“One White-Hot Mass”
It happened fast.
In April 1917, within a week of joining its allies to fight what was by then already a two-year-old war against Germany, the United States established the Committee on Public Information—the country’s first-ever effort, in the words of historian John Maxwell Hamilton, “to systematically shape public attitudes.”
George Creel, the experienced journalist who took the helm of the new Committee, set out to win hearts and minds at home and overseas. In the process he virtually invented the modern global media campaign.
As Creel saw it, World War One differed from all previous wars in the “recognition of Public Opinion as a major force”:
“This ‘vast enterprise in salesmanship’ had one goal: to ‘weld the people of the United States into one white-hot mass instinct with fraternity, devotion, courage, and deathless determination.’
“The reach of the CPI would be the envy of any modern publicist. The Committee distributed more than seventy-five million pamphlets in the United States. It established a nationwide speakers’ bureau of volunteers who, Creel claimed, addressed more than 130 million people. Creel arranged for foreign journalists to go on press tours in the United States, and for American reporters to go on inspection tours of the front lines in Europe. The CPI poured ‘a steady stream of American information into international channels of communication.’ And the ‘best work of the best artists’ delivered patriotic messages from CPI-commissioned posters.”
(Excerpted from In Search of Sacco and Vanzetti, Chapter 6, “Conscription Was Upon Them”)
Today, information warfare uses social media and other new technologies but, notes Hamilton, virtually all concerns about government propaganda tactics are rooted in measures that originated during World War One.
To learn more about the lasting influence of the war, and about events to mark its centennial, visit The United States World War One Centennial Commission at http://worldwar-1centennial.org. And to learn more about the connection between World War One and the Sacco-Vanzetti case, read In Search of Sacco and Vanzetti.