The US Press Office on Actions by US Naval Destroyers Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Committee on Public Information, also known as the CPI or the Creel Committee, was created on April 14, 1917, by executive order. George Creel, a journalist who had been heavily involved in the campaign for President Woodrow Wilson’s reelection in 1916, headed the ostensibly independent agency. The task of the committee was first to persuade Americans to support the decision to go to war and then to support the aims of the war as it progressed. The CPI, though an independent committee, also scripted official communications through the US government press bureau, and George Creel issued press releases such as this one, which employed a sensationalist tone to describe submarine attacks on US destroyers protecting troop transports on their way to fight in France. The accuracy of this report was questioned, as it differed markedly in tone from the official communications issued by other governments, and its assertion that submarines had been sunk by destroyers on the voyage was not substantiated by the officers of these ships. Subsequent press releases adopted a more subdued tone, but the CPI continued to influence American opinion of the war until it was disbanded on August 21, 1919.

Summary Overview

The Committee on Public Information, also known as the CPI or the Creel Committee, was created on April 14, 1917, by executive order. George Creel, a journalist who had been heavily involved in the campaign for President Woodrow Wilson’s reelection in 1916, headed the ostensibly independent agency. The task of the committee was first to persuade Americans to support the decision to go to war and then to support the aims of the war as it progressed. The CPI, though an independent committee, also scripted official communications through the US government press bureau, and George Creel issued press releases such as this one, which employed a sensationalist tone to describe submarine attacks on US destroyers protecting troop transports on their way to fight in France. The accuracy of this report was questioned, as it differed markedly in tone from the official communications issued by other governments, and its assertion that submarines had been sunk by destroyers on the voyage was not substantiated by the officers of these ships. Subsequent press releases adopted a more subdued tone, but the CPI continued to influence American opinion of the war until it was disbanded on August 21, 1919.

Defining Moment

The United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, and began a large-scale mobilization. In May, when the millions of troops expected to enlist had not materialized, the government instituted a draft to fill the ranks. Both the declaration of war and the draft were potentially problematic for the government from a public relations standpoint. American neutrality was a long-established and dearly held principle, and the fact that the draft had caused riots and bloodshed during the Civil War was still a living memory for some. The Committee on Public Information was established shortly after the declaration of war to galvanize public opinion in support of the government’s aims. One of the key factors figuring in Congress’s decision to declare war was Germany’s use of unrestricted submarine warfare, so when large-scale troop transport convoys headed to France in June, Creel took the opportunity to feed reports to the press of attacks by German submarines.

By June 1917, fourteen thousand US soldiers had been transported to France as the first part of the American Expeditionary Force. Within the year, this number rose to more than one million; by the end of the war on November 11, 1918, more than two million US troops had served in Western Europe. Though the building of American ships increased dramatically in the first years of the war, troop transport vessels were in short supply in 1917, and the Army seized German ships in American ports, pressed private vessels into service, commandeered cruise ships, and borrowed ships belonging to other Allied countries. In addition to being in short supply, these vessels were large, slow, and vulnerable to attack by German submarines. Because of this, they were organized into convoys, or groups of ships, protected by Navy destroyers. These ships were relatively fast and maneuverable and, by 1917, had been modified to deal with submarines both defensively and offensively. Naval destroyers sat relatively high in the water, so submarines were unable to target them without being very close to the surface themselves. Destroyers were also armored and could destroy a submarine by ramming it at the surface. They were also armed with depth charges and sound technology that could detect submarine activity underwater. Still, the fact that no ships were lost or damaged in the transport to France in June 1917 was notable, and Creel saw this as an opportunity to promote the skill and strength of US Navy destroyers. In fact, officers aboard these destroyers later were unable to verify the sinking of a single German submarine, and some skeptical newspapers reported that there were no submarines even seen during the voyage, but that the rumors of submarine activity arose from a false alarm aboard a troop transport. The response to this statement made it clear to Creel that the press was not going to be as malleable as he had expected and that the tone of official press releases needed to be changed to convey authority and gravity. Skeptical journalists continued to question official reports, even as newspapers were heavily censored during the war.

