“In the era before electronic mass media, it would take face-to-face sales pitches (and lots of ‘em) to fully drive the pro-war message home.”
THE FIRST WORLD WAR WAS WELL INTO ITS THIRD YEAR on April 6, 1917 when the U.S. Congress finally voted to enter the conflict.
But even before the first doughboy marched off to fight, Washington found itself embroiled in an even more crucial battle: The campaign for public opinion.
Songs like I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Soldier sat atop the hit parade and even President Woodrow Wilson, who famously characterized the United States as “too proud to fight,” was reelected in 1916 on a neutrality platform. “Wilson kept us out of war!” was his party’s campaign slogan.
But with Uncle Sam now committed to the greatest struggle in a generation, America’s commander-in-chief desperately needed to win over a wary electorate.
Within a week of announcing hostilities, the president tapped noted journalist George Creel to mount an unprecedented media blitz aimed at marketing the war to ordinary citizens.
The 41-year-old Missouri newspaperman was named head of the newly formed Committee of Public Information (CPI), a vast government propaganda bureau staffed with spin-doctors, copywriters and Madison Avenue advertising executives, many of whom would later go on to establish the burgeoning field of public relations.
For the next year-and-a-half, the Creel Commission (as it was known unofficially) generated an inexhaustible stream of newspaper and magazine articles, posters and newsreels — all torqued (sometimes quite shamelessly) to frame the war as an epic crusade to free the world from tyranny. The office even printed its own 32-page daily, which it distributed to every newsroom in the country. Meanwhile, the CPI’s film arm bombarded the nation’s movie houses with no fewer than three full-length features.
Yet even that wasn’t enough.
In the era before electronic mass media, Creel and his associates recognized that it would also take face-to-face sales pitches (and lots of ‘em) to fully drive the pro-war message home.
So in 1917, the CPI enlisted a veritable army of what became known as Four-Minute Men to deliver rousing patriotic speeches to audiences nationwide.
A play on the famed Revolutionary War-era citizen militia of New England known as Minutemen, members of the new all-volunteer society fanned out across the country to stump for the war effort.
Creel was adamant that the speeches not exceed four minutes – which he guessed was the attention span of the average American.
Speakers were typically middle-aged males that were too old to fight, but who had experience working crowds. Lawyers, preachers and small-town politicians made ideal candidates.
The mini-lectures, which could fairly be described as crude, jingoistic 1917 equivalents of today’s TedTalks, were delivered at county fairs, in church basements and on factory floors from coast to coast.
Orators could write their own speeches, but the themes had to be cleared in advanced by CPI officials. Suitable topics included appeals to buy more war bonds, increase wartime production, support rationing, or even to enlist. Others simply reaffirmed the need to defeat the Kaiser.
In its 18-month lifespan, the campaign attracted more than 75,000 speakers who delivered an estimated 7 million addresses in 5,000 cities. In all, the Four-Minute Men reached a total of 11 million Americans.
Famous members included Lambert Estes Gwinn, a 33-year-old schoolteacher and barrister from Covington Tennessee as well as Benjamin Newhall Johnson, 60, a lawyer and historian from Lynn, Massachusetts. Otto J. Zahn, a Prussian-born San Francisco entrepreneur, was known to deliver his 240-second fire and brimstone sermons between reels at his local movie theatre.
CPI officials even offered speakers tips on how to perfect their craft. A May 22, 1917 Creel Commission bulletin printed by the George Mason University website historymatters.gmu.edu offered the following suggestions:
- The speech must not be longer than four minutes, which means there is no time for a single wasted word.
- Divide your speech carefully into certain divisions, say 15 seconds for final appeal; 45 seconds to describe [the topic]; 15 seconds for opening words, etc., etc.
- Get your friends to criticize you pitilessly. We all want to do our best and naturally like to be praised, but… let them know that you want ruthless criticism.
- Don’t yield to the inspiration of the moment… to depart from your speech outline. This does not mean that you may not add a word or two, but remember that one can speak only 130, or 140, or 150 words a minute. If your speech has been carefully prepared to fill four minutes, you cannot add anything without taking away something of serious importance.
- Cut out [phrases like] “doing your bit”, “business as usual,” and “your country needs you”. They are flat and no longer have any force or meaning.
- If you come across a new [idea for a speech] don’t fail to send it to the Committee. We need your help to make the Four-Minute Men the mightiest force for arousing patriotism in the United States.
By the late summer of 1918, with victory in Europe in sight, both the Creel Commission and the Four-Minute Men were no longer required. Both were disbanded and soon faded into history.
A TRANSCRIPT OF A FOUR-MINUTE MAN’S APPEAL TO BUY WAR BONDS.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I have just received the information that there is a German spy among us— a German spy watching us.
He is around, here somewhere, reporting upon you and me—sending reports about us to Berlin and telling the Germans just what we are doing with the Liberty Loan.
From every section of the country these spies have been getting reports over to Potsdam—not general reports but details—where the loan is going well and where its success seems weak, and what people are saying in each community.
For the German government is worried about our great loan. Those Junkers fear its effect upon the German morale. They’re raising a loan this month, too.
If the American people lend their billions now, one and all with a hip-hip-hurrah, it means that America is united and strong. While, if we lend our money half-heartedly, America seems weak and autocracy remains strong.
Money means everything now; it means a quicker victory and therefore less bloodshed. We are in the war, and now Americans can have but one opinion, only one wish in the Liberty Loan.
Well, I hope these spies are getting their messages straight, letting Potsdam know that America is hurling back to the autocrats these answers:
For treachery here, attempted treachery in Mexico, treachery everywhere—one billion.
For murder of American women and children—one billion more.
For broken faith and promise to murder more Americans—billions and billions more.
And then we will add:
In the world fight for Liberty, our share—billions and billions and billions and endless billions.
Do not let the German spy hear and report that you are a slacker.