40. Letter From the Director of the Foreign Press Bureau, Committee on Public Information (Poole) to the Chairman of the Committee on Public Information (Creel)1
New York, November 15, 1918
Dear Mr. Creel:
I want to give you my reasons why it seems to me, from over a year’s constructive work as director of this division, that work along these lines should be continued on a permanent basis as a part of our government’s administration in relation to foreign countries.
As to my own part in such work—while feeling it a privilege to have served in this way during the war and assuring you of my willingness to continue serving through the coming three or four months of world wide discussion, if you care to have me do so—I shall then expect to be relieved, to continue my work as a writer. The work here is for an editor. I know that my own value is much greater as a writer, and I feel that for the kind of writing that I wish to do, there will be a large field of usefulness in the years ahead. My feeling is strong in this matter and my decision final.
My opinion is, however, that in some manner this work should go on. You may say that work of this kind belongs to the State Department. Perhaps it does, and it seems to me that a bureau along these lines should either be attached to the State Department or at least cooperate closely with it both here and in foreign countries, as we have been doing during the war. But the need of such work being permanent appears to me plain and urgent. If we are entering an era of more and more open diplomacy, in order to make the policies of this government most effective abroad we must use the legitimate methods of publicity to reach widely the great masses of people in other countries with the significant facts about the life and purposes of this nation. To present such facts widely we need men especially trained in reaching the large public by presentation in popular form.
Such work is by no means simple. If the proposed League of Nations becomes a reality, countless questions will arise of such immediate moment that this nation will need to present quickly to all countries its policy on each question, the reasons for its policy, and also the support of such policy by the nation at large, as evidenced in U.S. editorials, statements of prominent citizens, organizations, etc. There may be certain great crises where the delay of a few days or even hours in the transmission of such news will work considerable harm. The prompt and accurate work required will need a cable service from the U.S. reaching out all over the world.
Again, this nation will doubtless have many large aims and policies of a more permanent nature for which it wishes to build up support in the court of world opinion. For this it will rely, I presume, not on a tremendous army but on a campaign of fair and open discussion throughout the world. Moreover, as in each nation the trend seems to be more and more toward democracy, the need will increase for a wider and wider appeal to the great masses of people in each land, in the building up of such friendly support. This will require a mail service here, an adequate staff in this country to gather news and opinion to a much fuller extent than the limited cable service can do.
Such a mail service would also write or edit articles of all kinds dealing with significant aspects of our national life and growth, and would illustrate some of the best possible photographs, cuts, mats, etc. Such work will be of the first importance—for to gain agreement abroad with our foreign policies we must gain the good will of the world and arouse a friendly interest in all the aspects of life and work in the U.S.
For this part of the work there will be needed a large film serviceas well—for I believe that every year the medium of films will be used more and more to reach the hundreds of millions of people for whom the moving pictures make a much stronger appeal than does the written article.
So much for the home part of the service. There will also be needed in each of the countries men able wisely to select from the cabled and written material sent them, and translate it in colloquial style—men thoroughly familiar with the means of distribution in that country through the daily press, the weekly and monthly periodicals, technical journals, window display, photographs, lectures, film theatres, etc.
All this, of course, should be done in cooperation with the embassies or legations abroad and in harmony with the policy of our State Department.
Such a service, however, if it is to be of real value, must not be of the “official propaganda” sort which has been employed recently by many foreign governments. Although it must be reliable and strictly in conformity with the policies of our State Department, it must be more than this. It must be a service so well written, in the foreign style, so well edited and planned, that foreign editors will use it widely because of their certainty that it will interest their readers. Nothing will more quickly prevent such use than a service evidently “propaganda” and “official.” Remember that in years to come, as the nations [are] brought together, in each country more and more news, from other lands will compete for a place in newspapers and magazines. Our material must therefore be put into the most presentable form.
You may be sure that other nations will continue and increase the work of this kind which they are already undertaking in a much larger way than we have done. And when such nations develop policies hostile to our own, they will campaign in this way against us, and their points will have to be met unless we are willing to suffer defeat in each big national purpose.
