A two-part interview conducted on 5 and 12 April 2019 by Theo Mayer of the World War One Centennial Commission with author Alan Axelrod
Theo Mayer: With us today is Alan Axelrod, the author of more than 150 books on leadership, history, military history, and business, among others. And one of those books that Alan wrote is called Selling the Great War. The Making of American Propaganda. It's the bio of George Creel. We got together to talk about George, and it turned into such an interesting conversation, we're going to have to break this out into two parts. Here's part one of George Creel, the man who sold America on World War I. Alan, welcome.
Alan Axelrod: Great to be with you.
Theo Mayer: Alan, you and I have talked about George Creel quite a bit, but let's maybe introduce him in a broad context first.
Alan Axelrod: Well, he was a young man from rural Missouri, who was the son of a doting mother and an alcoholic father and not very well educated. But he had a quick mind, and he was intensely curious, and he became a journalist, sort of through the back door. He worked for some small-town papers and then moved to New York, and found work as a joke writer. He eked out a living writing jokes that were just stuck in newspapers to fill space. But eventually he linked up with a few influential people and he became a muckraker; he became a very socially high minded journalist. And in this job, he became acquainted with Woodrow Wilson during his first run at the presidency, and he just fell in love with the man, he fell in love with progressivism. And by the time Wilson stood for re-election in 1916, Creel had ingratiated himself with Wilson and became the writer of Wilson's campaign biography and became a leading exponent of Wilson, particularly Wilson's opposition to any American involvement in World War I. And, of course, Wilson won by a very narrow margin, re-election largely on the campaign slogan "He kept us out of war." Then, of course, he takes the oath of office, back in those days, in March of 1917. And on 6 April of that year he asked Congress for a declaration of war so that the United States could join the war that he had kept the country out of during this first administration. And this put Creel in the position of having to turn the American public around, 180 degrees, from this orientation of pacifism, of absolute neutrality, to total commitment to a war in Europe.
Theo Mayer: Now, having an administration and a president who gets elected, who brings in a leading and, perhaps, even controversial journalists into his inner circle, that sounds pretty familiar.
Alan Axelrod: Absolutely. Creel had the advantage of. . . He was considered a kind of gadfly at this point; his real power came once he started the Committee on Public Information. He was an outsider, he was always an outsider and part of him relished being an outsider, and part of him wanted desperately to get into the center of activity and the center of power. He didn't really want to be the man in front of the curtain, he wanted to be the man behind the curtain, he wanted to be the power behind the power; and that's what he achieved with the Committee on Public Information.
Theo Mayer: Well, the Committee on Public Information really became an incredibly powerful aspect of American public opinion, at large.
Alan Axelrod: It was, and what is interesting about it is that Woodrow Wilson, who is a man of infinite contradiction, who was proposing to fight a war as he famously told Congress in his war message, [on] 2 April, he was taking America into a war to make the world safe for democracy. But his first steps were ushering through passage of draconian espionage legislation, and what he wanted to do was clamp down [with] very rigorous censorship. He was very much afraid of espionage, and what we would call today fake news. What Creel did is took him aside and told him this would be very destructive not just to democracy, which he really didn't pursue that point very far, but it would be destructive to the war effort because any effort at over-censorship would make the American people feel, quite rightly, that the government was simply hiding something, and that their motives were not on the up-and-up. So as an alternative, what Creel proposed is that he would create a central bureau through which all information about the war would pass. That it would become the clearinghouse and the source for every bit of information about the Great War that would be published in this country. There would be no censorship, but there would only be one source of information, and it would be produced in such a stream and such a flow that newspapers would welcome it. Their work would be done for them, and they would be supplied with an endless stream of war information that would be supplied in great detail and with all apparent openness; and that is what happened.
Theo Mayer: Yeah, and let's talk about that for a moment. I mean, obviously, in today's parlance, it would be "control the message," but they actually started publishing a newspaper, the Official Bulletin, which started the month after war was declared. Creel was the publisher, Wilson requested it, they charged a lot of money for the Official Bulletin so that the newspapers didn't think that he was trying to compete with them, and they started publishing, daily except Sunday.
