'" The article said the CPI had sent out instructions to its Four-Minute Men to tone down extreme material.

If Your Soldier's Hit Poster
If Your Soldier's Hit Poster by E.M. Gean Jackson, a film by the Committee on Public Information. swim ink 2 llc / Getty Images

The CPI also distributed a number of printed materials, beginning with booklets that made the case for war. A news story in June 1917 described the proposed “War Booklets,” and noted that 20,000 copies would be sent to newspapers nationwide while the Government Printing Office would print many more for general circulation.

The first of the War Booklets, titled How the War Came to America, consisted of 32 pages of dense prose. The lengthy essay explained how it had become impossible for America to remain neutral, and that was followed by reprints of speeches by President Wilson. The booklet was not terribly engaging, but it got the official message out in a handy package for public circulation.

More lively material was put out by the CPI’s Division of Pictorial Publicity. Posters produced by the office encouraged Americans, through the use of vivid illustrations, to work in war-related industries and buy war bonds.

Controversies

In the summer of 1917, newspaper publishers were shocked to learn the government had directed the companies controlling transatlantic telegraph traffic to divert cables to the CPI in Washington to be reviewed before they were routed to the newspaper offices. After an outcry, the practice was stopped, but it would be cited as an example of how Creel and his organization had a tendency to overstep.

Creel, for his part, was known for having a bad temper, and often put himself into controversies. He insulted members of Congress, and was forced to apologize. And no less a public figure than Theodore Roosevelt, the former president, criticized the CPI. He claimed the agency had been trying to punish newspapers which had supported America entering the conflict but then had become skeptical of the administration’s conduct of the war.

In May 1918, the New York Times published a lengthy story headlined "Creel as a Recurrent Storm Centre." The article detailed various controversies Creel had found himself in. A sub-headline read: "How the Government's Publicity Man Has Shown Himself an Adept at Getting Into Hot Water With the Congress and the Public."

During the war the American public did become infused with a patriotic fervor, and that led to excesses, such as German-Americans being targeted for harassment and even violence. Critics believed official CPI booklets such as German War Practices were incitements. But George Creel and other defenders of the CPI, pointing out that private groups were also distributing propaganda materials, insisted the less responsible organizations had inspired any bad behavior.

Impact of the Committee’s Work

There's no question that Creel and his committee had an impact. Americans came around to support intervention in the war, and participated widely in supporting the effort. The success of war bond drives, known as the Liberty Loan, was often attributed to the CPI.

Yet the CPI came in for much criticism after the war, when it became clear that information had been manipulated. In addition, the war fervor stoked by Creel and his committee may have had an influence on events following the war, particularly the Red Scare of 1919 and the notorious Palmer Raids.

George Creel wrote a book, How We Advertised America, in 1920. He defended his work during the war, and he continued to work as a writer and political operative until his death in 1953.

Sources:

  • "The Creel Committee." American Decades, edited by Judith S. Baughman, et al., vol. 2: 1910-1919, Gale, 2001. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • "George Creel." Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed., vol. 4, Gale, 2004, pp. 304-305. Gale Virtual Reference Library.