Propaganda and Civil Liberties During the War Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

On the evening of April 6, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson, in delivering his war message to Congress, said that the United States was to embark upon a crusade to “make the world safe for democracy.” Unfortunately for socialists, pacifists, German Americans, and the leadership of the Industrial Workers of the World (popularly known as the Wobblies), who opposed this intervention, the president said nothing about the protection of democracy at home. U.S. participation in World War I gave rise to an alarming attack upon civil liberties, as Congress enacted laws to curtail constitutionally guaranteed freedoms of speech and press. For the first time, the government embarked on a concerted propaganda campaign to “sell” a war to its citizens. As a result, hysteria swept the country. The responsibility for these occurrences rests with Wilson, with George Creel, with Congress, and with thousands of superpatriotic citizens who saw a monumental foreign menace rather than its meager substance.

Government and public action in wartime curtails civil liberties to ensure national security.

On the evening of April 6, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson, in delivering his war message to Congress, said that the United States was to embark upon a crusade to “make the world safe for democracy.” Unfortunately for socialists, pacifists, German Americans, and the leadership of the Industrial Workers of the World (popularly known as the Wobblies), who opposed this intervention, the president said nothing about the protection of democracy at home. U.S. participation in World War I gave rise to an alarming attack upon civil liberties, as Congress enacted laws to curtail constitutionally guaranteed freedoms of speech and press. For the first time, the government embarked on a concerted propaganda campaign to “sell” a war to its citizens. As a result, hysteria swept the country. The responsibility for these occurrences rests with Wilson, with George Creel, with Congress, and with thousands of superpatriotic citizens who saw a monumental foreign menace rather than its meager substance.

Challenges to the Government

Two problems faced the government. First, citizens had to be mobilized behind a war that did not involve a direct attack on the United States and that had been entered into slowly and unwillingly. Second, internal security needed to be guaranteed against enemies, real and imagined. On April 13, 1917, Wilson established the Committee on Public Information (CPI), under the leadership of Creel, whose name soon became synonymous with the office. The committee was established to convince wavering citizens that the war was a righteous one and to educate them about the government’s war aims. Similar offices of war information had been created in Great Britain, Germany, and France.

Propaganda came of age during World War I. Its purposes were multifaceted: to mobilize hatred of the enemy; to preserve friendship among allies; to maintain the friendship of neutrals and, if possible, to gain their cooperation; to demoralize the enemy; to promote the economical use of commodities; to stimulate war production; to encourage the purchase of war bonds; and to alert citizens to the danger of spies and saboteurs. The mobilization of the civilian mind for total war was seen as more important than the preservation of human rights.

British-born film star Charles Chaplin (center) was one of many celebrities who appealed to the patriotism of Americans by publicly calling on them to purchase war bonds during World War I. (National Archives)

George Creel was an excellent choice for chairman of the CPI. A veteran Progressive from Denver and one of Wilson’s earliest supporters, Creel had built a reputation as a crusading journalist. Because of his reform record, Creel’s appointment was cheered by the press, which had feared repressive censorship. Instead, Creel called for voluntary censorship and usually received cooperation. The committee relied on securing publication of a torrent of government-sponsored reports and stories.

During the course of the war, Creel hired 150,000 artists, writers, lecturers, actors, and scholars to sell the war to the public. Colorful posters urged citizens to join the Army or Navy, buy Liberty Bonds, knit socks for soldiers, and guard against the ever-present danger of spies and saboteurs. Writers turned out hundreds of “true” stories concerning German atrocities and “accounts” of what the Hun planned to do to the United States. Columbia University professor Charles Hazen wrote The Government of Germany, a booklet “exposing” the medievalism of a military-dominated Germany. Teams of speakers toured the country delivering anti-German talks. Anti-German motion pictures included Pershing’s Crusaders, The Prussian Cur, and The Kaiser, the Beast of Berlin. The public was encouraged to see the Central Powers as constituting a clear and present danger to civilization.

Censorship

Although the Creel Committee became synonymous in the public mind with censorship, it had no such power. That authority was vested in the Post Office Department and the Department of Justice. Public confusion was understandable. On June 15, 1917, the Espionage Act was passed, after considerable debate and many amendments. This act gave the government authority to limit the rights of speech and the press. Somehow, the public had become convinced that the act conferred enforcement powers upon the CPI, a misconception that Creel never attempted to dispel. This illusion of power was effective in securing public cooperation.

