Selling a War: World War I Propaganda

18, October 2017
Color scan of WWI propaganda poster promoting purchase of war bondsWWI propaganda poster promoting the purchase of Third Liberty Loan bonds, 1918. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

American leaders faced quite the public-relations crisis after finally deciding to enter World War I in April 1917. During the preceding three years of fighting in Europe, a serious split had developed in the United States between those who favored preparedness, including former president Theodore Roosevelt, and those who supported neutrality. The latter consisted of people who believed the fight was “Europe’s War” and first- and second-generation Europeans, often Germans, who wanted to avoid conflict with their native lands. St. Louis in particular had one of the largest German immigrant populations in the US: At the time of the war, 2 out of every 10 St. Louis residents were first- or second-generation Germans.

Portrait photo of George CreelGeorge Creel, head of the Committee on Public Information, ca. 1918. National Archives and Records Administration.

In response to this divide—and in an effort to rally the country behind the war—President Woodrow Wilson authorized the formation of a national propaganda organization, the Committee on Public Information (CPI). Headed by former Missouri newspaperman George Creel, the CPI immediately went to work selling the American public on the war.

CPI propaganda permeated all aspects of daily life. Street corners everywhere were plastered with posters pushing war bonds, food conservation, and military enlistment. These colorful posters prominently featured Uncle Sam, Columbia, and caricatures of brutish Germans. (You can see many more in the World War I: Missouri and the Great War exhibit open at the Missouri History Museum through June 17, 2018.)

But the CPI didn’t stop at advertisements to spread its message. It also employed the inescapable Four-Minute Men. This national organization consisted of more than 75,000 volunteers who gave speeches—typically four minutes in length—anywhere and everywhere Americans gathered, from street corners and movie theaters to churches and synagogues. These carefully crafted presentations covered a variety of war-related topics, including the United War Work Fund; food conservation; Liberty Loans; how public support aided the war; and the threats Germans, socialism, and dissent posed to the war effort.

Sepia-toned photograph of St. Louis's Four-Minute MenSt. Louis's Four-Minute Men, ca. 1918. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

Creel wrote of the CPI in his memoirs, stating:

We did not call it propaganda, for that word, in German hands, had come to be associated with deceit and corruption. Our effort was educational and informative throughout, for we had such confidence in our case as to feel that no other argument was needed than the simple, straightforward presentation of facts.

Color scan of WWI propaganda poster encouraging kids to buy war stampsWWI propaganda poster encouraging children to buy war stamps, 1917. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

His characterization of the committee’s work is, itself, a deceit, given that the entire purpose of the CPI was to convince Americans of the merits of the war and how they could aid in its success. Despite this, Creel and the CPI were largely effective, convincing Americans to purchase billions of dollars in war bonds and enlist in the military by the millions.

Since the end of World War I, no US government agency has overtly spread propaganda to the degree that the CPI did. Even the committee’s World War II successor, the Office of War Information (OWI), never had the reach or power exercised by the American propaganda pushers of the First World War.

—Patrick Allie, Military and Arms Curator

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