"It has been rightly said that the injection of the poison of hatred into men's minds by means of falsehood is a greater evil in war-time than the actual loss of life. The defilement of the human soul is worse than the destruction of the human body." —Arthur Ponsonby, Falsehood in Wartime (London 1928), p. 10.
When I was a teenager I read the article reproduced below in a book that my father bought. In it I learned about the rabid state of mind that the American public had fallen into during the First World War. At first I doubted whether the things described in the article were really true. It did not seem to resemble the America I grew up in. Then it occured to me that my grandparents were teenagers during that time, and so I asked my grandmother about it. She said, yes, this is how it was. She remembered the bonfire of German books in our town, and how nervous her mother became during the war. She was the daughter of a German immigrant, and spoke German.
This made a deep impression upon me, because it made me see how intense and unreasonable the hatred toward the Germans was during the war, and how it affected people in my own town and in my own family. But this irrational hatred and fear of anything German was deliberately fostered by propaganda agencies of the American and British governments. And I believe this partly explains why 'our boys' were willing to kill German civilians with air attacks during the Second World War. The entire population of Germany had been demonized by years of hate propaganda.
There is, however, one thing in the article that some historians have questioned for good reasons. The purported words of Woodrow Wilson in the first sentence, in which he agonizes over the likelihood that a "spirit of ruthless brutality will enter into the very fibre of our national life," were probably never spoken by him. It seems likely that they were fabricated by a Wilson admirer (Frank Cobb, editor of the New York World) who, after the evils of wartime fanaticism became manifest, wanted to make Wilson seem less responsible for it than he really was. See Thomas Fleming's discussion of this in his book, The Illusion of Victory: America in World War I (Basic Books, 2003).
From This Fabulous Century: Sixty Years of American Life, vol. 2, 1910-1920 (New York: Time-Life Books, 1969), pp. 235-38.
Before delivering his request for a declaration of war to Congress President Wilson had predicted: "Once lead this people into war, and they'll forget there was ever such a thing as tolerance; to fight you must be brutal and ruthless, and the spirit of ruthless brutality will enter into the very fibre of our national life, infecting Congress, the courts, the policeman, the man in the street."
The President was right. Once the excitement of marching in parades and cheering at bond rallies was overshadowed by the serious business of being in a shooting war, the mood of the nation underwent a violent, even vicious change. Dissent died away to a whisper and orthodoxy of expression and action was enforced. To question the nobility of the war effort was tantamount to treason.
This almost unanimous commitment to war amounted to an abrupt about-face for much of the nation. During the three years since Europe had erupted in total war, Americans had been far from total agreement as to what stand the country should take. Many people in the North-east had favored all aid to the Allies short of intervention, while people farther west, where the physical distance from Europe was greater and the number of recent immigrants smaller, remained isolationists. A few militants, fired up by the likes of belligerent Teddy Roosevelt, had clamored for military "preparedness." But equal numbers of pacifists had agreed heartily with the isolationist stand of the New York World: "If Europe insists on committing suicide, Europe must furnish the corpse for Europe's funeral." One of the most popular songs of 1915 was "I Didn't Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier."
As the war grew fiercer in Europe, however, more and more Americans found themselves in sympathy with the Allies. This feeling developed into real outrage against the Germans when numbers of German spies were discovered sabotaging American industry and manipulating American opinion. On July 24, 1915, a U.S. Secret Service agent had managed to snatch a briefcase from Dr. Heinrich Albert, the No. 1 German agent in the United States. The contents of the brief case, amplified by other evidence, revealed that Albert had received $28 million from the German government to finance a wide variety of disruptive acts. For example, German agents had placed a time bomb aboard a steamship carrying sugar from New York to France, had started fires and had created "accidents" in several U.S. munitions plants working for the Allies. Spies had also attempted to stir up strikes at the Bethlehem Steel Company. In order to woo the United States to the German side, Albert's men had arranged to produce pro-German films and had even bought a New York daily, The Mail, and filled it with propaganda.
When the United States actually entered the war, all German agents not arrested in the Albert roundup fled across the Mexican border. Nonetheless, overly zealous Americans continued to see spies—nearly all of them hallucinatory—in every country town, on every factory assembly line, luking around every public reservoir. The government, fearing that saboteurs would bomb railroad bridges, stationed a soldier at either end of every major bridge; passengers on the rear platforms of trains were ushered into the club car whenever the train passed over a bridge, so that no one could toss out a bomb.
