Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Wilsonians, part II

Lady Liberty grasps a sword. In peace, she's often painted as America's girl next door, a doe-eyed waif wrapped in a too-big flag. But in war, she flexes her Amazon muscle and towers to titan size.

World War I produced some of the most dramatic and potent images in the history of American illustration. The Wilson Administration sought the cooperation of the nation's artists and advertisers, and by and large it got them to participate.

What crafted images will endure from the Iraq War? The creative voices of modern America seem to be solidly on the other side. Perhaps the most memorable propaganda production of this war will be Michael Moore's grim, pudgy face on his DVD covers. Neither for America nor for Iraq, but in the end only for himself.

To re-create the propaganda effort of 1917 probably is impossible today. Too much cynicism has flowed under the bridge. Propaganda, now in bad odor through association with the Nazis and the Soviets, was regarded as a positive thing in those days.

But if we are modern Wilsonians, we should learn from them. Surely more attention could be paid to the work of explaining our motives to the world, the Arab and Muslim world in particular. Surely, too, more could be done at home to connect this war with America's historical path.

World War I, like the Iraq War (to those of us who supported it) was a battle joined with lofty idealistic goals, but it was highly unpopular. The America that went to war against the Kaiser held a high percent of German-Americans, in the wake of the recent immigration wave. Cities like Cleveland were almost bilingual, with restaurants printing menus in both English and German. Milwaukee was 64 percent German in 1900, Hoboken 56 percent.

The socialist party also was at its peak of power and influence in America in those years. While the radical socialists opposed the war at once, the mainstream of the party, under the decent and honorable Eugene V. Debs, eventually joined them. Among other prominent opponents was Roger Baldwin, who would go on to lead the ACLU, which traces its roots to the American Union Against Militarism, formed by Baldwin and others in New York in 1914 to oppose American entry into World War I. Baldwin made his mark by founding a Bureau of Conscientious Objectors to oppose the draft.

Congressional opposition to Wilson's crusade was led by Henry Cabot Lodge. The president offered the grand vision of new world order and spreading democracy; the Congressional opposition held up nothing but stay-at-home spirit and narrow interest of a small class of wealthy and educated Americans.

Liberty and freedom. The public mind craves images, and coherent narratives in times of crisis. Now the government concedes that to the anti-war opposition, and the artisans of the arts in contemporary America cobble together fables of "Fahrenheit 9/11." It was not always so. The patriotic propaganda of the Great War connected the great causes, and the public spirit of sacrifice for their sake, with America's past ...

... and with its most present fashions ...

... and even with great "crusaders" of history ...

Who happens to look, in this case, very "Hollywood."

At the center of all this was the Committee on Public Information, which consisted of the secretaries of the armed services branches and George Creel, a progressive muckraker who had shone the light on child labor in 1914. "Creel combined the principles of Woodrow Wilson with the temperament of Teddy Roosevelt. Barely five feet seven inches tall, he boxed with professional prize fighters, married a prominent actress, played the lead role in a western movie, and vastly enjoyed the excitement of politics."

The four member "department" gives the wrong picture. The department was George Creel.

Creel hurled himself into the work with his prodigious energy. He hired Chicago promoter Donald Ryerson to organize a program of speakers to give four-minute speeches (many written by Creel himself) about American purposes in the war. Altogether seventy-five thousand "Four Minute Men" were carefully chosen (three letters of recommendation were required). They were trained by speech teachers and evaluated by a corps of inspectors. Creel, who had a passion for statistics, reported that they gave 755,190 speeches to 314,454,514 people in theaters, colleges, and clubs. There were Army FMMs on military bases and junior FMMs in schools. *

This war featured conscription, for the first time since the highly unpopular experiments with it in the Civil War. The question of "why we are fighting" thus touched many more people than it would with an all-volunteer army. The answer, from the FMMs, had to be clear and loud.

The war became a great crusade of American liberty, freedom, democracy, and civilization, against militarism, despotism, and barbarism. The American people were told they must join this great movement. Here was a new vision of America's role in world affairs, as the leader of a moral and spiritual movement to save other nations by converting them to liberty and freedom.

And that was just one of 18 divisions in Creel's department.

A Film Division produced movies in support of the war effort and generated a profit that supported other ventures. The Division of Civic and Educational Cooperation flooded the country with seventy-five million pamphlets. An Advertising Division distributed copy to newspapers. The Division of News issued a torrent of press releases. More than four thousand historians were recruited to check accuracy and to contribute their own work to the war effort. The Division of Syndicated Features distributed human-interest stories and opinion pieces about the war. Creel recruited the American artist Charles Dana Gibson to head the Division of Pictorial Publicity, which mass-produced an American iconography of liberty and freedom for the war effort.

Creel's work was not just for domestic consumption; it was aimed at world opinion. He made heavy use of radio -- or "wireless" as it then was called -- and managed to translate Wilson's speeches within hours of his delivering them, and broadcast them in languages around the world. Wilson's somewhat stilted and academic prose did not fit modern advertising techniques, and it was the committee's man in Russia who cabled Creel, asking for a statement of the president's war aims, "thousand words or less, short almost placard paragraphs," so "I can get it fed into Germany in great quantities in German translation, and can use Russian version potently in army and elsewhere."

Creel took this to the President, and pestered him till he submitted to the indignity of writing "slogans and advertising copy," and the result was the famous Fourteen Points.

Creel and his men took them and ran with them, shipped them into Germany, broadcast them from the Eiffel Tower, and "plastered them on billboards in every Allied and neutral country."

The posters and billborads, also reminded Americans, tirelessly, why they were fighting. Not just what they were fighting for -- Wilson's vision of a new, free world -- but what they were fighting against:

The rape of Belgium

An image from the sinking of the "Lusitania" in 1915. No need to explain the mother and child dead in the cold sea, or even name the ship anywhere on the poster. Every American in 1917 knew what this was.

A nightmare vision of the horror that might come. An air raid on America; New York in flames, the Statue of Liberty decapitated.

After a Zeppelin raid in London
"But mother had done nothing wrong, had she, daddy?"
Prevent this in New York

* [This thought is informed largely by my recent reading in David Hackett Fischer's "Liberty and Freedom." The chapters that cover World War I and the 1920s are among the most insightful in the book. The quotes, unless otherwise indicated, are from that source.]