by Paul R. Spitzzeri
After a determined neutral stance for three years of the brutal First World War, the United States, after repeated attacks on ships by Germany, entered the conflict on the side of the allies. President Woodrow Wilson, who campaigned for reelection in 1916 by assuring Americans that the country would stay out of the “foreign entanglements” that engulfed Europe, sought to rally popular support for the country’s joining the allies by forming a Committee on Public Information, comprised of the secretaries of State, War and the Navy and a civilian, George Creel, a journalist and ardent admirer of the president, was appointed its chair.
Tonight’s featured artifact from the museum’s holdings is the official catalog for the Allied War Exposition, one of the many projects of the Committee, an edition of which was held in Los Angeles from 1-11 August 1918, three months before the Germans surrendered, bringing the war to an end.
Creel issued a statement of purpose for the CPI, noting that it “is the machinery created . . . to make the fight for public opinion both in this country and in countries of the world.” Adding that this was not an academic question, he added that “public opinion stands recognized as a vital part of the national defense, a might force in national attack,” while averring that the troops on the battifled had their “source in the morale of the civilian poulation from which the fighting force is drawn.”
With a united populace “convinced of the justice of its cause” and heroism demonstrated by defenders of the nation, Creel continued that “disunity and disloyalty tear at the very heart of courage” so the CPI sught to battle against disaffection, ignorance and misunderstanding in its “maintenance of morale.” While Creel is regularly cited as a “master of propaganda” in the operations of the Committee, he declared “we do not call it propaganda, for that word in German hands has come to be associated with lies and corruptions.”
Rather, what it did was educate and inform and the rightness of the cause was such that “no more than a fair presentation of its facts its needed.” Reflecting the rapidly growing economic, political and, with the massive mobilization for the war, military power of the nation, he ended by proclaiming that “the Committee has grown to be a world organization” and not only did it “reach deep into every community in the United States, but it carries the aims and objects of America to every land.”
The CPI grew to have nearly twenty divisions, including one for film because of the obvious “importance of reaching the people through the medium of the motion pictures,” starting with basic ones through the Signal Corps. Army and Navy photographers, for example, were documenting work in training camps stateside and on the front in Europe, but it was decided to develop a film called Pershing’s Cursaders that showed, in the first installment, the immense effort “in mobilizing and training the men . . . in shop, shipyard, factory and field as well” while the second part took up “our boys landing, then in training and finally in action in the front line trenches” in France. The film was to appear in some 2,500 theaters in the U.S. and hundreds more in other countries “carrying the story of America’s nationwide activity in taking up the battle for Huamnity.”
A precursor of sorts to the newsreel was the “Allied Official War Review,” issued weekly and developed with the other allied countries of England, France and Italy, while the second feature produced by the division was America’s Answer, with American Expeditionary Force commander, Genreal John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, directly supervising the work, which was released at the end of July. Further features were to follow every six to eight weeks and were to “contain the very latest and most accurate records of events” in the theaters of battle.
Another major endeabor of the CPI was the Allied War Exposition, which it was stated, derived from “the enthusiasm aroused by the motion pictures . . . and the keen interest in the displays of war trophies.” A Bureau of Expositions was formed “to gather together displays of war trophies and evidence of war preparations . . . to be presented in as many of the large centers of population as practical.”
The CPI and the governments of Belgium, Canada, England, France and Italy cooperated to develop fourteen such exhibitions for expositions that constituted “a vast panorama of war activities” that included “educational displays showing the mighty scale on which the activities of the Allied Governments are going forward.” The concluding statement here was directed to visitors:
“Over here” do your part to win the war “over there,” is the keynote of the Exposition, and surely no one can witness these priceless trophies, bought with the blood of those who have died in the Battle of Humanity, without being stirred to the depths of his heart, and aroused to even greater efforts to do all in his power to bring Victory to America and her Allies.