Alan Axelrod: And, in fact, it was the only time in American history that there was, in effect, a national state newspaper. They did the bulletin, they also prepared news stories which were distributed from a central point in Washington DC and were available to all journalists. And they launched into many other publishing ventures, educational ventures, of course, the great poster campaigns, what Creel called "The war of the fences," where he wanted recruiting posters and posters to support the sale of war bonds and liberty bonds, and posters to dramatize the atrocities that the Germans were committing and so forth; he wanted these to be plastered on every available space in the public environment. So it was a combination of very overt propaganda but also just information; constant flow of information in every conceivable medium. The most characteristic, of course, was the Four-Minute Men, who were a cadre of about 75,000 of them, all volunteers, usually young men reasonably prominent in their community, who were asked to deliver a speech relating, in some way, to the war. They weren't told what to say, but they were given sort of templates and suggestions, and they were to deliver this speech, for the most part, in movie theaters, never to interrupt the movie. But it was done during the four minutes it took a professional projectionist to change reels on a feature length film in those days of silent cinema. And that was four minutes, and they became known as the Four-Minute Men. And it was a live presentation, sort of at the intermission of a show, and it was never delivered from a script, it always had the appearance of being quite spontaneous. It was delivered by men who [were] known to the community, and it was meant to create a grassroots support for everything related to the war.
Theo Mayer: Now he was the marketing behind the Liberty bond endeavor, which, it struck me, it was something like 16, almost $17 billion.
Alan Axelrod: Yeah, this was in 1917 and 1918 dollars. And each of the liberty loan campaigns was vastly oversubscribed; it was an extraordinary success. It also was engineered such that those who couldn't afford to buy bonds would by stamps; you could spend pennies or you could spend really a great deal of money supporting the war. And he handled what I would call the soft sell end of it, the persuasive end of it. But that complemented the other aspect of shaping thought during the war which was real social pressure, the whole idea that "If you're not with us you're against us," and nobody wanted to be a slacker. If you weren't out there actually fighting the war, you had to be doing something else, and the very least you could do was contribute money to the Liberty loans. And your neighbors would see to it that you did; lists of contributors were published. People were really strong armed into doing this. But on Creel's side, he made it appealing.
Theo Mayer: Well, I remember a story, Alan, where on the first Liberty loan drive, he actually got all of the bells in all of the churches to do a ring countdown of how many days were left before the bond drive was over. So he, somehow, convinced schools and churches and civic halls to all toll their bells, every day on a countdown. That's pretty amazing.
Alan Axelrod: Well, this really was the birth of public relations. Creel's own account of the Committee on Public Information was called "How We Advertise America." But it really wasn't advertising, that was the wrong word, it was public relations, and that word really didn't exist in 1917, 1918. But the men who became the creators of American public relations were working for Creel, the most famous of them was Edward Bernays, who had an incredibly long career. The man died just a few years ago. He was, I think, 101.
Theo Mayer: Well noted as the father of public relations.
Alan Axelrod: And that is what he was. And he was actually born in Vienna. He was the nephew of Sigmund Freud. He grew up in the United States, he came to the U.S. when he was less than a year old; he was an American kid. He took to the Committee of Public Information what he was already creating in the way of shaping the American mind, which is what he talked about, shaping the popular mind. But he honed, as a result of working on the Committee on Public Information, he honed what he called the "science propaganda." This led to the creation of PR as an industry. And the idea, the difference between public relations, as he conceived of it, and advertising was that advertising broadcast a message, public relations created a mindset. It appealed to influencers, it was an attempt really to shape perception and to plant ideas in the public mind as if those ideas came from the public themselves; it really was a campaign to shape reality, from the ground up.
Theo Mayer: It's a rebranding of propaganda, fundamentally.
Alan Axelrod: He called it propaganda from the beginning. And Creel also embraced the term propaganda, but he said that it was in the sense that the Catholic Church used it, which was as the propagation of the faith, and the faith that he was propagating, that Creel was propagating, was the faith of Woodrow Wilson, which was democracy, as Creel saw it, and fighting for democracy, and that was good propaganda, but it was propaganda.
Theo Mayer: Just days after Congress votes to enter World War I, President Wilson appoints a chairman of what was to be called the Committee on Public Information, the CPI. The man was George Edward Creel, one of the most interesting, obscure, and, I think, influential characters of this era. So, with us to explore this character is Alan Axelrod, the author of Selling the Great War: The Making of American Propaganda. It's the bio of George Creel, and this is Part II of our conversation.
