Saturday, October 11, 2014

Who is George Creel, the USA's first "minister of propaganda"?

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(comments welcome; draft, not for citation)

Who is George Creel?

From James R. Mock and Cedric Larson, Words that Won the War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1939), pp. 50-64:

George Creel was forty-one when he became head of the CPI [Committee on Public Information, 1917-1919]. He had been born in Lafayette County, Missouri, the son of a Confederate officer who migrated from Virginia after the Civil War. While George was a boy the family moved to Kansas City, and it was there that he was educated in the public schools, attracting some local attention by his sharp-penned contributions to the high school paper. Then he worked briefly for the Kansas City World until, according to legend, refusal to pry into the life of a bereaved family ended his first job and interrupted for the time being his career in journalism. He left for New York on a cattle train and had a perilous time keeping himself alive for the first few months in the East. He sold jokes and shovelled snow that first winter in New York, and eventually got a job on the New York Journal.

While on the staff of the Journal, at the age of twenty, he and Arthur Grissom decided that Kansas City could, and by all means should, support a semi-literary weekly. So George Creel went back to Kansas City, travelling this time, however, as a customer of the passenger department, not the stock-handling division. He and Grissom established the Independent. Later he bought his partner out and for a decade ran the paper successfully by himself.

The Independent's Volume 1, Number 1, appeared March 11, 1899. The paper sold for three cents and was published each Saturday. A serial, "The Servant of the Prince" by Arthur Grissom started in the first issue, as did a column of jokes, verse, and philosophical anecdotes captioned "Cap and Bells" and signed GEO. EDW. CREEL. This column was renamed "Vagrant Chords" and again "Original Humor," and before long the signature had contracted to GEORGE CREEL.

With the May 2, 1903, issue, the cover blossomed forth with "George Creel, Editor and Publisher" and such legends as "Brilliant Articles," "Clever Comment," and "All That Is Best in Poetry and Prose." One other slogan underwent an interesting metamorphosis, changing from "A Clean Paper for Clean People" in 1903 to "A Clean, Clever Paper for Intelligent People" in 1904 whether denoting a change in the product, the clientele, or merely the sales appeal the evidence does not show.

Creel contributed every sort of literary work to his periodical articles, verse, and stories, including one production entitled "A Study in Soul-Strife: the Story of a Murder Mystery." He attacked indecent plays and erring politicians, and he wrote popular songs, one of which, "Every Jack Must Have His Jill," he gave full-page advertising on the back cover. Only a writer with the omniscience of a latter-day columnist would attempt to cover so wide a variety of topics.

From the beginning of his proprietorship of the Independent, Creel dedicated a considerable share of his great energy to social and economic problems. On October 31, 1903, the reading public was advised that the paper was "Devoted to the Interests of Employer and Independent Employee," and he often launched the Independent on crusades looking toward one or another of the objectives of the yet-to-be-announced "New Freedom." One number in 1907 carried an article by another contributor which Creel gave prominent display under the heading:



In 1909 Creel relinquished his editorship to K(atherine) M. Baxter, and the paper increased its attention to the theater and turned to gentler crusades, such as "Abolish the French Heel." The magazine, incidentally, after various changes of name, is published today as The Independent: Kansas City's Weekly Journal of Society, directing its efforts to the publication of debutante pictures and similar material. It still carries the line "Established March 11, 1899," though as long ago as 1917 Creel's connection seems to have been forgotten. When he became chairman of the CPI, the Independent, alas! appeared unaware of the distinction conferred upon its founder.

image from

Creel left Kansas City to move farther west, but before going an important event occurred in his literary career: he published his first book. It was called Quatrains of Christ. It was in a precious, gift-book binding and consisted of 121 stanzas after the fashion of Omar.

