The Drift Towards War
"Lead this people into war, and they'll forget there was ever such a
thing as tolerance. To fight, you must be brutal and ruthless, and
the spirit of ruthless brutality will enter into the very fiber of
national life, infecting the Congress, the courts, the policeman on
the beat, the man in the street."
It is one of history's great ironies that Woodrow Wilson, who was re- elected as a
peace candidate in 1916, led America into the first world war. With the help of a
propaganda apparatus that was unparalleled in world history, Wilson forged a nation of
immigrants into a fighting whole. An examination of public opinion before the war,
propaganda efforts ...view middle of the document...
This frenzied support for the war was particularly remarkable in light of the fact
that Wilson's re-election had been widely interpreted as a vote for peace. After all, in
January of 1916, Wilson stated that "so far as I can remember, this is a government of the
people, and this people is not going to choose war." In retrospect, it is apparent that the
vote for Wilson cloaked profound cleavages in public opinion. At the time of his
inauguration, immigrants constituted one third of the population. Allied and German
propaganda revived old-world loyalties among "hyphenated" European- Americans, and
opinions about US intervention were sharply polarized. More than 8 million
German-Americans lived in this country, and many were sympathetic to the cause of their
homeland. Meanwhile, anti-German feeling was strong among the upper classes on the
Atlantic coast, and was particularly intense among those with social and business
connections to Britain.
The Committee on Public Information
The absence of public unity was a primary concern when America entered the war
on April 6, 1917. In Washington, unwavering public support was considered to be crucial
to the entire wartime effort. On April 13, 1917, Wilson created the Committee on Public
Information (CPI) to promote the war domestically while publicizing American war aims
abroad. Under the leadership of a muckraking journalist named George Creel, the CPI
recruited heavily from business, media, academia, and the art world. The CPI blended
advertising techniques with a sophisticated understanding of human psychology, and its
efforts represent the first time that a modern government disseminated propaganda on
such a large scale. It is fascinating that this phenomenon, often linked with totalitarian
regimes, emerged in a democratic state.
Although George Creel was an outspoken critic of censorship at the hands of
public servants, the CPI took immediate steps to limit damaging information. Invoking the
threat of German propaganda, the CPI implemented "voluntary guidelines" for the news
media and helped to pass the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918.
The CPI did not have explicit enforcement power, but it nevertheless "enjoyed censorship
power which was tantamount to direct legal force." Like modern reporters who participate
in Pentagon press pools, journalists grudgingly complied with the official guidelines in
order to stay connected to the information loop. Radical newspapers, such as the socialist
Appeal to Reason, were almost completely extinguished by wartime limitations on dissent.
The CPI was not a censor in the strictest sense, but "it came as close to performing that
function as any government agency in the US has ever done." Censorship was only one
element of the CPI's efforts. With all the sophistication of a modern advertising agency,
the CPI examined the different ways that information flowed to...