John Maxwell Hamilton. Manipulating the Masses: Woodrow Wilson and the Birth of American Propaganda. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2020. 656 pp. Ill. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8071-7077-9.
Reviewed by Evan C. Rothera (University of Arkansas - Fort Smith)
Published on Jhistory (June, 2022)
Commissioned by Robert A. Rabe
Propaganda, John Maxwell Hamilton asserts, has become “a quotidian feature of American government” (p. 2), although at one time “American government propaganda was truly new and unfamiliar” (p. 3). Manipulating the Masses explores “the profound and enduring threat to American democracy that rose out of the Great War—the establishment of pervasive, systematic propaganda as an instrument of the state” (p. 4). Hamilton, currently Hopkins P. Breazeale LSU Foundation Professor of Journalism in the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University and a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC, offers a well-researched, deftly written, and frequently hair-raising account of the Committee on Public Information (CPI). Hamilton discusses the CPI’s successes, but, on the whole, this book tends to emphasize the CPI’s blunders and failures—many of them due to the bulldog personality of George Creel, the CPI’s chairman—and how the CPI very often subverted the ideals it espoused.
The book contains three parts. Part 1, “Origins,” begins by exploring British propaganda. Hamilton discusses “the skill with which British propagandists made inroads with American opinion leaders and the contrasting blundering by German propagandists” (p. 18). Indeed, Germans often appeared maladroit and “as a sign of how badly beaten they were in propaganda, the Germans’ image became simultaneously one of ruthless Teutonic efficiency and hapless bungling of the sort found in comic book characters” (p. 34). The British, he observes, “had the cunning of jujitsu fighters who employ their opponent’s energy against them” (p. 41). Hamilton then analyzes Woodrow Wilson’s campaign during the election of 1916. Wilson’s managers adopted strategies like “preparing educational pamphlets, providing compelling news matter to the independent press, and selling an image of the candidate that would motivate a voter to pull the right lever on election day” (p. 48). Wilson’s campaign became “a training ground for those who would carry out the American war propaganda that followed his election” (p. 48). Part 1 ends with the formation of the CPI. Remarkably little planning went into the creation of the CPI. “Progressives’ preoccupation with public opinion,” Hamilton concludes, “pointed to the utility of propaganda. This explains why a large number of individuals, many of them muckrakers, flooded the administration with proposals for censorship and publicity” (p. 98).
Part 2, “Operations,” is the heart of the book. It contains eleven chapters and examines the CPI’s operations—the good, the bad, and the absolutely terrifying. The story of the CPI, Hamilton correctly asserts, cannot “be understood without always keeping an image of its volcanic architect in mind” (p. 103). Creel “spoiled for fights when keeping quiet better served him” (p. 105), “was liable to get in trouble any time he sat down at his typewriter” (p. 105), and quickly acquired a “scissor-wielding image” (237). In addition, Creel got himself into real trouble when giving a speech in New York City on May 12, 1918. In response to question about whether current members of Congress had loyal hearts, Creel answered, flippantly, “I don’t like slumming, so I won’t explore into the hearts of Congress” (p. 323). Creel did not bear sole responsibility for the results of the 1918 midterm election but he did play a considerable part in helping Republicans retake both houses of Congress. By the end of the war, Creel’s name had become “a synonym for fake news” (p. 357).
Creel’s personality and the innumerable problems it caused aside, many people remained unsure what to think about the CPI because it was a “giant leap beyond any previous program of government information” (p. 122). Furthermore, Creel enlisted an impressive number of people to help the CPI, including educators, artists, filmmakers, advertising executives, labor and immigrant leaders, and speakers. The enthusiasm among some of these groups was tremendous. The Four Minute Men, volunteers who delivered four-minute speeches throughout the nation on topics selected by the CPI, saw themselves as “rekindled Revolutionary War Minutemen—citizen volunteers organizing themselves to meet a national emergency” (p. 136). Tens of thousands of Four-Minute Men delivered hundreds of thousands of speeches in total. Incredibly, more than 75 percent of the Four Minute Men in Los Angeles County were Republicans. Thus, the CPI scored a major triumph in the sense that they got Republican leaders to promote Wilson’s policies. However, all that said, “high-minded instructions that purported to enlighten the public were contradicted by guidance that emphasized manipulation” (p. 143).
