When you hear the term “wartime propaganda” I bet that you don’t think of propaganda that the United States produces. Okay, maybe you do (“I WANT YOU” Uncle Sam posters, anyone?) I can tell you that that is not my first thought. My first thought is usually Germany and Joseph Goebbels in World War II.
I never would have known about this propaganda group if it wasn’t for my exhibit, The Great War. During World War I, the Committee on Public Information used a group of men called the Four-Minute Men. As you can imagine from their name, the speeches that they gave were supposed to be four minutes long. Four minutes is not an arbitrary number either. There were a few reasons that this length of time was chosen: according to the Committee on Public Information four minutes was the average attention span for spoken word. Also, many of these men gave their speeches in movie theaters and four minutes is about how long it took to change out the movie reels. Theaters were not the only place that this group gave speeches, they also went to churches, music halls, schools, and other public spaces.
There were 75,000 speakers across the United States who gave over 750,000 speeches about the war. Although, this is the information that I had last year when I wrote the exhibit text, Wikipedia now says: “It was estimated that by the end of the war, they had made more than 7.5 million speeches to 314 million people in 5,200 communities.” (The link to the footnote does work.)
The Committee on Public Information is very interesting too. The committee was found in 1917 and disbanded in 1919. The chairman of the committee was George Creel, who was an investigative journalist and a politician. The functions of the CPI was that they released government news during the war, sustained the morale of the American citizens, and they were the administrators of voluntary press censorship. George Creel said that it was “not propaganda as the Germans defined it, but propaganda in the true sense of the word, meaning the ‘propagation of faith’.”
Another interesting thing is that the CPI sent the Four-Minute Men “bulletins” which suggested themes that their speeches should talk about. Which, I believe, as a listener, I would appreciate that. Depending on how many of theses speeches I had to listen to, I would appreciate them being different. As it is, I appreciate (presently) that while there may be the same sound bites in speeches the rest of the speech is different. Of course, you may not know that with our 24-hour news cycle, when all you hear is sound bites. But that’s a rant for a different day…