Monday, October 27, 2014

Propaganda Tsar George Creel, Chairman of the Committee on Public Information, on Reason, Emotion, and Public Opinion

Note for a Planned Article
"Creel, Lippmann, and the Origins of American Public Diplomacy"
(comments welcome; draft, not for citation)

Creel was a publicist, not a philosopher. Unlike Water Lippmann's books and articles, his writings, though voluminous, seldom contain thoughts of any profundity. He is rightly remembered (if at all) for what he did -- primarily his work as Chairman of the Committee on Public Information (1917-1919), the USG's first propaganda agency, which he described in detail and with much exaggeration, in his best known work with the breathless title, How We Advertised America: 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 (United States of America: Harper and Brothers, 1920). His ideas, if so they can be called, are of minor intellectual interest, but his observations on reason, emotion, and public opinion deserve a look because of the light they shed on his views on propaganda.

In certain passages of his writings, Creel argues that public opinion was a rational process. In a 1918 article for the Annals of the American Academy of Sciences (July 1918), “Public Opinion in War Time,” p. 185, he states that:
I do not believe that public opinion has its rise in the emotions, or that it is tipped from one extreme to the other to the other by every passing rumor, by every gust of passion, or by every storm of anger.
Rather, Creel emphasizes,
I feel that public opinion has its source in the minds of people, that it has its base in reason, and it expresses slow-formed convictions rather than any temporary excitement or any passing convictions of the moment.
Over twenty years later, in his article, “Propaganda and Morale,” American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 47, no. 3 (November 1941), p. 347-8 Creels contends that asserting the rationality of man was part of the American revolutionary tradition. He evokes one of his heroes, Thomas Paine:

Paine image from
As a lifelong admirer of Thomas Paine, carrying admiration to the point of writing a book in his vindication, I learned still another fundamental of propaganda from the study of his works. Many people believe that public opinion – the key stone in the arch of morale – is a state of mind, formed and changed by the events of the day; a combination of kaleidoscope and weathercock. At every point Paine dissented from this theory, denying that public opinion had its rise in the emotions. …
It was reason, Creel then argues, that was, according to Paine, the foundation of public opinion:
[Paine] proceeded from the assumption that [public opinion] had its source in the minds of the people, its base in reason. … In every issue of the Crisis, every issue of Common Sense, he provided “information” for the “formation” of public opinion. True, he argued mightily in every pamphlet, but always from the facts in the case.
Creel concludes by comparing Paine’s painless, praiseworthy propaganda to its brutal, threatening totalitarian counterpart:
In totalitarian states, where there are no such things as free speech and a free press, people are compelled to accept what is handed out to them by the censor and the propagandist. In a democracy, however, nothing is more imperative than that the people be given full and exact information. A feeling that they are being kept in the dark, or an impairment of popular in the news, lessens more quickly and oftentimes fatally.
But earlier in this Journal American Sociology essay, Creel seems to contradict what he writes about the primacy of reason’s role in forming public opinion by emphasizing the emotional element in Paine’s propaganda appeals to the American people (p. 345):
At every crucial moment in the Revolution, when the struggle seemed hopeless, when leaders and men despaired, Thomas Paine issued some stirring appeal that went straight to the soul of America; a master propagandist who played upon the hearts of the colonists with strong, sure touch [my italics]. … [T]here would have been no armies to lead, no cause to save, had the “rebellious staymaker” not blown upon the dying fires of patriotism until they blazed again.
He then links the morally pure, emotion-stirring Paine with the near-immaculate work of the Committee on Public Information (pp.345-346):
As no other, Thomas Paine proved that propagandists do not have to lie, do not have to preach hate, do not have to corrupt, and do not have to fall victims to megalomania and national egotism. As further proof, I offer the two-year record [cited at the beginning of this essay] of the Committee on Public Information, America’s propaganda agency throughout the first World War.
In additional writings Creel seemed to question his own view that public opinion was a function of reason. In “Mobilizing America’s Resources for the War,” (The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Volume LXXVIII, July 1918, p. 191). He states,  for example, he that “We want public opinion that springs from the heart and soul – that has its roots in the rich soil of truth.” Elsewhere, in his accolade to the president, Wilson and the Issues (1916), p. 63, he suggests emotional side of bonding a populace by inspiring words when he writes that “the soul of the many is found in the far-flung idealism of the Declaration of Independence, not in the cautious phrases of the Constitution.” (His preference for the Declaration of Independence over the Constitution doubtless contributed to his disdain of Congress and its procedures).

