The Tragedy of World War I and the Role of the US Department of Propaganda
August 5, 2014
Eric Margolis / Unz.com & Propaganda Critic.com
Commentary: The 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I is upon us. Well we should mourn this cataclysmic event and continue to draw lessons from it. As a former soldier and military historian, I've always felt that WWI was the most tragic conflict in modern history: a totally avoidable madness that wrecked Europe's glittering civilization and led directly to World War I.
World War One: Tragedy of Tragedies
Eric Margolis / Unz.com
(August 2, 2014) -- The 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I is upon us. Well we should mourn this cataclysmic event and continue to draw lessons from it.
As a former soldier and military historian, I've always felt that WWI was the most tragic conflict in modern history: a totally avoidable madness that wrecked Europe's glittering civilization and led directly to World War II, Hitler and Stalin.
This mournful anniversary has reopened fierce debate over who was responsible for the Great War.
On one side of the debate is historian Margaret MacMillan, whose new book "The War That Ended Peace," lays primary blame on Germany's military and commercial ambitions. MacMillan is a nice lady -- I've debated her on TV -- but her tedious new book is so steeped in traditional British/Anglo-Saxon bias against Germany as to be of limited value.
On the other is "The Sleepwalkers -- How Europe Went to War in 1914" by Cambridge professor Christopher Clark. This brilliant book is the finest, most instructive, best balanced book ever written on the origins of the Great War.
I say this as holder of a degree in the diplomatic history of World War I, and as one who has walked most of the battlefields of the Western Front.
Prof. Clark deftly and elegantly weaves a tapestry of events that conclusively shows that Germany's role in the conflict was no greater than the other belligerents, and perhaps less than commonly believed. Starved into submission by Britain's naval blockade, Germany was unfairly and foolishly saddled with total war guilt, and saw 10% of its territory and 7 million of its people torn away at Versailles by the war's rapacious victors.
Adolf Hitler rose to power on his vow to return Germany's lost lands and peoples who had been given to Poland, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. Stalin was determined to regain Russian territory lost at the 1918 Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.
Most of today's Mideast's problems flowed directly from the diplomatic lynching of Germany at Versailles led by France and Britain. Both of these imperial powers feared Germany's growing commercial and military power (just as the US today fears China's rise).
Germany's vibrant social democracy with its worker's rights and concern for the poor posed a threat to the capitalists of Britain and France. Britain's imperialists were deeply worried by the creation of a feeble little German Empire based in Africa. At the time they controlled a quarter of the globe and all of its oceans.
Clark's book shows precisely how Serbia's militarist-nationalist-religious cabal, known as the Black Hand, carefully planned and provoked the war by assassinating Austria-Hungary's heir to the throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife at Sarajevo, Bosnia, on 28 June, 1914.
The Serb ultra-nationalists objective was to annex Bosnia, Macedonia, Albanian Kosovo, and northern Albania to create a Greater Serbia. The Serbs sought to provoke war between Russia and the decrepit Austro-Hungarian Empire in order to drive Vienna's influence from the Balkans and allow the creation of Greater Serbia.
The first two Balkan Wars, 1912 and 1913, expanded Serbia but failed to give it control of the entire Balkans and the strategic Albanian ports of Durres and Vlore on the Adriatic. Serbia remained landlocked.
In the late 1980's, the Serb extremists, led by Slobodan Milosevic, who attempted ethnic cleansing of the Muslims of Bosnia and Kosovo, were carbon copies of the Black Hand with the very same racist-nationalist geopolitical goals.
Austria-Hungary's aggressive military chief, General Franz Conrad von Hotzendorf, rushed his ill-prepared army into war to punish Serbia. Russia mobilized to support old ally Serbia.
Germany, deeply fearing a two-front war made possible by the 1894 Franco-Russian Entente, had to mobilize before Russia's armies could overrun East Prussia. France, Russia's ally, mobilized, burning for revenge for its humiliating defeat in the 1870 Franco-Prussian War and loss of Alsace and Lorraine.
A total conflagration could still have been averted if Great Britain, which had been playing neutral, had boldly demanded the rush to war cease. France would have been unlikely to go to war without Britain's supporting its left flank in Flanders.
But Prof. Clark deftly portrays how a coterie of anti-German officials in Britain, led by the duplicitous foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey and the ambitious, war-yearning imperialist, Winston Churchill, pushed the British Empire to war against Germany. They were joined by a cabal of German-haters in the French government. British and French industrialists, fearful of German competition, and seeing huge profits to be made, backed the war party.
The British and French anti-German cliques played the same role as the pro-war American neoconservatives in the Bush administration, planting phony stories in the press and promoting pro-war allies into positions of power.
Clark also shows how almost 40 years of petty European rivalries, intrigues and power games -- all contained while separate -- finally ran disastrously together in 1914.
We see the same dangers today in the petty but growing conflict over Ukraine between the US and its European satraps and Russia. Every week seems to bring the US and Russia closer to a collision as the Washington seeks to dominate Ukraine and use it as a weapon against Russia. Once again, neocons in Washington, allied to Ukraine's hard right and neocons, are promoting the growing Russo-American conflict.
