Sunday, September 28, 2014

Update - The Committee on Public Information's 150,000: Details from a WWI Propaganda War"

This entry -- a footnote to an article on Creel and Lippmann during World War I-- is a work in progress; updated 5/22/2016; suggestions welcome -- please email

[Update 101/18/2014] "It [the Committee on Public Information] has only 250 paid employees."

--FromThe Activities of the Committee on Public Information (Washington:  Government Printing Office, 1918), on the number of "paid employees "



“It [the Committee on Public Information] has only 215 paid employees, but it directs and coordinates the partio[sic]tic work of 5,000 volunteer writers and artists and 20,000 public speakers."

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--George Creel, Chairman of the Committee on Public Information, the first U.S. propaganda (arguably, public diplomacy) agency (1917-1919), speech before City Editors’ Association in Columbus, Ohio, January 19, 1918, Library of Congress Manuscript Division, Box 5, George Creel Papers, folder “Speeches and Writings File: Speeches, Transcripts, 1917-1922, 1932-1933”

The above sounds, to most, like a very insignificant quotation, but in the history of U.S. propaganda/public diplomacy it is not without importance

Background: Woodrow Wilson -- after he asked Congress, on April 2, 1917 to declare war against Germany -- created on April 4, by Executive Order 2594a Committee on Public Information
to be composed of the Secretary of State, the Secretary of War, the Secretary of the Navy, and a civilian who shall be charged with the executive direction of the Committee.
As Civilian Chairman of this of this Committee, I appoint Mr. George Creel. The Secretary of State, the Secretary of War, and the Secretary of the Navy each to detail an officer or officers to the work of the Committee.
The Committee of Public Information’s (CPI) main tasks, through various media and programs were, in the words of the Complete Report of the Chairman of the Committee on Public Information (1917), “to make the fight for loyalty and unity at home, and for the friendship and understanding of the neutral nations of the world" (see also [1] [2]).
250/215 vs. 150,000

According to Creel, in his How We Advertised America: The First Telling of the Amazing Story of the Committee on Public Information that Carried the Gospel of Americanism to Every Corner of the Globe (1920), p. 4, “One hundred and fifty thousand men and women were devoting highly specialized abilities to the work of the Committee, as faithful and devoted in their service as though they wore the khaki.” That figure is repeated in his Rebel at Large: Recollections of Fifty Crowded Years (1947), p.162, where he states that “150,000 trained men were delivering the government’s message to the people.”  

For years Creel’s figure -- 150,000 CPIers -- has been circulated, in print and on the internet (see below), when citing how many people were involved in the CPI (I deliberately use the neutral word “involved.”)

To the best of my knowledge, no secondary source (except The Activities of the Committee on Public Information mentioned above) mentions that the CPI only had 250/215 paid employees. Instead, sources as a rule cite the 150,000 figure (see below), not providing specific information on many CPIers were actually getting paid for their services, thereby perhaps unwittingly giving the impression that the CPI was larger in terms of “real” employees than it actually was. By way of contrast, today the State Department hires nearly 70,000 employees, including 45,000 locally employed Foreign Service staff at overseas posts.

Please note that the above opening quotations by the CPI publication and Creel 's speech emphasize that employees are not necessarily paid (the reference is "paid employees"), although the dictionary definition of the term "employee" suggests that by its very nature employees are paid.  So for Creel, even if they weren't paid, persons contributing their time and labor to the CPI were "employees."

Some information on CPI salaries is provided by the classic work on the Committee on Information, James R. Mock and Cedric Larson, Words that Won the War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1939), p. 66: "Compensation for members of the Executive Division, as for most members of the CPI organization bore some relation to the need of the individual, and frequently division heads cheerfully accepted less than was given to a number of their subordinates. Salaries for the executives were Creel $8,000, Sisson, $6,000, O'Higgins $6,000, and Byoir $5,200."  On p. 90 Mock ad Larson note that in the Division of News its director, "Mr. [Leigh] Reilly was paid $5,200 per year, and his ranking assistants, receiving $3,900, were Marlen E. Pew, subsequently editor of Editor and Publisher, and Arthur W. Crawford, Washington correspondent for the Chicago Herald." P. 93: The editor of the CPI’s Official Bulletin, Edward Sudler Rochester, “was paid $5,200 a year.  The associate editor, who received $2,340, was John D. Neel, former city editor of the Washington Post." P. 160 "Dozens of scholars from all over the country gave indispensable help [to the CPI] , but they were not on the payroll and either worked entirely on their own campuses or came to Washington for brief consultation periods. Few of them received more than the $25 or $50 which was supposed to cover travelling expenses. Dean Ford's salary [as Director of Division of Civic and Educational Cooperation] was $5,200, [his chief assistant] Professor Harding' s $2,600."

Note, however, the cautious words of Sue Curry Jansen in her recently published article, "'The World's Greatest Adventure in Advertising': Walter Lippmann's Critique of Censorship and Propaganda" (p. 303, The Oxford Handbook of Propaganda Studies (2013) edited by Jonathan Auerbach and Russ Castronovo):
Republican loyalists accused Creel of corruption, patronage, and press censorship, which he denied. To defend himself, as well as the thousands of writers, artists, and ordinary citizens who voluntarily participated in CPI's efforts, Creel quickly produced a book, How We Advertised America (1920), which described in great detail the CPI's work, albeit in hyperbolic terms ...
Most members of the CPI contributed their efforts on a voluntary basis while continuing their regular careers ... [JB - it could be argued, however, that social/political pressure to join in the CPI's activities did not in all cases make the CPIers' efforts totally voluntary.]
Regarding CPI staff working overseas, Mock and Larson note (p. 242)
These three phases of the Foreign Section's work Wire less-Cable Service, Foreign Press Bureau, and Foreign Film Division presupposed Committee representatives in the various countries to handle local distribution of the material. Such agents were appointed, and they are a famous group.
Personnel changes were bewildering, and the fact that some people were appointed from Washington, some retained by field workers, makes it impossible to list the entire staff of the Foreign Section. Even payroll records, which solve many similar problems for the domestic division, are of only partial help here, as several important workers are not listed at all