It will also be urgent to clear away all points of misunderstanding or misconception that already prevail or will arise in foreign countries in regard to this nation, its life, work, ideals and opinions, its purposes both here and abroad. This means that we must inform foreign countries not only on current news and opinion here, but that also through various articles and pamphlets of authoritative opinion and interpretation we must inform them of the growth in past years, of certain chief aims and tendencies of ours as they now affect the outside world. In brief, we shall have to explain to them in popular form not only our present but our past.
Also it will tremendously help such new democracies as will probably arise in Russia, through the Balkans, Central Europe and elsewhere, if we can send them sound practical articles giving them the benefit of our experience during the long slow process of building up a democracy here. They will be eager to learn of all the various ways and means, both political and industrial, by which we have steered a safe course between the extremes of autocracy and anarchy, the methods found to be practical in self-government of all kinds, how our government is able to help the people and how the people control the government—both federal, state and municipal. All such material, presented through popular but authoritative articles, through pictures, films, etc. will be immensely valuable to liberal groups in each country who are trying to steer the same safe middle course. There are signs that the world is entering now a critical stage of transition with dangers of reaction on one side and Bolshevism on the other. It will greatly promote the safety of true democracy everywhere if the liberal groups in each country can be thoroughly informed of each other’s work.
Just to give one example, it will help the Russian liberals if we can show, by articles, pictures and especially films to the millions of Russian peasants, the life of the American farmer, his use of modern machinery, schools for his children, automobiles, newspapers, rural delivery and all the other advantages he enjoys. Our embassy and consular service in Russia as at present organized is not adequate for this task. It will mean, through papers, periodicals, agricultural journals, lectures, film theatres, etc. reaching out to all classes of people there and showing them what we have done and are doing, giving them the benefit both of our successes and mistakes in the many experiments we have made, picturing the life of our farmers and our workingmen, our children in cities and villages, our free schools and colleges, all kinds of free education here, public health work of all kinds, work of industrial welfare. It will be especially urgent to overcome a widely prevailing opinion in Russia that our exporters are looking on Russia as a field for huge and unfair profits in the future. We must show our real purpose, which will be, I suppose, to open up legitimate trade connections on a basis of mutual advantage.
Again in our approach to the peoples of Germany and Austria it will be of the utmost importance quickly and convincingly to explain to them what attitude we decide to take, in order to avoid on the one hand any danger of another German militarism arising and on the other hand to meet the menace of a permanently embittered nation that might become a breeding ground for trouble in Europe in the generations to come.
Our foreign trade to all countries will doubtless have an immense expansion in the near future. With this will go a great advertising campaign abroad conducted by exporters here through their export journals to foreign countries, through window displays, through foreign newspapers and all other possible mediums. They will use every possible device, including films, to promote their campaigns. The pictures they give of American life and national aims will closely affect our relations with such foreign countries, and should therefore, it seems to me, be balanced and controlled by the friendly cooperation of this government in all such campaigns, so as to insure against possible blunders and misstatements. For upon our commerce will depend the good or bad will toward us that will arise throughout the world. This will be especially true in the near future when the world will have special need of our manufactured products. In many countries it has been said by hostile propagandists that we are to become a huge imperialistic commercial power using our domination in ways unfair to other nations in the world’s market. Such attacks need to be answered by a campaign to show our real policy—a free field for all.
It will be the same with our food products. For years to come the world will face a shortage of food and will be eager to know the extent of our supplies of such products. It will immeasurably strengthen the good will of the world toward this country if we can show both the abundance of our resources and our generous purpose to share to the greatest possible extent our bounty with others who need it most. In this connection I have already spoken of how the life of the farmer can be used to show to other people what a free but orderly government can do for the man who tills the soil. Such informative work means reaching not only the popular press but also agricultural journals.
Again, in the field of education it will immensely increase the good will toward us if we can keep other countries informed of the thousands of young men and women who will doubtless be trained in our schools and colleges to go abroad in all kinds of foreign work connected with our industries, commerce, education, etc. Moreover, if there is to be a more liberal and brotherly world, no better means of building it up could be found than to bring together the teachers of all countries in a great international exchange of ideas of all kinds as to the education of children and the moulding of the citizen who will run the world of tomorrow. This can perhaps best be done through the world’s educational journals. In this field we have much to offer in the way of suggestions drawn from our experience in our educational system, federal, state and municipal. But we have also much to learn. And certainly, in all parts of such a service, we should take pains to avoid any too superior attitude. We should show ourselves ready and eager to learn. Some say that in the coming age the one great word will be Education. If so, it is certainly urgent to provide a means by which the best ideas of each country can be given at once to all the rest.