Title I, section 3, of the Espionage Act made it a crime to make false reports that would aid the enemy, incite rebellion in the armed forces, or obstruct recruitment or the draft. In practice, this section was used to stifle criticism. Those prosecuted included socialists Victor Berger and Eugene V. Debs, and “Big Bill” Haywood, one of the leaders of the Industrial Workers of the World. Socialist and pacifist newspapers were denied use of the mails under Title XII. The editors of The Messenger, a New York African American newspaper, were imprisoned for questioning the war. Ricardo Flores Magon, a Mexican American labor organizer, was sentenced to twenty years in prison for his dissent. In October, 1917, another law required foreign-language newspapers to submit translations of all war-related material before distribution to local readers.

The most enduring propaganda image of World War I is James Montgomery Flagg’s “I Want You” Army recruiting poster with a compelling picture of Uncle Sam pointing his finger at prospective recruits. (U.S. Army)

The Espionage Act was bolstered in May, 1918, by the Sedition Act, which provided penalties of up to ten thousand dollars and twenty years’ imprisonment for the willful writing, utterance, or publication of material abusing the government, showing contempt for the Constitution, for inciting others to resist the government, for supporting the enemy, or for hindering production of war matériel. Under this law, it was unnecessary to prove that the language in question had affected anyone or had produced injurious consequences. The postmaster general was empowered to deny use of the mails to anyone who, in his opinion, used them to violate the act. A total of 2,168 people were prosecuted under the Espionage and Sedition Acts.

Restrictions on Dissent

The limitations placed on dissent by Congress and the Departments of Justice and the Post Office, together with the Creel Committee’s encouragement of pro-Allied sentiment, might have been expected to produce a climate of loyalty in the United States without help from unofficial sources. However, there also appeared a number of superpatriotic volunteer organizations dedicated to spreading propaganda and discovering alleged traitors, saboteurs, and slackers. The most influential of these groups were the National Security League and the National Protective Association. The Boy Spies of America, the Sedition Slammers, and the Terrible Threateners had more picturesque names but were less powerful. These volunteer groups carried patriotism to excess and often were responsible for human rights violations, which the government made no real attempt to discourage. As a result, coercion became the order of the day, and the government never regained control of the explosive situation.

The brunt of government and vigilante activity was borne by the country’s largest minority: German Americans. Although German Americans never were interned in camps, their plight during World War I paralleled that of Japanese Americans in World War II: Both were suspected as traitors. Attempts were made to eradicate anything German from American life. Schools and colleges banned the teaching of German, as a “language that disseminates the ideals of autocracy, brutality, and hatred.” South Dakota prohibited the use of German on the telephone.

Fewer than one hundred of the twelve hundred U.S. German-language periodicals survived to 1920. Thousands of Pennsylvania German parents, seventh- and eighth-generation Americans, forbade their children to learn German. Several cities, including Boston, banned the music of Ludwig von Beethoven, Richard Wagner, and other German composers. Pretzels were removed from saloon lunch counters in Cincinnati. German sausages, sauerkraut, German shepherd dogs, German measles, and pinochle were all renamed, as were many American towns with names such as Berlin, Frankfurt, and Bismarck. Many people hastened to “Americanize” their German surnames, for example, by changing “Schmidt” to “Smith.”

The superpatriotic volunteers, encouraged by the Creel Committee’s propaganda, produced a wave of hysteria that targeted innocent citizens. IWW organizer Frank Little was tortured and lynched in Montana. In April, 1918, a mob in East St. Louis humiliated and hanged a young German American, Robert Prager. Ringleaders were eventually acquitted on the grounds that the murder was patriotic. In Los Angeles, three pacifist clergymen were beaten by a mob and then jailed for expressing “thoughts calculated to cause any American citizen then and there present to assault and batter them.”

Once unleashed, antiforeign biases could not be controlled when the war ended. These sentiments eventually backfired on Wilson: His dream of a League of Nations would be rejected by the U.S. public, and one of his own books was banned in Nebraska. Somewhere during the fight to make the world safe for democracy, the United States almost lost its most democratic ideals: tolerance and compassion. When new challenges arose, they were often met with newer, more repressive laws and public hysteria, exemplified in the Red Scare, the race riots of 1919–1920, and other postwar disturbances.

Categories: History Content