The little-known story of George Creel and the Committee on Public Information, “America’s first and only ministry of propaganda.”
In 1916, Woodrow Wilson campaigned on the slogan, “He kept us out of war!” Within months after his reelection he sought congressional authority for a war to make the “world…safe for democracy.” To marshal his determinedly isolationist countrymen, Wilson turned to Creel, whose background in political journalism and progressive politics ideally suited him for the job of promoting the president’s lofty war aims. Although he invokes influential ad- and public-relations men Ivy Lee and Edward Bernays, historian Axelrod (Profiles in Folly: History’s Worst Decisions and Why They Went Wrong, 2008, etc.) demonstrates that Creel accomplished something far more sophisticated than simply “selling” the Great War. Thanks to the Espionage and Sedition Acts and a “friendly understanding” with newspaper editors, Creel had a monopoly on war information. Aided by his recruitment of leading figures in all walks of American life, his careful selection of helpful facts and his saturation of the public through press, pictures, movies, public meetings and rallies, Creel sought to transform the public mind and make it receptive to Wilson’s message. With especially fine passages about the Four-Minute Men, community members recruited to address movie audiences while projectionists switched reels, and the Division of Pictorial Publicity, whose members included Charles Dana Gibson, George Bellows and N.C. Wyeth, Axelrod shows Creel’s propaganda machine in action. He marvels at Creel’s efficiency and credits him with honorable, if occasionally disingenuous intentions. He also observes that what Wilson and Creel saw as a morally neutral program, necessitated by war, could easily have become—as Hitler and Goebbels, who carefully studied the Creel’s techniques, later proved—a monster.
A useful exhumation of an almost forgotten piece of American history and a timely meditation on the conflict between free speech and security.