Sunday, October 5, 2014

Creel, Lippmann, and American Public Diplomacy: Your thoughts/comments most welcome

Although the term -- public diplomacy -- was not part of the common American vocabulary at the beginning of the past century (it so became, arguably, in the late 1960s, but not in a "viral" way ), as an activity it existed (in different forms) far before the term was coined.

Today, the State Department, in far too bureaucratic language, states that:
The mission of American public diplomacy is to support the achievement of U.S. foreign policy goals and objectives, advance national interests, and enhance national security by informing and influencing foreign publics and by expanding and strengthening the relationship between the people and Government of the United States and citizens of the rest of the world.
Note: When you actually practice public diplomacy "in the field," as I did for over twenty years, it's not that abstract -- or should I say so easily definable?

image from

I am working on an article tentatively titled "Creel, Lippmann, and the Origins of American Public Diplomacy" to be submitted for a volume to be published by the Public Diplomacy Council.

Creel image from

Lippmann image from

George Creel was the Chairman of the Committee on Public Information (CPI), appointed to this position -- in the arguably first U.S. "public diplomacy" agency -- by President Wilson shortly after his April 2, 1917 war message to Congress [for the not yet agreed-upon specific date, see]. In 1918, Walter Lippmann was "Commissioned Captain, Military Intelligence, and assigned to the staff of General Pershing and sent to France. Prepared propaganda leaflets for dropping behind the German lines and interrogated prisoners."

Both Creel and Lippmann, far more than many of their contemporaries, recognized the importance of public opinion -- including foreign public opinion -- in the twentieth-century world. In World War I, the launching pad for modern propaganda, they both worked for the U.S. government in its efforts to influence minds and hearts overseas (as well as at home). And, after their brief service to the government, Creel and Lippmann wrote extensively about public opinion and how to manage it.

Hence the importance of Creel and Lippmann in the history of U.S. public diplomacy. But their approaches to this activity were quite different, and their contrasting points of view reflect a tension that still exists in today's PD.

In essence, Creel was an enthusiastic rhetorician; Lippmann, a public philosopher. So their way of dealing with public opinion -- what public diplomacy is mostly about -- differed: telling the public a story (Creel) and telling the public the truth (Lippmann). In his dialogue, Gorgias, Plato emphasizes this rhetoric vs. philosophy tension -- a recurrent feature of western thought.

The lines between rhetoric and philosophy in "real life" are, of course, not that clear. Creel, who did have some ideas, was not beyond providing straight news, and Lippmann, a very public thinker, was not beyond indulging in propaganda.

Both men have their critics. To some, Lippmann, for all his influential writings, was a pretentious intellectual elitist, while Creel, whose CPI (in his words) "carried the gospel of Americanism to every corner of the globe," was just a vulgar publicist who, to use a French phrase, mange à tous les râteliers.

The two men did not get along, perhaps because of their different social backgrounds at a time when "class"/"ethnic origin" was still quite important in labeling persons: Creel was born poor in Missouri and ended his schooling in the eighth grade; Lippmann, "brought up to be a gentleman" (1) was from a wealthy New York family and attended Harvard. In a letter to the New Republic (March 27, 1915), Creel wrote (screamed would be a better word) the following in response to an article Lippmann had (anonymously) written about him:
I have seen oppression, exploitation, corruption, treachery and betrayal in all their forms, and it may well be that these experiences have made me less than judicial, overquick to suspect and denounce.
You [here Creel had mostly Lippmann in mind], on the other hand, are academic products who have to be commentators by virtue of self-election, based upon self-evaluation, aided, I believe, by an endowment fund that spares you the fear of existence. The antagonism between us, therefore, is as instinctive and inevitable as that of the house cat for the street dog[my emphasis]. (2)
No matter how much they disliked each other, both these complicated and -- in their own ways -- quite fascinating individuals are important in the history of public diplomacy. They deserve our attention if we are to understand where today's PD came from.


(1) Ronald Steel, Walter Lippmann and the American Century (1980), p. 3
(2) ibid.,  p. 143.

See also: Was Walter Lippmann a member of the Committee on Public Information?

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