December 1, 1876
Lafayette County, Missouri
October 2, 1953
San Francisco, California
Journalist, government bureaucrat
Journalist George Creel was a pioneer in applying the tools of modern advertising and public relations to the cause of national unity during World War I. Within a week of the United States entering into the conflict, Creel was appointed by President Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924) to head the Committee on Public Information (CPI), whose mission was to create a positive image of the American war effort in newspapers, magazines, motion pictures, and other media. During the Progressive Era, just before the war, Creel had served as the editor of several newspapers that supported Wilson's reformist policies. A strong opponent of censorship, Creel urged the federal government not to impose restrictions on freedom of the press. He persuaded editors, writers, film producers, and actors to create works that presented the United States and its war effort in a favorable light. To accomplish its mission, the CPI opened offices in European cities, distributed information in several languages, and invited foreign reporters to learn firsthand of the American war effort through arranged visits to U.S. military sites and munitions factories. After the war, Creel continued to write about political issues. He also served as a consultant on labor union issues, and he was an unsuccessful candidate for the nomination to be governor of California in 1934. However, Creel remains best known for his ground-breaking work in public information. To this day, the CPI is regarded as the forerunner of later government efforts to influence the news media, such as the Office of War Information during World War II (1939–45), as well as the United States Information Agency.
A Newspaper Man
George Creel was born in Lafayette County, Missouri, on December 1, 1876. He was the son of Henry Clay Creel, an officer in the Confederate army during the Civil War (1861–65), and Virginia Fackler Creel, a member of an old Virginia family. The Creels moved to Missouri after the Civil War, and young George went to the public schools in Kansas City. He wrote for the school newspaper but left high school before graduation to travel around the country. In 1898, he moved to New York City, where after working as a day laborer (usually an unskilled person who works for day wages), he landed a newspaper job writing for the New York Journal. By 1900, Creel had returned to Kansas City with his friend Arthur Grisson. The two founded a weekly newspaper, the Kansas City Independent, to which Creel contributed light verse and essays. Politically, Creel leaned toward leftwing (a political position advocating radical change in the government) and even socialist (shared or government ownership of production and goods) platforms, and he used his influence as a publisher to help elect the reformer Joseph Wingate Folk as governor of Missouri. Creel also published a book of poetry titled Quatrains of Christ.
In 1908, Creel turned over the Independent to two women editors and moved to Colorado, where he became an editorial writer for the Denver Post. After serious disagreements with the paper's owners, he returned to New York for a year to write for a number of magazines, then returned to Denver as editor of a competing newspaper, the Rocky Mountain News. It was during this period that he became friends with Ben B. Lindsay, a progressive judge who strongly influenced Creel's political positions. Creel soon acquired a national reputation as a muckraker, the name given to reform-minded journalists who wrote exposés of social injustice during the early twentieth century. In his editorials, Creel strongly endorsed the election of Woodrow Wilson as president in 1912. In 1914, Creel, Lindsay, and the poet Edwin Markham worked together on writing a book titled Children of Bondage, which criticized child labor in the United States. Two years later, when Wilson was running for reelection, Creel wrote Wilson and the Issues, a book that urged voters to return Wilson to the White House for a second term. Creel refused Wilson's offer of a subcabinet position (an appointed position below the cabinet level of government) out of "dislike for bureaucratic routine" but also because the move to Washington, D.C., would have caused him financial hardship.
Supporting a Free Press
When the United States finally entered World War I, Creel wrote a letter to Wilson urging him to resist the military's proposals for strict censorship of the news media. In his autobiography, Rebel At Large, Creel states that he believed such censorship laws to be "criminally stupid and bound to work untold harm." Arguing that "expression, not suppression, was the real need," Creel proposed instead that American newspaper editors should be the sole judges of what materials they could print. He told Wilson that it would be far more effective for the U.S. government to fight enemy spying than to impose censorship on a free press. Creel also urged the creation of a government agency that would organize a media campaign to convince all Americans to join in the war effort. On April 14, 1917, just eight days after the U.S. declaration of war, Creel was sworn in as the chairman (director) of a three-man Committee on Public Information (CPI). The other committee members were Secretary of State Robert Lansing and Secretary of War Newton Baker.
Creel's appointment was a controversial one. Lansing was disturbed by what he considered to be the "Socialistic ideas" of the new CPI director, and the New York Times complained in an editorial that Creel's "career had been one of turbulence and mudspattering … . His name stood for acrimoniouscontention [bitter controversy]." Despite these criticisms, Wilson allowed Creel to lead the way in creating an effective, centralized information office for the United States. Creel had, in effect, become a minister of propaganda for the United States,
but he made it clear that, in a modern democracy, the word had to be used in a different sense. In his autobiography, Rebel At Large, Creel states that what he advocated was "not propaganda as the Germans defined it, but propaganda in the true sense of the word, meaning the 'propagation of faith.'" In other words, Creel is making a distinction between "bad" propaganda, which he thinks is false information provided by a controlling government, and "good" propaganda, which is true information provided by a democratic government.