A conflict over a quasi-nation of absolutely no strategic interest to the United States. American neocons and their Congressional mouthpieces are now calling for NATO to take control of Moldova and Georgia. Conrad von Hotzendorf would have approved.
No one in the west is ready to die for Luhansk or Donetsk, but few in 1914 Europe were ready to die for Verdun or Ypres -- but millions did.
War Propaganda in World War I
Wilson's Committee on Public Information
(February 28, 2011) -- The absence of public unity was a primary concern when America entered the war on April 6, 1917. In Washington, unwavering public support was considered to be crucial to the entire wartime effort. On April 13, 1917, Wilson created the Committee on Public Information (CPI) to promote the war domestically while publicizing American war aims abroad.
Under the leadership of a muckraking journalist named George Creel, the CPI recruited heavily from business, media, academia, and the art world. The CPI blended advertising techniques with a sophisticated understanding of human psychology, and its efforts represent the first time that a modern government disseminated propaganda on such a large scale. It is fascinating that this phenomenon, often linked with totalitarian regimes, emerged in a democratic state.
Although George Creel was an outspoken critic of censorship at the hands of public servants, the CPI took immediate steps to limit damaging information. Invoking the threat of German propaganda, the CPI implemented "voluntary guidelines" for the news media and helped to pass the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918. The CPI did not have explicit enforcement power, but it nevertheless "enjoyed censorship power which was tantamount to direct legal force."
Like modern reporters who participate in Pentagon press pools, journalists grudgingly complied with the official guidelines in order to stay connected to the information loop. Radical newspapers, such as the socialist Appeal to Reason, were almost completely extinguished by wartime limitations on dissent. The CPI was not a censor in the strictest sense, but "it came as close to performing that function as any government agency in the US has ever done."
Censorship was only one element of the CPI's efforts. With all the sophistication of a modern advertising agency, the CPI examined the different ways that information flowed to the population and flooded these channels with pro-war material.
The CPI's domestic division was composed of 19 sub-divisions, and each focused on a particular type of propaganda. A comprehensive survey is beyond the scope of this paper, but the use of newspapers, academics, artists, and filmmakers will be discussed.
One of the most important elements of the CPI was the Division of News, which distributed more than 6,000 press releases and acted as the primary conduit for war-related information. According to Creel, on any given week, more than 20,000 newspaper columns were filled with material gleaned from CPI handouts.
Realizing that many Americans glided right past the front page and headed straight for the features section, the CPI also created the Division of Syndicated Features and recruited the help of leading novelists, short story writers, and essayists. These popular American writers presented the official line in an easily digestible form, and their work was said to have reached twelve million people every month.
The Division of Civic and Educational Cooperation relied heavily on scholars who churned out pamphlets with titles such as The German Whisper, German War Practices, and Conquest and Kultur. The academic rigor of many of these pieces was questionable, but more respectable thinkers, such as John Dewey and Walter Lippmann, also voiced their support for the war. Even in the face of this trend, however, a few scholars refused to fall in line.
Randolph Bourne had been one John Dewey's star students, and he felt betrayed by his mentor's collaboration with the war effort. In one of several eloquent wartime essays, Bourne savagely attacked his colleagues for self-consciously guiding the country into the conflict. "[T]he German intellectuals went to war to save their culture from barbarization," wrote Bourne. "And the French went to war to save their beautiful France!... Are not our intellectuals equally fatuous when they tell us that our war of all wars is stainless and thrillingly achieving for good?"
The CPI did not limit its promotional efforts to the written word. The Division of Pictorial Publicity "had at its disposal many of the most talented advertising illustrators and cartoonists of the time," and these artists worked closely with publicity experts in the Advertising Division. Newspapers and magazines eagerly donated advertising space, and it was almost impossible to pick up a periodical without encountering CPI material.
Powerful posters, painted in patriotic colors, were plastered on billboards across the country. Even from the cynical vantage point of the mid-1990s, there is something compelling about these images that leaps across the decades and stirs a deep yearning to buy liberty bonds or enlist in the navy.
Moving images were even more popular than still ones, and the Division of Films ensured that the war was promoted in the cinema. The film industry suffered from a sleazy reputation, and producers sought respectability by lending wholehearted support to the war effort.
Hollywood's mood was summed up in a 1917 editorial in The Motion Picture News, which proclaimed that "every individual at work in this industry wants to do his share" and promised that "through slides, film leaders and trailers, posters, and newspaper publicity, they will spread that propaganda so necessary to the immediate mobilization of the country's great resources."
Movies with titles like The Kaiser: The Beast of Berlin, Wolves of Kultur, and Pershing's Crusaders flooded American theaters. One picture, To Hell With The Kaiser, was so popular that Massachusetts riot police were summoned to deal with an angry mob that had been denied admission.
The preceding discussion merely hints at the breadth of CPI domestic propaganda activities. From lecture hall podiums and movie screens to the pages of popular fiction and the inside of payroll envelopes, the cause of the Allies was creatively publicized in almost every available communication channel. But this is only part of the story.
The propaganda techniques employed by the CPI are also fascinating, and, from the standpoint of democratic government, much more significant.
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