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Over Here: WWI and the Fight for the American Mind

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World War I. The Great War. The War to End All Wars. The conflict that enveloped the globe from July 28, 1914, to November 11, 1918, backlit an intense home-front struggle as Americans debated their individual and collective relationship to the conflict. Should the United States be involved in the war? If so, then to what extent and in what capacity?

The vigorous—and, at times, vicious—public debate over these questions was facilitated by an unprecedented array of media and performance outlets, including such recent inventions as recorded sound and motion pictures. Throughout the period, government at all levels, in addition to private organizations and individual citizens, used these communication tools in an increasingly sophisticated manner, all in an effort to win the hearts and minds of the nation. Truly, never before in the country’s history had Americans been so widely, and energetically, courted. And never in its history had the concept of Americanism—of what it means to be an American—been so hotly contested.

Drawing from collections across The New York Public Library, Over Here: WWI and the Fight for the American Mind explores the manner in which public relations, propaganda, and mass media in its many forms were used to shape and control public opinion about the war while also noting social and political issues that continue to resonate, such as freedom of speech and the press, xenophobia, and domestic espionage. 

Competing Voices

Life, Vol. 67, 1746 (April 13, 1916)

With the outbreak of war, the United States adopted a policy of strict neutrality, with President Woodrow Wilson declaring that the country should remain “neutral in fact, as well as in name.” Nevertheless, by 1915, tales of atrocities in Belgium along with the sinking of the British passenger liner Lusitania—which resulted in the deaths of 128 Americans—began to turn the tide of public opinion against Germany and her allies. 

As anti-German sentiment within the United States grew, many Americans began advocating strongly for military preparedness, in expectation that the country would eventually join the conflict. These hawkish, often nationalistic voices were, in turn, answered by those belonging to a diverse group of individuals, among them pacifists, suffragists, socialists, anarchists, religious figures, and German sympathizers, who believed that it was in America’s best interest to stay out of the war. 

From 1914 to 1916, as the push for American involvement in the war gained ground, citizens on all sides of the neutrality issue used every available means—print, sound, film, lectures, and performance—to publicize, and popularize, their positions in order to make themselves heard above this din of competing voices.

Invasion!

"Give Your Vacation to Your Country"

Led by former president Theodore Roosevelt and other prominent Americans, the preparedness movement reached its zenith in 1916. That year, thousands of young men voluntarily spent the summer receiving instruction in weaponry and tactics at privately funded military training camps, the largest of which was located in Plattsburgh, New York. At the same time, massive preparedness parades were held in cities throughout the country, including San Francisco and New York. With patriotic sentiment running at such a fever pitch, pro-neutrality forces began losing sway over public opinion. 

The frenzy surrounding military readiness was driven in part by the specter of German invasion of the United States. In numerous articles, books, and lectures, preparedness supporters argued that the country’s inadequate defenses had left it open to conquest. Perhaps the most influential work treating this perceived threat was the 1915 best seller Defenseless America, by Hudson Maxim, the inventor of smokeless gunpowder. Maxim’s book was adapted that same year into the motion picture The Battle Cry of Peace, in which both New York City and Washington, D.C., are laid waste by an invading German army. For Americans who still viewed the war as a remote affair having little relation to their daily lives, the sight of their cities being shelled and occupied, if only on film, proved a shocking, unsettling experience.

New Media: Recorded Sound and Motion Pictures

"Over There"

Recorded sound and motion pictures were used extensively during the war, as propagandists quickly seized upon these emerging mediums’ potential to reach large, diverse audiences. For its part, America’s music industry churned out a steady stream of war-related songs, many of which were penned by leading Tin Pan Alley composers, such as Irving Berlin and George M. Cohan. Featuring lyrics that were, by turns, sentimental, comic, heroic, or chauvinistic, recordings of these songs performed by popular artists of the day sold in the hundreds of thousands. 

The film industry also lent its weight to the war effort. Studios produced a succession of highly patriotic—and, at times, inflammatory—movies, which played to packed cinemas. Films such as The Kaiser, Beast of Berlin; The Prussian Cur; and My Four Years in Germany effectively fueled the public’s hatred of Germany while infusing audiences with patriotic fervor. At the same time, the U.S. government produced dozens of brief documentaries, the likes of which served not only to educate the public about the war effort but also, importantly, to inculcate a sense of shared purpose within the country.

