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Teaching the First World War
Teaching the First World War

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4 Propaganda in the USA

The USA did not join the war until April 1917. Prior to intervention, there was no state-directed propaganda to influence American public opinion regarding the conflict. Despite this, the war permeated American culture in the years before its entry, and many publications and organisations sought to shape the popular response to the conflict.

Whereas some anti-war organisations, such as the American Union Against Militarism, hoped to maintain American neutrality, other groups, such as the National Security League, pressed for military preparedness and eventually favoured intervention.

Moreover, following the news of German atrocities and the sinking of the Lusitania in May 1915, attitudes towards Germany began to harden, and many publications began to demonise Germany and German immigrants living in the USA, often using similar techniques to those employed by Allied propagandists in Europe.

Immediately following American intervention in the war, President Woodrow Wilson established a special propaganda agency, the Committee on Public Information (CPI), often known as the ‘Creel Committee’, after its chairman, former journalist George Creel. The CPI consisted of a domestic section, to influence public opinion at home, and a foreign section to shape attitudes to the USA abroad. The CPI worked with artists, cartoonists, writers, actors and filmmakers to disseminate propaganda in a range of different media. The Division of Pictorial Publicity, for example, produced an enormous quantity of propaganda posters and advertisements.

As in Britain, much of this propaganda worked to demonise Germany, portraying it as an aggressive, autocratic nation. American propaganda also presented the US war effort as a crusade for democratic values, following Wilson’s claim that the USA was intervening to make the ‘world safe for democracy’ (1917) [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] . Propagandists also tried to persuade the American public to support the conflict in a number of ways, encouraging them to purchase ‘liberty bonds’ to help fund the war effort. We will now look at two examples of American propaganda, one from the period of American neutrality and the other from the period after US intervention. The next section has the first example.