Propaganda, American and British

Ian Whitcomb’s essay Over There shows how in America official agencies such as George Creel’s Committee on Public Education mobilised the popular media (including music) from the very beginning of America’s engagement in the War. George Creel’s How We Advertised the War (1920) gives an account of how it was done.

This was in marked contrast with Britain, where in August 1914 there were no government machinery for dispensing mass propaganda from above, and the expression of war enthusiasm was very much a bottom-up grassroots movement – and sometimes one that embarrassed the Government, as when the White Feather movement threatened to get out of hand, or even more so when attacks on Haldane’s Germanophile tendencies forced him out of office.

The British government set up the Wellington House organisation soon after the War began, but that was for ensuring that highly literate statements of the British case reached neutral countries. Only later did first the Department and then the Ministry of Information begin to issue propaganda material to the British themselves, mostly in a rather inefficient and unnecessary way. There were stories of vast batches of pamphlets left undistributed in warehouses, and anyway the official efforts were tiny in number in comparison with the unofficial products of private enterprise, paid for not by the  State, but by consumers who wanted to express their commitment to the War effort.

The situation in the two countries was very different. Apart from a tiny minority, Britain was strongly committed to the War effort (and the most successful propagandists, from Bottomley to Christabel Pankhurst, made their mark by constantly  criticising the government for not fighting the War vigorously enough). In America, as Ian Whitcomb points out, the situation was very different. As Ian Whitcomb writes, there were “millions of ordinary unlettered Americans of the hinterland and far west, folks who had no time for a decadent and dying Old World, and in particular despised those haughty and effete Englishmen”; they thought the war was none of their business. And the large communities of German Americans were actively hostile to American involvement in the War.

Maybe this explains something I’ve felt for a long while – that American WW1 propaganda is a lot more strident than that found in Britain. So far as I know, there were no British films quite as extreme in their portrayal of German brutality  as the American The Heart of Humanity (in which Hunnish Erich von Stroheim hurls a baby out of awindow before  attempting to rape its mother. And I noticed that when Andrew Marr in his recent TV series wanted to claim that British wartime propaganda dehumanised the Germans, it was actually an American poster that he used to make the point:

There were British magazine cartoons almost as crass as this, but this kind of timagery was, I think, always kept out of British official posters. When a short official British film suggested that anti-German feeling should continue after the War, the protests in Parliament were loud.

As always, though, I can’t help wondering whether propaganda is ever very effective. It reinforces people’s original beliefs, but does it ever convince anyone who doesn’t already want to be convinced?

In Britain at least government campaigns seem to be invariably ineffective. How much has been spent over recent decades in anti-drugs campaigning? How many people have desisted because of it? I remember in particular a campaign from the seventies, when my daughter was a teenager, that showed a young man, racked by addiction, looking vulnerable. It was up on my daughter’s wall, next to pictures of  James Dean wearing a similar glamorously desperate expression. In the attempt to appeal to teenagers, the designers had actually made drug addiction look sexy.

As for government information campaigns, how much money was spent earlier this year sending every household a leaflet about swine flu? How many people actually bothered to read the leaflet? And of those, how many learnt anything that they had not already gathered from the papers, TV, radio or internet? The campaign was almost certainly completely useless, but it let the government give the impression that it was doing something about the threat of swine flu (which seems to be another of those threatened catastrophes that never quite happen, like bird flu and the Millennium Bug).

During WW1, letters from fervent patriots often appeared in The Times and elsewhere  asking why the Government was not doing more to enthuse people for the war, and to counter pacifist propaganda. Northcliffe took over in the Ministry of Information, and started to churn out stuff that mostly duplicated what was already available – and some that suited his own political aims.

There is a myth about the effectiveness of propaganda, given a great boost by Arthur Ponsonby in his Falsehood in Wartime (1928), and I think we should regard it sceptically. Ponsonby, a committed pacifist, needed to answer the question, “If the War was so obviously futile, why did so many good men fight?”. His answer was that they were duped by propaganda. Like the Marxists who claim that anyone who does not agree with them is suffering from ‘false consciousness’ he avoids the possibility that people of the time, who were no more stupid than we are today, may have had compelling reasons for thinking as they did; instead he argues that they were all fooled. Which doesn’t convince me.


  1. Posted January 2, 2010 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

    I wonder if historians are occupationally predisposed to exaggerate the importance of propaganda because, after all, they have a deep personal investment in the power of words?

  2. Posted January 2, 2010 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    Good point. And the same goes for politicians.

  3. Nemo
    Posted January 3, 2010 at 1:09 am | Permalink

    American propaganda in 1917-18 was more strident than British propaganda perhaps because there was a lot of anti-war sentiment (and occasional pro-German sentiment) expressed in America in the three and a half years between the outbreak of war and the American Declaration of War that needed to be counteracted. Since Britain had been in the war since the beginning such sentiments had not been widely expressed.

    The most popular song in America in 1915 (measured by sales of sheet music) was “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Soldier”.

    An even more sharply anti-war song was Irving Berlin’s “Stay Down Here Where You Belong”.

    A brief Wikipdedia entry on this is here:

    A contemporary recording is here:

    Finally, here is Groucho Marx performing this song as an anti-Vietnam statement in 1971, which as the Wikipedia article and Groucho himself indicate was done to the annoyance of Irving Berlin:

  4. Nemo
    Posted January 3, 2010 at 1:13 am | Permalink

    Oops, I just meant to post a link to the Groucho video, not embed it on your blog. Sorry, I’m not trying to overstep my bounds as a comment maker.

    • Posted January 3, 2010 at 7:45 am | Permalink

      Groucho is always very welcome in these parts – especially when wearing a hat like that.

      I looked up this song (which I had never heard before) in my copy of Berlin’s Complete Lyrics, and discovered that ‘Stay Down Here Where You Belong’ was copyrighted in October 1914, so belongs to the first months of the War, long before America’s involvement. After 1917, of course, Berlin backed the war effort wholeheartedly, joined the Army and acted as its official songwriter.
      A 1918 song takes the ‘Hell’ motif of Groucho’s favourite, and treats it rather differently:

      The Devil has bought up all the coal;
      He’s going to save it, I swear,
      Until the Kaiser gets there –
      He means to make it warm for Mister William.
      The Devil has spent his little roll
      For all the coal from ev’rywhere;
      He’s piling it up by the ton.
      And oh! what he’ll do to that Hun!
      There’ll be a hot time in Hades
      When the Kaiser gets there.

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