Propaganda, 1898–1945

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PROPAGANDA, 1898–1945

With the notable exception of Pearl Harbor, the United States was neither invaded, attacked nor seriously threatened between 1898 and 1945. Yet during that time Americans sent their troops to fight and die in all corners of the world. Without the immediate threat of invading armies or imminent danger, the American people needed to be convinced that the sacrifice of so many men and women was justified. Therefore, during the Spanish-American War of 1898, World War I, and World War II the U.S. government, along with elements of the private sector, waged its own war for the American mind. These propaganda messages helped unify the country during wartime and also helped define the meaning of U.S. intervention in each war.

spanish-american war of 1898

Although public officials and eminent figures cited a variety of reasons for America's intervention in Cuba in 1898, newspapers were responsible for the most notorious propaganda during the Spanish-American War. Socalled "Yellow press" journalists convinced millions of the need for U.S. intervention by highlighting the barbarity of Spain's colonial rule and the humanitarian obligation to alleviate the suffering of the Cuban people.

The Cuban revolt against Spanish colonial rule in 1895 occurred at a time when America's leading newspapers were locked in a battle for preeminence. Events in Cuba promised the kind of dramatic stories that would attract new readers. Consequently, William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal and Joseph Pulitzer's World sent journalists to Cuba in search of sensational material (although many composed their stories from secondhand accounts without ever leaving Florida). Demonizing the Spanish colonial authorities became a key component of "yellow-press" propaganda. In 1896 the World cast Valeriano Weylan, Spain's governor of Cuba, as one of a succession of "narrow minded military dictators whose pusillanimous rigor in dealing with the defenseless cost Spain her colonies." The paper went on to claim that "the old, the young, the weak, the crippled—all are butchered without mercy… . Is there no nation wise enough, brave enough to aid this blood-smitten land?"

The press's handling of two events in 1898 ensured that public outrage against Spain reached fever pitch. In February, Hearst's Journal exposed a letter sent by Spanish minister Dupuy Du Lome in which he derided President McKinley as "weak." The explosion of the battleship Maine in Havana harbor a few weeks later proved even more inflammatory. Though no one knew the true cause of the explosion, both the World and the Journal left their readers convinced that it was no accident. The World carried the headline "Maine Explosion Caused by Bomb or Torpedo" above claims that a correspondent overheard a plot to blow up the ship. The Journal offered a reward of $50,000 to find the perpetrators. Suggestions of Spanish culpability convinced many of the need for military intervention in Cuba. Rallying around the cry "Remember the Maine, to Hell with Spain!" the public demanded action. Soon after, McKinley delivered his war message to Congress.

Although newspapers alone did not cause America's war with Spain and the subsequent war in the Philippines, they, more than any other source contributed to the sense of outrage against Spain and the clamor for action that led to the conflict. Though conducted mainly for commercial reasons, the "yellow press" propaganda helped infuse American intervention with a crusading zeal. Moreover, the techniques of demonizing the enemy and highlighting the moral, humanitarian element proved very influential on propagandists of World War I.

world war i

Whereas newspapers took the lead in espousing propaganda during the Spanish-American war, the federal government disseminated the majority of propaganda during World War I. Before 1917, few Americans saw the need to get involved in a European war that seemed of little concern to U.S. interests. Widespread peace movements as well as Woodrow Wilson's election as a "peace" candidate testified to the pervasive mood in America. The presence of over eight million people of German descent in the United States further diminished public support for intervention. But as events compelled him to move toward war in 1917, Wilson acted quickly to unify the country behind the war effort.

On April 13, 1917, Wilson created by executive order the Committee on Public Information (CPI). The CPI represented a concerted effort on the part of the government to persuade the American public of the urgent need to go to war with Germany. To head the organization, Wilson chose friend and supporter George Creel, a former "muckraking" or scandal-seeking journalist. The CPI was subdivided into numerous divisions to circulate information to such areas as the press, the movie industry, and education. As a result, Creel successfully flooded almost every medium of public communication with prowar messages and images. For example, the Division of Films promoted such cinematic fare as Beast of Berlin, Pershing's Crusaders, and The Prussian Cur. The Division of Civic and Educational Cooperation encouraged teachers to preach the gospel of Wilsonian internationalism while denouncing Prussian autocracy.

In a further effort to encourage a unified homefront, the CPI sent bilingual agents into ethnic communities to monitor potentially subversive foreign literature. The CPI also sent out over 75,000 volunteers to give brief patriotic talks in movie theaters and other public places. These "Four-Minute Men" spoke widely on such matters as the need to buy war bonds. Some of the stirring titles of their lectures included "Why We Are Fighting," "Onward to Victory," and "The Danger to Democracy." As in the Spanish-American War, these propaganda messages helped sell the public on the lofty idealism behind intervention. The CPI also employed the same demonizing techniques against the Germans that the "yellow press" had used so successfully against the Spanish. One of the "Four-Minute Men" lectures charged that in occupied Belgium "the wives and children of 40 men were forced to witness the execution of their fathers and husbands."

