Manipulating the Masses
Woodrow Wilson and the Birth of American Propaganda
656 Pages / 6.12 x 9.25 x 1.81 in / 33 halftones, 1 line drawing
- Paperback /
- 9780807181713 /
- Published: February 2024
- Hardcover /
- 9780807170779 /
- Published: October 2020
- eBook /
- 9780807174180 /
- Published: October 2020
Winner of the Goldsmith Book Prize by the Harvard Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy
Manipulating the Masses tells the story of the enduring threat to American democracy that arose out of World War I: the establishment of pervasive, systematic propaganda as an instrument of the state. During the Great War, the federal government exercised unprecedented power to shape the views and attitudes of American citizens. Its agent for this was the Committee on Public Information (CPI), established by President Woodrow Wilson one week after the United States entered the war in April 1917.
Driven by its fiery chief, George Creel, the CPI reached every crevice of the nation, every day, and extended widely abroad. It established the first national newspaper, made prepackaged news a quotidian aspect of governing, and pioneered the concept of public diplomacy. It spread the Wilson administration’s messages through articles, cartoons, books, and advertisements in newspapers and magazines; through feature films and volunteer Four Minute Men who spoke during intermission; through posters plastered on buildings and along highways; and through pamphlets distributed by the millions. It enlisted the nation’s leading progressive journalists, advertising executives, and artists. It harnessed American universities and their professors to create propaganda and add legitimacy to its mission.
Even as Creel insisted that the CPI was a conduit for reliable, fact-based information, the office regularly sanitized news, distorted facts, and played on emotions. Creel extolled transparency but established front organizations. Overseas, the CPI secretly subsidized news organs and bribed journalists. At home, it challenged the loyalty of those who occasionally questioned its tactics. Working closely with federal intelligence agencies eager to sniff out subversives and stifle dissent, the CPI was an accomplice to the Wilson administration’s trampling of civil liberties.
Until now, the full story of the CPI has never been told. John Maxwell Hamilton consulted over 150 archival collections in the United States and Europe to write this revealing history, which shows the shortcuts to open, honest debate that even well-meaning propagandists take to bend others to their views. Every element of contemporary government propaganda has antecedents in the CPI. It is the ideal vehicle for understanding the rise of propaganda, its methods of operation, and the threat it poses to democracy.
“A fascinating study into the origins of targeted misinformation and fake news, and the creators who unleashed them on our world out of misguided patriotism.” ~David Callaway, Former Editor-in-Chief, USA Today
“An instant classic. This stunning history of the origins of American propaganda and the information state unveils the threat to self-government that’s been with us since World War I. If you care about democracy, this book belongs at the top of your reading list.” ~Thomas E. Patterson, Bradlee Professor of Government & the Press, Harvard University
“There are fewer more important obligations of government in a democracy to keep citizens informed and to tell the truth. That standard, sadly, has failed at crucial moments in our history and John Maxwell Hamilton’s volume recalls the history of a seminal failure. It should open our eyes to shortcomings in what we get as ‘public information’ and ask us all to demand better from our nation’s leaders.” ~Mike McCurry, Former White House and State Department spokesman; Professor and Director, Public Theology at Wesley Theological Seminary
“George Creel and his Committee on Public Information, directed by President Woodrow Wilson, represented a massive and successful effort during WWI to mold opinion in favor of American involvement in the war. Hamilton’s book demonstrates that distorted propaganda such as what we saw during the Vietnam War and from today’s White House, is nothing new. His story is a mirror into our own times.” ~Ambassador Theodore Sedgwick, Commissioner, World War I Centennial Commission
“This highly-readable, meticulously researched book examines the origins of modern U.S. propaganda, as refined in the Twentieth Century. These practices, well-intended at first, have ended up harming this nation by undermining its democratic principles. Professor Hamilton rings a warning bell that all should hear about the dangers that propaganda, whether from abroad or within our own land, continues to hold for the future of America’s open society.” ~Loch Johnson, Regents Professor Emeritus of International Affairs, University of Georgia
“John Hamilton has written an outstanding, timely new book. A century ago, President Woodrow Wilson’s Ministry of Public Information was America’s first and only propagandistic Ministry of Information. Today, we have deteriorated to darker, diminished discourse with phrases such as ‘fake news’ by a President who has made tens of thousands of false or misleading public statements since his Inauguration. All of this can be traced to the story Hamilton tells.” ~Charles Lewis, Founder of the Center for Public Integrity and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists
“Manipulating the Masses brilliantly tells the story of President Woodrow Wilson’s 1916 re-election campaign and how Wilson used the same techniques to shape public opinion when he took the country into World War I and created the Committee on Public Information. Every public affairs office in government today as well as the private sector’s public relations industry owe their birth to Wilson’s CPI and what was done there. It’s quite a story.” ~Charlie Cook, Editor and Publisher, The Cook Political Report
“Both fascinating and troubling, this thoughtful history reveals the roots of the official spin that dominates much of today’s news. The blunt title and alarming cover illustration—a 1918 war-bond poster depicting a direct German attack on New York City—make clear the heavy-duty nature of Manipulating the Masses, John Maxwell Hamilton’s important history of the establishment during World War I of systematic propaganda as an instrument of American government.” ~New York Journal of Books
“In this excellent book, John Maxwell Hamilton examines the darker side of US president Woodrow Wilson’s administration during the First World War. . . . Hamilton provides a detailed account of the CPI’s (Committee on Public Information) operations, ranging from propaganda to censorship both at home and abroad. . . . Wilson’s legacy was mixed, as Hamilton convincingly demonstrates in this outstanding book.” ~H-Net Reviews
“Some history books make exceptional contributions. Like long-needed highways or bridges, they act as public utilities. Some even do the job with elegance. John Maxwell Hamilton’s Manipulating the Masses: Woodrow Wilson and the Birth of American Propaganda is such a book: history as public service, delivered with grace and advancing our progress on the vital road to understanding the relationship between government and media in America and, by extension, in the wider world.~American Purpose
Hamilton draws on a wide array of archival sources in many countries to tell a simple story: how the United States government used mass communications to advance its foreign policy at home and abroad during World War I. In the past, the subject has been tackled only partially, most prominently by writers with a personal connection to the events in question and to the story’s central government agency, the Committee on Public Information (CPI). Moreover, this story has been overshadowed by the memoir of the man who ran the campaign, George Creel.
Creel was the modern U.S. government’s first great propagandist, with a role so novel that promulgating government propaganda was once known as ‘Creeling.’ Creel’s own account of the process was—no surprise—self-serving.
Hamilton’s book is a more-than-overdue audit of Creel and his agency. More than that, it illuminates the original sin in the U.S. government’s relationship with the media, a foundational mix of spin and distortion that echoes down the decades to our own era of presidential tweets and weaponized media. ‘Every element’ of today’s ‘information state,’ says Hamilton, ‘had antecedents in the CPI.’”