Author, John Maxwell Hamilton discusses the complicated legacy of the Committee for Public Information.

Producer: Elena Walsh Ferré and Grace Lovins
05/09/2022 • 07:43 AM EST

John Maxwell Hamilton, author of Manipulating the Masses: Woodrow Wilson and the Birth of American Propaganda, discusses the complicated legacy of the Committee for Public Information (CPI). Established in 1917 and regarded as the greatest propaganda effort in history up to its time, the CPI produced many of the most innovative approaches to domestic mass persuasion, which lives on to this day, while also innovating new strategies to advance U.S. public diplomacy around the world.

0:00: Elena Walsh Ferre:

With us today, we have John Maxwell Hamilton, a former journalist and professor of journalism in the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University. He's also the author of Manipulating the Masses: Woodrow Wilson and the Birth of American Propaganda. And we're here today to talk about just that, the birth of American propaganda. John Hamilton. Thank you so much for joining us today.

0:21: John Maxwell Hamilton:

Thank you for having me.

0:23: Elena Walsh Ferre:

So first I wanted to ask you about the Committee on Public Information. The CPI created under President Wilson. Can you please tell us what it was and how it started?

0:33: John Maxwell Hamilton:

Absolutely. So when the United States went to war and declared war in April of 1917, one week later, Woodrow Wilson created the Committee on Public Information. It's our first and our only ministry of propaganda, in the sense that we had one agency that was responsible for propaganda activities and it was the Committee on Public Information or sometimes called the CPI. The reason for creating it initially was quite different than what it would turn out to be.

In the beginning, the primary concern was a national security one, the publication of information about troop movements, movement of ships, things like that, that you want to always keep from the enemy. And so the original intent of the CPI was going to be censorship, the censorship of sensitive military type information. As it turned out, Congress did not pass a bill that allowed the Wilson administration to directly censor, except in some rare cases, which I can talk about later, which had to do with postal censorship and cable censorship, but domestically, there was no direct censorship.

As a result of that, the CPI didn't have that job, which was the job it was likely to have gotten. And instead it did provide information to the public and it did some withholding of information, which is complicated, and I'm sure you'll get to when you get further down on your list of questions. But in the end, what it really did was provide information through every vehicle possible, from newspapers and magazines, but also over wireless, advertisements in posters, movie theaters. Wherever they could project the message that the Wilson administration wanted them to project.

And behind that was the motivating idea that this was a total war, unlike any other war that had ever been fought. All the allies did the same thing. And that thing was to try to mobilize their populations, to support the war. Not only because they wanted them to join the military, for example, but to conserve food or to not utter statements that would seem to undermine the war effort. In a total war, the government needs to have total control over the society and propaganda was a key part of that.

3:00: Elena Walsh Ferre:

And what was George Creel's role at the CPI?

3:03: John Maxwell Hamilton:

Well, his formal title was chairman and that was because he was supposed to preside over a committee, it's called the Committee on Public Information that was made up of three principles. The secretary of state, Robert Lansing, the secretary of the Navy, who was Josephus Daniels, and the secretary of war, who was Newton Baker. As it turned out, they never met and his job well, they met once or twice, but his job that is Creel's job was really as a director, not a chairman, because he wasn't really coordinating the activity of those agencies, even though they were on the front line of the war effort. His job was to put out information of all kinds relating to all branches of the federal government at the time.

And he functioned in that job in a way that was, that made him one of the most powerful people in Washington. And he was so regarded. There was a newspaper story that appeared at one point that described the three most important people in Washington, and they were quoting an official and the official said one of them was a secretary of state. One of them was somebody whose name he couldn't remember. And the other person was George Creel. Creel was close to President Wilson and he was very visible, partly because of his pyrotechnic brand of leadership. And partly because it was such a novel idea to have the government actually on a daily basis, intruding into the information flow that went to Americans.

4:34: Elena Walsh Ferre:

So how was the CPI funded?

4:37: John Maxwell Hamilton:

So that's a very interesting question that almost never is asked, but is key to understanding the CPI. And I'm glad you asked it. When the CPI was created by an executive order. And this is unusual because basically it's a very senior position and should be created through an act of Congress. And the appointments should be made with the approval of Congress, in the same way secretaries of state or attorneys general are appointed, through the advise and consent process. Neither of these applied. The committee was created in the stroke of a pen. There was no plan. It was a very short, brief note. There was no description of what it was actually supposed to do, how it would do it, nor was there any hearings, not only on the committee itself, but on the selection of Creel, that was also done by executive fiat.

