Sometimes the commonly accepted fact is not a fact

Picture of the book Words that Won the War by Mock and Larson

This post first appeared at on 12 January 2022. It appears here with some edits for clarity. Be sure to check there for comments on the article and subscribe to my substack for timely follow-ups and new posts through the substack app, through email, and to participate in chats. It’s free!

Have you ever read a statement of fact by a historian and wondered, “huh, that’s interesting”? Hopefully, you have and will continue to do so often. History is great. However, I get frustrated when I see historians or writers reciting history who roll with the accepted or received facts and fail to dig deeper. Narratives around the Smith-Mundt Act’s origin, and to a lesser degree its evolution, are packed with many unfounded facts contradicted by the historical record, for example. Some are minor, but some are significant. I’ve discussed some of these elsewhere, and eventually, a comprehensive discussion will be available with significant details (and receipts). 

However, that’s not the reason for this note. No, what triggered me to write this are passages, or rather recitations, by a historian that I recently for my work on the Freedom Academy. To be fair to the historian, whom I’m not naming, they shared accepted facts found in nearly every reference to the Committee on Public Information. Some of these facts I’ve shown to be incorrect by further research, most of these I have not shared publicly in detail. One example is Stephan Vaughn, in his Holding Fast the Inner Lines, explaining that a statement given by Major Douglas MacArthur triggered Arthur Bullard, who then developed the idea that became CPI. However, the words MacArthur uttered in July 1916 that Bullard witnessed were written in November 1915, before Captain MacArthur was promoted and reassigned from the expedition against Pancho Villa to Washington. Vaughn, to his credit, is the only historian I can find who dug deeper to provide more depth than the typical and shallow statement on CPI’s origin story: “President Wilson created CPI.” Yes, he signed the executive order, but it was an idea brought to him by members of his cabinet (and no, the Secretary of State wasn’t part of the original idea). 

No, the fact that triggered me just now has to do with the shutting down of CPI. Last year, a friend asked me to review a draft with a phrase that I flagged: “Congress had not allowed [CPI’s] survival into peacetime…” I knew this was inaccurate, but I asked their source if I had missed something. We discussed a recently published book on CPI, which ignored the creation of CPI, and did not provide citations for the shuttering of CPI. 

In the paper I just read, I saw a similar statement. Mind you, this paper was written earlier this century and wasn’t, as I just pointed out, out of the ordinary. It was quite an ordinary statement, an accepted fact, as it were. The author cited George Creel’s self-promoting book of 1920, How We Advertised America. To take Creel’s book without a grain of salt is a mistake, as Mock and Larson explain in their 1939 book about CPI, Words That Won the War. I’ll return to that.

Here is Creel’s statement from How We Advertised America: “On June 30, 1919, every dollar of our appropriation, every dollar of our earnings, was swept back into the Treasury, and the Committee itself wiped out of existence, leaving no one with authority to sign a check, transfer a bank balance, employ a clerk, rent a building, or with any power whatsoever to proceed with the business of settlement.” (p427)

That sounds bad, right? Creel also wrote the Complete Report of the Chairman of the Committee on Public Information, which, unlike How We Advertised America, was a government report. Though published in 1920, the Complete Report was completed by June 1, 1919, based on the dated memo opening the report. Mock and Larson noted in their 1939 book the “principal sources” about CPI were both written by George Creel – the book and the report – “with his customary verve and loyal pride in the organization, but far from complete because of [the] hasty and chaotic liquidation of the Washington office while Mr. Creel was at the Peace Conference” (p ix). The “hasty and chaotic” reference only partially applies to the report, and you’ll see why in a moment.

These two statements seem to support the argument that Congress was out for retribution, right? One might write something like, “When the war ended, Congress withdrew all funds and closed down the CPI so abruptly that nobody even remained who could complete an orderly liquidation of it or even put files in boxes” and point to Creel’s statement on page 427 of How We Advertised America. This was the line that caused me to write this.

Let’s look at this a bit more. Creel acknowledged the “demobilization order” for the operation came in February 1919 (p383). The war had ended in November 1918, and Creel had traveled to Paris for the peace conference, which began in January 1919. Creel noted that when he returned from Europe in March 1919, the shuttering of CPI was in full swing: 

…the associate chairman left in charge, had carried out the demobilization orders successfully, and that each of the domestic divisions had either ended its audit or else was completing it. The work of settlement in the Washington office was proceeding slowly, owing to the resignations of purely clerical employees, but as this was a matter that concerned the business management only, I gave release to all executives upon the turning in of their accounts. I discharged myself on April 1st, but as a private citizen continued to assume full responsibility for the settlement, journeying to Washington week after week at my own expense, directing the liquidation personally. 

Let me restate this for clarity’s sake. A wartime agency established by executive order was ordered to be shut down three months after the end of hostilities (18 November 1918) and a month after the start of the Paris Peace Conference (18 January 1919). By April 1, Creel deemed the operation sufficiently wound down, with managers and staff gone because of a lack of future employment, that Creel – the operation’s chief – let himself go. However, Creel continued to do the work of closing up shop at his own expense and time, including writing the Complete Report of the Chairman of the Committee on Public Information. Let’s set aside that working pro bono for the government like this cannot be done today, but the work was not done clearly. (I forget the name of the law, but consider the instances when a budget isn’t passed and the government is “shut down” with only “essential” employees permitted to work). Put a pin in this.

