Selling the Great War: The Making of American Propaganda

Selling the Great War: The Making of American Propaganda

by Alan Axelrod

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The riveting, untold story of George Creel and the Committee on Public Information -- the first and only propaganda initiative sanctioned by the U.S. government.

When the people of the United States were reluctant to enter World War I, maverick journalist George Creel created a committee at President Woodrow Wilson's request to sway the tide of public opinion. The Committee on Public Information monopolized every medium and avenue of communication with the goal of creating a nation of enthusiastic warriors for democracy. Forging a path that would later be studied and retread by such characters as Adolf Hitler, the Committee revolutionized the techniques of governmental persuasion, changing the course of history.

Selling the War is the story of George Creel and the epoch-making agency he built and led. It will tell how he came to build the and how he ran it, using the emerging industries of mass advertising and public relations to convince isolationist Americans to go to war. It was a force whose effects were felt throughout the twentieth century and continue to be felt, perhaps even more strongly, today. In this compelling and original account, Alan Axelrod offers a fascinating portrait of America on the cusp of becoming a world power and how its first and most extensive propaganda machine attained unprecedented results.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780230619593
Publisher: St. Martin''s Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/03/2009
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
File size: 375 KB

About the Author

Alan Axelrod is the author of numerous popular books on military history, general history, American history and historically rooted business and management books, including Bradley and Patton in The Great Generals Series, the BusinessWeek bestsellers Patton on Leadership and Elizabeth I, CEO, as well as a host of encyclopedias and other trade reference titles. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

Historian Alan Axelrod is the author of the business bestsellers Patton on Leadership and Elizabeth I, CEO, the Great Generals series books Patton, Bradley, and Marshall, and many books on American and military history. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

Read an Excerpt

Selling the Great War

The Making of American Propaganda

By Alan Axelrod

Palgrave Macmillan

Copyright © 2009 Alan Axelrod
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-230-61959-3



When George Creel was born, on December 1, 1876, in Missouri, the Civil War had been over for more than a decade. No matter. The counties of Lafayette and Jackson—the western Missouri world into which Creel emerged—remained an unreconstructed bastion of the Confederacy. Creel was ten years old before he "knew any adult males except 'Southern colonels,'" and when he came home from school, his mother would quiz him on the day's history lesson only to indignantly correct his teacher: "The battle of Antietam, indeed! Why, honey, it was the battle of Sharpsburg, and we whipped them."

As Creel felt obliged to confess, he "took in prejudices with mother's milk," prejudices that would exercise an enduring influence on his varied career lifelong—an influence far more profound than a regionally idiosyncratic interpretation of the Civil War. George Creel grew up with the conviction that history was first and last a particular version of a set of facts in time, and, to most people most of the time, it was the version that mattered more than the facts. To create a persuasive version of the facts was, therefore, to create history, and history, Creel believed, exerted a powerful hold on people, shaping their sentiments, forming their loyalties, and prompting their actions.

All around young Creel, the "Southern colonels" relived the Civil War as it should have been. The characters Creel recalled were braggarts and ring-tailed roarers seemingly torn from the pages of Missouri's own Mark Twain. The most eccentric of them were truly accomplished fabulists, creators of an egocentric reality they were skilled at weaving and unashamed in sharing. Young George loved to listen to Colonel John recount how he and "a young band of Southrons ... beat back the iron heel of the invadah, armed only with squirrel guns, hoe handles, pitch-forks, and other rude agricultural implements," falling "upon the blue-bellied hordes" and beating "them into dastardly flight." Another veteran piped in: "I was in that fight, and the Yankees whipped hell out of us." At which Colonel John groaned: "Oh, Lord! Another great story ruined by a goddam eyewitness."