Wherever a whisper was planted, a full-grown rumor sprang up a moment later. One story had it that President Wilson's secretary, Joseph Tumulty, had been imprisoned as a German spy and shot. Tumulty himself had to proclaim publicly that he was innocent and very much alive. The rumors flew. Enemy agents on the Atlantic coast were flashing instructions to German U-boats. Horses waiting to be shipped to France had been infected with bacteria. Mexican bandits were being prompted to invade the United States. A headline in the New York Times shrieked: "Red Cross Bandages Poisoned by Spies." The federal government, far from calming the spy mania, nursed it along. A special propaganda agency, the Committee on Public Information, was set up by the President under a newspaperman named George Creel. Creel enlisted 75,000 "Four-Minute Men" to deliver brief patriotic speeches to crowds at movie houses and legitimate theaters all over the country. Artsits like Charles Dana Gibson, creator of the elegant Gibson girl, and writers of the stature of Booth Tarkington were commissioned to create posters like the one on page 234, along with cartoons, advertisements and syndicated features urging citizens to "'Stamp' Out the Kaiser" and ferret out spies.
The spy scare soon led to suspicion of anyone who seemed to retain some tie to a foreign country. Treason charges by the carload were hurled against the nation's more recent immigrants, particularly those who had come from countries governed by the Central Powers. German-Americans, Hungarian-Americans, Austrian-Americans, Jewish-Americans—all these national or religious groups were condemned under the new label, "hyphenated Americans," meaning Americans of divided loyalty.
Naturally, the German-Americans suffered the most bitter attacks. In 1917 more than two million Americans were of actual German birth, and millions more were of German descent. Before the war, German-Americans had been regarded as ideal citizens, and many American racists had theorized about the innate superiority of the "Teutons." But now that the popular imagination summoned up the picture of treasonous German-Americans, critics like psychologist G. Stanley Hall, previously an admirer of everything Teutonic, anounced that "there was something fundamentally wrong with the Teutonic soul."
Again, Washington abetted the hatemongers. Employers were asked to check into the national origins of workers and to guarantee their loyalty. As a result of these drumhead investigations, many Americans with German names were fired from their jobs. In some workshops men with foreign accents were forced to crawl across the floor and kiss the American flag. Others were accused of seditious satements and publicly flogged or tarred and feathered. At some war bond rallies, German-Americans were forced to parade as objects of ridicule. An angry mob in Omaha tried in vain to lynch a German-American youngster; a mob in southern Illinois succeeded.
Symphony conductors avoided works by Mozart and Beethoven. Dr. Karl Muck, the German conductor of the Boston Symphony, was fired and interned as a dangerous alien. States like Delaware, Iowa and Montana outlawed the teaching of courses in the German language and culture, and librarians across the country removed books by German authors from their shelves. Publishers of text-books for schools tried to discredit rival firms by arguing that competitors were German sympathizers. One history book was attacked for simply publishing a picture of the Kaiser, another for showing Frederick the Great.
Hollywood got into the act by releasing a series of hate films: To Hell with the Kaiser, Wolves of Kultur and the most famous, The Kaiser, The Beast of Berlin. So provocative was The Beast of Berlin that patriotic societies in Omaha advertised it with signs on streetcars and a hanged effigy of "the Beast" himself. A typical hate movie showed mad German scientists training houseflies to carry germs into the United States on millions of tiny feet. One publicist of the day characterized the German in American movies as "the hideous Hun, a fiendish torturer and sadist who thought no more of raping a ten-year-old girl than of sweeping a priceless piece of Sevres from the table to make room for his feet in the French chateau invariably commandeered as his headquarters."
Finally, in a burst of anti-German fervor, Americans changed the name of German measles to "liberty" measles, hamburger to "liberty steak," sauerkraut to "liberty cabbage," dachshunds to "liberty pups." In Cincinnati, pretzels were banned from lunch counters.
Teddy Roosevelt was behind a movement to convert all "hyphenated Americans" into "100 per cent Americans." He insisted that everyone subscribe to "the simple and loyal motto, AMERICA FOR AMERICANS," and roundly condemned "those who spiritually remain foreigners in whole or in part." To become "100 per cent American" it was not enough for a hyphenated American to support the government and obey the laws of his adopted land; he had to abandon all traces of the customs, beliefs and language he had brought with him from the Old Country. Bowing to such coercion, thousands renounced their heritage, joined patriotic clubs and attended public meetings where long, fervent loyalty addresses were delivered.
