A journalist friend once described George Creel as a man who saw only two classes of men — skunks and the greatest man that ever lived. ‘The greatest man that ever lived,’ the friend explained, ‘is plural and includes everyone who is on Creel’s side in whatever public issue he happens to be concerned with.’ While he called that portrait an exaggeration, Creel admitted it was ‘not entirely untrue.’
Creel often styled himself ‘the original Wilson man.’ He had tried to persuade Woodrow Wilson to run for president as early as 1905, when Wilson was still presiding over Princeton University. When war with Germany became imminent in 1917, Wilson, just re-elected by a whisker for a second term, was uneasy about the American people’s reaction to a plunge into the carnage that had been wracking Europe for the previous three years. He leaned toward accepting the proposals of his admirals and generals for a censorship law that would give him iron control of the unruly American press. Creel, however, convinced Wilson that the country needed not suppression but the expression of a coherent pro-war policy. He warned Wilson that American opinion about the war was ‘muddled’ by the barrages and counterbarrages of German and Allied propaganda.
That was an understatement. Enthusiasm for war was largely confined to the elite Eastern establishment, most of whom were Republicans and Anglophiles. Their leaders, like J.P. Morgan, had loaned vast sums of money to the Allies and faced the prospect of bankruptcy if the Germans won.
Wilson had just been re-elected using the slogan, ‘He kept us out of war.’ By 1917 no less than 40 different peace groups were active in the United States, agitating against American involvement in the horrendous conflict. Wellington House, the British propaganda arm in America, nervously reported to London that apathy toward the war was pervasive.
Other people were reporting a lot of active opposition to the war. Ten thousand people rallied in the Chicago Coliseum to hear a Texas congressman denounce the drift toward war. A mass meeting of German-Americans demanded a national referendum. Radical groups urged Americans to refuse to serve in the Army and get killed or wounded for ‘the profit takers.’ On April 2, the day Wilson called on Congress to declare war, 1,500 pacifists swarmed through the Capitol and began arguing with pro-war senators and congressmen.
Against that dubious background, Creel persuaded the president to launch the Committee on Public Information. Ostensibly, it was run by three cabinet members and Chairman Creel. They met as a body only once. Creel listened to the cabinet members’ advice and never spoke to them again. ‘The Committee on Public Information was George Creel,’ wrote a Washington newspaperman. ‘It continued to be George Creel after a hundred and fifty thousand people were taking part in its incredibly varied activities.’
The short (5 feet 7 inches), stocky Missouri native was a human dynamo. Previously a muckraking journalist of some renown, he had also served as a reform police commissioner of Denver, Colo., and was the creator of Newsbook, which was supposed to be the flagship publication of the National Fellowship of the University Militant, an organization that proposed to reform America overnight by turning the college professors loose on the hoi polloi. The publication lasted all of four months. A talented mimic, Creel regularly reduced the president to helpless laughter with his imitations of the numerous flamboyant Southerners and stuffed-shirt Yankees in Congress. His sense of humor, plus some powerful political enemies he had made as a muckraker, would later bring him trouble.
In a memoir he wrote in 1920, Creel candidly described what he set out to do with the Committee on Public Information. The goal was the creation of ‘a passionate belief in the justice of America’s cause that would weld the American people into one white hot mass instinct with fraternity, devotion, courage and deathless determination.’ Creel was a strong believer in ‘the war will.’ In a democracy, he maintained, that will depended upon ‘the degree to which each one of all the people can concentrate and consecrate body, soul, and spirit in a supreme effort of service and sacrifice.’
Nobody ever accused George Creel of thinking (or writing) small. Creel’s first test was a day that many in Washington regarded with trepidation — June 5, 1917, the date on which all American males of combat age were to register for the draft. Remembering the draft riots of the Civil War, Senator James Reed of Missouri had warned Secretary of War Newton Baker that the streets of American cities would ‘run red with blood on registration day.’
A month before the day of reckoning, Creel unleashed his most potent brainchild: the Four Minute Men. He got the idea from a young Chicagoan, Donald Ryerson, who told him he had inspired a number of pro-war friends to make speeches in motion picture theaters. Creel decided to turn that concept into a national effort, gave the volunteers their patriotic name and appointed Ryerson their director.
Soon, in movie theaters across the nation, a glass slide was thrown on the stage curtain before or after the main feature. It announced the imminent appearance of the local Four Minute Man and certified that he was speaking under the auspices of the Committee on Public Information. Creel supplied the Four Minute Men with bulletins and four-minute speeches, but urged them to add a personal touch whenever possible. Their first topic was ‘Universal Service by Selective Draft.’ From May 12 to 21, 75,000 orators deluged moviegoers with the idea that registration day should be a festival of honor for the future draftees.
The country responded ecstatically. On June 5, 10 million men signed up without a murmur of protest. Seattle, Wash., gave a public banquet for its draftees before they departed for Camp Lewis. In hundreds of small towns, Civil War veterans turned out to escort the new soldiers to the railroad station. By the end of the year, the country had 516,000 draftees in training camps, still without a whisper of protest.