Informing the Public
Under Creel's direction, the CPI undertook a national public-relations campaign that enlisted the help of many prominent American writers, like Booth Tarkington, William Allen White, Ida Tarbell, and Edna Ferber, among others. These writers contributed articles about American life and democratic institutions, and the articles were translated into foreign languages and sent to news media in Europe, Latin America, and Asia. Creel also persuaded the motion-picture industry and large corporations to create newsreel films that showed America in a positive light. In so doing, Creel used some of the modern techniques of persuasion that were being developed by the advertising industry. To encourage public support for the military draft, for example, Creel asked movie theaters across the country to show patriotic slides and interrupt their shows for brief speeches by recruiters who were called "Four Minute Men" (this was a clever phrase that not only described the brief recruiting pitches but also called to mind the patriots in the American War of Independence). The campaign was highly successful.
The CPI also invited Allied journalists to visit military bases, shipyards, and munitions factories in the United States so that they would write positive articles about the American war effort and boost morale in their own countries. "Before the flood of our publicity, German lies were swept away," Creel later wrote. The CPI also reached out to many ethnic groups in the United States to make sure that recent immigrants supported the American war effort and not that of their former homelands in Europe. The CPI even opened offices in Europe and set up a worldwide cable and wireless network to distribute articles, speeches, and other information favorable to the United States and the Allied cause. "For the first time in history," Creel later wrote, "the speeches of a national executive were given universal circulation" and within twenty-four hours were translated into every modern language. "Our war progress, our tremendous resources, the acts of Congress, proofs of our unity and determination, etc., all went forth for the information of the world."
Unlike some of his counterparts in other Allied nations, Creel refused to distribute stories of German atrocities (extremely brutal acts), even though some people criticized his decision on this point. Instead, he tried to combat anti-German feelings in the United States, maintaining that the CPI "has never preached any doctrine of hate, for it is not our duty to deal in emotional appeals but to give the people the facts from which conclusions may be drawn." When Wilson formulated his Fourteen Points plan providing a framework for peace in the postwar world, Creel transmitted it to Russia and Germany and "plastered [the Fourteen Points] on billboards in every Allied and neutral country."
The CPI angered many people, including CPI member Robert Lansing, who thought Creel's use of actors, filmmakers, and journalists was undermining the traditional role of U.S. diplomats. Creel countered this criticism by arguing that "We wanted plain Americans who thought regularly and enthusiastically in terms of America, and who would worry over doing the job, not whether they had on the right coat." Still, in 1918 Congress voted to cut the CPI's budget in half, but not before the agency had created a modern and influential public-information program for the United States, one that would serve as a model for democracies worldwide.
A Lifelong Writer
After World War I, Creel resumed his writing career. He contributed articles to major American magazines and newspapers and wrote books about Ireland and Mexico, as well as biographies of Thomas Paine and Sam Houston. In 1934, he was defeated in an attempt to win the nomination for governor in California. Creel also served as an official with the Works Progress Administration (WPA), an agency that helped find work for the unemployed during the Great Depression of the 1930s. During World War II, he criticized the Office of War Information for its wasteful spending, arguing that the CPI had accomplished the same tasks during World War I for much less money. His book War Criminals and Punishment, condemning German dictator Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party, was published in 1944. Creel died on October 2, 1953.
For More Information
Creel, George. 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. New York and London: Harper and Brothers, 1920.
Creel, George. Rebel At Large: Recollections of Fifty Crowded Years. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1947.
Knock, Thomas J. To End All Wars: Woodrow Wilson and the Quest for a New World Order. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Mock, James R., and Cedrik Larson. Words That Won the War: The Story of the Committee on Public Information, 1917–1919. New York: Russell and Russell, 1968.
"George Creel on the Selling of the War." [Online] http://web.mala.bc.ca/davies/H324War/Creel.SellingWar.1920.htm (accessed May 2001).
"Perspectives [on Military History]." [Online] http://www.thehistorynet.com/MilitaryHistory/articles/12955_text.htm (accessed May 2001).
Anti-German Hysteria in the United States
When George Creel began his publicinformation campaign on behalf of the U.S. war effort during World War I, the United States had never before sent its soldiers to fight on European soil. A wave of hysteria directed against Germany and Austria-Hungary swept the nation, and many Americans directed their hatred against people from those countries, calling the Germans "Krauts" and the Austrians "Huns." Some local governments passed "English-only" laws; many high schools stopped teaching the German language; and many orchestras stopped playing music by Beethoven, Brahms, and other German composers. The Viennaborn violinist Fritz Kreisler was on a concert tour in the United States when the war broke out, and he was forbidden to play in many cities. Some people even suggested using the term "Liberty cabbage" instead of the German word "sauerkraut" and substituting "Salisbury steak" for the word "hamburger."
In the decades immediately before the war, many people from Europe, including Germany and Austria-Hungary, had immigrated to the United States. Some Americans feared that these newer immigrants might be more loyal to their old homelands than to the United States. Under George Creel's direction, the Committee of Public Information made special efforts to reach out to these immigrant communities and publicized the contributions that immigrants were making to the war effort, such as volunteering for the armed services or buying Liberty Bonds. Creel strongly criticized so-called patriotic organizations for harassing immigrants and questioning their loyalty.