Propaganda War: Author John Hamilton Discusses WWI and the Birth of American Propaganda

Joseph Pennell watercolor drawing depicting the Statue of Liberty in front of a burning New York

Joseph Pennell. Lest Liberty Perish from the Face of the Earth, 1918. Watercolor drawing for a Fourth Liberty Loan drive poster. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Join Manuscript Division historian Ryan Reft and reference librarian Bruce Kirby at noon on November 10, 2021, as they discuss with author John Maxwell Hamilton his award winning 2020 book, Manipulating the Masses: Woodrow Wilson and the Birth of American Propaganda, and the questions it asks about the role of journalism, government, and propaganda during wartime in a democracy while also relating to issues of the current day. You can register here for the talk which we be held virtually on November 10, at 12 noon ET.

The First World War stands as a dark milestone in global history. British Foreign Secretary Edward Grey remarked ruefully upon its outbreak, “The lamps are going out all across Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our time.” The Economist looking back at the war in 1999 referred to it as “collective suicide.”[1]

For the United States, excluding the Spanish American War of 1898, it marked the nation’s first steps into global affairs. Its impact, though not as momentous as World War II, proved significant and not only in terms of military adventures. The war spurred the long civil rights movement, expanded the role of women in society, and both embraced and alienated the nation’s immigrant population.

H. Devitt Welsh, 4 Minute Men, A Message from the Government at Washington Committee on Public Information, 1917, Lithograph, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Nearly all the war’s combatants including the United States, hoping to harness the rising influence of public opinion, attempted to control the flow of information and shape messages to the public.

During the summer of 1918, the American Expeditionary Force engaged its first large scale battles of the war, yet this effort, and the American public’s support of it required an unprecedented propaganda campaign by the newly created Committee on Public Information (CPI).

Signed into law by Woodrow Wilson and overseen by George Creel, CPI would have long-ranging consequences for the government, military, and free press. Never free from controversy, CPI reflected its chairman’s pugnacious personality and its staff, populated by a who’s who of muckraking journalists and artists. Ironically, the efforts of each enabled the organization to suppress and censor speech while also largely serving as cheerleaders for the American war effort.

To tell the complicated and controversial story of Creel and the CPI, Hamilton consulted dozens of archival collections, many held by the Library of Congress Manuscript Division. Drop into this lunchtime program to learn more about those collections and the individuals at the center of this extensive government propaganda campaign during World War I.

For more on World War I, please see the online exhibitions:  Echoes of the Great War: American Experiences of World War I and World War I: American Artists View the Great War.

Also, check out the Manuscript Division’s previous virtual book talk from 2021, Searching for Suffrage at the Library, with author Kimberly Hamlin.

[1] “Attempted Suicide,” Economist, December 25, 1999.

Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.

Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.