Henry Ford instituted among his foreign-born employees a compulsory English-language school where the first thing his students learned to say was "I am a good American." Later they participated in a pageant in which, dressed in national costume, they marched into a huge melting pot from which another line of men emerged wearing identical suits and waving little American flags.
Before long this insistence on conformity was applied to everyone and almost everything. Congress passed war-time laws against espionage and sedition that established heavy penalties for criticizing the government, the Constitution, the flag, the uniforms of the Army and Navy, any Allied nation, or for obstructing the sale of United States War Bonds. Under these laws an offender could be fined up to $10,000 and/or receive 20 years in prison for advocating a reduced production of war necessities or for saying anything "disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive" about any aspect of the government or the war effort. A supplementary court decision forbade historians to disagree in any way with the official explanation of the causes of World War I, which held that Germany had been entirely at fault.
So zealously prosecuted were these laws, which clearly violated the spirit of the First Amendment, that about 6,000 people were arrested and 1,500 sentenced, many for simply criticizing the Red Cross or the YMCA. The producer of a film entitled The Spirit of '76 served three years in prison for showing British soldiers killing American women and children during the American Revolution ...
The monumental efforts of the government and of private citizens stifled dissent in the United States to a degree that would have seemed impossible before the war. The Post Office forbade mailing privileges to all periodicals that did not completely echo the government's policies. The rest of the press accepted "voluntary" self-censorship of war news and criticism of the war. Every native American faced very heavy penalties for dissent, and every foreigner risked deportation. The chairman of the Iowa Council of Defense spoke for millions of his fellow citizens when he announced, "We are going to love every foreigner who really becomes an American, and all others we are going to ship back home."
Despite all this frantic witch-hunting, probably only a handful of those convicted were actually spies. As one federal judge declared a year after the war was over, "I assert as my best judgment that more than 90 percent of the reported pro-German plots never existed." His opinion was seconded by John Lord O'Brian, a high official in the Department of Justice, who asserted that "no other one cause contributed so much to the oppression of innocent men" as the nation's wartime hysteria over what was supposedly "an all-pervasive system of German espionage."
I give now some paragraphs from Pillip Knightley's book, The First Casualty (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975), pp. 122-24, 276.
Even when war had been declared, the American people showed a marked reluctance to take up arms. Enlistments were so poor—in the first six weeks only 73,000 men volunteered—that it became necessary for the government to raise a conscript army. To inspire the nation to fight, a new, home-grown propaganda campaign was needed in order to whip up what President Wilson's private secretary, Joseph Tumulty, called 'the people's righteous wrath.' To this end, President Wilson set up, on April 14, a Committee on Public Information, under the chairmanship of a journalist, George Creel, which was financed to the extent of $5 million from a $100 million fund granted to the President for the general defence of the country. Its aims were helped by Lord Northcliffe, owner of The Times and the Daily Mail and a member of the Advisory Committee of the Department of Information, who headed a mission to America and established the British Bureau of Information in New York. This mission took over Parker's work (he had resigned, on grounds of ill health, in February 1917, as soon as it was clear that America was going to enter the war), and at its strongest had 500 officials with 10,000 assistants working in the United States. [H.C. Peterson, Propaganda for War (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1939), p. 231.]
Hatred of the Germans was now whipped up to fever pitch. All the propaganda stories that had worked best in Europe were revived: Germany's sole responsibility, the rape of Belgium, the outraging of nuns, the unmentionable atrocities, the criminal Kaiser. New stories were created; one, a book called Christine, by Alice Cholmoneley, a collection of letters purporting to have been written by a music student in Germany to her mother in Britain until her death in Stuttgart on August 8, 1914, mingled a damning catalogue of German character faults with emotional gush about music and filial feeling. The book had a wide circulation, and the Germans rated it as perhaps the best individual piece of propaganda during the war. [H.D. Lasswell, Propaganda Technique in the World War (London: Kegan Paul, 1927), p. 95.]