The funding could have been a mechanism for controlling the CPI, but the money came initially from the president's war fund. In effort to make the war work the president was given a fund. And he could fund all kinds of war effort, activities out of it without having to go explicitly to Congress for approval. And the CPI was funded out of this fund. And that probably would've carried on throughout the war. Now you have to remember the war only lasted 18 months, but it's likely that this same mechanism would've applied, except the Creel made a statement in a speech about members of Congress. This was typical of the kind of things Creel would do, that so enraged Congress, that it nearly forced Wilson to fire Creel. The statement had been that somebody in this audience had asked Creel whether he thought that members of Congress had courage in their hearts, meaning courage in their hearts to pursue the war. And Creel said, well, he wouldn't know about whether members of Congress had such courage in their hearts because he never went slumming. Which was a very stupid thing for him to have said and just even Democrats were outraged that he would say such a thing.

And so a compromise was reached, and that compromise was that they brought Creel in many of his staff members to testify in front of Congress at appropriation hearings. Where in that process, Congress took over the funding. Most of the funding. Cut some of the funding a little bit and had their chance, not at unhorsing Creel, or even establishing a legislative basis for the Committee on Public Information to exist, but to exercise some control over its budget. The control that they had was over the domestic part, not the foreign propaganda part, but if the war had continued, I think Congress would've gotten control eventually over all of it. And certainly if the war had continued after the election much after the election in 1918, definitely Congress would've taken control because the Democrats lost both the House and the Senate and the Republicans would've been in charge.

And an important takeaway for us is that the CPI probably was unconstitutional in that it didn't go through the regular legislative process. And the absence of checks and balances, for example, the routine looking at its budget from the beginning, the approval of the selection of the head of the CPI, all of that's an important part of the democratic process because it provides accountability and checks and balances. And those really didn't exist in the case of the CPI. And that's an important takeaway that the executive branch always needs to be monitored and supervised by Congress. And that wasn't possible in this case.

8:34: Elena Walsh Ferre:

What are some of the tactics the CPI uses to influence public opinion, tactics that today might seem extreme or over the top and others that are perhaps more commonplace nowadays?

8:45: John Maxwell Hamilton:

So virtually everything the CPI did is done in some shape or form today, even social media. And I can say something about that in a minute, but press releases had been handed out from time to time by the federal government prior to World War I, but the, the Committee for Public Information made press releases a everyday quotidian aspect of governing. From then on press releases became a very important part of governing. They, as I said in a previous question, they used every possible means of communication. They had speakers bureaus, posters. They published their own newspaper called the Official Bulletin. And much of this could be seen as very positive.

The Official Bulletin, for example, was the first time the federal government was producing on a daily basis. They published every day, but Sunday. Producing a document that listed contracts that were let, decisions that were made, that could all easily be found in one place. This is a very important part of what a transparent, democratic government does. And in fact, it's the precursor to what we have today, like the Federal Register, to make sure that every contract that's ever given out is listed and made public, so that there can't be anything done in a shady way behind the scenes.

But the CPI also did things that would be considered untoward. And those things would be withholding of information that was inconvenient to their policies or the tendentiousness of information that is providing only one side. They were supposed to stick to facts, or at least they claimed they would, but that didn't happen. And in many cases, they appealed to emotions, and were coercive in the way they frame messages so that people were considered unAmerican, a phrase that we often talk about, if they didn't do what the CPI thought was best or what the administration thought was best.

And they also did things that were even worse, like creating front organizations that looked like they were grassroots bodies, but in fact, weren't at all. They were funded by the CPI. And then appeared to be spontaneous expressions of loyalty to the government. When in fact this wasn't the case. This happened both with regard to labor, which was considered a problem for the Wilson administration, because many in the labor movement were socialists and sided with the Bolsheviks, who believed that there shouldn't be a war and it was a capitalist war. And many were with immigrant groups and immigrant groups were highly suspect because many of them were seen as being supportive of the Germans. So in all of those facets, the good and the bad, the CPI's work lives on.

11:35: Elena Walsh Ferre:

Who were the four minute men? And how did they affect societal views on the war during the first war?

11:42: John Maxwell Hamilton:

Well, the four minute men were created almost by chance. There was a group of young Chicagoans, who, before the war, had decided that they would go to movie theaters, this was actually a very creative idea, and stand up during intermission, during the changing of the reels. And they would speak about why war preparedness was important. You know, the country was divine right until we went to war about whether we should go to war or not. A great majority of the Americans did not want to go to war. And they were suspect of the idea of having military preparedness, were we to get in the war.

Anyway, they did this for a few weeks. Then the war actually came, and one of these Chicagoans came to find Creel just a couple of days after the Committee of Public Information was created, found him in what is today, the Eisenhower Building, but was then the War Navy State Building, which is right next to the White House. Found him in a little room and said, how about if we create four minute men, that is four minutes between the changing of the reels, to give speeches supporting the war. This took place. I mean, Creel was a very spontaneous fellow. And he said, okay, we'll do it. The CPI was headquartered. I'm sorry. The CPI was headquartered very close to the White House. And the four minute men were headquartered there. They were organized in a very top down fashion. So there were all kinds of organizations all throughout the United States, in cities, that reported to a chairman in the city, who then reported to a state chairman, who then reported to the national chairman, to the national head or director.