This refrain—that the CPI’s instructions and goals were often contradicted by manipulation or undermined by other things the committee did—appears very often throughout Manipulating the Masses. As one example, after the war Creel denounced the “savage intolerances” of superpatriotic groups like the American Protective League (APL) and the American Defense Society (ADS). However, as Hamilton notes, the CPI cooperated with these groups and, moreover, the CPI “distorted information, played on the public’s fears, and fomented hate” (p. 184), tactics that the APL and ADS also employed. The CPI frequently operated more like a political campaign machine working to promote a specific candidate. CPI bureaus relentlessly appealed to emotions, and “dark appeals of fear and hatred crept into CPI propaganda” (p. 190). The CPI leaned heavily on emotions in its efforts to secure the loyalty of immigrants and labor. Incidentally, Hamilton remarks, “the impulse that led CPI staff to lean on emotions also led it to operate in a way progressives found loathsome in trusts” (p. 212). Wilson was particularly concerned about keeping organized labor’s support behind the war. Creel cultivated a relationship with Samuel Gompers, who was extremely happy to work with Creel and gain access, via the CPI, to “Wilson’s war chest” (p. 230). Critically, Hamilton finds in the CPI’s operations the origins of the third-party technique and argues that their efforts became “a prototype for the CIA’s covert use of labor organizations to promote American foreign policy during the Cold War” (pp. 234–235).
The CPI’s work in other countries, both friendly and neutral nations, “established a new approach to foreign affairs” (p. 264). Indeed, the CPI “moved beyond the concept of hard power based on economic leverage and military might. It thought in terms of the soft power derived from shaping public attitudes and opinions that promoted American foreign policy interests” (p. 264). Creel made many blunders, but “the concept of public diplomacy was one of the CPI’s most significant accomplishments” (p. 264), as was the committee’s implementation of Wilson’s New Diplomacy. Of course, these accomplishments cannot obscure the CPI’s undemocratic practices. Creel, in Hamilton’s eyes “is the father of public diplomacy in all its aspects” (p. 296). Hamilton also contends that Creel mismanaged field propaganda. The greatest CPI blunder—which, given the scale of some of its other blunders, is saying something—came about when Creel persuaded Wilson “to let him release what became known as the ‘Sisson documents’” (p. 358). These documents, White Russian fakes, portrayed Lenin and his comrades as German agents. Ultimately, the CPI “helped hammer irrational fears of Bolshevik subversion into the minds of the public” (p. 385) and Creel “recklessly ignored warnings the documents were false” (p. 390).
The final chapter in part 2 discusses the demobilization of the CPI. The overall sentiment, especially among the CPI’s opponents but also among large portions of the general public, tended to be relief. Some people felt that “the need for publicity had not ended” (p. 417) and wanted to see the CPI’s operations continue. Hamilton argues that the CPI might have “compensated for its undemocratic failings” (p. 418) by helping Wilson publicize the need for the United States to ratify the Treaty of Versailles and join the League of Nations. However, it is worth noting two of Hamilton’s other observations. First, that the CPI “had so alienated the press and so aroused partisan wrath that its continuation was impractical” (p. 418). Second, “had the CPI been more restrained, it would not have been so useful to Republicans in the 1918 election and might have carried on under reduced circumstances. Instead, it hardened partisan behaviors in Wilson that worked against him in time of peace” (p. 428). Both of these observations call into question the idea that the CPI could have helped Wilson make his case to the people and secure the ratification of the Treaty of Versailles.
Part 3, “Legacies,” concludes with two chapters. Hamilton scrutinizes Wilson’s missteps as he “strove to create the new world order promised in his Fourteen Points. He did not adjust to the reality that he could no longer count on patriotism to carry through his objectives” (p. 424). Furthermore, CPI images “of Hun brutality and CPI stories of German-Bolshevik conspiracies worked against the fair treaty that Wilson had promised” (p. 429). Critical to remember here as well, as Hamilton himself notes, is that Wilson famously refused to bend, negotiate, or address the reservations of men like Elihu Root, Charles Evans Hughes, or Henry Cabot Lodge. Ultimately, Wilson paid a heavy price for his self-destructive, dogmatic rigidity.
When the CPI was “was fact-based and open, it vivified American democracy” (p. 458). However, this was often not the case. Hamilton argues that the CPI was “out of sync with democratic values” (p. 458) and frequently subverted democracy. Moreover, “given its power over the thoughts of citizens and the lack of legal authority for its work, the CPI marked a significant step toward the imperial presidency that emerged afterward” (p. 460). Hamilton sees in the CPI the origins of what he calls the Information State. Moreover, as he explains, “the origins of government propaganda reveal the susceptibility of well-intentioned people to subvert the democratic principles in which they believe deeply” (p. 476). Hence, this account of the Committee on Public Information has wide resonance today, at a critical moment for the United States. In offering us this history, Hamilton hopes to provide a roadmap about the uses of propaganda during the Great War, patterns that developed, and the legacies of the CPI and its frequently antidemocratic practices. This is a deeply researched and well-written book, although the information Hamilton presents, not to mention the implications of that information, is frequently alarming and terrifying. Manipulating the Masses deserves a wide readership.
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Evan C. Rothera. Review of Hamilton, John Maxwell, Manipulating the Masses: Woodrow Wilson and the Birth of American Propaganda.
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