When Europe went to war in 1914 every nation involved held the firm belief that their cause was just. Individuals who opposed going to war were drowned out in a wave of fanatical nationalism that spread over the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey and their enemies, the Allied Powers of Great Britain, France and Russia. The jubilation and mass euphoria caused by the outbreak of World War I was even given its own name in Germany, Augusterlebnis, or “the spirit of 1914.” When the United States entered the fray in April 1917, on the side of the Allied Powers, the nation was woefully underprepared for the conflict. Not only was the U.S. army severely lacking, but the American public was still not fully behind the idea of involving itself in a war that was taking place an ocean away. It became clear that President Woodrow Wilson needed a way to convince the American people to get fully behind the war effort.
British recruitment poster published by the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee in 1915 depicts St. George killing a dragon. (Photo: Imperial War Museums Collections)
When the hostilities began in 1914 President Wilson initially declared American neutrality. Wilson, who was raised in Virginia during the reconstruction of the south in the aftermath of the Civil War, feared that involving the United States in a European war would create a divide between the millions of Americans who had family ties back to the warring European nations. Despite American neutrality, Great Britain and Germany made their own early attempts to persuade the American public with mixed results.
Later events, such as the sinking of the passenger ship RMS Lusitania in 1915, resumption of German unrestricted submarine warfare in January 1917 and the publishing of the Zimmerman Telegram in March 1917, managed to push much of the American public to the side of the Allies by April 1917. There were still those, though, who opposed going to war for various reasons, led by groups such as workers unions, socialists groups, pacifists and some women’s and African American organizations. In order to fully mobilize public opinion Woodrow Wilson established the Committee on Public Information (CPI) by executive order on April 13, 1917.
The goal of the CPI, as stated by Wilson, was to present the “absolute justice of America’s cause.” Former journalist George Creel was chosen as the head of the CPI. Creel brought together artists, journalists, and government officials in order to create and distribute media that called upon American citizens to enlist, conserve resources and to buy war bonds, while at the same time explaining why the United States was fighting in the war. They used many forms of media to convey their message, including newspaper ads, leaflets, public speakers and, perhaps the most emotionally appealing, posters.
The CPI’s Division of Pictorial Publicity and Division of Advertising aimed to arouse the emotions of the public by producing images that scared, angered, emboldened or sometimes even shamed people into backing the effort. These two divisions were more willing to use and circulate propaganda about alleged German atrocities reportedly committed during the war than the rest of the CPI. Government agencies, such as the Treasury Department, and sometimes non-government agencies, like the Red Cross, provided the messages for the posters while artists, such as Ohioan Howard Chandler Christy, created the images.
The Division of Pictorial Publicity and the Division of Advertising had extremely successful campaigns during World War I. According to historian Susan A. Brewer, as outlined in her book Why America Fights: Patriotism and Propaganda from the Philippines to Iraq, the CPI project created 2500 artist images that were reprinted into 20 million posters, more than all of the other nations combined. The posters created by the CPI during World War I, some of which you can see on display at the Ohio History Center, played an important role in scaring, angering, empowering, shaming and convincing the American people to join the war effort.
If you wish to see posters created by the CPI during WWI, or if you would like to learn more about World War I, you can visit the Ohio History Center.
School field trips and group visits to the Ohio History Center can be scheduled through email at [email protected] or call 614.297.2663 or 800.686.1541
Discussion Question (7th-8th grades):
Items such as WWI propaganda posters can serve as useful primary sources. However, not everything they say or the images they contain should be taken as the absolute truth, why is this?
Discussion Question (7th-8th grades):
Why would the CPI circulate information about German atrocities in the country of Belgium when they may not have been true?
Research Question (8th-9th grades):
George Creel, the head of the CPI, stated that he did not want to call the material created by the CPI as “propaganda” why would he want this?