Edwin Markham referred to this work of "the brilliant young editor of the Independent" as "one of the four or five best books of verse among the many that have come to me from the younger American writers." The Denver Post, to the services of which paper Creel wasshortly to be called, went farther, throwing caution to the winds: "A masterpiece . . . which, had it been printed before the translation of Omar, would have ranked higher than it in English literature." A sample stanza from these reflections on the life of Jesus:

God gave us mind and will; we are the free
Unfettered masters of our destiny,
And not as He did make us will He judge,
But as His word has meant that we should be.

Some of Creel's friends chaffed him about the Quatrains of Christ during the war years, and he appears to have taken the badinage good-naturedly. But the high purpose and religious spirit which Creel revealed in these lines was to have an important place in the work of the CPI.

When "the brilliant young editor" left Kansas City to join the editorial staff of the Denver Post the Colorado city was in the thick of a political battle. A campaign for a public water system was won and attacks were launched against the city's political machine. Initiative, referendum, and direct primary were important issues of the day, and Creel's signed editorials on these and other subjects attracted a great deal of attention. Once a state legislator sued Creel and his paper for libel, but the bold editorial writer took the witness stand and won over the jury. According to reports, when Creel was urged to say that he spoke figuratively when describing certain people as fit to be hanged, he made the courtroom ring with "No, I meant it. The hemp! The hemp!"

A short time later Creel became interested in a county election campaign, lending support to a reform ticket backed by judge Ben B. Lindsey. This was important for the future because it forced Creel to withdraw from his job and enter magazine journalism, and it committed him more definitely than ever before to the liberal side of important social issues. Creel thought that the Post was guilty of treachery to the reform ticket, so he resigned from the paper, devoting the last few days before election to campaigning for what proved to be the losing side. But he had won the lasting friendship of Ben Lindsey and it turned him toward a wider public. Without a position and without funds he visited his friend Warden Jim Tynan at the state prison at Canyon City, and from there went to New York. He was delighted to find a ready sale for magazine articles, and he might have continued in the "muckraking" field had he not received, in the summer of 1911, a letter from Senator T. M. Patterson, owner of the Rocky Mountain News, to come back to Denver and do some honest-to-goodness muckraking of a practical sort to help put over a commission form of government.

He went and the campaign was successful. But before the victory he had an exciting interlude as a member of the Fire and Police Board. He directed certain reforms such as depriving policemen of clubs, and he tried to end brutal treatment of radicals who, he thought, were only encouraged to more violence when subjected to police cruelty. He attempted to deal with the problem of commercialized vice and venereal disease. Finally, he forced an undercover political fight into the open and was dismissed by the mayor for his pains. But the Commission Government Movement which he led, and which he had continued to support through editorials in the Rocky Mountain News, triumphed by a two-to-one vote at the polls.

At one point Creel was asked to be a candidate for commissioner but refused, giving as excuse the principal charge of his many opponents during the CPI experience that he was temperamentally unsuited for public office.

But he was temperamentally suited to rough-and-tumble journalism, and his editorial pen was never quiet. Through the autumn of 1912 the entire first page of section 5 in each Sunday issue of the News was given over to Creel, who discoursed on a bewildering variety of subjects "The Volcanic Balkans," Margaret Sanger and sex hygiene, the direct primary, the Payne-Aldrich tariff, and "The Secret of Charm."

When President-elect Woodrow Wilson visited Denver on October 8, 1912, the Rocky Mountain News burst forth with a three-column photograph and this headline:


Creel had performed a great deal of political service for Wilson during the campaign, and after the election continued to train his guns on the forces of privilege and monopoly. With increasing frequency his byline appeared at the head of leading articles in Everybody's, Pearson's, and other magazines, and usually in support of some phase of the "New Freedom." In the March 1915 issue of Pearson's was his article "How Tainted Money Taints" suggesting that millionaires made their huge gifts to philanthropic and educational institutions "to chloroform public opinion" He did not hesitate to name names and incidents in his campaign against "Monopolized Altruism" and this may go far toward explaining many of the charges of radicalism which were brought against him when appointed to the CPI.

