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Demons, atrocities, and lies

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Demons, atrocities, and lies


Defining Propaganda

The word "propaganda" has already been used several times, and the reader may wonder how this term is being used. The definition of propaganda has been widely debated, but there is little agreement about what it means. Some argue that all persuasive communication is propagandistic, while others suggest that only dishonest messages can be considered propaganda. Political activists of all stripes claim that they speak the truth while their opponents preach propaganda. In order to accommodate the breadth of the CPI's activities, this discussion relies on Harold Lasswell's broad interpretation of the term. "Not bombs nor bread," wrote Lasswell, "but words, pictures, songs, parades, and many similar devices are the typical means of making propaganda." According to Lasswell, "propaganda relies on symbols to attain its end: the manipulation of collective attitudes."

Propagandists usually attempt to influence individuals while leading each one to behave "as though his response were his own decision." Mass communication tools extend the propagandist's reach and make it possible to shape the attitudes of many individuals simultaneously. Because propagandists attempt to "do the other fellow's thinking for him," they prefer indirect messages to overt, logical arguments. During the war, the CPI accomplished this by making calculated emotional appeals, by demonizing Germany, by linking the war to the goals of various social groups, and, when necessary, by lying outright.

Emotional Appeals

CPI propaganda typically appealed to the heart, not to the mind. Emotional agitation is a favorite technique of the propagandist, because "any emotion may be 'drained off' into any activity by skillful manipulation." An article which appeared in Scientific Monthly shortly after the war argued that "the detailed suffering of a little girl and her kitten can motivate our hatred against the Germans, arouse our sympathy for Armenians, make us enthusiastic for the Red Cross, or lead us to give money for a home for cats." Wartime slogans such as "Bleeding Belgium," "The Criminal Kaiser," and "Make the World Safe For Democracy," suggest that the CPI was no stranger to this idea. Evidence of this technique can be seen in a typical propaganda poster that portrayed an aggressive, bayonet-wielding German soldier above the caption "Beat Back The Hun With Liberty Bonds." In this example, the emotions of hate and fear were redirected toward giving money to the war effort. It is an interesting side-note that many analysts attribute the failure of German propaganda in America to the fact that it emphasized logic over passion. According to Count von Bernstorff, a German diplomat, "the outstanding characteristic of the average American is rather a great, though superficial, sentimentality," and German press telegrams completely failed to grasp this fact.


A second propaganda technique used by the CPI was demonization of the enemy. "So great are the psychological resistances to war in modern nations," wrote Lasswell "that every war must appear to be a war of defense against a menacing, murderous aggressor. There must be no ambiguity about who the public is to hate." American propaganda was not the only source of anti-German feeling, but most historians agree that the CPI pamphlets went too far in portraying Germans as depraved, brutal aggressors. For example, in one CPI publication, Professor Vernon Kellogg asked "will it be any wonder if, after the war, the people of the world, when they recognize any human being as a German, will shrink aside so that they may not touch him as he passes, or stoop for stones to drive him from their path?"

A particularly effective strategy for demonizing Germans was the use of atrocity stories. "A handy rule for arousing hate," said Lasswell "is, if at first they do not enrage, use an atrocity. It has been employed with unvarying success in every conflict known to man." Unlike the pacifist, who argues that all wars are brutal, the atrocity story implies that war is only brutal when practiced by the enemy. Certain members of the CPI were relatively cautious about repeating unsubstantiated allegations, but the committee's publications often relied on dubious material. After the war, Edward Bernays, who directed CPI propaganda efforts in Latin America, openly admitted that his colleagues used alleged atrocities to provoke a public outcry against Germany. Some of the atrocity stories which were circulated during the war, such as the one about a tub full of eyeballs or the story of the seven-year old boy who confronted German soldiers with a wooden gun, were actually recycled from previous conflicts. In his seminal work on wartime propaganda, Lasswell speculated that atrocity stories will always be popular because the audience is able to feel self-righteous indignation toward the enemy, and, at some level, identify with the perpetrators of the crimes. "A young woman, ravished by the enemy," he wrote "yields secret satisfaction to a host of vicarious ravishers on the other side of the border."

Anti-German propaganda fueled support for the war, but it also contributed to intolerance on the home front. Dachshunds were renamed liberty dogs, German measles were renamed liberty measles, and the City University of New York reduced by one credit every course in German. Fourteen states banned the speaking of German in public schools. The military adversary was thousands of miles away, but German-Americans provided convenient local scapegoats. In Van Houten, New Mexico, an angry mob accused an immigrant miner of supporting Germany and forced him to kneel before them, kiss the flag, and shout "To hell with the Kaiser." In Illinois, a group of zealous patriots accused Robert Prager, a German coal miner, of hoarding explosives. Though Prager asserted his loyalty to the very end, he was lynched by the angry mob. Explosives were never found.

The War to End All Wars

Emotional appeals and simplistic caricatures of the enemy influenced many Americans, but the CPI recognized that certain social groups had more complex propaganda needs. In order to reach intellectuals and pacifists, the CPI claimed that military intervention would bring about a democratic League of Nations and end warfare forever. With other social groups, the CPI modified its arguments, and interpreted the war as "a conflict to destroy the threat of German industrial competition (business group), to protect the American standard of living (labor), to remove certain baneful German influences in our education (teachers), to destroy German music - itself a subtle propaganda (musicians), to preserve civilization, 'we' and `civilization' being synonymous (nationalists), to make the world safe for democracy, crush militarism, [and] establish the rights of small nations et al. (religious and idealistic groups)." It is impossible to make rigorous statements about which one of these appeals was most effective, but this is the advantage that the propagandist has over the communications scholar. The propagandist is primarily concerned with effectiveness and can afford to ignore the methodological demands of social science.


Finally, like most propagandists, the CPI was frequently dishonest. Despite George Creel's claim that the CPI strived for unflinching accuracy, many of his employees later admitted that they were quite willing to lie. Will Irwin, an ex-CPI member who published several confessional pieces after the war, felt that the CPI was more honest than other propaganda ministries, but made it clear that "we never told the whole truth - not by any manner of means." Citing an intelligence officer who bluntly said "you can't tell them the truth," G.S Viereck argued that, as on all fronts, victories were routinely manufactured by American military authorities. The professional propagandist realizes that, when a single lie is exposed, the entire campaign is jeopardized. Dishonesty is discouraged, but on strategic, not moral, grounds.