To anyone who might have looked in from the outside on Lafayette County (where Creel was born) and Jackson County (where he spent most of his early childhood), the reality of the hardscrabble region would have appeared dull and squalid. Poverty was the rule rather than the exception. Creel's father, Henry Clay Creel, had himself come to Missouri from the outside, having been raised near a tributary of the Ohio River, the Little Kanawha, in what was at the time the western fringe of Virginia (today West Virginia). The son of a Catholic, he had received a solid and urbane education in Cincinnati, at St. Xavier's, which helped earn him, on his return to Virginia, election to the House of Delegates. But he soon fell in with a fast crowd, and his father, Alexander Herbert Creel, sought to stave off his son's complete dissipation by packing him off to Missouri in 1860, with a pair of slaves, to start a farm in Osage County. He did not remain there long, however. When Virginia seceded from the Union, the young man rushed back to his home state and enlisted in a regiment as a captain. After Appomattox, he left Virginia, Missouri-bound once more.

The Creels were luckier than most other ex-Confederates. Alexander Herbert had managed to preserve a significant portion of his wealth and was able to give his son $10,000 in working capital to buy a large farm in Lafayette County, close to the home of the Facklers, among whose daughters was a girl named Virginia, as "slim and lovely" as Henry Creel was "romantically handsome." The veteran captain and brand-new farmer married her in 1868 and, on the farm, in quick succession, three sons were born to them: Wylie, George, and Richard Henry, who would always be called Hal.

The $10,000 his father had given Henry Clay Creel should have gone a long way in Missouri. But it did not. Absent slaves and an overseer to work them, the farm in due course faltered and failed, sending Captain Creel on a headlong retreat into the bottle. By the time son George was born, the senior Creel was a confirmed alcoholic and the family was well on its way to bankruptcy.

That was when the revisionist visions of romantic glory should have ended. Henry Creel sold out at a loss and, because someone—George Creel never knew who—told him there was money to be made raising cattle, he impulsively moved his family southeast, to Hickory County. Predictably, the cattle-raising experiment soon went the way of the farm, taking with it what was left of the family's funds. The next move was back to western Missouri, to the town of Independence, in Jackson County, just west of George's native Lafayette County. Here, Virginia Creel assumed the full burden of supporting the family by taking in boarders. She struggled to shelter George and his two brothers, as well as her "guests," from the bibulous spectacle of Captain Creel. The boys were frequently awakened late at night by the noise of their father's saloon friends dragging him home. Mother would hurry George and his brothers back to bed "with the whisper that Papa was 'sick.' But how could he be sick, I wondered, when he was yelling and laughing?"

Although George would learn to love the tall tales of the Southern colonels of Independence, in the process taking away valuable lessons about the malleability of "history," he also possessed from a very early age an unwillingness or inability to shut his eyes to ugly truths: If his father was "sick," why was he laughing?

Mrs. Creel had visions of her own—romantic, to be sure, but with a much harder edge than those of the "colonels" and her own besotted husband. Her grandfather had left Virginia for Missouri in 1842 and settled with nine of his ten children in Saline County, just east of Lafayette County. There, on a large tract of land, he replicated a piece of antebellum Virginia, building a white-columned plantation house, complete with slave quarters adjacent. But he did not idle in nostalgia for the bygone. Instead, he made a go of the farm, amassing sufficient wealth to send one of his sons to St. Louis to study medicine. The young man, George Creel's maternal grandfather, returned to Saline County to practice, but when his bride died, leaving him with a son and two daughters, he deposited the children into the care of his sisters, took down his shingle, and devoted himself ruthlessly to speculation in land.

In the meantime, his progeny were raised in female-dominated Southern gentility. Virginia Fackler, the girl who would become George Creel's mother, was given a classical education and, remembered to the end of her days her languages as well as her lessons in both ancient and modern history. She came into possession of a surprisingly wide range of experience. Whereas George's feckless father had nothing hard about him (save his drinking) and failed to outgrow the parochial fantasies of his antebellum upbringing, young Virginia came to know the Civil War at its most brutal in the guerrilla warfare of Missouri. When her father decided that life under Yankee occupation had become intolerable, he took his children and, with about twenty other disgruntled Missourians, set off in search of a new life in California. They settled in San Francisco, only to return to Missouri after the war.

