World War One and Propaganda
Wilson Establishes the Committee on Public Information
Woodrow Wilson was reelected in November 1916 partly on the basis of his campaign slogan, “He Kept Us out of War.” It was very clear that a great many Americans did not want to enter the European conflict. Yet, on April 6, 1917, the House voted for war three days after the Senate approved Wilson’s request for a war declaration.
There were notable detractors such as Robert LaFollette in the Senate and Jeanette Rankin, a Montana Republican in the House, who opposed war on pacifist grounds. Eugene Debs, the Socialist Party presidential candidate, spoke out against the war and was imprisoned. Wilson’s immediate task was to turn Americans from isolationists into active war-time participants. That was accomplished through propaganda.
Executive Order 2594 Establishes the Committee on Public Information
One week after the passage of the war declaration, Wilson established the Committee on Public Information, headed by George Creel. Creel’s powers were immense as he was tasked with creating a propaganda machine that had two primary aims: building support for the war in a pluralistic society and portraying the enemy in the worst possible manner.
The committee used songs, film, posters, and press censorship. Throughout the nation, speakers known as “Four Minute Men” gave brief speeches designed to galvanize audiences into action. Closely tied to propaganda efforts was the war bond drive. These aims were all the more important because of the 1.26 million German-Americans that had been born in either Germany or another country part of the Central Powers.
Portrayal of Germans in the War Years
Germans were referred to collectively as the “Hun” and the “Prussian Python.” Political cartoons and posters conveyed the image of a raging beast ready to devour innocent women and children. Earlier British propaganda was released accusing German soldiers of bayoneting Belgian babies as they marched through that neutral country.
The teaching of the German language was prohibited and everyday German names were changed. The frankfurter became the hot dog and sauerkraut was renamed “liberty cabbage.” Concerts featuring German music were boycotted and in one instance the renowned German conductor, Karl Muck, had to be escorted into the concert hall by police. One of the most popular “hate” films ever made, “The Kaiser; the Beast of Berlin,” portrayed the Germans as savage brutes.
Saving the World for Democracy
Although the Wilson administration had more practical motives for entangling the United States in the war, such as the enormous debt owed by the Allies, the American public needed to be sold on the war on a different level. They needed to understand why their government was enlisting them to be vigilant, reporting suspicious behavior to the Department of Justice in Washington. German enemy agents were thought to lurk behind every corner.
Along with atrocity, the notion of Democracy has always found favor with Americans. Wilson’s Fourteen Points ensured that spilled American blood would result in a new world order. George M. Cohan’s 1917 song “Over There” was the most popular pro-war song. “Every son of liberty, Hurry right away…Make your daddy glad to have such a lad…”
Cohan’s song conveyed several messages. Young men that did not respond to the Uncle Sam poster declaring “I Want You” ran the risk of being considered weak or unpatriotic. What woman wanted such a man? Cohan’s song tells “Johnnie” to “Tell your sweetheart not to pine, to be proud her boy’s in line.”
Aftermath of Propaganda
Once the war ended so did the work of the committee. Yet the effects were felt in a society that, during the twenties, mistrusted the various European stereotypes associated with Socialism. Changes in immigration laws and quotas responded to such fears. At the same time, German-Americans worked ever harder to prove their Americanism.
Aug 22, 2009 Michael Streich of the New York Times