On our recent visit to New York City, my daughter and I were able to see an exhibition about the Great War at their famous public library. Michael Inman, NYPL Curator of Rare Books, who spent the last five years organizing “Over Here: WWI and the Fight for the American Mind,” graciously gave us a guided tour. While I had read quite a bit about Theodore Roosevelt urging the nation to be ready for the war, I didn’t realize the extent to which the government used mass media to shape public opinion about it.
During Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency, he worked with Jane Addams on social problems. However, their voices competed when it came to talking about entering the war. Roosevelt wrote a book called Fear God and Do Your Own Part, while Addams, a pacifist, wrote, “We must hold at all times that war…affords no solution for vexed international problems…”
The sinking of the Lusitania was the catalyst that propelled us to join the Allied Powers. Center, back is the original “Uncle Sam Wants You” poster.
People across the country were urged to be “100% American” and buy Liberty Bonds.
From 1914 to 1918, the new inventions of recorded sound and motion pictures were put to use. Songwriters George M. Cohan and Irving Berlin wrote nationalistic pieces that were widely played by the public. But there was a song called “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier,” that became very popular, too. Silent movies such as The Beast of Berlin and My Four Years in Germany added fuel for opposing the Axis Powers. In 1916, camps like one in Plattsburg, New York, sprang up to train volunteers who anticipated serving overseas when the time came.
A new government agency, the Committee on Public Information (CPI), was created in 1917 by President Wilson to convince Americans to buy into the war effort. George Creel, head of the bureau, said, “I had the conviction that the poster must play a great part in the fight for public opinion. The printed word might not be read, people might not choose to attend meetings or watch motion pictures, but the billboard was something that caught even the most indifferent eye.” The CPI was dissolved after the armistice, but a brochure detailing this exhibition states, “…the techniques it pioneered in the realm of mass persuasion are used to this day by governments, corporations, and public relations firms around the world.”
The First World War and these carefully chosen materials shake us into remembering that, as Marshall McLuhan said, often times the medium is the message.
All photographs on this page by Amy Griffin. To see more of the exhibit online, visit http://www.nypl.org/over-here.