Committee on Public Information
CPI pamphlet 1917
|Formed||April 13, 1917|
|Dissolved||August 21, 1919|
|Employees||significant staff plus over 75,000 volunteers|
The Committee on Public Information (1917-1919), also known as the CPI or the Creel Committee, was an
In just over 26 months, from April 14, 1917, to June 30, 1919, it used every medium available to create enthusiasm for
Creel urged Wilson to create a government agency to coordinate "not
Wilson established the first modern propaganda office, the Committee on Public Information (CPI), headed by
The CPI used material that was based on fact, but spun it to present an upbeat picture of the American war effort. In his memoirs, Creel claimed that the CPI routinely denied false or undocumented atrocity reports, fighting the crude propaganda efforts of "patriotic organizations" like the
The committee used newsprint, posters, radio, telegraph, and movies to broadcast its message. It recruited about 75,000 "
The CPI staged events designed for many different ethnic groups, in their language. For instance, Irish-American tenor
The CPI's activities were so thorough that historians later stated, using the example of a typical midwestern American farm family, that
Every item of war news they saw—in the country weekly, in magazines, or in the city daily picked up occasionally in the general store—was not merely officially approved information but precisely the same kind that millions of their fellow citizens were getting at the same moment. Every war story had been censored somewhere along the line— at the source, in transit, or in the newspaper offices in accordance with ‘voluntary’ rules established by the CPI.
Creel wrote about the Committee's rejection of the word propaganda, saying: "We did not call it propaganda, for that word, in German hands, had come to be associated with deceit and corruption. Our effort was educational and informative throughout, for we had such confidence in our case as to feel that no other argument was needed than the simple, straightforward presentation of facts."
A report published in 1940 by the
In November 1916, the slogan of Wilson's supporters, 'He Kept Us Out Of War,' played an important part in winning the election. At that time a large part of the country was apathetic.... Yet, within a very short period after America had joined the belligerents, the nation appeared to be enthusiastically and overwhelmingly convinced of the justice of the cause of the Allies, and unanimously determined to help them win. The revolutionary change is only partly explainable by a sudden explosion of latent anti-German sentiment detonated by the declaration of war. Far more significance is to be attributed to the work of the group of zealous amateur propagandists, organized under Mr. George Creel in the Committee on Public Information. With his associates he planned and carried out what was perhaps the most effective job of large-scale war propaganda which the world had ever witnessed.
During its lifetime, the organization had over twenty bureaus and divisions, with commissioner's offices in nine foreign countries.
Both a News Division and a Films Division were established to help get out the war message. The CPI's daily newspaper, called the Official Bulletin, began at eight pages and grew to 32. It was distributed to every newspaper, post office, government office, and military base. Stories were designed to report positive news. For example, the CPI promoted an image of well-equipped U.S. troops preparing to face the Germans that were belied by the conditions visiting Congressmen reported. The CPI released three feature-length films: Pershing's Crusaders (May 1918), America's Answer (to the Hun) (August 1918), Under Four Flags (November 1918). They were unsophisticated attempts to impress the viewer with snippets of footage from the front, far less sensational than the "crudely fantastical" output of Hollywood in the same period.
To reach those Americans who might not read newspapers, attend meetings or watch movies, Creel created the Division of Pictorial Publicity.
The Division produced 1438 designs for propaganda posters, cards buttons and cartoons in addition to 20000 lantern pictures (slides) to be used with the speeches.
One early incident demonstrated the dangers of embroidering the truth. The CPI fed newspapers the story that ships escorting the First Division to Europe sank several German submarines, a story discredited when newsmen interviewed the ships' officers in England. Republican Senator
Early in 1918, the CPI made a premature announcement that "the first American built battle planes are today en route to the front in France," but newspapers learned that the accompanying pictures were fake, there was only one plane, and it was still being tested. At other times, though the CPI could control in large measure what newspapers printed, its exaggerations were challenged and mocked in Congressional hearings. The Committee's overall tone also changed with time, shifting from its original belief in the power of facts to mobilization based on hate, like the slogan "Stop the Hun!" on posters showing a U.S. soldier taking hold of a German soldier in the act of terrorizing a mother and child, all in support of war bond sales.
The CPI extended its efforts overseas as well and found it had to tailor its work to its audience. In Latin America, its efforts were led where possible by American journalists with experience in the region, because, said one organizer, "it is essentially a newspaperman's job" with the principal aim of keeping the public "informed about war aims and activities." The Committee found the public bored with the battle pictures and stories of heroism supplied for years by the competing European powers. In Peru it found there was an audience for photos of shipyards and steel mills. In Chile it fielded requests for information about America's approach to public health, forest protection, and urban policing. In some countries it provided reading rooms and language education. Twenty Mexican journalists were taken on a tour of the United States.
Creel used his overseas operations as a way to gain favor with congressmen who controlled the CPI's funding, sending friends of congressmen on brief assignments to Europe. Some of his business arrangements drew congressional criticism as well, particularly his sale by competitive bidding of the sole right to distribute battlefield pictures. Despite hearings to air grievances against the CPI, the investigating committee passed its appropriation unanimously.
Creel also used the CPI's ties to the newspaper publishing industry to trace the source of negative stories about Secretary of the Navy
Committee work was curtailed after July 1, 1918. Domestic activities stopped after the
The Committee on Public Information was formally disestablished by an act of Congress on June 30, 1919, although the organization's work had been formally completed months before. On August 21, 1919, the disbanded organization's records were turned over to the
It has been suggested that due to the size and impact of the CPI in the development of propaganda and related materials, that the organization had a significant impact on the development and advancement of marketing practices in the United States.