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Woodrow Wilson and the Birth of American Propaganda

Woodrow Wilson and the Birth of American Propaganda

John Maxwell Hamilton’s book documents early attempts to sway and manipulate U.S. public opinion.

Nicholas J. Cull
Manipulating the Masses: Woodrow Wilson and the Birth of American Propaganda
by John Maxwell Hamilton (LSU Press, 664 pp., $49.95)

Some history books make exceptional contributions. Like long-needed highways or bridges, they act as public utilities. Some even do the job with elegance. John Maxwell Hamilton’s Manipulating the Masses: Woodrow Wilson and the Birth of American Propaganda is such a book: history as public service, delivered with grace and advancing our progress on the vital road to understanding the relationship between government and media in America and, by extension, in the wider world.

Hamilton draws on a wide array of archival sources in many countries to tell a simple story: how the United States government used mass communications to advance its foreign policy at home and abroad during World War I. In the past, the subject has been tackled only partially, most prominently by writers with a personal connection to the events in question and to the story’s central government agency, the Committee on Public Information (CPI). Moreover, this story has been overshadowed by the memoir of the man who ran the campaign, George Creel.

Creel was the modern U.S. government’s first great propagandist, with a role so novel that promulgating government propaganda was once known as “Creeling.” Creel’s own account of the process was—no surprise—self-serving.

Hamilton’s book is a more-than-overdue audit of Creel and his agency. More than that, it illuminates the original sin in the U.S. government’s relationship with the media, a foundational mix of spin and distortion that echoes down the decades to our own era of presidential tweets and weaponized media. “Every element” of today’s “information state,” says Hamilton, “had antecedents in the CPI.”

Much of the book is a chronicle of extraordinary inventiveness and bureaucratic energy. In just weeks, CPI invented mechanisms for selling the war and the U.S. approach to it at home and abroad. Highlights of the domestic campaign included recruitment of the leading writers and artists of the era and CPI’s innovative use of a network of local speakers—the “four-minute men”—who were trained to deliver government bulletins during the reel-change breaks in movie theaters. CPI also worked with foreign diasporas within the United States, alternately pandering to old-country sympathies and orchestrating displays of patriotism. Creel later claimed that he worked to restrain ill feeling against German-Americans, though the record shows little effort in that regard.

Internationally, CPI built a remarkable array of mechanisms to engage allied and neutral public opinion. CPI’s tools included a U.S. government newswire, libraries, speaker tours, and a documentary film program. Though the term “public diplomacy” wouldn’t be coined for another half century, Hamilton argues that the concept was “one of Creel’s most significant accomplishments.”

In the Great War campaign, Hamilton finds both the best and the worst of U.S. government communications. There are impressive and even inspiring characters—like the suffrage campaigner Vira Whitehouse, who represented the CPI in Switzerland, and journalist Arthur Bullard, who worked to promote U.S.-Russia understanding. There are engaging chancers like CPI’s man in China, Carl Crow; self-promoters like Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays; and frustrating blunderers whose missteps anticipated later errors. Hamilton devotes a chapter to the case of Edgar Sisson, the CPI man-on-the-scene in Petrograd during the Russian Revolution, whose dogged belief in a set of fake documents linking Lenin to Germany turned America into a peddler of conspiracy theory and set it on a historic collision course with the new Soviet regime; Hamilton notes the echoes in the furor around the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

In this firmament of characters, Creel burns the brightest. He was a politician, journalist, and, for a time, police chief of Denver. But he was always a campaigner, admirable for his vision and culpable for the chaos he sowed in his wake. Hamilton gives us digitally harvested statistics on the way the contemporaneous press treated Creel—who was a kind of lightning rod drawing contempt and satiric ire. One quip put it that there were now four branches of the U.S. government: executive, legislative, judicial, and Creel. It was unwise of Creel, as chairman of a new federal agency, to insult Congress for a cheap laugh; yet his characterizations of this country and its people seem prescient. “America must be thrilled,” Creel observed, “into unity and projectile force.”

