President Woodrow Wilson won a second term in 1916 by promising to keep the nation out of World War I. So when, in 1917, he reneged and asked Congress to declare war against Germany, Wilson had to convince the nine million people who’d voted for him that combat was necessary. Afraid critical news stories might stoke anti-war sentiment, Wilson considered following his generals’ advice and censoring the press. Then he received a letter from a fervid supporter.
George Creel was a Denver Post reporter before moving to the editorial pages of the Rocky Mountain News. He left journalism in 1916 to drum up Coloradans’ enthusiasm for Wilson, even writing a book backing the incumbent. (He praised Wilson’s support for labor rights and higher taxes on the wealthy.) Upon hearing the president might suppress the news, however, Creel sent an urgent missive to Wilson. His plan: Instead of hiding information from Americans, the government should supply its own wartime news—with a patriotic bent. Wilson followed Creel’s advice and appointed the Denverite chairman of the newly minted Committee on Public Information (CPI).
The federal agency, known as the Creel Committee, quickly stretched its tentacles into society in a variety of ways. To encourage enlistment, Norman Rockwell painted promotional posters of youths steely in the face of battle, while Howard Chandler Christy’s waifish “Christy Girl” rallied citizens to buy war bonds. Volunteers dubbed “Four Minute Men” gave speeches to cinemagoers between the changing of film reels. Creel’s team even produced feature-length documentaries such as Pershing’s Crusaders, as well as four million copies of the now-iconic “I want YOU for U.S. Army” Uncle Sam poster, according to Time magazine. The committee was never impartial, but it was mostly accurate, says Rutgers University historian David Greenberg. “Propaganda is most effective when it’s rooted in the truth,” he says. “If you want people to accept it, it has to ring true.”
This month marks the 100-year anniversary of the end of WWI, yet historians still debate whether the CPI helped the United States and its allies achieve victory. The sale of war bonds increased when the agency began advertising them, and after the CPI pushed Americans to enlist, the military’s ranks swelled from 200,000 to 500,000. Skeptics point out that the country still needed to draft 2.7 million more soldiers. But what’s not in question is that the Creel Committee, along with other agencies like the WWI-era War Department, became the blueprint for disseminating the government’s news, Greenberg says. Creel proved that communicating with the public could actually benefit politicians. The lesson carries on to this day: Everything from the “Army Strong” slogan to White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ briefings are descendants of Creel’s PR apparatus.
After the war, Creel moved to San Francisco, where, in later years, he faced criticism that his propaganda had pushed America into a confrontation in which it had little stake. Creel, of course, defended himself, insisting he’d only been a champion of government transparency—a spin doctor till the very end.
Miles between Kiowa County and Denver, the path soldiers followed after murdering 200 peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho Native Americans in 1864. Walk a similar route to honor those victims during the 20th annual Sand Creek Massacre Spiritual Healing Run/ Walk, November 22 to 25 this year.