This article is excerpted from John Maxwell Hamilton’s new book, Manipulating the Masses: Woodrow Wilson and the Birth of American Propaganda (LSU Press, $49.95; electronic version available).
The Information State would have emerged without the Great War. Recognition of the importance of public opinion took hold before the conflict. But the tools were primitive, and the number of people involved small. (In 1911, the New York Times complained the government was employing as many as eight press agents.)
Necessity being the mother of invention, the war accelerated the development of strategies and tactics for managing public opinion in an organized, persistent, and pervasive way.
Super-patriotic groups outside the government shaped opinion. But they did not work on a scale close to that of George Creel’s Committee on Public Information. The basic law of propaganda, CPI Petrograd representative Edgar Sisson said, was to “reiterate cumulatively.”
The CPI was unmatched in this. It had access to the government printer as well as its own taxpayer-supported printing contracts to handle the overflow. The Post Office distributed its materials. Through various agencies, it had the power – a meaningful threat – to block mail and the export of films and books, to curtail ink and paper, to shut down movie theaters. More than that, CPI pronouncements bore the Great Seal of the United States of America with its motto “E Pluribus Unum.”
CPI films showed troops valiantly charging the enemy. They did not show mangled bodies splayed in the mud. The CPI denied citizens the means of reckoning the true cost of the war. “We never told the truth – not by any manner of means,” Will Irwin, the CPI’s foreign division head, confessed in an article a year after the war. “We told that part which served our national purpose.”
The “German whispers” campaign – its warnings to beware of “spy talk” – made thoughts of negotiating an early peace treason. Direct and implied appeals to patriotism – encouragement to suspend judgment – permeated CPI propaganda. The CPI wanted the public to cheer, not think. Many later echoed Lloyd George’s acknowledgement that if the facts had been known about the losses on the battlefield, people’s demand for peace could have been difficult to resist.
Toward the imperial presidency
Given its power over the thoughts of citizens and the lack of legal authority for its work, the CPI marked a significant step toward the imperial presidency that emerged afterward. Subsequent spurts of growth have been dramatic in time of war, when national security concerns have led Congress and the public to cede more power to the chief executive.
This has undermined the system of checks and balances essential to American democracy. As partisan as they may have been during the war, the Republicans under Senator Henry Cabot Lodge had good reason to question the CPI’s existence.
Propaganda exhibited the same iron-law characteristics in every nation during the Great War, but with variations in execution. The British were far more adept than the Germans, the difference lying chiefly in the lines of authority over propaganda. The military dominated in Germany; civilians in Britain.
The CPI excelled at advertising, a field Americans pioneered. It also reflected the ideas and personalities of Woodrow Wilson and George Creel.
Wilson did not give forethought to the CPI when he signed the executive order establishing it. This can be explained by his many preoccupations in those early days of war. As Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of State Robert Lansing wrote in their proposal for the CPI, they could not wait for legislation.
The CPI offered a quick solution to the urgent need for censorship of sensitive military information. In a sense, though, Wilson had been thinking about the CPI for years. Presidential communication was a central theme in his scholarly study of government.
Wilson’s philosophizing had a democratic cast to it: The president was the “spokesman for the real sentiment and purpose of the country.” The primacy that he gave communication suited his oratorial abilities. He was the Great Communicator before the term was applied to Ronald Reagan.
Yet, pari passu with Wilson’s pledges of pitiless publicity was impatience with debate. In Wilson’s view, the president should communicate in order to dominate. “A president whom [the public] trusts,” Wilson wrote in the same breath as the passage quoted above, “can not only lead it, but form it to his own views.”
This explained his attitude toward Congress. Legislators could – and should – be marginalized by a president who controlled communication. He was similarly impatient with the press, which should, in his view, wait for his pronouncements. He disliked the messiness of news and, unable to bend it utterly to his will, isolated himself from it as much as he could.
“It is an odd thing,” Ray Stannard Baker wrote in his diary during Wilson’s peace negotiations in Paris after the war, that “while the President stands for ‘pitiless publicity’ & ‘open covenants openly arrived at’ – a true position if ever there was one – it is so difficult for him to practice it. He is really so fearful of it.”
A great soul-searching followed the war. A great many Americans – a full 70% in a 1937 survey – believed it had been a mistake to intervene in the war.
