Wilson + (State + SecState) = CPI

Secretary of State Robert Lansing, 1915-1920 (Source: Library of Congress)

U.S. public diplomacy has a surprising history, as a series of conversations noted earlier. In conversations about the foreign activities of the Committee for Public Information, often left out was WHY the CPI was asked by the President to go abroad. Much ink (real and virtual) has been spilled on the causes for domestic action, such as the Four Minute Men. Much less so on the Foreign Section. The devil, as is the saying, is in the details. Here, the details include a deeply entrenched cultural resistance, a Secretary willfully working against his boss, highly filtered information flows and the managers of those filters.

The story of Mrs. Vira Whitehouse, referred to in the aforementioned blog post, is a useful case study to discuss some ‘surprises’ that break with conventional wisdom about the Creel Committee, the more common name for the Committee for Public Information. The story brings together the role of the State Department, the beginning of the United States Information Service, and even U.S. Government-sponsored exchanges.

What follows is adapted from a section of my (forthcoming) book that looks closely at 1917-1948 and the foundations of U.S. public diplomacy. I am sharing it here partly in response to the recent discussion, partly to frame an anniversary discussion on public diplomacy (more on that later), and to invite comments. Footnotes and citations have been removed; passages have been altered for brevity or removed (to be saved for the book).

The Committee for Public Information’s ‘Foreign Section’ was not a mirror image of CPI’s domestic operation. Much of the ‘common knowledge’ of CPI’s Foreign Section is drawn from Creel’s hagiography of his CPI years. However, the first comprehensive account of CPI was written in 1939, by James R. Mock and Cedric Larson. As the authors note, Creel did not have access to CPI records when he wrote his two books on CPI — Complete Report of the Chairman of the Committee on Public Information and How We Advertised America. Mock and Larson described these books as written with Creel’s “customary verve and loyal pride in the organization, but far from complete because of hasty and chaotic liquidation of the Washington office while Mr. Creel was at the Peace Conference [in Paris].”

Mock and Larson continued that as the first researchers to really dig through the archives, records that even Creel could not access, “the majority of the documents in this book [Mock and Larson’s 1939 Words that Won the War] have never been published before. A number of them will necessitate reinterpretation of certain statements in George Creel’s books and in the recollections set down in print by his associates.”

Just as it is important to understand what CPI really did (versus what Creel said it did and how people responded to his books), we must not ignore or discount the information environment at the time. Often — very often — ignored in discussions about CPI was the influence and impact of the global news cartel headed by Reuters of Great Britain, with France’s Havas and Germany’s Wolff, on global information flows, and thus on the conduct of international affairs and international business. The cartel ‘divided up the earth among themselves, and posted No Trespassing signs in their own countries’. Only heavily filtered, and often distorted, news and information about the United States, America’s foreign policies, domestic affairs, and culture was transmitted abroad. What Reuters, as the ‘gatekeeper’ to news about the U.S. entering the Cartel’s news stream, permitted to flow onward from the U.S. typically emphasized the ‘scandalous’ and the ‘lascivious’.

The AP’s General Manager, Melville Stone, and Colonel Robert McCormack, of the Chicago Tribune, shared the views of many other American publishers and editors when they declared that the Cartel system intentionally distorted the news in support of British and French national interests. These ‘interests’ were often not in sync with American interests. Censorship that resulted in highly selective and distorted portrayals of the United States, they charged, lead to serious and dangerous consequences. Newspaper publisher Valentine Stuart McClatchy was ‘certain that the relations of the United States and the countries of the Western Pacific were being poisoned because of foreign propaganda which was being distributed in the Western Pacific’. The AP’s Kent Cooper wrote that ‘Reuters decided what news was to be sent from America. It told the world about the Indians on the war path in the West, lynchings in the South and bizarre crimes in the North’.

CPI’s Foreign Section was the first U.S. bureaucracy purpose built to identify, engage, and develop foreign public opinion. While President Wilson was pushing CPI with breaking through the Reuters-led cartel and delivering news and information about the U.S. to local media, he was also pushing the U.S. media to expand abroad. President Wilson asked the UP’s chief to open Latin American markets while providing him a personal letter of introduction. The CPI pushed Mexican press sign up for the AP, suggesting the local media approach the local American Chamber of Commerce in Mexico City to keep the U.S. Government out of the transaction. For the work abroad, the CPI Foreign Section created the ‘United States Information Service’.

