Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Remembering George Creel

George E. Creel was a journalist, politician, and author. His most famous role was as chairman of the Committee on Public Information during World War I, Creel sought to influence public opinion and gain support at home and abroad for the war effort.

George Creel was born on 1 December 1876, in Lafayette County, Missouri. He was the second of three sons born to Henry and Virginia Fackler Creel. The privileged son of southern slave owners, Henry Creel was unable to adapt to life as a farmer after the Civil War. He squandered his inheritance on failed attempts at farming and became an alcoholic. Virginia Creel ran a boardinghouse in Kansas City to support the family, but after it failed the Creels moved to Odessa, Missouri.

Years later Creel wrote in his autobiography, “Our poverty brought us close, for love was all we had to give one another, and the determination to justify [my mother’s] sacrifices and hopes developed ambitions and energies.” Creel’s admiration of his mother’s hard work and sacrifice led him to support women’s suffrage later in life because, he wrote, “I knew my mother had more character, brains, and competence than any man that ever lived.”

Even though he did not finish high school, Creel joined the Kansas City World as a reporter in 1898. He was later fired for refusing to write a story that would publicly embarrass a prominent businessman after the man’s daughter eloped with a family employee.

Creel briefly moved to New York City but returned to Kansas City when his friend Arthur Grissom suggested they publish their own paper, the Independent. Shortly after the paper launched in 1899, Grissom left and Creel became sole editor and publisher. He used the Independent to promote political reform and the rights of women and labor. In 1909 Creel sold the Independent and moved to Denver, Colorado, where he worked for the Denver Post and later the Rocky Mountain News as an editorial writer.

Just as he had in Kansas City, Creel pushed for reform in Denver. Mayor Henry J. Arnold appointed Creel city police commissioner, but Creel’s aggressive campaign to rid Denver of crime made many people upset and he was fired.

 A CPI Poster for the CPI's Speaker's Bureau

In 1912 Creel married actress Blanche Bates and the couple had two children, George, Jr., and Frances. Five years later, when the United States entered World War I, President Woodrow Wilson asked Creel to serve as chairman of the Committee on Public Information (CPI), a temporary independent federal agency.

The purpose of the CPI was to influence the American public’s views about the war through the use of propaganda in magazines, movies, newspapers, radio broadcasts, posters, press releases, and public speakers. By any measure, the output of the CPI was stupendous. Forty billion pieces of literature and art were produced. Creel claimed that his 75,000-man "Four Minute Men" speakers bureau delivered over 755,000  speeches to more than 314 million people. Creel and the CPI were criticized by journalists for releasing exaggerated accounts of events and for hiding bad or unflattering news about the war by censoring the press.

Censorship Board of the CPI, George Creel on Right

After World War I ended, the CPI was disbanded in 1919 and Creel returned to private life. He moved to California and wrote several books in the 1920s, including the story  of the CPI in How We Advertised America.

In 1934 Creel reentered politics with a failed run against author Upton Sinclair in the Democratic primary for California governor. The following year President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed him chairman of the National Advisory Board for the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Creel also served as the U.S. commissioner for the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco and helped Mexico establish its own Ministry of Public Information and Propaganda.

After Blanche died in 1941, Creel married Alice May Rosseter. Creel continued to write books in retirement, including his memoir Rebel at Large: Recollections of Fifty Crowded Years. On 2 October 1953, he died in San Francisco, California. He is buried in Mount Washington Cemetery in Independence, Missouri.

Source:  Missouri Historical Society

1 comment:

  1. In another time of war, in 1917 during WW I, Minnesota suspended civil liberties, creating at the inspiration of George Creel, The Minnesota Commission of Public Safety, which suspended civil rights, set up an armed militia and created a network of spies to root out traitors and slackers, targeting labor and immigrants who made up 70% of the state's population. Here is a link to a Minnesota Public Radio May 2005 article on the subject (see: ).

    Here are some excerpts of the article:

    "Retired University of Minnesota history professor Hy Berman says whenever he tells people about the Minnesota Commission on Public Safety, many don't believe it could happen here. He says the commission presided over "a reign of terror." It was a reign of terror that wiped out civil liberties, wiped out freedom of expression, wiped out freedom of association -- that created a kind of climate where, in fact, it ruled by force," Berman says.

    "Minnesota lawmakers, inspired by George Creel, created the commission, in part because of the state's large immigrant population. Some 70 percent of the state's residents were immigrants or first-generation Americans. German-Americans were the largest ethnic group."

    In times of conflict often immigrants become targets of abuse by fearful people, and this was no exception during WW I.

    "Officials worried the immigrants would violently oppose this country's entry into World War I and a military draft to raise troops. Berman says many German-Americans in Minnesota were upset."

    "The German-Americans were particularly incensed that they were being called upon to shoot against their own cousins and uncles and aunts, and things like that," Berman says.

    "Historians and the archival records recount how the commission created a county-level network of spies, and hired Pinkerton agents to attend meetings and events organized by the state's German-Americans and other ethnic groups."

    The agents reported back that the worries about violent protests were baseless.

    "Military leaders urged President Wilson to censor the press and block any accounts of wartime problems. But University of Minnesota speech communications professor Donald Browne says Wilson's circle of close friends included muckracking journalist George Creel."

    "Instead of suspending press freedom, President Wilson hired his friend George Creel to become, in effect, this country's first propaganda minister.

    Creel directed the Committee on Public Information. He hired people from the around the country, including University of Minnesota graduate school dean and history professor Guy Stanton Ford to advise him."

    Creel spent millions of taxpayer dollars on a public relations campaign that used pamphlets, posters and news releases to sell the war to the public. Browne says one of his most effective techniques was the recruitment of 73,000 "four-minute men." These were prominent citizens enlisted to speak before films shown to audiences in movie theaters.

    "This was done all across the country. They had at one time thousands of these people trained to do this, and Creel would retrain them, and send out people to monitor what they were doing,"

    Brown says. The end of World War I ended the Creel Commission, and it brought the demise of Minnesota's Commission on Public Safety. Both efforts left a bitter taste, but also a legacy of sorts.

    Critics found the Creel Commission's techniques for manipulating public opinion unsavory and an inappropriate activity for government. Donald Browne says the Creel Commission doesn't have a modern-day counterpart, however its influence can be seen in contemporary efforts by the federal government to influence public opinion. For a brief period of Minnesota history, its powers had a chilling effect on anyone who stepped forward to question its existence.