Note for a Planned Article
"Creel, Lippmann, and the Origins of American Public Diplomacy"
(comments welcome; draft, not for citation)
(comments welcome; draft, not for citation)
The word "creeling" during, and for some time after, WWI, became part of the American language, among the press and Congress, to characterize obfuscation and falsification. It was coined in "honor" of George Creel, the Wilson loyalist and Chairman of the Committee on Public Information (1917-19), considered by most historians as the first USG propaganda agency. Its stated purpose was to mobilize support for American intervention in Europe in the War to End All Wars, both domestically and abroad. It was, by the standards of its time and even today, a massive operation. Some 150,000 people, including the Four Minute Men, were involved in its multifarious "outreach" programs.
Creel's aggressive CPI propaganda campaigns rapidly became quite unpopular --if not despised -- by newspapermen and legislators. Opponents of the war were deeply resentful of the CPI as well; associated, as it was increasingly, with strict censorship/espionage laws enacted by the Wilson administration. (Creel was made a member of the Censorship Board, established on October 12, 1917.) As for super-patriotic groups the U.S., they too had strong suspicions of Creel's organization: to them it was not sufficiently vociferous against the enemy. Creel, who in the fading days of his life, supported Senator McCarthy's anti-communist inquisitions Richard Nixon for Senator of California.
The views of the USA general public, with its many non-English speaking immigrants (including German-Americans, the majority "white" ethnic group in the USA today), are less well documented. Evidence does not dismiss the speculation that the CPI as an organization was little-known outside of the chattering classes in large cities and in issues-oriented lobbying groups. Was Creel a "national" figure? Maybe. He did talk to groups outside of Washington, which maybe had an impact on the "ordinary American" -- at that time far less "defined" than today.
But the influence of the CPI's programs -- disseminated without interruption through the spoken and written word and, perhaps most important, from a "propaganda" perspective, by means of images generated by posters; exhibitions; and the new media of photography and (even newer) film -- was more than considerable.
It created a national "public opinion" against the "Huns" and their "atrocities." Creel, not perhaps really aware of what he was doing (he was an "action" man above all) unified a nation of immigrants through incessant propaganda, I would say mostly through slogans and images, that was a mixture of high Declaration-of-Independence "Wilsonian" ideals and hate-the-enemy vulgarity, put on steroids by the latest media the CPI used effectively, especially through its cooperation with Hollywood. (Bear in mind, though, that radio as means of national persuasion did not play a significant role until the 1930s -- in both the U.S. (Roosevelt's "Fireside Chats") and Hitler's rants (at Nazi rallies).
British sources such as the Bryce Report, with its questionable evidence posing as being authoritative, much contributed to what some condemned as an anti-German "hysteria" in the U.S. It is somewhat ironic that the well-organized, "discreet" (by American advertising in-your-face standards) U.K. WWI propaganda in the U.S. contributed to persuading the United States -- which had declared its Independence from the English monarchy in 1776 -- to fight (more diplomatically said, help fight) wars for a declining, class-stratified empire in the name of "making the world safe for democracy."
It turned out, as naive, idealistic American propagandists were to learn at the Versailles peace negotiations after the war (was Wilson among the propagandists? I would say: in part), that grabbing territory for their outlived empire was, for the nostalgic-for-former-glory British -- and other European empire/"victors" of the War, thanks in large part to the U.S. being on their side -- was far more "real" than democracy or national "self-determination." The Europeans at Versailles were not "democrats." They were, in their narrow, parochial way, realpolitik all the way. No wonder Woodrow Wilson, assuming he believed the ideals he proclaimed (and there is some justification that he did), died a sad man.
And no wonder that Walter Lippmann, the owlish-looking "genius" behind the Fourteen Points proclamation, who arguably lived, essentially, in his own mind, with (however) not infrequent descents from his Mount Olympus to castigate mere mortals, blamed (among others) Creel's propaganda for the fiasco at Versailles. This propaganda, ignorant, he suggests, of European and even American "real" concerns beyond Wilsonian "idealism," was to blame for the failure of American post-war plans to be adopted by the Europeans.
So, when "policy" derails, blame the propaganda. It's one of the recurrent patterns of history, no matter under what name. Lippmann, that modern-day Plato (or so he saw himself) believing his mission was enlightening the masses in the cave through his knowledge in his way was just as naive as Creel, who thought that, by the "American people" believing his well-meaning (and sometimes not so well-meaning) slogans, the world would be "made safe for democracy."
Still, it is slightly ironic how this word, "creeling" with a different meaning, is defined in our new century by a British group which -- with doubtless the best of intentions -- is "Fishing for the Truth."