Alan, to kick of Part II let's talk about post-Armistice. You know, we've republished every issue of the official bulletin on the website at the Commission. And one day, at the end of May, it just stops. So, on 1 April, suddenly there's nothing in the last issue that says we're stopping. It's just all of a sudden it goes away. Did the whole committee just evaporate all of a sudden?
Alan Axelrod: It evaporated all of a sudden. Congress cut it off and Congress went after it with almost literally a hatchet. They threw everything away that they could get their hands on; they destroyed all the records they could get their hands on. The only things that were saved was what Creel himself managed to salvage. He rented trucks and men to load them and took stuff away and stored it at his own expense. And any of this vast amount of material that he didn't save was destroyed. There was a real revulsion in Congress against everything he had done. It was very strange.
Theo Mayer: Well, revulsion of just him, or him and Wilson both?
Alan Axelrod: After the Armistice and ultimately after the defeat of the League of Nations in the U.S. and the Treaty of Versailles, there was a real collective political effort at group national amnesia. There was almost an effort to erase most of what the war had been about, and Creel's effort was part of it. I actually think that part of the animus against Creel was that he had done his job too well, that the propaganda and the mindset it created were considered dangerous, and that the incoming Republican wave that swept in after Wilson, first with the midterm elections that transformed the balance of Congress, wanted to disengage the nation from the global orientation that it was getting under Wilson. It was the closest thing we ever had to a book burning.
Theo Mayer: So, we get to the end of the war and suddenly all of this just sort of disappears, evaporates, goes away. And over the next number of years, this stuff starts to re-emerge as Germany re-emerges in power. We've talked about that in the past. Why don't you talk about that a little bit.
Alan Axelrod: Creel himself preserved much of this and later told the story, but between the wars with the rise of the Nazi party and the rise of Adolf Hitler, Joseph Goebbels discovered not Creel first but actually the writings of the nephew of Sigmund Freud, this Jew named Edward Bernays, and his book Propaganda, which came out in the 1920s, and then there was another book after that. Goebbels was very excited about this, and through it he discovered the work of the Committee on Public Information. He put all of this together and saw this as the template for what the Nazis needed to do to not just help further the demonization of the Jews but for creating an orientation to war. The Germans had lost World War I, but they came out of World War I intact. Their cities weren't destroyed, their farms weren't destroyed, they weren't pocked with shell holes, they weren't crisscrossed with trenches, but they had lost. That became a narrative of betrayal, betrayal by democracy, and betrayal by the Jews. That became the central message of Nazi propaganda. And the answer to that was to fight to re-litigate that war with a new war. And the basis for doing that had all been laid out by the methods of Creel and Bernays and others who worked for the CPI. It had to do not with withholding information, but by controlling information and putting it out there in profusion and with apparent full transparency. And Bernays, when he learned of this, was appalled that Goebbels had his books in his library and was a big fan.
Theo Mayer: Well, it is incredibly ironic. Alan, let's wrap this up with what happened to Creel after World War I as a person.
Alan Axelrod: Creel became a writer. I mean, he went on writing. He became a journalist. He made a very good living as a feature writer for popular magazines, such as Colliers and so forth. And then he became a labor activist during the Depression and once again found somebody to champion and to support in Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. And he tried to enter politics. He ran for governor of California in 1934 in the Democratic primary, and his leading opponent was Upton Sinclair. Neither of them prevailed, of course. But he didn't disappear; he just never became particularly influential.
Theo Mayer: Obviously he was incredibly influential in this period from turn of the century, 1915 on through 1920 something. Why don't we know his name?
Alan Axelrod: Well, I would say first of all the major reason is that there was an active movement at the end of the war to bury him. He was excluded from history that essentially he himself wrote, and he never again attained prominence in politics. Until the emergence of FDR, the White House was dominated by Republicans, politics was dominated by Republicans. He was an [inaudible] Republican, so he wasn't going to get any love there. And he turned to writing a series of popular, but quite undistinguished books. I mean, if you read his writing it's fascinating historically, but he wasn't a very good writer. He's rather dull, he is burdened by cliches. He's the kind of labor-oriented popular writers of the '30s but without any real voice. So he never really got a foothold in the popular mind. He became a kind of shadowy figure. He was discredited. He was the victim of very deliberate campaigns to discredit him, and they stuck. He wasn't ruined as a human being. He made money, he lived. He certainly wasn't in despair. He wrote toward the very end of his life an autobiography that is at least readable, called Rebel at Large, but nobody much cared.