Holding Fast the Inner Lines: Democracy, Nationalism, and the Committee on Public Information

Holding Fast the Inner Lines: Democracy, Nationalism, and the Committee on Public Information

Holding Fast the Inner Lines: Democracy, Nationalism, and the Committee on Public Information

Holding Fast the Inner Lines: Democracy, Nationalism, and the Committee on Public Information

Synopsis

The Committee on Public Information, the major American propaganda agency during World War I, attracted a wide range of reform-oriented men and women who tried to generate enthusiasm for Wilson's international and domestic ideals. Vaughn shows that the CPI encouraged an imperial presidency, urged limits on free speech and called for an almost mystical attachment to the nation, but it also tried to present dispassionately the causes of American intervention in the war.

Originally published in 1980.

Excerpt

Democratic government is worth having, and it is also very difficult to maintain, and herein lies an essential awkwardness in judging the activities of the United States government's first large-scale propaganda agency, the celebrated Creel committee, officially known as the Committee on Public Information. the cpi proved spectacularly successful in mobilizing public opinion behind the country's participation in the World War of 1917-18, popularizing the notion that the struggle was a great crusade to save democracy. in retrospect there must be little doubt that its appeal promoted national unity, but there has been considerable skepticism as to whether the cpi strengthened democracy, which, in the United States, has been associated with individual liberty and human equality under law.

The committee was above all a nationalizing agent, encouraging American nationalism. It set up an apparatus that allowed the federal government to communicate with virtually every citizen, no matter how isolated; it promoted a national ideology, namely, American democracy; it reinforced persons who were convinced that the nation was the best and perhaps only vehicle for the progress of democracy, and even civilization. It is quite true that some varieties of nationalism are antithetical to democracy, and at times the committee's work unfortunately encouraged an attachment to the nation that surely weakened democratic government.

Still, the development of democracy in the United States . . .

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