Public Diplomacy's Surprising History - the Creel Committee Campaign of World War I

Sunday, February 1st 2015

Dr. John Brown (face)

Here is a guest post and a full interview by Dr. John Brown, former diplomat and lecturer affliliated with Georgetown University, about an important collection of papers released by the Department of State Historian.

The Public Diplomacy Council welcomes the publication, by the State Department Office of the Historian, of the first volume in the series “1917-1972, Public Diplomacy …”, as part of its Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS).

This carefully footnoted collection of documents, dealing with World War I, is a groundbreaking event: the first FRUS series devoted to public diplomacy.

The editor of this important work is Dr. Aaron Marrs. He selected key items that focus on the foreign activities of the Committee of Public Information (CPI, 1917-1919), by many considered America’s first “public diplomacy” federal agency. (Note that the term “public diplomacy” did not become part of the American international affairs vocabulary until the Cold War).

The CPI had two main aims:  “to make the fight for loyalty and unity at home, and for friendship and understanding of the neutral nations of the world”. Of this dual mission, the CPI’s primary task was to persuade Americans -- who in 1916 had reelected a president who “kept us out of war” --  to support “the war to end all wars.”

CPI homeland programs ranged from producing/distributing news reports to brief speeches by the Four Minute Men, as well as facilitating the screening of Hollywood films such as The Kaiser: The Beast of Berlin.

At its height, 150,000 people served the CPI -- most of them unpaid American “volunteers.”

This massive domestic “educational and informative” campaign in a country, far from Europe, historically marked by isolationism, achieved its objective: forging a national “war-will ”(“We did not,” CPI Chairman George Creel wrote in 1920, “call it [the campaign] propaganda, for that word, in German hands, had come to be associated with deceit and corruption.”) According to Walter Lippmann in his Public Opinion (1922, p. 48), “The [Wilson] Administration was trying, and while the war continued it very largely succeeded, I believe, in creating something that might almost be called one public opinion all over America.” 

Despite the success of the CPI in delivering its support-the-war message to Americans, its leader George Creel -- a journalist who actively supported Wilson’s 1916 presidential campaign -- was a most controversial figure in U.S. political life. He was accused/ridiculed by Congress and the press of being an apologist/propagandist and censor for the administration. He was especially criticized for providing inaccurate reports on U.S. military achievements. The word “Creeling” -- not telling the full truth/storytelling or, more simply, lying -- was a word coined during this period.

CPI’s overseas priority -- extensive, but not its no. 1 focus -- was to convince public opinion in other countries that the American president’s war aims were to make the world “safe for democracy,” all for the good of humanity.

Creel’s How We advertised America: The first Telling of the Amazing Story of the Committee on Public Information that Carried the Gospel of Americanism to Every Corner of the Globe (1920) , an effort get back at the domestic critics of his tenure as CPI chairman, tells a very upbeat story about himself and his organization. But, in a rare moment of modesty, Creel did express doubts by 1919 about the “success” of his “public diplomacy” campaign abroad.The selection of FRUS PD documents regarding the CPI’s foreign information activities is an admirable work of scholarship, highlighting key documents among a mass of records pertaining to the plans, activities, and challenges to the CPI’s work overseas.

To find out more about the publication and see what lies ahead for the Historian’s Office, I put a number of questions to Dr. Marrs.  See the attachment for my full interview.

brown marrs q and a.pdf289.24 KB

Joe B. Johnson

Board member


Joe B. Johnson consults on government communication and technology after a career in the United States Foreign Service.  He is an instructor for the National Foreign Affairs Training Center, where he teaches strategic planning for public diplomacy. authors name for more info

Author: Joe Johnson

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