Manipulating the Masses: Woodrow Wilson and the Birth of American Propaganda
Manipulating the Masses tells the story of the enduring threat to American democracy that arose out of World War I: the establishment of pervasive, systematic propaganda as an instrument of the state. During the Great War, the federal government exercised unprecedented power to shape the views and attitudes of American citizens. Its agent for this was the Committee on Public Information (CPI), established by President Woodrow Wilson one week after the United States entered the war in April 1917.
Driven by its fiery chief, George Creel, the CPI reached every crevice of the nation, every day, and extended widely abroad. It established the first national newspaper, made prepackaged news a quotidian aspect of governing, and pioneered the concept of public diplomacy. It spread the Wilson administration’s messages through articles, cartoons, books, and advertisements in newspapers and magazines; through feature films and volunteer Four Minute Men who spoke during intermission; through posters plastered on buildings and along highways; and through pamphlets distributed by the millions. It enlisted the nation’s leading progressive journalists, advertising executives, and artists. It harnessed American universities and their professors to create propaganda and add legitimacy to its mission.
Even as Creel insisted that the CPI was a conduit for reliable, fact-based information, the office regularly sanitized news, distorted facts, and played on emotions. Creel extolled transparency but established front organizations. Overseas, the CPI secretly subsidized news organs and bribed journalists. At home, it challenged the loyalty of those who occasionally questioned its tactics. Working closely with federal intelligence agencies eager to sniff out subversives and stifle dissent, the CPI was an accomplice to the Wilson administration’s trampling of civil liberties.
Until now, the full story of the CPI has never been told. John Maxwell Hamilton consulted over 150 archival collections in the United States and Europe to write this revealing history, which shows the shortcuts to open, honest debate that even well-meaning propagandists take to bend others to their views. Every element of contemporary government propaganda has antecedents in the CPI. It is the ideal vehicle for understanding the rise of propaganda, its methods of operation, and the threat it poses to democracy.
About the Author
John Maxwell Hamilton
Hopkins P. Breazeale Professor in LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication
History and Public Policy Program
The History and Public Policy Program makes public the primary source record of 20th and 21st century international history from repositories around the world, facilitates scholarship based on those records, and uses these materials to provide context for classroom, public, and policy debates on global affairs. Read more