What is special about June 30? That was the end of the fiscal year at the time. In the pages after p427 of How We Advertised America, where Creel wrote Congress “wiped the Committee out of existence,” Creel wrote how Wilson sought to have other federal departments, including the Treasury, take on the costly responsibility of completing the shutting down of CPI, including organizing its papers. No other agency wanted to spend a portion of its budget to take on this work, which is not surprising. And, President Wilson was unwilling to make any department or agency take on the expense, not even the War and Navy Departments, the only real committee members.

Let’s remember – because those citing Creel don’t – the nation incurred a large debt due to the war, and Congress, naturally, sought to address the executive branch’s expenditures. However, the implication by Creel, and thus everyone else who cites him and doesn’t read or contextualize what he wrote after his complaint or consider the moment, is Congress had it out for CPI. Creel had from February to ensure everything was in order by the end of the fiscal year, June 30. For whatever reason, likely his managerial incompetence and inability to plan if you read how CPI was run, he utterly failed in his responsibility to properly wind down operations. Instead, he blamed Congress for failing to secure the records, despite having several months (February through the end of June) to accomplish the task. Yes, he hemorrhaged staff, he even fired himself. Be this was not for a lack of resources. “All through May and June we pleaded with Congress” as “the business office personnel dwindled daily as men and women accepted permanent positions elsewhere” (p428). The rumor he heard that Congress was “planning to ‘put the Committee out of business’ entirely on June 30” (p428) may have been true, but let’s be serious. The committee was out of business in February, and the deadline of the end of the fiscal year is normal if you have ever worked in government. 

Paying attention to the chronology leaves me no sympathy for this complaint of his: 

The Paris and New York offices were not to be closed until June 15th; there were many foreign commissioners yet to report; and in various banks reposed large balances waiting for audit and acceptance. Nor was it the case that the Committee begged with empty hands. We had already turned more than two million dollars into the Treasury, and yet we still had sufficient funds on hand to settle every bill and meet every liquidation expense. What we asked, in effect, was the right to use a small portion of our own earnings for proper purposes of settlement. At the last moment Congress refused flatly, and on June 30th the Committee on Public Information ceased to be. (p428)

The fiscal year ended, George. Anyone who has worked in government can tell you stories about the effect of Congress failing, inadvertently or intentionally, to continue an authorization or appropriation for this or that program. It was not different in 1919.

Knowing the budget situation after the war, and July 1, 1919, started the first post-war fiscal year, there is nothing here or offered by anyone that the committee was actually singled out by Congress. There may have been, and likely was, antagonism toward the committee from Congress. The reality is Members did not have to lift a finger to get what they wanted, assuming they spent any time deliberating the fate of CPI at the time. CPI’s funds came from wartime appropriations and the war was over. We know this from documents, with Creel’s signature (as if we can’t assume he knew where his money came from). Even if we – or rather I, so let’s say “other historians…” – don’t have it in black and white where the money came from, we can extrapolate the source from how the operation was established and by Creel’s own laments.

There was no Congressional legislation to authorize or appropriate money for the committee. It was established by executive order. Congress could not repeal any specific authority or appropriation that they did not create, and there was clearly no effort to specifically target CPI to prevent it from doing anything more in the next fiscal year. As noted, Congress didn’t have to do anything and CPI was going to disappear. What Creel was asked for, if he even did so, was for Congress to pass legislation authorizing the activity and pass legislation funding the activity. This makes Creel’s statement that Congress “refused flatly” for the committee to use its “own earnings” to continue to shut down patently absurd.

Creel noted Wilson unsuccessfully tried to get another department to pick up the tab to finish the work Creel didn’t complete. Instead of blaming himself for failing to manage the closure of CPI well, and instead of blaming his benefactor, Wilson, for failing to have another agency take on the responsibility, Creel claimed Congress’s alleged sudden shut down of CPI led to the chaotic archiving resulted in the loss of the committee’s records. Historians, from Mock and Larson on to the present, accepted the narrative.  

Mock and Larson noted the result of the failure to properly close up shop and archive the committee’s materials:

From June 30, 1919, until the files were placed in the custody of the Archives, they shrank to less than a quarter of their former bulk partly because of the ministrations of the “Useless Papers Committee” and partly for unexplained reasons. (p viii)

At this point, you’re probably asking, “So what?” Well, the framing by Creel that an angry Congress gunned for CPI is very often used as “evidence” of a deep-seated opposition to information programs like CPI’s in narratives about the US government’s “propaganda” activities later, including the Freedom Academy proposal of the 1950s-1960s, and through to the present. I’m not arguing that opposition didn’t – and doesn’t – exist, just that this accepted fact isn’t the evidence it’s held out to be.

The picture of the Mock and Larson book, Words that Won the War, for this article is of my copy. Inside the cover is written (naturally in cursive, so maybe my kids won’t be able to read it): Property of Alice E van Diest, 1730 No Cascade, Colorado Springs, Colorado, June, 1940. The van Diest family was quite prominent, with the stately family home still standing at 1730 N. Cascade. Born in 1892, Ms van Diest passed away in 1968, and eventually, her book landed in my collection. 

Picture of the book Words that Won the War by Mock and Larson