Meanwhile, the Four Minute Men were tackling other topics, such as ‘Why We Are Fighting’ and ‘What Our Enemy Really Is.’ Creel never stopped trying to improve their performances, sending teams of speech teachers and noted writers around the country to coach them. Eventually, he had ‘inspectors’ checking up on them. In order to join the FMM ranks, a man needed endorsements from three prominent citizens in his hometown. If he did not measure up on the platform, he was ruthlessly removed from the group.
The FMMs were soon speaking at lodge and labor union meetings, granges, lumber camps, and even on Indian reservations. College FMMs operated in 153 institutions of higher learning. Creel even trained soldier FMMs to speak to their fellow doughboys. Finally, there was a cadre of Junior FMMs who spoke to high schools. The best speakers in that division won prizes. Two hundred thousand high schools participated in support of the Third Liberty Loan drive.
By the time the war was over, Creel, who loved statistics, claimed his orators had given 755,190 speeches to a total of 314,454,514 Americans. They reached more than 11 million people per month. Newspapers reported on them to the tune of 900,000 lines, a statistic based on a check of only the larger papers. The whole stupendous program cost the government a mere $101,555.10.
Most propagandists would have rested on their laurels at that point, but Creel was just warming up. Aided by a committee of prominent historians, he began churning out ‘Red, White and Blue Books,’ which expanded speeches by Wilson into high-flying paeans to America’s war aims and a series of ferocious attacks on Germany under titles such as German War Practices and The Prussian System.
Creel also got into the movie business. His filmmakers produced features such as Pershing’s Crusaders and Under Four Flags, and distributed them with the help of D.W. Griffith, the man who had made The Birth of a Nation, Hollywood’s first superhit. In addition to drenching the public in patriotic fervor, Creel’s films earned the committee $852,744.30–not a bad profit in the days when a movie cost only a nickel.
Next, Creel created a Division of Pictorial Publicity in the committee’s already crowded offices and hired Charles Dana Gibson, one of the most noted illustrators of his day, to run it. Soon, famous illustrators such as N.C. Wyeth were painting patriotic canvases 19 feet high and 25 feet long to promote another Liberty Loan drive. The brushmen created 1,438 works of art, which were reproduced by the millions. Probably the most famous was James Montgomery Flagg’s portrait of Uncle Sam, pointing his finger and declaring, ‘I want you.’
The next test of Creel’s program came in September 1918, when the government decreed a second draft call, registering every male from 18 to 45 years of age, in hopes of adding another 12,800,000 men to the rolls. By now the country had been at war for 18 months, and casualty lists were being published in the newspapers every day. A violent swing against the war was a real possibility. Creel went all-out, lashing his Four Minute Men to fresh rhetorical heights. A newly created advertising division shipped ready-to-use full-page ads to 18,000 newspapers. Working in day and night shifts, Creel’s staff mailed out 20 million copies of something called the Selective Service Register, a potpourri of questions and answers about the Army and the draft, plus instructions, exhortations and appeals. On September 12, 1918, 13,975,706 men registered, again without protest.
The enormous propaganda machine Creel created, he tirelessly pointed out, had cost taxpayers only $4,912,553. He coyly neglected to mention that along with that appropriation he also had unlimited access to a $50 million ‘president’s fund’ that Congress had given Wilson early in the war to spend with no questions asked. When Wilson suddenly dropped his bipartisan stance and called for the election of a Democratic Congress in 1918, some Republican legislators began calling Creel ‘Wilson’s press agent.’
Creel struck back in his take-no-prisoners style, comparing Senator Henry Cabot Lodge’s mind to the soil of his native Massachusetts as ‘highly cultivated but naturally sterile.’ After a speech in New York, someone asked Creel what he thought about ‘the heart of Congress’ in regard to supporting the war. Creel replied, ‘Oh, I have not been slumming for years.’
The crack made headlines. Congressmen rushed to their dictionaries to discover they had been accused of being ‘poor, dirty, degraded and often vicious.’ Creel apologized, but an outraged Congress still asked for his head. Wilson refused to fire Creel, but he could do nothing to save him from an unmerciful roasting before the House Appropriations Committee.
A few months later, the war was over and Congress really went to work on Creel. They canceled the appropriation for the Committee on Public Information without even leaving him enough money to shut down his office and organize his records. Creel spent his last months in Washington fending off a series of rumors that the Committee was guilty of gross financial mismanagement, if not outright fraud.
In the next 18 months, Creel suffered torments of regret as he watched Wilson’s peacemaking efforts being wrecked by congressional opposition. If Creel had held his tongue and managed to keep the Committee on Public Information going, he might have assisted Wilson in the propaganda war that erupted between the White House and the Republican majority in Congress over the League of Nations.
This article was written by Thomas Fleming and originally published in the December 1995 issue of Military History.
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