From the World War I Centennial News Podcast
WWI Remembered: Alan Axelrod on George Creel, America's Chief Propagandist- Part 1
In April 5th's edition of the World War I Centennial News Podcast, Episode 117, author Alan Axelrod joined the show to speak at length about George Creel, the publisher of the government's Official Bulletin and one of the most powerful war-time Americans. The following is a transcript of the interview, edited for clarity:
Theo Mayer: With us today is Alan Axelrod, the author of more than 150 books on leadership, history, military history, and business, among others. And one of those books that Alan wrote is called Selling the Great War: The Making of American Propaganda. It's the bio of George Creel. We got together to talk about George, and it turned into such an interesting conversation, we're going to have to break this out into two parts. Here's part one of George Creel, the man who sold America on World War I. Alan, welcome.
Alan Axelrod: Great to be with you.
Theo Mayer: Alan, you and I have talked about George Creel quite a bit, but let's maybe introduce him in a broad context first.
Alan Axelrod: Well, he was a young man from rural Missouri, who was the son of a doting mother and an alcoholic father, and not very well educated. But he had a quick mind, and he was intensely curious, and he became a journalist, sort of through the back door. He worked for some small town papers and then moved to New York, and found work as a joke writer. He eked out a living writing jokes that were just stuck in newspapers to fill space.
But eventually, he linked up with a few influential people, and he became a muckraker, he became a very socially high-minded journalist. And in this job, he became acquainted with Woodrow Wilson during his first run at the presidency, and he just fell in love with the man, he fell in love with progressivism. By the time Wilson stood for reelection in 1916, Creel had ingratiated himself with Wilson, and became the writer of Wilson's campaign, biography, and became a leading exponent of Wilson—particularly Wilson's opposition to any American involvement in World War I. And, of course, Wilson won by a very narrow margin, reelected largely on the campaign slogan "He kept us out of war."
Then, of course, he takes the oath of office, back in those days, in March of 1917. And on April 6 of that year, he asked Congress for a declaration of war so that the United States could join the war that he had kept the country out of during this first administration. And this put Creel in the position of having to turn the American public around, 180 degrees, from this orientation of pacifism, of absolute neutrality, to total commitment to a war in Europe.
Theo Mayer: Now, having an administration and a president who gets elected, who brings in a leading and perhaps even controversial, journalist into his inner circle, that sounds pretty familiar.
Alan Axelrod: Absolutely. Creel was considered a kind of gadfly at this point. His real power came once he started the Committee on Public Information. He was an outsider, he was always an outsider and part of him relished being an outsider, and part of him wanted desperately to get into the center of activity and the center of power. He didn't really want to be the man in front of the curtain, he wanted to be the man behind the curtain, he wanted to be the power behind the power, and that's what he achieved with the Committee on Public Information.
Theo Mayer: Well, the Committee on Public Information really became an incredibly powerful aspect of American public opinion, at large.
Alan Axelrod: It was, and what is interesting about it is that Woodrow Wilson, who is a man of infinite contradiction, who was proposing to fight a war, as he famously told Congress in his war message on April 2nd, he was taking America into a war to make the world safe for democracy. But his first steps were ushering through passage of draconian espionage legislation, and what he wanted to do was clamp down with very rigorous censorship. He was very much afraid of espionage, and what we would call today "Fake News,"
What Creel did is he took him aside and told him this would be very destructive not just to democracy, which he really didn't pursue that point very far, but it would be destructive to the war effort because any effort at over censorship would make the American people feel, quite rightly, that the government was simply hiding something, and that their motives were not just.
So as an alternative, what Creel proposed is that he would create a central bureau, through which all information about the war would pass. That it would become the clearinghouse and the source for every bit of information about the Great War that would be published in this country. There would be no censorship, but there would only be one source of information, and it would be produced in such a stream and such a flow that newspapers would welcome it. Their work would be done for them, and they would be supplied with an endless stream of war information that would be supplied in great detail, and with all apparent openness; and that is what happened.
Theo Mayer: Yeah, and let's talk about that for a moment. I mean, obviously, in today's parlance, it would be "control the message," but they actually started publishing a newspaper, The Official Bulletin, which started the month after war was declared. Creel was the publisher, Wilson requested it, they charged a lot of money for The Official Bulletin so that the newspapers didn't think that he was trying to compete with them, and they started publishing, daily; except Sunday.