In a letter to the New Republic of March 27, 1915, Creel said, "For fifteen years I have devoted myself to a task of agitation in politics and industry, always trying to stay close to what may be termed the 'underdog.' During this time 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."

A year before this letter, Creel's name had appeared as co-author on the title page of an important new book, once more revealing the development of his social conscience and his eagerness "to suspect and denounce." The book was Children in Bondage, "a complete and careful presentation of the anxious problem of child labor its causes, its crimes, and its cure," published by Hearst's International Library Company. The authors were Edwin Markham, Ben Lindsey, and George Creel. It was ruthless in its attack on "the great American cancer."

In 1913 Creel left the Rocky Mountain News and, while engaged in various journalistic tasks, continued to expand his already wide acquaintance in the fields of politics, literature, and the arts. In the last category he was greatly aided by his wife, who was the actress Blanche Bates, star of The Darling of the Gods and other well known vehicles. When Creel went to the CPI, it was reported that her friendship for Margaret Wilson, the President's daughter, helped reinforce the close ties between Creel and Mr. Wilson.

To aid Wilson in the reelection campaign of 1916, Creel wrote the book Wilson and the Issues, which James Kerney says "had mightily pleased" the President. Chapter VII in that book was "The Case of Josephus Daniels," a detailed defense of the Secretary of the Navy and future member of the CPI. On the final page of the volume the author said:

"Are these hard-won heights to be abandoned? In its hour of greatest hope is democracy to surrender? Are the people of the United States so lost to the spirit of Henry and Jefferson and Lincoln that they prefer chains to freedom? Is it possible to build a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, or must humanity, by reason of its own stupidities, blindnesses, incapacities, and cowardice yield inevitably to the rule of the self-elected few?"

This loyalty to the President's ideals was repaid by Mr. Wilson's loyalty to Creel. It was needed, and it is beyond doubt that if the President had not stood by him Mr. Creel would have been out of office on any one of a dozen occasions when newspaper or Congressional ire was directed against him. We have already seen in Chapter II some indications of how his appointment to the CPI was received. The New York Times spoke for many lesser papers when it said on April 16:

"Mr. Creel may have been unjustly criticized in Denver, but we are unable to discover in his turbulent career as a municipal officer there, or in his qualities as a writer, or in his services to the Woman Suffrage Party in New York, any evidence of the ability, the experience, or the judicial temperament required 'to gain the understanding and cooperation of the press' as the three Cabinet officers put it. That he is qualified for any position of authority over the press is made further doubtful by his publicly expressed hostility toward certain newspapers.

"As to 'rallying the authors of the country' the other function assigned to Mr. Creel, those estimable and gifted ladies and gentlemen can doubtless be made useful in various ways, but essential to the information of the public during the war will be not pleasing fictions prepared by imaginative writers but facts, even painful facts, accurately described by conscientious and competent reporters."

More than a year later the Times said again: "George Creel had been a radical writer, an editor of the Rocky Mountain News, to whose columns he contributed editorials savagely denouncing the United States government. . . . Whatever may have been the rights or the wrongs of his controversies, his career had been one of turbulence and mud-spattering; he had denounced and been denounced. His name stood for acrimonious contention." To this Creel replied in an unpublished letter to the Times, in which he said: "I enclose a clipping which strikes me as being very unfair. In none of my editorials did I ever 'savagely denounce the United States government.' I was an advocate of the initiative and the referendum, and all my considerations were directed to the support of these measures. The feeling of the people in Colorado was indicated by the tremendous majorities given in favor of the reform, and also to every other measure that I proposed during my three years' stay in Denver. . . ."

Creel went on to say, "My career has not been one of 'turbulence and mud-spattering' . . . Any mud-spattering in Denver was due to the very villainous activities of the corrupt men that I fought and defeated."

But note the final sentence of the letter: "I do not write this with the expectation or desire of any correction, but simply to let you know the truth."