And they were given a topic a week to speak about. Sometimes it would be something like buy war bonds. Sometimes it would be turn in binoculars. The Navy didn't have enough binoculars. So they asked Americans to give them their binoculars, so the Navy would've enough of them. And then these four minute men were given their instructions and they would speak in movie theaters. It looked very grassroots like, in the way it operated because these were people, everybody knew in town. They were usually prominent people, judges, lawyers, mayors, journalists, insurance agencies, your everyday people in your home community. And so it had a very powerful effect.

Now we can't measure exactly what that effect was, because we didn't have opinion polls the way we do today, that can actually measure the attitudes of Americans. But we know it was effective because, in the case of those binoculars, for example, after the four minute men gave that speech, thousands and thousands of binoculars returned into the federal government. So people listen to it. Now they may not have always liked it. And that's an example of what I mean, when I say everything that happens today can be traced at the CPI. The four minute men were like social media is today. You look at your cell phone and you want, you wanna find out the sports score. You wanna find out what happened last night with the NFL draft, but across the bottom of the screen will be some political message you never asked for. It'll just intrude on your consciousness. Well, in a way, that's what the CPI was about with the four minute men. You go to a movie theater and you go to see a movie and you wanna see Tex Ritter. And instead of just seeing Tex Ritter, you see somebody telling you to buy war bonds. And that's very much like your phone.

And to understand the magnitude of this operation, from this little idea that came in from this young Chicagoan, there were 75,000 four minute men. Now, some of these four minute men, and they were almost all men, gave only, you know, one or two speeches, but some gave 40 or 50. And they ended up not only speaking at movie theaters, but they spoke at lumber camps, and in churches, and at Boy Scout jamborees. They spoke all over the United States. And in that way, you know, if you were in the United States in those days, you could not avoid having a CPI message. If you never read a paper, if you never even went to a movie, you had a CPI message intruding into your life, because all you had to do was walk down the street and see a poster. The CPIs messages were ubiquitous.

16:08: Grace Lovins:

And what are some of the efforts that the CPI engaged in overseas?

16:14: John Maxwell Hamilton:

I would have to say that the work the CPI did overseas, that was conceptually some of the most important work they did. Up to that time, diplomats of all kinds believed that the people they should interact with were people like them, elites in the foreign office or in the prime minister's office, or the president's office. In other words, they were elites and they thought they should be talking to elites. The CPI's belief was that you needed to go over and shape public opinion in those countries, because that was important if you really thought about democracy and wanting to promote democracy. And also as a way to help put political pressure on the elites. We call that today, public diplomacy. And I think it's a very good idea, provided it's done in the right way.

The CPI had, I guess you could say two initiatives basically. One was they created a news service to send CPI news services, news. And I mean, that broadly construed on a number of issues, kind of like the VOA does today. Not as good, but kind of like it, abroad. And this was very important, because the American wire services had no capacity to send news abroad because of a cartel system that had been brokered, which divided the world up among all the foreign entities, Reuters in Great Britain and so forth. And so they divided up the world and the United States had no direct way through its wire services to sell news abroad. So the CPI did a good thing by creating a news service. And of course, later on, after the war, the cartels were broken, and the United Press and the Associated Press then began to sell news abroad, but that's a positive occurrence.

And the second thing is they sent commissioners overseas. And these commissioners worked in a number of countries, bringing in speakers, promoting CPI materials, getting them placed in the press, putting up posters in stores. Speakers having, in some cases, tours where leading figures can come to the United States to tour and learn about the United States. There wasn't a lot of that, but some of it, and it was important. And all of that too, is a precursor of what public diplomacy is about today.

The problem with this was, it suffered from some of the same things we did domestically. We subsidized the news media, which we shouldn't have done. And today we look at that as being wrong. For example, we tried to right the subsidized media in Iraq during the Iraq war, and pretend that it was a democratic expression for Iraqi freedom, but it was funded by the United States. So it wasn't such an expression at all. It was a front organization. They were tendentious in of course what they did. And honestly, if you look at a lot of the materials they sent abroad, they were other heavy-handed, just overtly pro-American in a way that made them less credible. But the concept was a very important concept. And I give the CPI a lot of credit for having done this. And some of the people they sent over were so, so, and some of the people they sent over did an exceptionally good job and stand out in my mind as expert and high-minded practitioners of public diplomacy.

19:42: Elena Walsh Ferre:

Well, it looks like we're out of time for today. We've been talking to professor of journalism and author of Manipulating the Masses: Woodrow Wilson and the Birth of American Propaganda, John Hamilton. John, thank you so much for joining us today.

19:54: John Maxwell Hamilton:

Thanks for having me. I appreciate the opportunity.