The Foreign Section also brought in U.S. private organizations wherever possible. Complimentary programs went to work when private endowments, such as the Carnegie Endowment for World Peace, were operating.

Creel described the two broad purposes of the foreign campaign in a memo dated January 31, 1918 — to “stiffen” morale in the allied countries by the “presentation of the immense power which America could exert against the German when our preparations are complete” — and to explain America and its ideals and counter German propaganda, including that the U.S. was not entering the war “for territorial or commercial gains.”⁠

Mock and Larson restated the Foreign Section’s goals in more familiar terms. First, ‘America could never be beaten; and therefore that it behooved them to join the winning side’. Second, that ‘America was a land of freedom and democracy; and therefore that it could be trusted’. And third, ‘thanks to President Wilson’s vision of a new world and his power of achieving it’, a new era of unarmed and peaceful nations would begin, ‘minorities would be released from oppression, and the sovereignty of every country would be returned to the people’. America was not just a land of freedom and democracy, it would bring freedom and democracy to the world.

Wilson’s efforts overseas are ironic considering what he did domestically. While  he was working to empower foreign media and publics with press freedom, he brought about the greatest reductions in freedom of speech and freedom of the media in the U.S. since Independence.

To answer the question ‘Why CPI?’ requires understanding the role of the Secretary of State and the culture of the State Department. Wilson had pushed State to engage foreign publics, but State refused.

The State Department held the view that diplomacy and international affairs were an activity that took place behind closed doors or in the shadows. The affairs of state had little to do with the public, let alone public opinion. Wilson’s attempt to change this failed because of both the State Department’s culture and an insubordinate Secretary.

Wilson’s relations with the foreign ministry were rocky. Wilson’s Secretary of State, Robert Lansing (pictured), was not regarded as effective or even suited for his position.

Colonel House, the President’s close advisor, had previously suggested that Wilson ‘get a man with not too many ideas of his own and one that will be entirely guided by you without unnecessary argument, and this, it seems to me, you would find in Lansing’. Further, House noted in his diary, Wilson is ‘practically his own Secretary of State and Lansing would not be troublesome by obtruding or injecting his own views’.

While Lansing was a respected authority in international law, he lacked imagination and his occasional deviousness quickly lost the confidence of President Wilson. By 1917, Wilson rarely consulted Lansing on matters of importance.

As one of Wilson’s biographers noted, Lansing was ‘the worst appointment Wilson ever made’:

‘At his best, he lived up to the president’s misgivings about his smallness of mind and character. At his worst, he belied House’s assurances about his docility and lack of ideas. Lansing frequently attempted to pursue his own aims in ways that were at once devious and maladroit. … Several times in his tenure⁠ he worked to undermine Wilson’s most cherished policies and usually acted deliberately, not by inadvertence. … but for sheer incompetence and consistent underhandedness in dealing with momentous events, Lansing still wins the prize.’

Wilson would finally fire Lansing in February 1920.

Lansing was petty and insecure from the start. Creel certainly did not help matters when he went to the Secretaries to sign the formal letter recommending the creation of CPI. Creel met first with the Secretary of War and the Secretary of the Navy before seeing Lansing. The first two signed the letter without comment but Lansing demanded the letter be retyped on State Department stationary so Lansing could be the first signatory. The other Secretaries ‘laughed heartily’ when told the story and asked to sign the revised letter⁠, which they did without objection.

One example of CPI’s work abroad is the tasking of Mrs. Vira Whitehouse to Switzerland. Whitehouse’s travails are instructive because of the American Legation’s reaction to Whitehouse, and interventions by the President and the Secretary.

