National Press Club

NPC in History: Promoting the Great War

May 10, 2019 | By Gil Klein | gilbert.klein@me.com

George Creel was the director of Committee on Public Information during World War I. His efforts to shape the narrative of the war helped create the field of public relations.

George Creel was the director of Committee on Public Information during World War I. His efforts to shape the narrative of the war helped create the field of public relations.

Woodrow Wilson narrowly won the 1916 election with the slogan, “He Kept Us Out of War.” But within one month of his inauguration, he asked Congress for a declaration of war, promising that it would be a “war to make the world safe for democracy.”

That put the president in the unenviable position of changing American public opinion over night from opposing America’s entry into the war to whole-heartedly supporting it. His first idea was heavy-handed censorship legislation to control all information about the war – something far afield from making for a safe democracy.

Instead, he listened to a journalist by the name of George Creel, who had been enamored with Wilson and Progressivism since the 1912 election, and who had written Wilson’s 1916 campaign biography. Creel convinced Wilson that heavy-handed censorship would backfire on him. Americans were being asked to send their sons to fight in Europe. They would rebel if they thought information was being denied them.

As Creel wrote in the National Press Club’s 1948 history, “Dateline: Washington,” since the public “would be suspicious enough by virtue of natural anxieties, a censorship bill was bound to stir the fear that news was being suppressed or else slanted. Even if freedom of the press was abused, abuses were preferable to the deadening evil of autocratic control.”

He convinced Wilson to create a Committee on Public Information and make Creel the director. By April 13 it was up and running. Instead of telling reporters what they could not write about, Creel came to the Club for recommendations of journalists he could hire to work within the government to report war news and give it to the newspapers for free, thereby controlling the information that got out while making it appear that everything was open.

“It would become the clearing house and the source for every bit of information about the Great War,” Allan Axelrod, author of “Selling the Great War: The Making of American Propaganda,” said on a WWI Centennial News podcast. “No censorship but only one source of information. And it would be produced in such a stream that newspapers would welcome it. The work would be done for them.”

On average, more than 10 stories a day were ready for distribution to the news media, according to Christopher Daly, Boston University professor of journalism. Creel even published a daily newspaper, “The Official Bulletin of War Information,” the only time the U.S. government published an official newspaper. Journalists were free to do their own reporting, but Creel’s committee was the central distribution point for information.

At the same time, Creel had to work with the generals and admirals who wanted to conceal all kinds of information. Creel said he fought them down to a list of 18 sensitive topics. He then took them to the National Press Club.

“I called a meeting of the newspapermen and presented myself for questioning,” Creel wrote. “The temper of the gathering, hostile at first, grew more friendly as understandings were reached, and in the end, there was agreement that the plan merited a fair trial.”

The 18 requests were printed on a six-by-12-inch card given to every Washington correspondent and sent to every newspaper in the country. They included information on troop movements, the location of bases, the sailing or arrival of ships, harbor defenses, munitions production and air fields.

The card ended with this: “These requests to the press are without larger authority than the necessities of the war-making branches. Their enforcement is a matter of the press itself.”

A Division of News was created where journalists could call at any time to make sure what they were reporting did not violate the government’s request for secrecy. Creel said that in the 18 months the war lasted, he knew of only two or three instances where the voluntary censorship was deliberately violated.

Creel’s work went far beyond press information. His committee was responsible for the war posters pushing men to enlist and citizens to buy war bonds by depicting the Germans as Huns in the most blood-thirsty way.

Creel called it the “war of the fences.” He enlisted noted citizens in every town to make four-minute speeches supporting the war at movie theaters as projectionists changed reels on popular silent films. He worked to convince Hollywood to make films supporting the war effort, while producing his own newsreels.

By all accounts, Creel’s committee was extraordinarily successful in shaping public opinion, which made it a threat to many politicians. It came to an abrupt end within months of the armistice and the Republican takeover of Congress.

“Congress went after it almost literally with a hatchet,” Axelrod said. “They threw everything away they could get their hands on, they destroyed all of the records they could get their hands on. The only things that were saved were what Creel himself managed to salvage. He rented trucks and men to load them and took stuff away and stored it at his own expense.”

The point, Axelrod said, was that Republicans – after rejecting the League of Nations -- wanted to destroy the internationalist mindset that Wilson had promoted with so much help from Creel.

“Creel embraced propaganda but said it was like how the Catholic Church used it: Propagating the faith, which was what he was doing,” Axelrod said. “Propagating democracy and Woodrow Wilson. And fighting for democracy. That was good.”

In the process, Creel unwittingly created a new field of endeavor – public relations. The term didn’t exist before 1917. But some of the people Creel hired to produce the news went on to develop it. One of them was Edward L. Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Fraud, who became known as the “father of public relations.”

Also taking note were some disgruntled young Germans, seeking to rise to power. If the government could control the entire flow of information, well …

This is another in a series provided by Club historian Gil Klein. Dig down anywhere in the National Press Club’s 111-year history, and you will find some kind of significant event in the history of the world, the nation, Washington, society, journalism and the Club itself. Many of these events were caught in illustrations that tell the stories.