Her early exposure to war and the world beyond her home made Virginia Creel a strong woman. Living with an impecunious drunk, she needed all her strength. After the Independence boardinghouse, like the Lafayette County farm and the Hickory County cattle ranch, failed, Virginia Creel decided to move from the cozy if poor community of Independence to the big, cold metropolis of Kansas City, which offered nothing more promising than the prospect of a larger and more profitable boardinghouse as well as the possibility of employment for her oldest son, Wylie, and even the middle son, George, neither of whom was yet out of grade school. For George Creel, his Missouri boyhood blended the turbulent streams of several narratives, each bearing a different life-shaping mythology. There were antebellum romance, chivalry, and a passionate attachment to lost causes. These streams washed up a feckless father and watered the charmingly confabulatory fertility of any number of "Southern colonels" living in Independence. Those same streams also nurtured a mother in whom heritage combined with hard and varied experience. When George Creel came to voting age, it was "with a passionate belief in equal suffrage," a belief informed not by any abstract theory of social justice but by the vivid example of his mother.

If George Creel's experience taught him the force of personal mythology, he also learned from a young age something of what a more collective mythology could produce. He was deeply moved by Missouri history, including the story of Father Pierre-Jean De Smet, the nineteenth-century Jesuit missionary who set out from newly founded Independence for the Oregon Country. Creel learned about De Smet when he was a boy, and, many years later, in 1927, when he was making his living as a freelance writer, he included De Smet in a book called Sons of the Eagle: Soaring Figures from America's Past. Creel wrote that De Smet was the first white man to find gold in the West. "Crossing the Bitterroot Range, he stopped to drink at a mountain stream and looked down through the clear water to see a golden glitter among the pebbles." At first, "he knew a singing of the heart," believing he had found "wealth more than ample for all of his missionary labors," but then, "as though a shadow blotted the sun, he remembered his days among the Osages, the Potawatomi, and other Missouri River tribes and saw again the drunkenness and degradation worked by the greed of white men." He instantly understood that a single word of his discovery would fill the mountains with "adventurers drawn from every quarter of the globe, debauching the Indians and ending forever his dream of conversion." With this, De Smet dropped the nuggets back into the stream, then "wiped his hands as though they had been soiled, and ran as from an imminent peril."

The story of Father De Smet, an icon of selflessness and self-sacrifice, added another stream to the Missouri narrative from which the career of George Creel would flow, this one the most abundant and powerful of all: idealism. Mingled with romance, realism, and the lure of a good story, idealism would drive a zeal for muckraking journalism and political and social reform, eventually sending George Creel into the arms of Woodrow Wilson, the ultimate American idealist, for whom war, even on a global scale, was the great test of national commitment to the noblest of ideals.

* * *

When George was twelve years old, the Kansas City boardinghouse, like the one in Independence, finally failed, and his family moved yet again, this time forty miles east, to the dusty little town of Odessa, where his maternal grandfather owned some land. George looked upon the old man with an intensity of mixed emotions. On one hand, John Fackler presented an example of achievement that stood in stark contrast to the utter failure of his father. He was a pioneering physician, dentist, nutritionist, and what today would be called an exercise guru; yet he quit his medical practice to speculate in land, and he made a fortune doing so. Despite his success, he withheld any financial aid to his daughter, always conditioning it on her separating from a husband he considered (not without good reason) worthless. Virginia Creel would not leave her man, however, and so neither she nor her children received a single dollar until they all moved to Odessa. At last, grandfather allowed the family "the grudging grant of a monthly pittance" and a tiny house on a small property he owned.

On their patch of ground and with their pittance, George, his brothers, and his mother made do. The oldest, Wylie, stayed in Kansas City, where he found work and sent a portion of his salary to his mother. Mrs. Creel busied herself taking in sewing while George and Hal scratched away at truck farming on their small plot, peddling milk from Bess, a diminutive Alderney cow. During the summer, the boys hired themselves out for labor in the fields of neighboring farms, George shucking wheat alongside the adults and Hal riding lead horse to the binder, though his legs were hardly long enough for his feet to find the stirrups.