Creel focused his attention on other forms of media after this incident. Though press releases and official government communications were still overseen by the Committee on Public Information, the agency also used posters, public lectures, and films to broadcast its message in support of the war.

Author Biography

George Creel was born on December 1, 1876, in Missouri. He was hired as a cub reporter for the Kansas City World newspaper in 1896. He spent some time in New York City writing jokes for the comic supplement of the New York American, and then returned to Kansas City, where he and a friend founded the Kansas City Independent newspaper in 1899. In 1909, Creel moved to Colorado to work for the Denver Post. He also wrote for William Randolph Hearst’s Cosmopolitan and the Rocky Mountain News. He served briefly as Denver’s police commissioner, after which he returned to New York to work as a journalist. Creel worked on Wilson’s 1916 reelection campaign, writing articles and press releases and using his contacts in the newspaper world to disseminate positive information about the president. As part of this effort, he published Wilson and the Issues (1916), a campaign tract promoting the president’s policies and reforms. In March 1917, with war looming, Creel approached Wilson with an idea to replace wartime censorship with liberal, positive propaganda, which would more effectively support the government’s position. Wilson agreed, and appointed him chairman of the Committee of Public Information on April 14, just days after the declaration of war. The CPI was disbanded in November 1919, and Creel returned to writing for Collier’s, among other periodicals. He died on October 2, 1953, in San Francisco, California.

Document Analysis

Because of the primacy of submarine warfare in the official reasons for the declaration of war, it was important to Creel and the government to demonstrate both the danger posed by submarines and the ability of the US military to defeat them. Creel begins his press release by stating that this has been achieved. Submarines had attacked the troop transports “in force” and had been “outfought” by American destroyers protecting the troops. Still, the exact nature of the engagement is cloudy, with Creel employing qualifiers such as “there is reason to believe,” “reports claim,” and “at least one.” Creel claims that one submarine was “certainly” sunk, while others were likely destroyed.

Creel sets the stage for the first attack, giving a precise date and time, “10.30 p.m. on June 22nd,” but then employs sensational language to describe the encounter. Though Creel cannot give an exact count, “it was clear that the U-boats had gathered for what they deemed would be a slaughter.” Creel states that an unknown number of torpedoes were fired by the U-boats, but a minimum of five were counted. The details on the second attack were even more vague: “A few days later,” Creel cited wreckage in the water after a periscope was fired on as evidence that that there was certainly the “sinking of at least one submarine,” and then, perhaps less certainly, that “reports claim that the boat was sunk.” No identification is made of the submarine that was supposed to have been sunk, and the evidence given seems light. Still, the goal of this piece was to relate the good news to the American people that the troops had reached France in safety, and this goal was certainly accomplished. The United States could “rejoice” that “so great a peril was passed” on their way to fight in France. The safe arrival of all troop ships was widely confirmed, but to Creel it was simply more advantageous to the message to have them reach the theater of war having already skirmished with the enemy and won.

Essential Themes

The primary theme in this press release is the use of the sort of sensational language and unconfirmed reports most widely associated with propaganda in official government information. Creel seems to have overstepped his mark in his efforts to disseminate positive, popular information, and the factual errors that later surfaced in this report called into question the credibility of the US press office. Creel would find much success throughout the war using posters, movies, and other dramatic media to galvanize support for the war effort, however, and the CPI continued to print updates daily for the use of the press and dissemination to the American people.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Creel, George. How We Advertised America: The First Telling of the Amazing Story of the Committee on Public Information That Carried the Gospel of Americanism to Every Corner of the Globe. New York: Harper, 1920. Print.
  • _________. Wilson and the Issues. New York: Century, 1916. Internet Archive: Library of Congress, n.d. Web. 31 Jan. 2014.
  • Fleming, Thomas. The Illusion of Victory: America in World War I. New York: Basic, 2003. Print.
  • Mock, James Robert. Words That Won the War: The Story of the Committee on Public Information, 1917–1919. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1939. Print.
  • Vaughn, Stephen L. Holding Fast the Inner Lines. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2011. Print.
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