As suggested in the above, Creel, an enthusiastic self-promoter, had a tendency toward exaggeration. Wilson himself told Creel regarding his use of language that,  “I’m afraid, dear boy, that I was born without your passion for adjectives.” (George Creel letter to George Bates Creel, March 21, 1931, George Creel Papers, Library of Congress Manuscript Division, Box 1)

Some Sources citing the 150,000 figure

(1) Peter Buitenhuis, The Great War of Words: British, American and Canadian Propaganda and Fiction, 1914-1933 (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1987): 70: "At its peak, the Creel Committee employed  [my emphasis] 150,000 men and women." Citing Buitenhuis in my list of sources consulted, I repeat the misleading word “employed” (which suggest getting paid for a job) regarding the 150,000 when stating in myThe Anti-Propaganda Tradition in the United States,” Public Diplomacy Alumni Association, n.d. :“In April 1917, shortly after declaring war on Germany, the Wilson administration established the Committee on Public Information (CPI), which at its peak employed 150,000 people.”In another, more accurate article, “Smart power in, public diplomacy out?” in my Notes and Essays (March 2, 2009) I referred to the “Committee on Public Information (1917–1919), which was served by more than 150 000 people”; but I should have avoided the word “more.”

(2) Kelly LaBrecque, Persuasion by design: World War I, the Committee on Public Information, and the effectiveness of good poster design (M.A. thesis, 2008, p. 16). LaBrecque is careful to use the phrase, re the CPIS’s 150,000, that they were “involved in its workings.” 

(3) Christopher Eric Howard, Propaganda Against Propaganda: Deconstructing the Dominant Narrative of the Committee on Public Information (M.A.thesis, 2014)): “The CPI also enlisted thousands of faceless volunteers, perhaps as many as 150,000, into the fight for what Wilson himself referred to as 'the verdict of mankind.' [Footnote 4] Half of this  number, nearly 75,000 men, volunteered their services as 'Four-Minute Men' who gave  four-minute long speeches at movie theaters and in other public settings that encouraged their  fellow citizens to support the war effort, among other ways, by purchasing liberty bonds, conserving food, donating blood, and registering for the draft. Countless other volunteers served as translators, social workers, artists, writers, and clerical staff."[footnote 4) George Creel, Rebel at Large: Recollections of Fifty Crowded Years (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1947) 158. Written nearly thirty years after the war, Creel’s autobiography contains five somewhat brief  chapters of his experiences as CPI Chairman. His How We Advertised America (1920) provides a much fuller account of the CPI." See also.

(4) Ross Eaman, The A to Z of Journalism (2009)119:  “The CPI’s staff grew to 150,000.

(5) On the Home Front To be an American [blog] The chairman, George Creel, oversaw the actions of up to 150,000 workers nationally.” Contains below image, with caption: "The Committee on Public Information produced American propaganda posters that commonly portrayed Germans as bloodthirsty animals in an effort to spur enlistment or other goals. Subsequently, German Americans suffered as the public associated them with the enemy."
75,000 vs. 20,000

In his How We Advertised America: The First Telling of the Amazing Story of the Committee on Public Information that Carried the Gospel of Americanism to Every Corner of the Globe (1920): 5, Creel writes that
The Four Minute Men [part of CPI], an organization that will live in history by reason of its originality and effectiveness, commanded the volunteer services of 75,000 speakers, operating in 5,200 communities, and making a total of 755,190 speeches, every one having the carry of shrapnel. With the aid of a volunteer staff of several hundred translators, the Committee kept in direct touch with the foreign-language press, supplying selected articles designed to combat ignorance and disaffection.
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This 75,000 figure, also frequently cited in the literature (see 1, 2, 3, 4, 5) certainly does not match the "20,000 public speakers" figure cited above in the Creel speech at Ashville. 

Comment on the above quotation by Professor Jonathan D. Auerbach who generously responded to my email attaching this "Notes and Essays" piece -- and who has completed a book, now in production (John Hopkins University Press, due to appear in 2015): Weapons of Democracy: Propaganda, Progressivism, and American Public Opinion,
I think the discrepancy in numbers for 4MM [Four Minute Men - JB] 
is simply a matter of dating, since the program grew rapidly near the end of the war to attain its full 75K, which is the number by November 1918. [JB note: According to James R. Mock and Cedric Larson, Words that Won the War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1939), p. 70, there were  [precise date not specified] "More [my italics -- JB] than 75,000 volunteer speakers [who] gave their four-minute talks in movie houses, theaters, and other public places from Maine to Samoa"; however, on p. 113  and p. 119 their volume, they do not place "more than" before the 75,000 figure, stating on p. 119 that 75,000 was "the final total."] In July 1918 (before the fourth Liberty Loan campaign) it might only have had 20K, but that number does seem a bit low. Best resource I found for the 4MM was not Creel, but the various issues of the 4MM Newsletter, a fascinating document published for the speakers themselves, not the public at large. Plus at the N Archives there are the individual cards on file for each visit to a theater by a 4MM speaker.
Creel is a blowhard, but I don't think it's especially fruitful to spend time exposing each and every one of his exaggerations--and when it comes to statistics, I do think he was very accurate, the good bureaucrat that he was.

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