The leadership of the American Legation in Switzerland included Minister Pleasant A. Stovall, First Secretary Hugh Wilson, and Second Secretary Allen Dulles. Stovall was a newspaper owner and editor of the Savannah Press. He was a political appointee who lacked diplomatic experience but was a childhood friend of the President. Hugh Wilson, a Yale graduate, was a respected career diplomat who served in Portugal, Guatemala, Argentina, Berlin, and Vienna before Bern. He was also a traditionalist, as one historian noted: ‘Inbred caution and concern for diplomatic detail and protocol sometimes limited his perspective.’ He was the Charge d’Affaires during Stovall’s frequent absences. Dulles was Lansing’s nephew and would, decades later, become head of the Central Intelligence Agency.

The Legation obstructed CPI at every chance and variously believed Whitehouse’s mission to be an intelligence operation or a ‘propaganda campaign’. The Vice Consul in Bern cabled Washington that he already had too many intelligence agents, who were, in his words, incompetent in remaining undercover and are ‘openly recognized and identified as “American Spies”’. ‘Any propaganda that we undertake,’ the Hugh Wilson, cabled Washington, ‘must be done in the quietest possible way and, above all, without previous press announcement.’ The Legation refused to accept Whitehouse’s methodology or purpose, which was to be public and above board. The CPI mission, which included sending journalists to the U.S., was simply too foreign to the Legation and State to be understood, let alone accepted.

Hugh Wilson refused to allow Vira Whitehouse to distribute CPI news items received in Bern (originally sent via wireless from New York to Paris and then over cable to Bern), to be distributed to the Swiss press. Denying Whitehouse the task, Wilson distributed the articles but would only send a few articles and then only sporadically. Both Whitehouse and Wilson complained to their respective leadership.

President Wilson was fed up with the Legation’s complaints and their allegations about the CPI. A cable was sent that the President supports the CPI efforts and that the Legation should immediately allow her to do her work: ‘[CPI agent Mrs. Whitehouse] goes with the full approval of the President who states that she will work in Switzerland in a perfectly open way.’ Hugh Wilson acting in Stovall’s absence, acceded to the instruction from Washington. However, Stovall, on returning from a vacation, rejected the agreement and refused to allow the Legation to support Whitehouse. Whitehouse expressed her frustration in a letter to Creel, ‘I came here to fight Germans, not American officials’.

With Minister Stovall now interfering the matter was escalated to Secretary Lansing. Despite the President’s recent cable making clear his support for Whitehouse and the CPI, Lansing went again to the President for a decision. And once again, the President made it clear that the new and separate agency maintain its role and that the Department must support it.

President Wilson recognized the importance of foreign public opinion in the support of U.S. foreign policy and objectives. The lack of other means, such as private media, meant the Government had to take on the responsibility. And yet, State’s resistance grew stronger as did their suspicions of CPI agents. As a result of the interference, CPI agents in the field often sought to bypass State’s cable network and interference to communicate with Washington, sometimes resorting to secret codes.

In the absence of any commercial U.S. news service, the CPI provided the only unfiltered link to the United States for many countries, with few exceptions at the local level due to the Reuters-cartel system. The local media, and their consumers, came to view the CPI products as the U.S. equivalent of Reuters and Havas, that, despite the CPI’s protests otherwise, were viewed as semi-official government agencies for their respective countries.

Then there was the struggle over what news to share. At the time, it is important to remember, few people travelled and information was scarce. The need to share the U.S and the mundane of American life was often at odds with those who felt any information should be overt or direct influence. There were stories on medicine and medical technology that CPI distributed. Stories on candy habits of U.S. soldiers, baseball scores, etc. Distributing stories of human interest – CPI had a category named Human Interest – helped, well, humanize Americans and create a link between publics.

In the end, State won. When the war ended, despite recommendations to keep CPI’s Foreign Section open, the operation was shutdown. However, the struggle to open up foreign media markets to American media would continue with support from the U.S. Government, including a some support from State.

Less than two decades later, State would again be asked by the President to engage and inform foreign publics, it would refuse, and once again the President would create a new organization as a work around. Congress gave State the authorities it needed in 1938 but FDR’s lack of patience with the ‘pregnant elephant‘ led to the establishment of the Office of the Coordinator for Inter-American Affairs outside of the State Department.

But that’s another story.