That interchange between Creel and the Times is perhaps as impressive testimony as can be given of the way in which "Censor Creel" used his power. The head of the mighty Committee on Public Information wrote in answer to a personal attack not "with the expectation or desire of any correction, but simply to let you know the truth."

If Mr. Creel had been disposed to bring reprisals against his critics he would have been kept busy, for they were legion. His eagerness and zeal and his tempestuous spirit would have ensured him a considerable number of enemies under any circumstances, but it is clear that Congress thoroughly enjoyed the sport of "jumping on George" as it was called. It was a safe and convenient way of attacking the national administration without the political dangers incurred by direct criticism of Wilson.

He was asked if he was an I.W.W. and a Socialist, and he was forced to say that all CPI personnel was under the surveillance of Military Intelligence (Captain Rupert Hughes was one of the investigators) before this particular kind of criticism stopped.

The most famous incident in the Congressional campaign against the CPI came in May 1918. In the course of a New York speech Creel had been asked whether he thought all Congressmen were loyal. Without hesitation he replied, "I do not like slumming, so I won't explore into the hearts of Congress for you."

Both houses of Congress were of course immediately up in arms, and there was a chorus of demands that Creel be forced to resign. Claude Kitchin said that the chairman of the CPI was "unworthy of the respect of any decent citizen" Creel issued a public letter of apology but even then the cries of rage did not stop. Ray Stannard Baker believes that it was on this occasion that Wilson refused Creel's proffered resignation, saying that one indiscretion would not be allowed to outweigh a year of useful service. And once when a group of Senators called on Wilson to ask for Creel's head the President replied: "Gentlemen, when I think of the manner in which Mr. Creel has been maligned and persecuted I think it a very human thing for him to have said."

On still another occasion Mr. Creel recalls that the President called him on the telephone while he was under attack and said: "If necessary I will go up there myself as your counsel." But the chairman of the CPI was marked for punishment, and when, in June 1918, Congress voted on the 1918-1919 appropriation it cut nearly in half the sum for which Creel had asked. One useful by-product of this incident was the Congressional hearing at which the CPI was asked to justify itself, with Creel, Byoir, Ford, and others reading important information into the record. But the attack on the CPI resulted not only in curtailing operations of certain divisions but in entire abandonment of two of them and, in the foreign field and at home, a weakening of prestige.

Congress might be criticized by the press, but the newspapers agreed with the legislators on the subject of George Creel. From the very first announcement of his appointment until the present day he has been the target for "inkpotshots" from the press as well as from opponents of his social and economic ideas, from people jealous of the power placed in his hands, and from thousands of citizens who had no particular grudge against the man but resented the invariable appearance of his name on government publicity and were taught by the newspapers that he was to blame for their woes. In addition to being accused of manufacturing one important and several minor news hoaxes in the CPI itself, Creel's traducers attempted to link him with the Naval Oil Leases and various other scandals.

Five years after the war Mr. Creel wrote an article, "The 'Lash' of Public Opinion," in which he delivered himself of the following sad reflections: "It is these joined causes the indecencies of partisanship, the noise and unintelligibility of a large portion of the press, the lack of trustworthy information, the dreary routine of mud-slinging that passes for political discussion that have killed public opinion, or rather deafened it, confused it, bored it, disgusted it. Cynicism, indifference, disgust, disbelief, confusion, bewilderment these are some ofthe reasons why false servants are not lashed into obscurity and, in fact, are never called to pay proper penalty."

In spite of the frequency of personal attacks during the war, Mr. Creel felt unable to go into the courts to defend his honor because of the expense and his fear of the courts' delay. But "not all the attacks of twenty years have given me a protective callousness, and every lie has seen me die a thousand deaths." Even if suits could have been won, there was no time during the war to worry about personal reputations. The country was engaged in a death struggle with autocracy, and the anger of the CPI leader was reserved, in public at least, for the slacker, the Kaiserite, the enemy within.