The catalog had extensive lists of items displayed under the headings of “American War Trophies;” “U.S. Army Exhibit;” “British Government’s Exhibit of ar Relics, Trophies and Curios;” “Canadian Exhibit;” “French War Exhibit;” and others for Belgium and Italy. An exhibit for training camp activities, under the auspices of the War and Navy departments, were organized by such categories as athletics, education, entertainment, social hygiene, and law enforcement, as well as by organizations, like the Y.M.C.A., Knights of Columbus, Jewish Welfare Board, and the American Library Association.
Notably, there was a direct contrast made between “the drab, ugly scene in the sandy Mexican village” in 1916 when Americans crossed the border in what has been called the “Pancho Villa Expedition,” seeking the forces of that controversial revolutionary figure and the wartime situation. So, a model showing the Mexican border depicted “dispirited soldiers” near adobe buildings with some of the troops “straggling into or out of the saloons” and “one lying in a drunken stupor on the ground.” Another from the world war, though, had soldiers in useful actities, including sports, group singing, watching movies in a “Liberty Theatre,” in a camp library, and writing letters in clubrooms.
The War Department exhibit included a Trench Battle Scene in “No-Man’s Land” in the fields of France showed a Red Cross shelter, camouflage, personal memorabilia pinned to the dirt walls, and other aspects representing “a faithful reproduction of life as it is going on day by day in miles upon miles of trenches ‘Somewhere in France.'” There was also the Army Mess Kitchen, from which “means are served in the same manner, and using the same ‘grub’ as is the fare of the ‘doughboys’ in France.” Even “the most skeptical” of visitors would learn “of the great care taken to provide our boys with the right kind of food for fighters.”
The Department of the Navy offered displays “typifying our preparations on the sea” with models of battleships, cruisers, submarines, and the other types of fighting craft, as well as photographs.” These would show guests “the high state of efficiency which the Navy has attained, and make plain the tremendous part the United States is playing in hunting the Hun off the sea.” Also included were “the glorious Marines, ‘soldiers of the sea,'” who were prominently featured and “show full well why the ‘Marine is first to fight.'”
A Shipping Board Exhibition concerned the Emergency Fleet Corporation, set up to manage the massive building of new ships for American and Allied forces, and it was noted that production for June was a record for American production and the largest output ever in world history. The five-member board’s chair sent a message to General Pershing stating that “your inspiring leadership of the American Army in France has thrilled the shipyard workers . . . [who] are going the limit to provide in record-breaking time the ships that will carry more men, food and munitions to the intrepid American Expeditionary Forces.”
Herbert Hoover, later president of the United States, was responsible for the administration of food for American forces as well as the citizens of allied countries, and the Food Administration Exhibition carried the motto of “Food is Fuel for Fighters” and implored Americans to “Save Food.” Hoover added that “the loyal way in which the American people have responded is showing results in the strengthening of the spirits of the peoples of France, Italy and Belgium, now being manifested in these desperate days on the Western Front.
The CPI’s display aimed “for the public to become familiar with the principles involved in the war, the aims and aspirations of each Nation, its preparations, and the progress it is making in the Battle for Humanity.” A Division of Distribution, for example, handed out hundreds of thousands of copies of Committee publications monthly, some issued free and other sold at a modest cost, with a War Cyclopedia being among the latter.
It was asserted that, all over the country, Americans were helping to win the war “from the office, from the school, from the editorial room, and from the platform” as “they are sending out their message of truth and democracy.” Creel claimed that such material were published because
this war is not to be won by an established doctrine nor by an official theory, but by an enlightened public opinion based upon the truth. the facts of history and life are the only arsenal to which Americans need resort in order to defent their cause. The deeper their study, the firmer becomes their conviction.
Finally, there were displays by “War Work Organizations” who offered ways “to make life more comfortable” to soldiers beyond the usual accompaniment of arms, equipment and “grub” and to offer help when they were sick or injured, needed the worship, and “to keep him at all times ‘fit to fight.'” These entities included the American Red Cross, the Y.M.C.A., the Boy Scouts, the National League for Women’s Service, and recruiting offices for the Army and Navy, among others.
