Convincing the Skeptics: A Brief History

by Mickey Z.

Dissident Voice

October 26, 2002



As I write this on a day of worldwide protest (October 26, 2002), the US government and the corporations that own it are poised for another exercise in international criminality. This time it's a major escalation of the ongoing assault on Iraq. With much of the world lined up against such action, the first weapon of choice will be propaganda.


Many of the wartime propaganda tactics utilized today were honed and refined during World War I. In what has been called "perhaps the most effective job of large-scale war propaganda which the world has ever witnessed," the Committee on Public Information, run by veteran newspaperman George Creel, used all available forms of media to promote the noble purpose behind WWI, i.e. to make the world safe for democracy. The Creel Committee (as it came to be known) was the first government agency for outright propaganda in US history; it published 75 million books and pamphlets, had 250 paid employees, and mobilized 75,000 volunteer speakers known as "four minute men," who delivered their pro-war messages in churches, theaters, and other places of civic gatherings. The idea, of course, was to give war a positive spin. For the entire nineteen months America took part in the first war to end all wars, the government prohibited publication of any photographs showing dead US soldiers.


Before any of those invisible Americans could actually get dead, the nation had to be convinced that doing their part in a campaign of organized mass butchery was a good idea. "It is not merely an army that we must train and shape for war," President Woodrow Wilson declared at the time, "it is an entire nation."


The age of manipulated public opinion had begun in earnest.


The preparedness campaign to mobilize American public opinion in favor of joining the First World War was loudly supported by the likes of Teddy Roosevelt, along with US Steel and the Rockefellers, all in the name of familiarizing Americans with "the overseas threat." Although Wilson won reelection in 1916 on a promise of peace, it wasn't long before he severed diplomatic relations with Germany and proposed arming US merchant ships-even without congressional authority. Upon declaring war on Germany in December 1917, the president proclaimed, "conformity will be the only virtue and any man who refuses to conform will have to pay the penalty."


At the ready to dish out any such penalties were groups like the American Protective League, a nationwide association of 100,000 who, during the war, conducted 40,000 "citizen arrests" of anyone they deemed a subversive. Academia did its part by firing teachers who dared to question the war effort. College professors were dismissed for merely suggesting that both good and bad German people exist, as in any other group


Nicholas Murray Butler was president of Columbia University during the Great War. "I say this with all possible emphasis," he declared, "that there is no place in Columbia University for any person who acts, speaks, or writes treason. This is the last warning to any among us who are not with whole heart, mind, and strength committed to fight with us to make the world safe for democracy."


In time, the masses got the message and reached a fever pitch of so-called patriotism:


* Fourteen states passed laws forbidding the teaching of the German language.


* Iowa and South Dakota outlawed the use of German in public or on the telephone.


* From coast to coast, German-language books were ceremonially burned.


* The Philadelphia Symphony and the New York Metropolitan Opera Company excluded Beethoven, Wagner, and other German composers from their programs.


* German shepherds were renamed Alsatians.


* Sauerkraut became known as "liberty cabbage."


* Even Irish-American newspapers were banned from the mails because Ireland opposed  England-one of America's allies-as a matter of principle.


In June 1917, the Espionage Act was passed. It read in part: "Whoever, when the United States is at war, shall willfully cause or attempt to cause insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of duty in the military or naval forces of the United States, shall be punished by a fine of not more than $10,000 or imprisonment of not more than 20 years, or both." This act cast a wide net and civil liberties were trampled. In Vermont, for example, a minister was sentenced to 15 years in prison for writing a pamphlet, distributed to five persons, in which he claimed that supporting the war was wrong for a Christian.


Perhaps the best-known target of the act was noted Socialist Eugene V. Debs who, after visiting three fellow Socialists in a prison in June 1918, spoke out across the street from the jail for two hours. He was arrested and found guilty, but, before sentencing, Debs famously told the judge: "Your honor, years ago, I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free."


Eugene Debs remained in prison until 1921. Roughly nine hundred others also did time thanks to the Espionage Act, which is still on the books today.


The twentieth century has been called the century of genocide, but it has also been a century of propaganda (partially to justify all those murders and recast them in a more favorable light). From World War I right into the new century, little has changed in the way foreign interventions are aggressively sold to a wary public except the technology by which the lies are disseminated. Writing more than one hundred years ago, anarchist Emma Goldman describes the national mood at the beginning of the Spanish-American War:


"America had declared war with Spain. The news was not unexpected. For several months preceding, press and pulpit were filled with the call to arms in defense of the victims of Spanish atrocities in Cuba. I was profoundly in sympathy with the Cubans and Philippine rebels who were striving to throw off the Spanish yoke...But I had no faith whatever in the patriotic protestations of America as a disinterested and noble agency to help the Cubans. It did not require much political wisdom to see that America's concern was a matter of sugar and had nothing to do with humanitarian feelings. Of course there were plenty of credulous people, not only in the country at large, but even in the liberal ranks, who believed in America's claim."


Next stop: Baghdad.


Mickey Z. is a historian and lecturer based in New York. He is the author of the upcoming book, The Murdering of My Years: Artists and Activists Making Ends Meet (Soft Skull Press), and Saving Private Power: The Hidden History of “The Good War” (Soft Skull Press, 2000). Email: