Creel Committee and State Propaganda

Karl Marx couldn’t have said it more clearly when he wrote in The Communist Manifesto:

The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class.

The ruling elite are a small group of people who analyze, execute, make decisions, and run things in the political, economic, and ideological systems. This class is generally a small percentage of the population and have to be protected from the masses. It used to be that physical force was the weapon of choice to maintain control over the people. This all changed in the very early 1900’s with propaganda, specifically State Propaganda.

Propaganda has always existed, but it was perfected in the early 1900s.

The first successful propaganda campaign carried out by a modern government took place under the Woodrow Wilson Administration. Wilson was elected President in 1916, during the middle of World War I. The population at the time was predominantly pacifist and saw no reason to get caught up in a European war. But the government wanted involvement and needed the consent of the American people.

Within a week of Congress declaring war, on April 13, 1917, Wilson issued an executive order creating a new federal agency that would put the government in the business of actively shaping press coverage. Wilson’s government established a propaganda campaign called the “Committee on Public Information” (a.k.a.: Creel Committee for its chairman, George Creel).

In the brief year and a half of its existence, the Committee’s News Division set out to shape the coverage of the war in U.S. newspapers and magazines. One technique was to bury journalists in paper, creating and distributing some 6,000 press releases – or, on average, handing out more than 10 a day.

The whole operation took advantage of a fact of journalistic life. In times of war, readers hunger for news and newspapers attempt to meet that demand. But at the same time, the government was taking other steps to restrict reporters’ access to soldiers, generals, munitions-makers and others involved in the struggle. So, after stimulating the demand for news while artificially restraining the supply, the government stepped into the resulting vacuum and provided a vast number of official stories that looked like news.

The Committee then went a step further, creating something new in the American experience: a daily newspaper published by the government itself. Unlike the “partisan press” of the 19th century, the Wilson-era Official Bulletin was entirely a governmental publication, sent out each day and posted in every military installation and post office as well as in many other government offices. In some respects, it is the closest the United States has come to a paper like the Soviet Union’s Pravda or China’s People’s Daily.

An article in the New Republic published in 1917 stated:

We have seen a democratic nation forced into war, in spite of the manifest indifference or reluctance of the majority of its population.

The Committee was, in short, a vast effort in propaganda. Creel denied that his committee’s work amounted to propaganda, but he acknowledged that he was engaged in a battle of perceptions. “The war was not fought in France alone,” he wrote in 1920 in his fascinating book How We Advertised America:

The fight for the minds of men, for the consent of their convictions, and the battle-line ran through every home in every country.

In all things, from first to last, without halt or change, it was a plain publicity proposition, a vast enterprise in salesmanship, the world’s greatest adventure in advertising.

Overall, the Creel Committee was a great success. Propaganda was becoming science in every sense of the word. These new techniques could now be used by any member of the ruling elite to shape the minds and attitudes of public.

In an essay titled Internal Social Reorganization After The War (1918), John Dewey, a well-known public intellectual and “progressive liberal” wrote:

The one great thing that the war has accomplished, it seems to me, of a permanent sort, is the enforcement of a psychological and educational lesson…. . . . It has proved now that it is possible for human beings to take hold of human affairs and manage them, to see an end which has to be gained, a purpose which must be fulfilled, and deliberately and intelligently to go to work to organize the means, the resources and the methods of accomplishing those results.

The real question with us will be one of effectively discerning whether the intelligent men of the community really want to bring about a better reorganized social order.

Thanks for reading,

Leave a Reply