While Hamilton deftly dramatizes the particular issues in U.S. war propaganda and gives faces and names to its heroes and villains, he makes it clear that the difficulties he documents were not idiosyncratic: They were to be expected. British, French, and even German propaganda produced parallel stories of tensions and turf wars. The same is true of comparisons between U.S. World War I propaganda and its successors: Whenever the worlds of government, media, and foreign policy touch, Hamilton’s account teaches, there will be difficulties. Practitioners should travel with eyes open. Also, while CPI was the predecessor of all kinds of overt and covert U.S. government information strategies, the later incarnations were in fact re-creations. In the United States, unlike in France and Britain, there was no policy continuity.

Hamilton offers one iron law of propaganda from his comparative work: In self-perception, only the enemy does propaganda. His narrative suggests that there ought to be a second law that propaganda work is inherently controversial and even a third, that communications bureaucracies work best when the person in charge is a friend of the President. Later high points of U.S. informational outreach were marked by relationships as warm as, or warmer than, the one between Creel and Wilson. There were LBJ and his U.S. Information Agency (USIA) director Leonard Marks; Ronald Reagan and USIA director Charles Z. Wick; and George W. Bush and his Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy, Karen Hughes. At other points, U.S. public diplomacy lacked valuable tailwinds and even suffered from political headwinds, however well qualified or well known the person in charge. Remember that Kennedy’s chief international communicator, legendary journalist and USIA director Edward R. Murrow, was not privy to plans for the invasion at the Bay of Pigs.

Even without continuity of institutions, the legacies of CPI were many. In a detailed coda, Hamilton shows that CPI alumni fanned out through American society to become figures of significance in 20th-century American life. The world’s embrace of the League of Nations and the Wilsonian idea of peace is a testament to CPI’s ability to communicate those ideas, even as America’s rejection of the same ideas was due in part to missteps by Wilson and Creel. CPI’s film deals, which linked the screening of Hollywood films overseas to a willingness by producers to show CPI films and refuse to screen German films, seem to have built a market for Hollywood in key regions abroad.

But CPI also had a negative legacy: What were seen as CPI’s “achievements” contributed to a widespread belief in the 1920s that public opinion was almost infinitely malleable and, hence, that democracy was chronically endangered.

Great books prepare the way for others, and one hopes that Hamilton’s work will inspire others to fill in gaps in the CPI map. One need is for studies of CPI’s work in particular countries, as a way to explore local experiences of the foundations of the global encounter with American ideas and policy in the 20th century.

CPI was a response to a moment of change in which the steam-powered printing press rendered newspapers ubiquitous. New media combined with economic disruption allowed national rivalries, simmering for a century, to boil over. CPI was part of a corrective move to harness the media and restore a semblance of order by selling Wilson’s vision to the world. We see the same pattern, of new media accelerating strife, in the run-up to World War II, at key points in the Cold War, and in our own time. We need propaganda—or at least a coherent vision—to overcome the centrifugal forces of party and place and build the kinds of coalitions required to tame the great ills of our age, including climate change, abuses of human rights, pandemics, mass migration, and economic inequality.

Concluding one section of his book, Hamilton quotes H.G. Wells—Britain’s star Great War propagandist—making this argument in defense of mass persuasion:

All human institutions are made of propaganda, are sustained by propaganda and perish when it ceases; they must be continually explained and re-explained to the young and the negligent. And for this new world of democracy … there must needs be the greatest of all propagandists.

While we can see that the slow and cumulative processes of education are more ethical and effective than the fires of propaganda, Wells’ point essentially remains true and Hamilton’s book relevant.

Nicholas J. Cull is professor of public diplomacy at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. His numerous works include Public Diplomacy: Foundations for Global Engagement in the Digital Age (2019). He is co-host of the podcast “People, Places, Power.” Twitter: @NickCull

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