Creel image from

The vague entity “soul” as a determinant of identity and behavior – and hence, logically, of a person’s frame of mind or opinion – is expressed in a agitated fashion in Creel’s wartime article, “The Measure of a Permanent Peace,” The Advocate of Peace, Vol. 80, no. 9 (October 1918), p. 272:
Life itself is a struggle from the cradle to the grave. Every great principle demands that one fight for it; and the belief that is not worth dying for is not worth living for.
Let us stand fast against the Chauvinists, with their gospel of hate and disunity and let us stand fast also against those who refuse to see the essential justice and necessity of this war, putting the base fact of physical life above spiritual health.
Apocalyptically, he then declares:
As God is my judge, I would rather see my children dead at my feet than that they should grow up in a world made vile and poisonous by German victory; and that their souls should develop in the spiritual vacuum decreed by the supremacy of Teutonic ideals.
In an astute observation regarding reason vs. emotion fuzziness in Creel’s writings on propaganda, Stephen Vaughn, Holding Fast the Inner Lines: Democracy, Nationalism, and the Committee on Public Information (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carlina Press), (p. 21) comments on the CPI chairman's irony work:
Ironically, Creel’s work with the CPI during the war may have undermined his ideas about public opinion. … So convinced was he of the correctness of America’s position that he probably did not appreciate the dilemma of attempting to educate the public while rousing it with such intensity.
Vaughn’s remark finds support in Creel’s statement in his autobiography Rebel at Large: Recollections of Fifty Crowded Tears (New York, G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1947), p. 213 that:
Never once throughout the war did I have a doubt as to the wisdom and justice of our propaganda, preaching the Fourteen Points in particular with gospel fervor. True, we had said that it was the right of every people to choose the kind of government under which they wished to live, but all the same there was plain implication that the republican form was far and away the best. Why not? What more conclusive proof than the United States?
After the war, however, when Creel traveled in Europe and had a “close-up” of the Old Continent that he notes “this complacence was jarred into small pieces.” He adds that
"Self-determination" did not have the old rich, satisfying sound when seen in action. Instead of seventeen countries, twenty-six had come into being, and the growth of an intense and aggressive nationalism added mean hates to the tragedy of chaos precipitated by the utter lack of any sound economic basis.
He then expresses a mitteleuropa nostalgia for the stability of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, destroyed by the War to End All Wars:
Whatever the faults of the Hapsburg dynasty, at least it assured the unity of the Danube basin, the indispensable keystone of European equilibrium. With this unity shattered, and free movement and free trade shackled by the creation of new frontiers, Europe's progressive pauperization looked to be inevitable. Only Germany, the real criminal, had hope of finding profit from the muddled situation.
In a memorable passage, again found in his Rebel at Large (p. 214-5), Creel recalls his conversation with Wilson on the deck of the George Washington, on its way to Europe to bring the American delegation to the Paris Peace Conference:

of the USS. George Washington
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[One] evening … I spoke of the tremendous help his addresses had been to us in our work, and how the peoples of the world had rejoiced in his words. He stood silent for a while, and then answered slowly and soberly: "It is a great thing that you have done, but I am wondering if you have not unconsciously spun a net for me from which there is no escape."
Wilson then gets to the heart of the heart of the matter:
"It is to America that the whole world turns today, not only with its wrongs, but with its hopes and grievances. The hungry expect us to feed them, the roofless look to us for shelter, the sick of heart and body depend upon us for cure. All of these expectations have in them the quality of terrible urgency."
The president then expresses his immense concern a world supposedly made safe for democracy:
"There must be no delay. It has been so always. People will endure their tyrants for years, but they tear their deliverers to pieces if a millennium is not created immediately [my emphasis - JB]. Yet you know, and I know, that these ancient wrongs, these present unhappinesses, are not to be remedied in a day or with a wave of the hand. What I seem to see—with all my heart I hope that I am wrong—is a tragedy of disappointment.”
In a November 8, 1919 letter to Wilson, rather striking by the candor with which Creel addresses the Chief Executive he worshiped and endlessly flattered publicly, he writes the following (Creel Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Box 2):
You have indeed made this war a war to “make the world safe for democracy.” But it was not that sort of war when it began. And it was not that sort of war when we entered it.
Before we got into it, our entrance had its impulsionfrom our most reactionary and least democratic elements …
When you raised it to the level of democracy, you rallied to the support of the war all the progressive and democratic elements. The Big Business patriots went with you, ostensibly on your own terms, because they saw that only on your own terms could the war be won …
All the radical or liberal friends of your anti-imperialist war policy were either silenced or intimidated. The Department of Justice and the Post Office were allowed to silence or intimidate them. There was no voice left to argue your sort of peace …
You will have to give out your program for peace and reconstruction and find friends for it. Otherwise the reactionary patrioteers will defeat the whole immediate future of reform and progress.

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