Thursday, October 16, 2014

FDR and George Creel's Propaganda: Not a Model for WWII

This entry is a work in progress; updated/reviewed 5/22/2016; suggestions welcome -- please email

From  Richard W. Steele, "Preparing for War: Efforts to Establish a National Propaganda Agency, 1940-41," The American Historical Review, Volume 75, Issue 6 (Oct., 1970), 1641-2
Two basic methods of building a healthy public attitude toward the war [WWII] were suggested to the president during the early summer of 1940. At the beginning of June presidential assistant Lauchlin Currie ... asked the president to sponsor the creation of local defense committees in which citizens might help to strengthen the nation's defense. ... Almost immediately after the outbreak of war in Europe in September 1939 a "Basic Plan for Public Relations Administration" had been approved by the Joint Army-Navy Board. On June 10, 1940, the day Italy joined in the German conquest of France, the service secretaries submitted the plan to the White House. Their program was designed to "maintain national morale by the adequate presentation of the aims, views and progress of the nation" in the preparedness effort (7). The secretaries thought that wider knowledge of international situation would increase public anxiety about American security and thus develop greater support for administration public policy.
[President Franklin D.] Roosevelt [who had been Assistant Secretary of the Navy in the Wilson administration] made no response to either proposal; he was obliged to approach any propaganda project with great caution, since a government-sponsored information program was certain to recall the propaganda operations and abuses of World War I. Roosevelt was especially anxious to avoid Woodrow Wilson's mistakes, and he was mindful of the example of George Creel's Committee on Public Information, which had been severely criticized during and since World War I. Creel's agency had succeeded too well, its critics felt, in arousing chauvinism, intolerance, and hysteria along with the militant spirit it sought. Propaganda, especially the variety dependent on sensationalism and distortion of facts, was therefore dangerously vulnerable to political criticism
Roosevelt as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, 1913 image from
Moreover, many Americans, encouraged by the substantial literature on the subject since 1918, were convinced that the public had been duped into supporting the war by propaganda and were determined not to be taken in again. As a result it could be expected that blatant propaganda would be of doubtful value in influencing an American public now sophisticated in this regard by the Great Crusade (8). ...
(7) Letter, secretaries of war and navy to FDR, June 10, 1940, in personal secretary's file (hereafter PSF), War Department, 1940, FDRL. The background of this plan is discussed along with other pre-1939 government public relations proposals in chapter 16 of James R. Mock and Cedric Larson, Words That Won the War, The Story of the Committee on Public Information 1917-1919 (Princeton, 1919). The authors favored the reinstitution of an agency like the World War I Committee on Public Information as an alternative to censorship and other wartime government controls.
(8) "Mr. Creel ... was one of the most disliked and traduced members of the national government while the war was in progress, and the 1918 caricature of him carries over to the present day [1939]." Mock and Larson, Words that Won the War, 11-12. Nevertheless, in early February 1941 Roosevelt entertained the idea of bringing Creel back in his propagandist capacity. Ickles argued that there was no need for the president to take on Creel's enemies. Harold L. Ickes, The Secret Diary of Harold L. Ickes, III, The Lowering Clouds, 1939-1941 (New York, 1954), 426. A poll taken on October 1939 revealed that almost forty per cent of those who expressed an opinion believed that in entering World War I the United States had been victimized by "propaganda and selfish interests." Public Opinion, 1935-1946, ed. Hadley Cantril and Mildred Strunk, (Princeton, 1951), 202.
p. 1652-3:
[T]he  Japanese attack on Pearl harbor ended the debate between interventionists and isolationists. ... The Office of War Information [OWI; see] took over both the domestic and overseas propaganda functions, concentrating on the latter with some success. 
In his autobiography Rebel at Large: Recollections of Fifty Crowded Years (1947), p. 314 Creel notes that:
With the war call sounding, I flew to Washington after the New Year [1942], eager to a chance to serve in any capacity. As my failure to show enthusiasm for the third [Roosevelt] term had lost me the favor of the White House, I trudged from office to office, patiently recalling the part I had played in World War I. The young men to whom I talked, many of them looking as if they had just come from commencement exercises, were very courteous, but seemed to have difficulty in differentiating between the 1917 conflict and the Punic Wars. By the time I gave up in despair, they almost had me believing I was a veteran of Caesar's campaigns.

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