The Creel committee sponsored 75,000 speakers, who, in some 750,000 four-minute speeches in 5,000 American cities and towns, aroused the 'righteous wrath' of the people against the Hun and the Boche. It sent Lowell Thomas, the author and traveller, to gather stirring stories in Europe to stimulate more enthusiasm. Thomas soon realized that what he saw on the Western Front was hardly likely to bring recruits flocking to the American Army, and so he went instead to the Middle East, where he met T.E. Lawrence, who was with the Arabs fighting the Turks. The romanticised dispatches Thomas produced about Lawrence of Arabia not only became brilliant propaganda, but also grew into one of the most enduring myths of the war, turning Lawrence into a national hero and Thomas—'the American who made my vulgar reputation; a well-intentioned, intensely crude and pushful fellow' [T.E. Lawrence to Mrs. Bernard Shaw, March 19, 1924, letter in British Museum] —into a millionaire.
The influence of this barrage of propaganda on the American public cannot be overemphasized. The war historian J.F.C. Fuller writes of a 'propaganda-demented people' and says flatly that there can be little doubt that President Wilson would have remained neutral 'had it not been for the octopus of propaganda, whose tentacles gripped him like a vice.' [J.F.C. Fuller, Decisive Battles of the Western World (London: Palladin, 1970), p. 392.] Raymond B. Fosdick, in an article titled 'America at War,' summarized the ecstasy of hate that gripped the American people. 'We hated with a common hate that was exhilarating. The writer of this review remembers attending a great meeting in New England, held under the auspices of a Christian Church—God save the mark! A speaker demanded that the Kaiser, when captured, be boiled in oil, and the entire audience stood on chairs to scream its hysterical approval. This was the mood we were in. This was the kind of madness that had seized us.' [Foreign Affairs, January 1932, pp. 316-23]
Those who did not accept the need for America to go to war or who felt she could best contribute by using her influence for a negotiated armistice were shouted down, and the nation united to defeat Germany.
In these circumstances, American war correspondents faced an almost impossible task. The Constitution guaranteed the freedom of the press. The public was hungry for news, there was no censorship within the United States, and, as one congressman put it, 'There is no public opinion in the world which ought to be so well informed with regard to the causes of the war, or the incidents of this war, or the principles of this war, as the opinion of the USA.' But the principles of a nation at war demanded control not only of the way people fought, but also of the way they thought. Such influential opinion makers as war correspondents could not be allowed to write freely lest they create unproductive reactions, and so the whole apparatus of censorship at the front and the control and manipulation of news that had crippled the British war correspondent was now reproduced for his American colleagues.
* * *
War correspondents went along with the official scheme for reporting the war because they were convinced that it was in the national interest to do so. They saw no sharp line of demarcation between the rôle of the press in war-time and that of the government, and they became so accustomed to censorship that when it finally ended, in 1945, one correspondent was heard to say in some bewilderment, 'But where will we go now to get our stories cleared?' [Theodore F. Koop, Weapon of Silence (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1946), p. 270).]
There was some heart-searching after the war. John Steinbeck wrote: 'We were all part of the war effort. We went along with it, and not only that, we abetted it. Gradually it became a part of us that the truth about anything was automatically secret and that to trifle with it was to interfere with the war effort. By this I don't mean that the correspondents were liars. They were not. . . . It is in the things not mentioned that the untruth lies. . . . Yes, we wrote only a part of the war but at that time we believed, fervently believed, that it was the best thing to do.' [John Steinbeck, Once There Was a War (London: Heinemann, 1959; Corgi edition, 1961), pp. 11-15.]
Samuel Johnson, The Idler, No. 30 (Nov. 11, 1758)
In a time of war the nation is always of one mind, eager to hear something good of themselves and ill of the enemy. At this time the task of news-writers is easy: they have nothing to do but to tell that a battle is expected, and afterwards that a battle has been fought, in which we and our friends, whether conquering or conquered, did all, and our enemies did nothing.
Scarcely any thing awakens attention like a tale of cruelty. The writer of news never fails in the intermission of action to tell how the enemies murdered children and ravished virgins; and, if the scene of action be somewhat distant, scalps half the inhabitants of a province.
Among the calamities of war may be justly numbered the diminution of the love of truth, by the falsehoods which interest dictates, and credulity encourages. A peace will equally leave the warriour and relater of wars destitute of employment; and I know not whether more is to be dreaded from streets filled with soldiers accustomed to plunder, or from garrets filled with scribblers accustomed to lie.
"... there is not a living soul in any country who does not deeply resent having his passions roused, his indignation inflamed, his patriotism exploited, and his highest ideals desecrated by concealment, subterfuge, fraud, falsehood, trickery, and deliberate lying on the part of those in whom he is taught to repose confidence and to whom he is enjoined to pay respect." —Arthur Ponsonby, Falsehood in Wartime (London 1928).