Commander George Barr Baker, naval censor at New York and after the war Calvin Coolidge's publicity director for the 1924 campaign, expressed Creel's own thoughts when he wrote him in January 1918: "I don't think that the hard pull or the worries and perplexities of our positions are doing us any harm. If we live through them we will probably have done what we dreamed of doing giving faithful service towards Democracy. If we work ourselves to death we will at least have gone the very best kind of way. Figuring it this way, we should be happy.'

Mr. Creel's entire conception of "giving faithful service to wards Democracy" was summed up in his unwavering loyalty to Wilson. The CPI leader, like his chief, enlarged the "New Freedom" into the "New Patriotism," a logical extension to world affairs of the program which both had advocated at home for many years. This "New Patriotism" can be defined in many ways, but an understanding of its significance to Americans while the war was in progress comes best not through the sober terms of political philosophy but in the flaming words of a famous wartime speech which was gradually evolved by Carl Vrooman of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. His high-voltage oratory was in constant demand; it expressed what millions of Americans were thinking, and Mr. Creel said that he had read the speech "with joy and profit." The following brief passage from Vrooman's "New Patriotism" speech expresses Creel's own ideas exactly, if in language more baroque than the chairman of the CPI was accustomed to use:

"We are going to extirpate the hell-born spirit of conquest and break and crush its votaries once and for all time. We are in a crusade not only for liberty and democracy but for a peace that must never again be jeopardized by the crazy dreams of world conquest of a war-mad Kaiser surrounded by a war-mad conclave of Hindenburgs, Ludendorffs, Tirpitzes, and Crown Princes. We mean to demonstrate so that a thousand years from now people will read, and rejoice in the fact, that in our generation civilized nations by the use of civilized methods were able to defend themselves against terrorism, Tirpitzism, Zeppelinism, and the blood-red Moloch of materialism."

George Creel did not throw words around as Vrooman did, but that is what he believed.

In the February 1917 issue of Everybody's he wrote "The Next Four Years: an Interview with the President," illustrated with cartoons by Rollin Kirby. Here was renewed proof of his intimacy with the President. As the New York Times pointed out after the issue appeared, the article was strikingly similar to Wilson's "Peace Without Victory" speech of the day before. In the article Creel said that he was presenting certain propositions regarding world affairs "that have come to be convictions with the President, and that he set down forme [?]."

The next issue of Everybody's, appearing just before declaration of war, carried Creel's article, "Four Million Citizen Defenders," advocating universal military training as "a health insurance policy for America." And the June 1917 issue contained his article "The Sweat of War," probably written in March, emphasizing the importance of mobilizing all national resources, not merely armies. That ended Creel's writing as a private citizen until after the war. From then on he spoke and wrote and acted not as an individual but as a spokesman of the Wilson administration and public relations counsel to the American people.

Events in the month of April 1917 moved with lightning swiftness, even for a man used to the pace of Denver journalism. The first job of the CPI was of course the orderly dissemination of government news, and that was first on the order of business when Creel assumed office. But other needs pressed themselves on the chairman's attention almost from the start. It was immediately evident that he intended no passive role for his committee: he proposed to make the news division merely the basis for a kaleidoscopic variety of other activities which would serve to bring the war home to the American people, teach them the significance of the Wilson program of reconstruction, and inspire each of them with some part of the emotional patriotism of Creel himself.

By the end of the war, opinion was nearly as important in the business of the CPI as the staple commodity, news. The use of symbols assumed greater and greater importance [my italics-JB], and a number of the CPI divisions were concerned exclusively with symbol-manipulation.

It is indicative of the impromptu organization and development of the Committee that no one can draw a definitive outline of its work. As mentioned before, bureaus and divisions sprang up overnight and were modified, amalgamated, divided, extended, or entirely demobilized with a frequency and intricacy which typified the feverish atmosphere of official Washington.

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