To influence public opinion in favor of the war, the U.S produced films, commissioned colorful posters, published pamphlets and recruited everyday Americans to “sell the war.” These efforts helped create both modern American wartime propaganda and spurred the 20th century advertising industry.Share
Once, the U.S. officially entered the conflict in 1917, President Woodrow Wilson and the government sought to unify American society behind the war effort. To achieve this, Wilson created the Committee on Public Information (CPI), an independent agency headed by former investigative journalist George Creel. To successfully influence public opinion in favor of the war, the CPI produced films, commissioned colorful posters, published books, and pamphlets, took out advertisements in newspapers and recruited everyday Americans to speak to their communities and “sell the war.” This barrage of patriotic messaging served to justify American participation in the war and convinced many who, prior to 1917 had favored peace, to support the war effort.
Across multiple media fronts, Creel and the CPI sought to show how every American could contribute to the war effort. One of the most effective methods of transmitting information was through the speeches of the “Four Minute Men.” Four minutes was the average time it took to change a film reel, and therefore the allotted time given to a speaker during movie intermissions. The words “Minute Men” also effectively evoked the patriotism of the American Revolution, though Americans were fighting with—not against—the British. By the war’s end in 1918, the Four Minute Men are believed to have reached over three hundred million Americans - nearly the entire population of the United States at that time.
Another compelling form of propaganda was visual art, particularly the poster. Now-iconic images, like James Montgomery Flagg’s “Uncle Sam Wants YOU,” were created to encourage men to volunteer for military service, promote food conservation, illustrate alleged German atrocities and sell war bonds. Over the course of the war, the United States produced more war posters than all other belligerent nations combined.
From 1917 to 1918, Creel’s Committee on Public Information successfully unified the American people while minimizing the influence of those who remained committed to neutrality. After the war, however, the public recognized the larger truth of the CPI: it was a propaganda machine that often disregarded facts and caused deep anti-German sentiment throughout the country. While it represents the origin of modern American wartime propaganda, the legacy of the CPI continues to be debated today.