Retrieved from http://www.loc.gov/ pictures/resource/ cph.3g03859/
Throughout history governments have used various forms of “propaganda” to influence their citizens during times of national conflict and/or crisis.  But what exactly is “propaganda?”  To understand how this type of strategy is used, it is important to have a clear idea of its meaning.  According to the online edition of the Oxford Dictionaries (2010), propaganda can be defined as, “information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view,” and further includes “the dissemination of such information as a political strategy.”  This tactic has been utilized many times in the past and present when leaders have felt they needed to gain support of the general populace in order to help accomplish a goal.  However, during World War I, the use of propaganda was escalated to another level not just by the United States, but by Germany and Great Britain as well.  This lesson will primarily focus on the use of propaganda by the United States government starting with the examination of a 1918 Vintage Ad published on November 30th by the U.S. Military Committee on Public Information entitled, “He Will Come Back a Better Man.”  Additionally, in order to give a complete depiction that accurately represents the perspectives of other parties involved in the conflict, there will be examples of propaganda that the German and British governments used to persuade their populations of the importance of supporting their governments in the war effort of that time.   

        A question that must be examined and addressed when studying the use of propaganda during World War I is why was it at this particular moment in history that this type of strategy was deemed absolutely necessary to garner the American public’s support of entrance into the war.  In 1914 the United States government was still in favor of maintaining the policy of neutrality.  President Wilson called on Americans to be “neutral in thought as well as in deed” (Mintz, 2007). There were other reasons that Wilson sought to avoid involvement in this war.  The United States had a large immigrant population many of whom had recently come from Europe.  During that time approximately 17 million Americans (out of a total of 100 million) had been born outside of the United States (Wells, 2002).  There were also strong feelings of support for the Central Powers from the German-American and Irish-American immigrants.  Avoiding the war overseas was one way to prevent “deepening political conflict between diverse communities of hyphenated Americans possessing conflicting foreign policy loyalties” (Wells, 2002). 

            The lack of public unity was a major concern in Washington as the United States formally entered the war in 1917, which led to the creation of the Committee on Public Information (CPI).  The CPI was headed by George Creel, a former journalist, and its purpose was “promote the war domestically while publicizing American war aims abroad” (Delwiche, 2009).  However, the effect of strong pro-British propaganda and events, including the sinking of the Lusitania, would gradually begin to sway the American public’s opinion strongly towards the Allied cause (Appleby et al., 2006).

            All of the countries involved in this conflict used propaganda for various reasons to gain support for the war.  Germany, Great Britain and the United States used propaganda to gain support from their citizens, aid in additional recruiting efforts (at this time most of the countries involved had a draft in place; Great Britain did not have one at the outset of the war, but eventually implemented one) as well as raise money and resources to sustain the war effort (Duffy, 2009).   As stated above the initial stance of the United States towards neutrality in the war made it a key target for both British and German propaganda.  However, it was the British that were able to capitalize on the propaganda initiative and use it to their advantage in reaching the hearts and minds of the American public. 

            One of the ways the British were able to succeed in America was by cutting the transatlantic telegraph cable from Europe to the United States, which made American newspapers almost completely dependent on Great Britain for news about the war.  In addition, the British launched a large scale covert operation to reach out to America’s opinion leaders, libraries and newspapers, and provide them with information about the war from the British perspective.  The use of stories about German atrocities towards Belgian citizens was another extremely effective technique that the British were able to use to gain American sympathy towards the Allied cause (Wells, 2002).

            The German use of propaganda was very ineffective in the United States.  Much of their effort was anti-Russian, which did not appeal to many Americans (Appleby et al., 2006).  But perhaps the great undoing for Germany in the eyes of the American public was the Lusitania disaster.  The Lusitania was a passenger ship with Americans on board when it was attacked and sunk by a German U-boat in 1915.  Although the United States would not enter the war until 1917, the sinking of the Lusitania became a key event in impacting the American public’s opinion of the war.  The response from the German government was to defend its actions stating that she had been armed with guns, and had "large quantities of war material" in her cargo (“RMS Lusitania,” 2011).  This explanation did not sit well with many Americans who were greatly angered and viewed the attack as an act of terrorism, not war (Appleby et al., 2006).  At the same time the British government was able to use this event to launch a very aggressive propaganda campaign which deemed the German attack as “an act of piracy” (“The Lusitania,” 2011).  This event led to a surge in American anti-German protests and political cartoons, and further paved the way for the United States’ eventual involvement in the war (Kan, 2009).          