This applies also to the field of medical service and public health. For the popular and medical press abroad we should describe all such activities here that may be valuable suggestions for public health in other countries and we should also show how we benefit here from the many suggestions from abroad. In this section, we should show our willingness to help in all kinds of relief and reconstruction work in Europe, and in this field we can also show our own essential democracy, in the great progress that all movements for public health have made over here in the last twenty years. Also in every possible way should be shown how the new international order can help the progress of medical science and how medical science can strengthen the new international order.
To promote such special news exchange, in the more important foreign countries, as now we have a commercial attache at our embassies or legations, it might be well to add educational, agricultural and possibly medical attaches as well.
At any rate there should be in each important foreign country a Bureau of the kind here described, with cable, mail and film divisions, cooperating with our consular and diplomatic service. And here in the United States there should be the same three divisions to gather and send the material.
As for the actual organization, I can make suggestions only for the mail division, in which I have had experience here.
Briefly, in this office we have been organized as follows. First, we have a news feature service made up of extracts and “re-writes” from about 200 daily newspapers from all sections of the United States and giving all shades of opinion; also from several hundred general and technical magazines, trade journals, etc., as well as from all sorts of federal and state government reports, and reports of private organizations.
We have also special men here dealing with various fields of activities, such as agriculture, food conservation, industry and finance, labor, education, religion, medicine.
In connection with these is a section supplying to hundreds of U.S. exporters printed and picture material to be distributed by them in the hundreds of thousands of business letters, catalogues, etc. which they send to foreign countries.
In addition, we have had on our staff or connected with this Bureau men with a special knowledge of Russia, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Holland, France, England, Spain, Italy, Austria, Germany and also Latin American countries.
Finally, we have an art department which produces photographs, cuts, mats, etc. to illustrate articles, and large re-prints to be placed in the several thousand shop windows now available to us in foreign countries; also posters and picture post-cards showing forth war aims and activities.
Some such organization perhaps might be valuable as a basis to build on.
I have not tried to set all this out in order or in any detail but merely to make suggestions for what seems to me a tremendous need. I hope that if this meets with the approval of the government, minds far abler than my own will combine my suggestions with others and draw up a strong and adequate system of publicity work abroad, without which it seems to me that the effort to build a new international order will meet with little or no success in the critical years ahead.
Should some such plan be adopted, there exists in our records here a vast wealth of suggestion for one who is to build up on a permanent basis such a service for the United States. There are also, I think, some men on this staff who would be exceedingly valuable for such work if they could be persuaded to undertake it. For the main direction of such a service I know of no one more fitted than yourself.
1Source: National Archives, RG 63, Entry 105, Director’s Office of the Foreign Section, General Correspondence, Box 16, Poole—Reports Nov. 1917–April 1918. No classification marking. The armistice took effect on November 11.
2Printed from a copy that indicates Poole signed the original.
A Princeton PhD, was a US diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. For the Open World Leadership Center, he speaks with
its delegates from Europe/Eurasia on the topic, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" (http://johnbrownnotesandessays.blogspot.com/2017/03/notes-and-references-for-discussion-e.html). Affiliated with Georgetown University (http://explore.georgetown.edu/people/jhb7/) for over ten years, he still shares ideas with students about public diplomacy.
The papers of his deceased father -- poet and diplomat John L. Brown -- are stored at Georgetown University Special Collections at the Lauinger Library. They are manuscript materials valuable to scholars interested in post-WWII U.S.-European cultural relations.
This blog is dedicated to him, Dr. John L. Brown, a remarkable linguist/humanist who wrote in the Foreign Service Journal (1964) -- years before "soft power" was ever coined -- that "The CAO [Cultural Affairs Officer] soon comes to realize that his job is really a form of love-making and that making love is never really successful unless both partners are participating."