Shortly after Congress’s declaration of war on April 6, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson and his advisers discussed the need for what would become the Committee on Public Information (CPI). Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels recorded in his diary on April 9 that he and Wilson “talked about censorship. He will appoint George Creel as head.” (Papers of Woodrow Wilson, volume 42, page 23) In an undated memorandum, Creel outlined his thoughts on a “Department of Publicity,” which Daniels forwarded to the President under cover of an April 11 letter. The memorandum made no mention of foreign work, focusing instead on the need for a domestic publicity service that would include a censorship function. (Ibid., pages 39–41) On April 12, Wilson responded to Daniels: “Do I understand that I now have the authority to designate Creel? If so, I shall be glad to do so. I like his memorandum very much.” (Ibid., page 43)
The formal request for the creation of the CPI came in a letter to Wilson dated April 13 from Secretary of State Robert Lansing, Secretary of War Newton Baker, and Daniels. According to White House staff member Thomas Brahany, the letter was “drafted by Creel after consultation with the President.” Brahany also noted some disagreement between Creel and Lansing:
“When he [Creel] took it to Lansing for approval following its approval by Baker and Daniels, with whom he had talked fully, Creel was very coolly received. Lansing insisted that the letter be written on a State Department letterhead, and that his signature appear above the signatures of Baker and Daniels. Creel didn’t want Lansing on the Board. It was the President’s suggestion that Lansing be added. Creel was disgusted with what he termed Lansing’s ‘petty sensitiveness.’ Baker and Daniels laughed heartily, Creel said, when he told them they would have to sign a second letter because Lansing wanted his name to appear first.” (Diary entry of April 15; ibid., page 71) Daniels also commented on the incident: “Creel went to L to sign letter whereupon L wanted it written on State Dept. paper & he sign first. Precedence!” (Diary entry of April 13; ibid., page 59)
As with Creel’s memorandum, the focus of the letter was on the domestic work of the organization. The three men argued:
“It is our opinion that the two functions—censorship and publicity—can be joined in honesty and with profit, and we recommend the creation of a Committee on Public Information. The Chairman should be a civilian, preferably some writer of proved courage, ability and vision, able to gain the understanding cooperation of the press and at the same time rally the authors of the country to a work of service. Other members should be the Secretary of State, the Secretary of War, and the Secretary of the Navy, or an officer or officers detailed to the work by them.” (Ibid., page 55)
Wilson authorized the creation of the CPI that same day in Executive Order 2594, appointing the Secretaries of State, War, and the Navy as members of the CPI and Creel as the head. (Ibid., page 59) The Committee apparently met only once. In an undated note, Creel wrote:
“Mr. Lansing, a dull, small man, bitterly resented my chairmanship of the Committee, and made himself so unpleasant at the first meeting that I never called another. As a consequence, he refused to work with the Committee, and did everything that he could, in his mean, cheap way, to hinder and embarrass.” The undated note is a typed addition to an excerpt of a letter from Wilson to Lansing dated June 29; the note is bound in a volume of collected letters with an introductory note dated March 21, 1931. (Library of Congress, Papers of George Creel, Woodrow Wilson and the Committee on Public Information, 1917–1931, Box 3, Vol. III, 1917–1918, 1931)
Although foreign work was apparently not part of the original conception of the CPI, in time the Committee would assume responsibility for distributing material in allied, enemy, and neutral territories abroad, as Wilson and his administration were soon urged to consider publicity work in foreign countries. Ambassador on Special Mission to Russia Elihu Root wrote to Lansing from St. Petersburg on June 17 that conditions in Russia were “critical.” He elaborated: “The soldiers do not understand at all the importance to their country of maintaining the war and all along the line have simply been unwilling to fight. [Demoralization] has been aided by a tremendous German propaganda through fraternization of troops at the front and thousands of German agents throughout the country who swarmed across the border immediately after the revolution.” Root notified Lansing that he was already beginning to distribute “information” and had spent $100,000 for that purpose. He urged the expenditure of “at least $5,000,000” and gave the following justification:
“That would be less than the cost of maintaining five American regiments and the chance of keeping 5,000,000 Russians in the field against Germany is worth many times five regiments. It will mean a supply of newspapers, printing and distribution of posters, leaflets and pamphlets, employment of numerous lecturers and moving pictures to go about the front. This work to be done with the approval of Russian Government and not to be conducted in the name of the United States. We particularly recommend the establishment upon the Russian front of Y.M.C.A. stations similar to those on the French and English fronts, until recently on the Austrian front, just beginning on the Italian front, and in Mesopotamia, and along the lines planned for the American Army as authorized in Executive order signed by the President on April 27, 1917. These establishments have reading rooms, provisions for reading aloud to illiterate soldiers, lecture rooms, and temporary arrangements for moving pictures. There are two thousand of these establishments with the British Army all thronged by soldiers. They afford opportunities for access to the minds of the soldiers. These should be financed by the United States but that fact probably not made public until after they are established and understood. Mott thinks he can obtain twenty Americans now in Europe to inaugurate plan promptly pending the securing and training adequate number. Same sort of work is now being done on considerable scale in prison camps with great success. Very desirable indeed to send here immediately as many moving pictures as possible showing American preparation for war, battleships, troops marching, factories making munitions, and other things to carry to the mind the idea that America is doing something. These poor fellows have been told that no one is really fighting except Russian soldiers and they believe it. The British have recently been sending out similar moving pictures with very good effect, but everything has been done on too small a scale to deal with the great masses of people who must be assimilated.” (Telegram 8; Foreign Relations, 1918, Russia, volume I, pages 121–122)
On June 27, Lansing responded to Root: “The matter of establishing an efficient agency for publicity is receiving careful consideration in view of your recommendations as to its desirability.” (Telegram 1; ibid., page 127)
A Princeton PhD, was a U.S. diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Central/Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. After leaving the State Department in order to express opposition to the planned invasion of Iraq, he taught courses at Georgetown University pertaining to the tension between propaganda and public diplomacy. For many years he shared ideas on the theme "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" with Eurasian/European delegates participating in the "Open World" program.
Brown’s articles have appeared in numerous publications. A recent piece is “Janus-Faced Public Diplomacy: Creel and Lippmann During the Great War” (published in Nontraditional U.S. Public Diplomacy: Past, Present, and Future).
He is the author (with S. Grant) of The Russian Empire and the USSR: A Guide to Manuscripts and Archival Materials in the United States. He also served as an editor/translator of a joint U.S.-Soviet publication, The Establishment of Russian-American Relations, 1765-1815.