When the United States formally entered the war in 1917, the CPI was tasked with uniting the country through propaganda which promoted the necessity of the war, and also emphasized the necessity of procuring men, money and resources to add in the war effort.  In order to accomplish these goals the CPI used a variety of techniques to reach the American public.  The CPI’s focus was on making calculated emotional appeals, demonizing Germany, linking the war to the goals of various social groups, and, when necessary, by lying outright (Delwiche, 2009). 

            There were a variety of techniques that were used to accomplish these goals included word games including name calling (example: Hun) and using glittering generalities.  It also made false connections using the transfer technique where a symbol, such as Uncle Sam, would be used to represent the consensus of the nation.  Another way to use the transfer technique was to have a famous person give a testimonial, which was used to promote a certain idea or objective.  Lastly, there was the special appeals technique, which included the plain-folks strategy (an attempt to convince an audience that the speaker’s ideas are “of the people,” bandwagon (promotes the idea that “everyone is doing it”), and the use of fear as a strategy to play on the audience’s deep-rooted fears that if they do not embrace the idea being suggested, disaster could occur (“Propaganda,” 2011).  According to Duffy (2009), despite the fact that the United States did not enter the war until 1917, this country produced many more propaganda posters than any other single nation.

            Factors such as America’s large immigrant population and stance supporting neutrality led to an increase in American propaganda never before seen during World War I.  Although the CPI ceased domestic functions in November 1918 and foreign efforts a few months later, the power of propaganda has during times of national conflict had been seen and felt during that time period, and continues to be a part of our society and lives ever since.  It is interesting to note the difference in the amount of information available about German propaganda during World War II compared to what is available to represent the Germany from World War I.  The Germans learned a valuable lesson about the power of this technique during the First World War, and would not let another opportunity to utilize this strategy slip away in the years to come. 

            The use of propaganda has changed over the course of the 20th century and into the new millennium.  The advent of CNN and the 24 hour news cycle as well as the Internet and the ability to instantly access information through various means of technology has greatly impacted the way Americans receive and process information.  No longer does the government rely on mass producing posters to promote a certain agenda; it must rely on the interaction between the military and the media to relay their message.  What does the propaganda look like today in the time of the “war on terror?”  Miren Guiterrez, editor-in-chief of Inter Press Service lists the following strategies as examples of how propaganda is being used today: incompleteness; inaccuracy; driving the agenda; milking the story; exploiting that we want to believe the best of ourselves; perception management; reinforcing existing attitudes; simple repetitious and emotional phrases (i.e., war on terror, axis of evil, weapons of mass destruction, shock and awe, war of liberation, etc). (Shah, 2005).  

            Propaganda has existed and been used throughout history, and will continue to be a part of the fabric of our world.  It is important to understand why and how governments utilize this technique in order to make educated decisions about the information we receive during times of crisis.  By studying the past and analyzing the present, future generations of Americans will be able to evaluate critical information, in all its different forms, in years to come.  

Appleby, J. O., Brinkley, A., Broussard, A., & National Geographic Society (U.S.). (2006). The  American vision: Modern times. New York, N.Y: Glencoe/McGraw-Hill.

Delwiche, A. (2009, August 22). Of fraud and force fast woven: Domestic propaganda during    the first world war. Retrieved from http://www.firstworldwar.com/features/propaganda.htm 

 Duffy, M. (2009, August 22). Propaganda posters. Retrieved from http://www.firstworldwar.com/posters/index.htm 

 Kan, V. (2009, August 22). RMS Lusitania: The fateful voyage. Retrieved from http://www.firstworldwar.com/features/lusitania.htm 

 Mintz, S. (2009). America at war: World War I. In Digital History. Retrieved from  http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/database/article_display.cfm?HHID=529

Propaganda. (2011). Retrieved from Oxford University Press website:    http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/propaganda 

. (2011, February 28). Retrieved from http://www.propagandacritic.com/ 

 RMS Lusitania. (2011, March 27). Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_lusitania 

 Shah, A. (2005, March 31). War, propaganda and the media. Retrieved from http://www.globalissues.org/article/157/war-propaganda-and-the-media#globalissues-org)

 The Lusitania. (2011). Retrieved from http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/lusitania.htm 

 Wells, R. A. (2002, March). Mobilizing public support for war: An analysis of American propaganda during World War I [Scholarly paper]. Retrieved from http://isanet.ccit.arizona.edu/noarchive/robertwells.html