Newspapers coverage was ample during the run of the event, held at Exposition Park with hours from 10:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. after the opening day, which launched at 2 p.m., with band concerts, speeches, aircraft flyovers, mock battles on a No-Man’s Land, parades (including one put on by the Motion Picture War Service Association,) the aforementioned mess camp and motion picture showings, and athletics were among major components.
Each day was designated for a particular purpose or group, so that the opening was War Savings Stamps Day, while others were for such groups as the Red Cross, shipbuilders, women, children (including 1,500 orphans who attended the fair and during which the superstar comedian Charlie Chaplin spoke), the Southland, the Navy, and fraternities, among others. One of the featured speakers was Helen Keller, the famous blind and deaf woman who appeared during Woman’s Day and spoke (she learned to do this by placing her fingers on the throat, lips and nose of her tutor), with the assistance of her long-time teacher and companion Anne Sullivan Macy, on the topic on “The Rehabilitation of Returned Wounded Soldiers.”
On the fifth day of the exhibition, Keller talked to some 10,000 persons at the Liberty Forum set up at the park and was quoted as telling the crowd:
These war expositions are a timely effort to bring the subject of rehabilitation before the American people. The maimed and disabled men who come back to us are no less heroes than those who died on the fields of France.
Imagine, if you can, how a young man feels when he learns that he will never see the light again. Try to understand the misery that overwhelms him. On the brink of this Inferno we must meet the crippled and the blinded with outstreched hands, ready to help and guide them back to a life of usefulness . . . Thus it will be our privilege, and should it be our happiness to serve the brave fellows who have gven so much in order that we might live in peace and security.
Keller also addressed the Children’s Day crowd on the eighth day of the exposition. On the 9th, the Los Angeles Express editorial section featured a short plea for readers to visit and opined that “no citizen can afford to miss this rare opportunity for studying the various phases of the soldier’s life at the front and the difficulties with which he is compelled to contend. There is an educational value to this Allied war exposition not easily overestimated.”
The Los Angeles Times offered the most coverage of the event, frequently publishing photos including aerial view of No Man’s Land and action shots of the mock battles, one of which resulted in an Allied victory that took all of a half-hour, rathern than the four years of the actual conflict. The well-known cartoonist Edmund “Ted” Gale even made reference to this catalog in his “Doings of this Town” feature, in which a mother told her daughter that “we would have gotten around twice as fast if you pa hadn’t bought that catalogue, while “Pa” had his face buried in the publication seeking the German portable field kitchen, but was on the wrong page as he gazed at an anti-aircraft gun and marveled at how compact the kichen was.
The final day, Sunday the 11th and denoted as “Victory Day,” was expected to draw some 100,000 persons and four sham trench battles were fought to offer as many opportunities to see the action as possible for the throngs. Chester Campbell, the exhibition director for the CPI, told the Express that, after the first event was held in San Francisco, it was unclear whether the next stop would be in Portland, Seattle or Los Angeles, but the bid offered by the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce and other local leaders was strong and the outcome was all that could be expected, as the road show headed next to Chicago.
Among the regional luminaries cited for their roles in making the exposition a success were merchant Bernal H. Dyas, banker Motley H. Flint, druggist L.N. Busnwig, Anita Baldwin (daughter of “Lucky” Baldwin), filmmaker D.W. Griffith, and movie star Douglas Fairbanks, who was the grand marshal of the opening parade sponsored by the motion picture community. The Times estimated that attendance for the event was in the neighborhood of 200,000, with that in San Francisco said to be 125,000, and the number was said to be far more than anticipated. Receipts were not far under $100,000 and half the proceeds were to go to the National War Savings Committee of Los Angeles to invest in thrift stamps for raising funds for the war effort. In all, it was hoped that the event would break even financially, though education was the paramount goal.
As noted above, the American entry with a large number of fresh troops, materiel and energy tipped the scales in what had been largely a stalemate in those trenches and the conflict was over three months from the last date of the exposition. This publication reflects the intense efforts of the CIP in outreach to the American public in sustaining patriotism and loyalty to the cause, even if Creel shied away from the term “propaganda.”