Walter Lippmann, an enthusiastic would-be propagandist during the war, wrote disturbing critiques afterward. In April 1919, after returning from Paris weighed down with disappointment over the treaty negotiations, he told the editor of the Atlantic Monthly of his “discovery that opinion can be manufactured. The idea has come to me gradually as a result of certain experiences with the official propaganda machine, and my hope is to attempt a restatement of the problem of freedom of thought as it presents itself in modern society.”
The Wilson administration, Lippmann believed, succeeded “in creating something that might almost be called one public opinion all over America.” He wrote three books muckraking public opinion. It was “no longer possible,” he wrote in the most enduring volume, Public Opinion, “to believe in the original dogma of democracy.”
In small communities, people could form intelligent opinions on issues that fell inside their experience, but they did not have the tools and experience to grapple with national problems. By thinking otherwise, “We expose ourselves to self-deception and to forms of persuasion that we cannot verify.”
For the great majority of those who worked alongside Creel, the bright light of their earnestness removed shadows of doubt. Guy Stanton Ford, who had overseen the CPI’s enlistment of university professors for propaganda purposes, indicated no misgivings when he told a Minnesota audience, “For the first time in the history of America, the voice of the national government was carried directly and regularly into the schools of the whole country.”
Said Harvey O’Higgins, a famous playwright and CPI executive, “Those were great days – the greatest that Washington ever saw or is likely to see…. Couldn’t have found anywhere a better cheerleader than Creel.”
Edward Bernays returned from Paris convinced “the activities like those of the Creel Committee with the people of the world could be employed for peacetime purposes” When he hung out his shingle on East 48th Street in New York, he cast around for a term for his work, at one point calling it “publicity direction” and eventually choosing “counsel on public relations.”
He borrowed the term “counsel” from law, “hoping its professional implications would carry over to the new field.” “Whether in the problem of getting elected to office or in the problem of interpreting and popularizing new issues or in the problem of making the day-to-day administration of public affairs a vital part of the community life,” he wrote in his 1928 book Propaganda, “the use of propaganda, carefully adjusted to the mentality of the masses is an essential adjunct of political life.”
How does one wall off the undemocratic aspects of the Information State that exists today? No legislation can require the president and his appointees to provide all facts on all sides of a question. It is impractical to write legislation barring presidents from using rhetoric that scares the public.
Can’t draw the line
The few laws governing propaganda are problematic. Time and again the General Accounting Office has noted that the line “is almost impossible to draw.” Congress has not defined “publicity” or “propaganda.” One category of offending information is “purely partisan materials.” No violation has ever been found because no political message can be “completely devoid of any connection with official functions.”
The GAO is “reluctant to find a violation where the agency can provide a reasonable justification for its activities.” The executive branch has little incentive to enforce anti-propaganda laws that restrict its operations. The Department of Justice has never prosecuted a violation of the laws governing propaganda.
Congress episodically launches investigations, but legislative intervention follows the pattern of the Republican-dominated Joint Committee on Printing: it lost interest in executive branch publications once Harding walked into the White House. In 2005, Senate Democrats introduced the “Stop Government Propaganda Act” to thwart the Bush administration’s video press releases. They were the minority party, and the bill failed.
A 2016 GAO study identified some 5,000 employees engaged in executive public relations. Their salaries amounted to half a billion dollars annually. The study did not cover a number of agencies, including the military and counted only individuals listed under the occupational code “Public Affairs.”
Many of those concerned with information hold unrelated titles or do the work part-time. How should the government classify those on the State Department’s Policy Planning staff who, as a part of their work, consider plans for countering Jihadist recruiting videos; or a special assistant who tweets excerpts from the Secretary of Transportation’s speeches? The Environmental Protection Agency alone had some two dozen Twitter accounts. Early in its first term, the Obama administration identified 24,000 federal websites.
These activities do not include advertising and public relations carried out by government contractors. This totals at least one billion dollars a year, although again this cannot be taken as a complete tally. Contractors purchase advertising space in all forms of media, and provide marketing research, opinion polling, message-crafting assistance, and more.
The Executive Office of the President alone spends an average of $40 million a year on such contracts. This does not include all the techniques presidents have to enlarge their images and voices. The CPI was masterful in stage-managing Wilson’s July Fourth Loyalty Day speech at Mount Vernon in 1918 – an event that went, in our own current lingo, viral. Today a president enhances his July Fourth speech by ordering a Blue Angels flyover.
Military marching bands generate patriotism feelings and confer authority. The Department of Defense has 136 bands, costing half a billion dollars a year. None of this showed up in the GAO study.