Alan Axelrod: And, in fact, it was the only time in American history that there was, in effect, a national state newspaper. They did the bulletin, they also prepared news stories which were distributed from a central point in Washington DC, and were available to all journalists. And they launched into many other publishing ventures, educational ventures, of course, the great poster campaigns, what Creel called "the war of the fences," where he wanted recruiting posters and posters to support the sale of war bonds and liberty bonds, and posters to dramatize the atrocities that the Germans were committing and so forth; he wanted these to be plastered on every available space in the public environment. So it was a combination of very overt propaganda, but also just information; a constant flow of information in every conceivable medium.
The most characteristic, of course, were the four minute men, who were a cadre of about 75,000, all volunteers, usually young men reasonably prominent in their community, who were asked to deliver a speech relating, in some way, to the war. They weren't told what to say, but they were given sort of templates and suggestions, and they were to deliver this speech, for the most part, in movie theaters. They were never to interrupt the movie. But it was done during the four minutes it took a professional projectionist to change reels on a feature length film in those days of silent cinema. And that was four minutes, and they became known as the Four Minute Men. And it was a live presentation, sort of at the intermission of a show, and it was never delivered from a script, it always had the appearance of being quite spontaneous. It was delivered by men who were known to the community, and it was meant to create a grassroots support for everything related to the war.
Theo Mayer: Now he was the marketing behind the Liberty bond endeavor which, it struck me, was worth something like 16, almost $17 billion.
Alan Axelrod: Yeah, this was in 1917 and 1918 dollars. And each of the liberty loan campaigns was vastly oversubscribed, it was an extraordinary success. It also was engineered such that those who couldn't afford to buy bonds could buy stamps; you could spend pennies or you could spend really a great deal of money supporting the war. And he handled what I would call 'The soft sell' end of it, the persuasive end of it. But that complemented the other aspect of shaping thought during the war which was real social pressure, the whole idea that "If you're not with us you're against us," and nobody wanted to be a slacker. If you weren't out there actually fighting the war, you had to be doing something else, and the very least you could do was contribute money to the liberty loans. And your neighbors would see to it that you did, lists of contributors were published; people were really strong armed into doing this. But on Creel's side, he made it appealing.
Theo Mayer: Well I remember a story, Alan, where on the first liberty loan drive, he actually got all of the bells in all of the churches to do a ring countdown of how many days were left before the bond drive was over. So he somehow convinced schools, churches, and civic halls to all toll their bells, every day on a countdown- that's pretty amazing.
Alan Axelrod: Well, this really was the birth of public relations. Creel's own account of the Committee on Public Information was called "How We Advertise America." But it really wasn't advertising, that was the wrong word; it was public relations and that word really didn't exist in 1917, 1918. But the men who became the creators of American public relations were working for Creel, the most famous of them being Edward Bernays, who had an incredibly long career- he died in 1995 at 103.
Theo Mayer: Well noted as the father of public relations.
Alan Axelrod: And that is what he was. And he was actually born in Vienna, he was the nephew of Sigmund Freud. He grew up in the United States, coming to the US when he was less than a year old; he was an American kid. He took to the Committee in Public Information, already pioneering in the way of shaping the American mind, which is what he talked about: shaping the popular mind. But he honed, as a result of working on the Committee on Public Information, he honed what he called "the science propaganda": this led to the creation of PR as an industry. And the idea, the difference between public relations, as he conceived of it, and advertising was that advertising broadcast a message, public relations created a mindset. It appealed to influencers, it was an attempt really to shape perception and to plant ideas in the public mind as if those ideas came from the public themselves; it really was a campaign to shape reality, from the ground up.
Theo Mayer: It's a rebranding of propaganda, fundamentally.
Alan Axelrod: He called it propaganda from the beginning. And Creel also embrace the term propaganda but he said that it was in the sense that the Catholic Church used it, which was as the propagation of the faith, and the faith that he was propagating, that Creel was propagating, was the faith of Woodrow Wilson. Faith in democracy, as Creel saw it, and fighting for democracy, and that was good propaganda- but it was propaganda nonetheless.
Theo Mayer: That was part one of George Creel, the Man Who Sold America on World War I with Alan Axelrod. A prolific author and publisher who is also, by the way, writing a book about the history of the World War I Centennial Commission.