George Creel, Walter Lippmann, Edward Bernays and Harold Lasswell all played influential roles in the newly-formed Committee on Public Information, and would go on to be major figures in political thought, public relations, and psychological warfare research.
The sales effort was unparalleled in its scale and sophistication. The CPI was not only able to officially censor news and information, but essentially manufacture these as well. Acting in the role of a multifaceted advertising agency, Creel’s operation “examined the different ways that information flowed to the population and flooded these channels with pro-war material.”
The Committee’s domestic organ was comprised of 19 subdivisions, each devoted to a specific type of propaganda, one of which was a Division of News that distributed over 6,000 press releases and acted as the chief avenue for war-related information. On an average week, more than 20,000 newspaper columns carried data provided through CPI propaganda. The Division of Syndicated Features enlisted the help of popular novelists, short story writers, and essayists. These mainstream American authors presented the official line in a readily accessible form reaching twelve million people every month. Similar endeavors existed for cinema, impromptu soapbox oratory (Four Minute Men), and outright advertising at home and abroad.
With the experiences and observations of these war marketers variously recounted and developed throughout the 1920s (Lippmann, Public Opinion, The Phantom Public, Bernays, Propaganda, Crystallizing Public Opinion, Creel, How We Advertised America, Lasswell, Propaganda and the World War), alongside the influence of their elite colleagues and associates, the young publicists’ optimism concerning popular democracy guided by informed opinion was sobered with the realization that public sentiment was actually far more susceptible to persuasion than had been previously understood. The proposed solutions to guarantee something akin to democracy in an increasingly confusing world lay in “objective” journalism guided by organized intelligence (Lippmann) and propaganda, or what Edward Bernays termed “public relations.”
The argument laid out in Lippmann’s Public Opinion was partly motivated by the US Senate’s rejection of membership in the League of Nations. An adviser to the Wilson administration, a central figure behind intelligence gathering that informed postwar geopolitical dynamics laid out at the Paris Peace Conference, and an early member of the Council on Foreign Relations, Lippmann increasingly viewed popular democracy as plagued by a hopelessly ill-informed public opinion incapable of comprehending the growing complexities of modern society. Only experts could be entrusted with assessing, understanding, and acting on the knowledge accorded through their respective professions and fields.