Techniques of Propaganda

Must children die and mothers plead in vain? Buy more Liberty Bonds

Propaganda posters were used on a large scale for the first time during World War I. Visually arresting and direct in their language, posters provided an effective means of quickly communicating targeted information to large numbers of people. The United States government in particular excelled in the use of the medium, drawing upon the talents of established artists such as James Montgomery Flagg, Joseph Pennell, and Howard Chandler Christy. By the time of the armistice in November 1918, more than 20 million copies of some 2,500 distinct poster designs had been produced.

To achieve their goals, propagandists employed a variety of techniques—some obvious, some subtle—to shape public opinion. Among the more common tactics were:

  • Demonizing the enemy
  • Instilling guilt
  • Playing on emotions
  • Whipping up fear and hysteria
  • Appealing to patriotic obligation
  • Promising personal rewards or improvement

Committee on Public Information

The Committee on Public Information, or CPI, was established on April 14, 1917, just one week after America’s war declaration. As the official information bureau of the United States, the CPI’s charge was as complex as it was sweeping: to convince a sometimes wary American public to buy into, and fully participate in, the war effort. 

“Mobile anti-aircraft searchlights…”

The man charged by President Wilson with organizing and leading the CPI was George Creel, a onetime muckraking journalist and political campaign organizer. Creel went about his task with boundless energy, swiftly creating a vast, unprecedented propaganda apparatus that reached into and exerted an influence on nearly every aspect of American life. In the press—as well as through photographs, movies, public meetings, and rallies—the CPI saturated the nation with patriotic, anti-German messages. It also monopolized the dissemination of war-related information on the American home front, promoting a system of voluntary censorship in the country’s newspapers and magazines while simultaneously policing these same media outlets for seditious content. 

Shortly after the armistice in November 1918, the CPI was dissolved. However, the techniques it pioneered in the realm of mass persuasion are used to this day by governments, corporations, and public relations firms around the world.

100% American

Joan of Arc Saved France

On April 6, 1917, after two and a half years of neutrality, the United States declared war on Germany. Almost overnight, as Americans young and old threw their collective energy into the war effort, public debate about the country’s role in the conflict largely ceased. Bolstered by recently enacted anti-sedition laws, a spirit of expected—and, to an extent, enforced—patriotic loyalty suddenly pervaded the country. 

In this tense atmosphere, the government, private organizations, and individual citizens used the media and propaganda not only to drum up enthusiasm for the war but also to vilify those who, it was felt, were less than wholly committed to the cause. German-Americans, socialists, and pacifists, in particular, were singled out in this regard, as were perceived draft-dodgers, popularly referred to at the time as “slackers.” The suspicion and intolerance directed at these groups, as well as incidents of mob violence against them, was driven in part by their negative portrayal in the press and other media outlets.

The popular phrase of the day “100% Americanism” characterized the hyper-patriotic attitude of the period. In those words lay an overt, nativist implication that one was to meld facelessly and unquestioningly into the national whole. Suddenly, conformity was not only the watchword but also the safest course of action, as any hint of difference or dissent placed one at risk of being perceived as disloyal, if not outright seditious, by a watchful government and public.

Conclusion

The anxiety and discord that characterized the American home front during World War I continued beyond the cessation of hostilities on November 11, 1918. Fears of a Russian-styled communist revolution along with labor strikes, racial strife, and economic unrest contributed to a period of unease and, occasionally, violence. Continued debate over the country’s role in the world also reached a crescendo during this period: after a protracted deliberation, Congress finally voted against signing the Treaty of Versailles, thereby precluding the United States’ membership in the League of Nations, the forerunner to the United Nations.

As the 1920s began, however, wearied by years of social unrest, the nation returned to its prewar isolationist stance, and a period of relative peace and prosperity followed. Yet, the issues with which the country had grappled during the war years did not go away. Indeed, many of these concerns—immigration, domestic espionage, and freedom of speech and dissent, among others—continue to reverberate. And, perhaps now more than ever, in this era of the internet, Twitter, and the 24-hour news cycle, the role of the media and propaganda is more thoroughly and seamlessly woven into the fabric of American life.

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