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What is the Committee on Public Information?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Committee on Public Information (CPI) was a government agency established in the United States during World War I with the aim of supporting the war effort. It was created by executive order shortly after the United States entered the war in 1917 and was shuttered in 1919 with the cessation of hostilities. Thanks to extensive government archives, materials produced and used by the agency are readily available and provide insight into the way the US government promoted the war to the American people.

President Woodrow Wilson appointed a journalist, George Creel, to head the CPI. Key officials from the military were also important members. One aspect of the committee's work was censorship of potentially damaging material, and the committee maintained a stranglehold on the kind of material from the war that could be released to the public.

The other arm of the Committee on Public Information's work involved generating propaganda materials. Creel ran the committee much like an advertising agency and provided a blitz of media materials, like magazine and newspaper articles, posters, still photographs, film reels, and radio broadcasts to reach the citizens of the United States. The agency provided speech makers for public events and numerous other resources for communities across the United States.

While the committee was ostensibly established for the purpose of providing members of the public with information about the war effort, it was in effect a propaganda agency. It used a number of techniques to dehumanize the enemy and to promote anti-German sentiment in the United States with the goal of encouraging people to support the war. Atrocities committed by the other side were reported in detail and sometimes with unreliable facts, while questions about the activity of American forces and their allies were suppressed.

Despite the efforts of the CPI during the war, there was anti-war sentiment in the United States. Some people resisted the draft and others spoke in opposition to the war. This sentiment was suppressed by the agency, and it also publicly lampooned people who spoke against war and encouraged citizens to do the same. People who refused to take up arms were shamed with a variety of techniques, including the distribution of white feathers to young men who appeared to be able and of draft age to shame them for perceived cowardice.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a America Explained researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By fify — On Oct 19, 2011

@burcidi-- I think the Committee had various different arguments as to why we need to enter the war. I'm not surprised about the arguments that Germany was dangerous and barbaric and that the US needs to defend democracy against them. As far as I know, there was also an an argument that Germany would invade the US and that we needed to enter the war and attack them first.

I think this argument was what convinced most Americans about the war. My grandfather said that they were sincerely worried about a German invasion.

I actually understand why Wilson had to form this Committee and do so much propaganda. Hadn't Widrow Wilson promised that we would not enter the War during his presidential elections? I'm sure many people voted for him for this reason. But circumstances forced us to enter the War and if Wilson didn't convince Americans about it, he would have been seen as a liar.

By burcidi — On Oct 18, 2011

I personally think that CPI is a great propaganda success. I don't think that US had too many reasons to enter WWI, aside from pressure from Great Britain to support them and the fact that Germany had without warning sank several US ships.

With little to no reason to enter the war, Woodrow Wilson needed an amazing propaganda scheme to get Americans on board. CPI did that beautifully and got the US into the War with support from the majority of Americans. Germany, which was generally seen as a potentially dangerous country by Americans suddenly became the evil enemy that wanted to destroy the US and our democracy.

I can't help but admire George Creel who managed to pull this off.

By serenesurface — On Oct 18, 2011

Wow! I knew that all governments engage in some kind of propaganda to gain support for wars, but some of the activities of the Committee of Public Information seem to be too much.

Even today in the U.S., any negative information about our troops or losses in war are held back from the public to prevent any public protests against the war. It's also quite normal to present the enemy as "evil" and to exaggerate their losses to encourage American troops.

But I don't think it was nice for the Committee to publicly ridicule people who did not agree with the war. We are, after all, a democracy and we have the right to support or not support the policies of the government. There is no need to present Americans who don't agree with certain government policies as cowards, and chicken.

I think this actually shows how desperate the US government was at the time for public approval of our entrance into WWI.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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