During the Civil War, it had been left to private agencies—Union Leagues, the Loyal Publication Society, and others—to mobilize prowar public opinion. But the Wilson administration decided that patriotism was too important to leave to the private sector. Many Americans were skeptical about whether democratic America should enter a struggle between rival empires. Some vehemently opposed American participation, notably the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and the bulk of the Socialist Party, which in 1917 condemned the declaration of war as “a crime against the people of the United States” and called on “the workers of all countries” to refuse to fight. As the major national organization to oppose Wilson’s policy, the Socialist Party became a rallying point for antiwar sentiment. In mayoral elections across the country in the fall of 1917, the Socialist vote averaged 20 percent, far above the party’s previous total.

In April 1917, the Wilson administration created the Committee on Public Information (CPI) to explain to Americans and the world, as its director, George Creel, put it, “the cause that compelled America to take arms in defense of its liberties and free institutions.” Enlisting academics, journalists, artists, and advertising men, the CPI flooded the country with prowar propaganda, using every available medium from pamphlets (of which it issued 75 million) to posters, newspaper advertisements, and motion pictures. It trained and dispatched across the country 75,000 Four-Minute Men, who delivered brief standardized talks (sometimes in Italian, Yiddish, and other immigrant languages) to audiences in movie theaters, schools, and other public venues.

A female figure wearing a cap of liberty rings the liberty bell in this patriotic illustration from 1918.

A vivid example of the anti-German propaganda produced by the federal government to encourage prowar sentiment during World War I.

Never before had an agency of the federal government attempted the “conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses,” in the words of young Edward Bernays, a member of Creel’s staff who would later create the modern profession of public relations. The CPI’s activities proved, one adman wrote, that it was possible to “sway the ideas of whole populations, change their habits of life, create belief, practically universal in any policy or idea.” In the 1920s, advertisers would use what they had learned to sell goods. But the CPI also set a precedent for active governmental efforts to shape public opinion in later international conflicts, from World War II to the Cold War and Iraq.

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