As always, it was George's mother who made even so hard an existence tolerable. Every night, "when she must have been ready to drop," she drew on her early classical education to tell George and Hal "stories that made dead heroes live again." She supplemented her own tales with books, including the novels of Sir Walter Scott, the poems of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Charles Dickens's Child's History of England, and juvenile versions of the Iliad. Even as an adult, Creel wrote, the Greek heroes Achilles and Ulysses, and the semilegendary Kentish brothers Hengist and Horsa, as well as other figures of myth and history were intensely real to him. He developed what he admitted was an unshakable faith in the printed word. When he encountered a handbill advertising a traveling show and promising "valuable presents" for every boy and girl who bought a ticket, he eagerly handed over the 15 cents he had earned shoveling snow. George brought home a list of the promised "valuable presents," pointing to a rocking chair, which he offered to get for his mother. Virginia Creel gently explained that "such costly articles could not possibly be given away for so small a price," but the boy persisted in pointing to the clear black type on the handbill page. In the end, she told her son to choose a pair of roller skates for himself rather than the rocking chair for her. Elated, he awaited the day appointed for the collection of his present. Yet when that day came, all the promoter had to give him was a tiny tin badge. "I burst into tears and made quite a scene, but when I reached home, still sobbing, there was Mother with the roller skates she had pinched herself to buy."

It was but a tangible emblem of the gifts George Creel received from his mother's hands. To a love of literature, of narrative, of the printed word, she added compassion, understanding, and absolute loyalty. One day, while in school in Odessa, George passed a note to a girl in class. Intercepted by the teacher, the note was presented to the principal, who "came down to our room with a wolfish leer I still remember. First he read it aloud, not once, but twice, rolling his eyes and mincing his tone, and then gave me a brutal switching that raised welts. I told Mother all about it." The next day Virginia Creel accompanied her son to school and confronted the principal: "Georgie deserved punishment for breaking the rule, but discipline does not involve humiliation. If you knew anything about children, you would know that what you did to him was cruel and unforgivable." With that, she took her son out of public school, put him in a private one, then pulled him out altogether and administered the rest of his education at home.

The childhood of George Creel was contradictory: harsh yet sheltered. Alive to everything about him, he nevertheless grew up an outsider, the son of a drunken, shiftless father yet also of a doting, industrious, ever-protective mother, a crusading woman willing to take on the world (or, at least, a school principal) for his sake.

Whatever else childhood taught George Creel, it impressed upon him the contradictory nature of reality itself—that you could be both scorned and loved and that you could be an outsider yet possess the keen awareness of an insider. Most of all he seemed to acquire a sense of the ambiguous, infinitely flexible connection between words and reality.

Apparent confirmation of his youthful world vision came in 1896, when the twenty-year-old Creel managed to get himself hired by the struggling Kansas City World as a $4-a-week reporter. Of this, his debut in journalism, he wrote years later, "I still wonder why the city editor ... ever hired me, for my qualifications would not have gained admission to the kindergarten class in a modern school of journalism." Creel's first assignments included writing book reviews, which made sense, considering that he was an avid reader, but he was also assigned to churn out the paper's society/gossip column. Doubtless due to the desperation engendered by this assignment, impoverished social outsider that he was, he discovered in himself a fount of "ambition ... backed up by demoniac energy, not to mention the conceit of ignorance."

Yet desperation, ambition, and ignorance could carry Creel only so far. He executed his society column assignments by simply barging in on every Kansas City social event he caught wind of until, one fateful day, his editor commented to him that he wished he had his "cast-iron nerve," the "gall ... to butt in on parties as if he were an invited guest and not just a reporter." At this, something snapped, and Creel suddenly found that he could not venture into the street "without thinking that fingers of scorn were being pointed at me."


Excerpted from Selling the Great War by Alan Axelrod. Copyright © 2009 Alan Axelrod. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Preface, ix,
1. Making of a Muckraker, 1,
2. Muckraker on the Make, 15,
3. Too Proud to Fight, 33,
4. Safe for Democracy, 55,
5. Conjuring the Committee, 77,
6. A Monopoly on the News, 97,
7. Invasion of the Four-Minute Men, 113,
8. The Look of War, 135,
9. Combat Comes to Classroom and Factory, 159,
10. Hyphenated America, 175,
11. Exporting the Message, 189,
12. Legacy, 211,
Notes, 227,
Index, 239,

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