Other sectors of society aided the CPI in promoting Wilson's war message and his vision of a postwar world. Business interests encouraged the CPI's gospel of unity in the hopes of dispelling labor unrest. CPI posters tried to persuade workers that the war was not being fought for capitalist interests while cautioning that strike action during wartime might threaten the war effort. Civic groups such as Sunday schools, settlement houses, and the Red Cross helped distribute some of the seventy-five million pamphlets produced by the CPI. The Boy Scouts of America sold war bonds and saving stamps in addition to growing food and gathering war material.

Wilson promptly terminated the CPI on November 12, 1918, the day after cessation of hostilities. But despite its successes in papering over some of the cracks in American society, the CPI contributed to some of the more unpleasant aspects of the homefront experience. In particular, the CPI's tendency to debase all things German in its propaganda contributed to the acceptance of attacks against German Americans and their culture. Perhaps due to these excesses, the next federal attempts at wartime propaganda never quite reached the magnitude of those in World War I.

world war ii

Although the attack on Pearl Harbor caused the United States to enter World War II far more unified than it had been in World War I, sustaining this unity through such a long and destructive conflict necessitated another propaganda effort. At first, the private sector took the lead. Long before Pearl Harbor, organizations such as the Committee on National Morale warned of the dangers of Nazi aggression. Others, such as the Institute for Propaganda Analysis, studied the utility of propaganda in an attempt to both counter Nazi propaganda and lay the groundwork for America's own propaganda offensive. The movie industry weighed in with such films as Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939) and the antipacifist Sergeant York (1941). Through the remainder of the war, films such as Bataan (1943) and The Fighting SeaBees (1944) promoted messages of ethnic harmony and Allied valor on screen.

The government's propaganda assault had also begun before Pearl Harbor. In October, 1941 the Office of Facts and Figures (OFF), under Archibald MacLeish, began distributing pamphlets and information on the foreseen conflict. With America's entry into the war, the government saw the need for an increased propaganda offensive. A number of federal agencies contributed to the propaganda effort. The Office of Strategic Services promoted propaganda abroad, while the War Department sponsored such domestic fare as Frank Capra's Why We Fight film series. But by far the most effective propaganda agency of the war was the Office of War Information (OWI), created by President Roosevelt by executive order in June, 1942.

Headed by Indiana-born broadcaster Elmer Davis, the OWI attempted to coordinate information on the progress of the war and on the United States' wider war aims. Similar to the CPI, the OWI was subdivided into different bureaus to coordinate propaganda through pamphlets, posters, movies, and radio broadcast, etc. One pamphlet, Negroes and the War, attempted to solidify black support for the war by warning of the racial violence inherent in Nazi ideology. Others emphasized the resilience of European allies and the need for sacrifice on the homefront through purchasing war bonds and accepting higher taxes. Though Davis never enjoyed the close relationship with Roosevelt that Creel had enjoyed with Wilson, critics of the OWI accused it of being too partisan in promoting Roosevelt's domestic and foreign policy agenda. In 1943, a coalition of Republicans and Southern Democrats slashed the agency's domestic funding. However, the CPI continued to perform an important role in spreading propaganda overseas.

The foreign branch of the OWI remained active throughout the war. The agency dropped propaganda leaflets on the enemy in the European and Pacific theaters, including an intensive leaflet drop on German positions in the months leading up to D-Day. The OWI also emphasized America's commitment to the "Four Freedoms" throughout Allied countries. When he finally ended it on August 31, 1945, President Truman praised the OWI for its "outstanding contribution to victory."

In America's three major wars from 1898 to 1945, the propaganda produced by the government and private sector helped to unify the country and to clarify the principles for which America fought. These propaganda efforts promoted the ideas of America as a nation dedicated to freedom and justice. They reveal how participation in war forces Americans to define their very identity as a nation and the ideals for which they stand.


Blum, John Morton. V Was for Victory: Politics and American Culture During World War II. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976.

Kennedy, David M. Over Here: The First World War and American Society. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.

Laurie, Clayton D. The Propaganda Warriors: America's Crusade Against Nazi Germany. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1996.

Mock, James R., and Larson, Cedric. Words that Won the War: The Story of the Committee on Public Information, 1917–1919. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1939.

Wilkerson, Marcus M. Public Opinion and the Spanish American War: A Study in War Propaganda. New York: Russell and Russell, 1967.

Winkler, Allan M. The Politics of Propaganda: The Office of War Information, 1942–1945. New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 1978.

Mark Boulton

See also:Journalism, Spanish-American War; Journalism, World War I; Journalism, World War II; Motion Pictures, World War I and World War II.