Americans hold contradictory ideas about propaganda, generally viewing it as something “the other side” does, in contrast to “information campaigns” mounted by the U.S. government.
i. Most definitions of propaganda revolve around intent—whether it is a deliberate attempt to persuade a group or merely the power of suggestion—and mass media’s role in its effects. The difficulty lies in distinguishing between propaganda and education or religious doctrine—not to mention advertising or any overt, sustained argument for a particular point of view, such as news articles or opinion columns.
B. Generally speaking, propaganda includes the following elements: an organized group, for example, a government, corporation, or advertising agency; a need or desire to shape or create events in order to influence public opinion; and the tools to manipulate people’s emotions, attitudes, ideas, or images.
C. One of President Wilson’s first acts after declaring war in April 1917 was the creation of the Committee on Public Information (CPI) and the appointment of George Creel, a former newspaperman and politician, to head it.
i. As the first large-scale propaganda agency in the United States, the so-called “Creel Committee” promoted a national ideology framed in the language of a “just war,” which Wilson used to legitimize America’s entry into the Great War. Americans fought not for territory or other selfish motives but in pursuit of moral values.
D. The Committee for Public Information acted as the official gatekeeper, managing war news and fostering national unity, and it proved remarkably effective at both. The Committee diligently courted the press, inundating editors and reporters with patriotic stories, press releases, and pamphlets relaying information about the progress of the war and arranging press tours, fairs, and briefings with government officials.
i. As one of its first acts, the CPI issued voluntary guidelines to magazines and newspapers regarding their war coverage. However, the guidelines proved voluntary in name only: any publication violating them was denied access to almost all official information. It’s not surprising that most publishers embraced the story angles pushed by the CPI.
- David Kennedy’s Over Here, chapter 2, “The War for the American Mind, is a thorough treatment of the propaganda efforts of the U.S. government. It’s long (100 pages) and so may not be practicable to assign high school students but might aid teachers in their preparation of the subject.
- The Library of Congress’ American Memory site also provides an overview of the relationship between the nation’s newspapers and Creel’s Committee on Public Information: Covering the War: American Propaganda in the Pictorial Sections.
College students should read
- Creel, George. How We Advertised America. New York: Arno Press, 1972.
- Rawls, Walton H. Wake Up, America!: World War I and the American Poster. New York: Abbeville Press, 1988.
Activity: Propaganda Poster
Students create their own propaganda posters. The assignment is to create poster to sway popular opinion on the home front in 1917 toward rationing food or gasoline. The assignment can be modified to address the current conflicts in which the U.S. is involved, for example, a poster urging Americans to give blood; donate funds to support long-term medical care for wounded soldiers; recruit soldiers.
The Wisconsin Historical Society offers an excellent package of materials showing how the government sold the war to Americans, including excerpts from George Voght’s article “When Posters Went to War,” which appeared in the Winter 2000-2001 Wisconsin Magazine of History.
The site also has links to a variety of propaganda posters. Those images and their analysis can form the basis of classroom discussions and essays or analyses by students
The poster assignment can be an individual or a group project. Each poster should contain the following elements:
- A persuasive "headline;"
- At least one original graphic to help convince viewers to favor the rationing;
- A statement viewers can read to sway them to the author's view.
The poster should be written in a style and format that would convince the viewer that it was created in the appropriate time period (i.e. 1917 or 2010).