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Whipping Up the People’s Righteous Wrath

After promising that no American boys would die on Europe’s battlefields, Woodrow Wilson’s War inspired insufficient men to fight for the cause of England and France. After Lincoln manufactured the clash at Fort Sumter, Northern men did join his army for the better part of a year, and until the casualty numbers and Northern military setbacks brought enlistments to a near halt. Both Lincoln and Wilson had to resort to conscription to fill the ranks; both controlled the press in order to demonize the enemy.

Whipping Up the People’s Righteous Wrath

“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 defense of the country.

Hatred of Germans was now whipped to a fever pitch. All the propaganda stories that had worked best in Europe were revived: Germany’s sole responsibility [for the war], 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 Cholmondeley, 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.

The Creel committee sponsored 75,000 speakers, who . . . in 5,000 American cities and towns, aroused the “righteous wrath” of the people against the Hun and the Boche.

The influence of the 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 [vise].”

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 [church] . . . 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 is the kind of madness that had seized us.”

(The First Casualty. From the Crimea to Vietnam: The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist, and Myth Maker, Phillip Knightly, Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, 1975, excerpts pp. 322-323)

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