The CPI established patterns that persist: the use of every available communication tool to fill every space in the public sphere; appeals to patriotism and accusations of “un-Americanism” to discredit unwelcome views; the conviction that the goals of propaganda are more important than preserving democratic processes.
“With the existence of democracy itself at stake,” said Creel in a moment of great clarity, when giving a speech in Chicago in 1921, “there was no time to think about the details of democracy.” These, too, are iron laws. “It is a quality of propaganda that high-minded persons on both sides commend their cause by identical arguments,” said the Encyclopaedia Britannica in 1922; “and that high-strung persons soon come to believe what they wish to be true.”
Campaigning and governing
The links between running for president and governing remain as strong as they were in CPI days. While in Italy, Charles Merriam said he could “do some very effective propaganda at home on the strength of what I have seen here.” Back at the University of Chicago, he pioneered the modern data-driven election campaign based on deep statistical analysis of voter behavior.
“It is clearly in evidence,” he said, “that the science of creating and transmitting public opinion under the influence of collective emotion is about to become the principle science of civilization to the mastery of which all governments and all powerful interests in the future will address themselves with every resource in their command.”
The use of these techniques is cumulative. Barack Obama harnessed social media to win the presidency. In office, he created an Office of Digital Strategy to reach the public directly via social media. More than half the staff members had worked on at least one Obama presidential campaign each. Donald Trump rode into office on a tsunami of tweets. As president, he kept the Office of Digital Strategy and used tweets to shape the news agenda and bolster his base for the next election.
The relentless study of the means to better shape opinion is a feature of government. Obama created a Social and Behavioral Sciences Team, nicknamed the “nudge unit,” to encourage citizens to behave responsibly, for instance to stop smoking or start a retirement savings program.
At the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), whose research paved the way for the Internet, scientists turn science fiction into science with their studies of the brain. In one study neurologists have traced blood flow to the brain to measure the effectiveness of messages.
They are “moving fiendishly fast” in understanding how to make those messages more persuasive, said Read Montagne, a Virginia Tech neuroscientist working with DARPA. DARPA’s program is aimed at foreign enemies. But nudging and brain study breakthroughs can be repurposed for partisan political propaganda at home.
Propaganda “by its very nature involves concealment,” wrote Lucy Salmon, a fellow faculty member with Wilson early in her career and a student of news. This is another iron law. The judiciary strengthened free speech guarantees, but suppression of information remained.
Massive surveillance, as the writers’ support organization PEN International has pointed out, keeps people from pursuing sensitive subjects and communicating with sources. The government can classify information that would open it to criticism. The classification stamp went down on almost 95 million government documents in 2012. The cost of protecting secrets in 2017 was nearly twice the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency.
When possible, presidents follow Wilson’s pattern of bypassing journalists. Although FDR interacted with the press as effectively as his presidential cousin Theodore Roosevelt, journalists complained about the control his press officers exerted over information.
Despite President Obama’s pledges for openness, he held fewer press conferences than his immediate predecessors and, in the view of many journalists, had “the most closed, control-freak administration” in memory.
In 2014 national intelligence director James Clapper barred officials in 17 agencies from speaking with reporters without authorization even on unclassified subjects. The Trump administration took steps to silence officials within a week of his inauguration and barred testimony that used federal scientific data on climate change, a phenomenon the administration disputed.
New propaganda strategies are created all the time to stay ahead of the public’s cynicism. They may succeed for a time but ultimately reinforce citizens’ perceptions that government is not leveling with them. The percent of Americans who express trust in Washington was below 17% in 2019.
Cynicism puts the nation at risk. Lack of faith in government delegitimizes leaders and makes it easier for demagogues to gain a following through malicious use of communication tools. External adversaries leverage public distrust of government by planting misinformation that disrupts elections and casts suspicions on those elected to govern.
The press, a bulwark against propaganda, also has been breached. Journalists were never entirely successful at keeping officials at arm’s length. News media relied on the Bush administration’s assurances that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.
Still, independent journalism became the default position after 1918 – until recently. Technological advances have strengthened propagandists and disrupted fact-based reporting. The low cost of technology allows partisans to confuse and distort on a mass scale. With declining revenue from advertisers, who are less dependent on newspapers and magazines, the news media cannot afford to patrol government as they did.
“The question is no longer one of establishing democratic institutions,” Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes said after the war, “but of preserving them.”
John Maxwell Hamilton, a former journalist and government official, is the Hopkins P. Breazeale LSU Foundation Professor of Journalism in the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University and a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He has authored and edited many books, including Journalism’s Roving Eye, winner of the Goldsmith Book Prize.