Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 966Comments
This is the grave of George Creel.
Born in 1876 in Lafayette County, Missouri, Creel grew up in a downwardly mobile family. His father was a college educated Virginia near-elite, former state legislator, and an officer in the War to Defend Slavery. He moved to Missouri after the treason was crushed, bought a farm, but became a boozehound. The father kept moving the family around western Missouri for different opportunities that he failed at, but his mother is who kept the family together. She made she her children wouldn’t be like her loser husband. She was a suffrage activist deeply committed to making sure her boys had a good education, which she mostly did at home. George was a bit rebellious and ran away from home at 15, working for a year in various odd jobs.
Eventually, Creel found his way to journalism, taking his first newspaper job in 1896 in Kansas City. He had some success but was fired for not reporting on salacious relationship stories that his editors wanted. After a brief time in Chicago where he tried and failed to be a joke writer for the comics in the big syndicate papers, he ended up back in KC where he and a friend started their own newspaper. Soon the friend bailed. The Independent became a leading voice for Progressivism in the state, usually supporting Democrats, but sometimes Republicans if the Democrat was corrupt and the Republican a Progressive. Still pretty footloose, he bailed in 1909 on what was a successful paper, deciding to go to Denver. He got a job on the Denver Post but that didn’t last long after he called for the lynching of 11 state senators who opposed the public ownership of Denver’s water. The extent to which this was some one-off comment that he didn’t mean literally, I do not know. I can’t imagine he wanted their actual lynching. But then this is George Creel we are talking about. He moved around to this and to that in the aftermath.
Where this obscure and somewhat controversial newspaper writers comes to public attention is through his strong support for Woodrow Wilson. He was the editor for the Rocky Mountain News during the presidential campaign where he used that platform for supporting Wilson. He was then named police commissioner of the city by a reformist mayor named Henry Arnold. Was he qualified for this? Not necessarily in the sense of having police experience. But he did push for real police reform, such as forcing cops to give up their clubs and nightsticks so they wouldn’t beat people (glad we’ve come so far in 110 years….).
As police commissioner, Creel also was unfortunately on the front lines of closing the red-light district in Denver. A moment about this. See, you might not like sex work. But what else were these women going to do? The thing about red-light districts is that it kept sex work relatively safe because there were lots of people around. But people such as Creel did not have complex views of the world. They simply thought that if you made prostitution truly illegal, people just wouldn’t be prostitutes anymore. This, uh, didn’t happen. So they closed down the districts, sex workers had to retreat to the shadows, and there they could be raped and killed. At least to his credit, which many anti-prostitution activists did not agree with, he also pushed through a taxpayer funded jobs program for these women so they could learn skills and enter into the non-sex workforce. Now, I am sure this was training to be domestics and such and not good jobs. But still, at least he had some sense of these things.
Anyway, Creel was all in on supporting Wilson’s reelection in 1916. He became involved in the larger publicity campaign to support it. He interviewed a lot of military officers who wanted no criticism of the war if the U.S. entered it. Creel wanted to go a step further. He wrote Wilson and said that the government should lean into the war and create overtly positive press about it. This interested Wilson and his advisors. So when the U.S. entered the war in April 1917, Wilson called Creel to Washington to run the Committee on Public Information. This sinister sounding agency was the home of American war propaganda. Creel was the man to run it. He didn’t care much about the truth, was full of his own righteousness, and would do anything to support Wilson.
We’ve seen the many CPI posters that came out of the war. The Uncle Sam poster is the most famous. Creel and the artists he hired weren’t exactly making this stuff up whole hog. A few years ago, I saw an international World War I poster exhibit at the MFA in Boston and basically all the nations were using the same themes and the same type of art. But these were effective posters, no doubt. Another CPI invention was the Four Minute Man. Here, men, usually young and charismatic men, would find a spot in a public space–fairs, street corners, whatever, and give a 4 minute speech about the need to support the war and give money for the war bonds campaigns. This was outright intimidation of those who maybe weren’t really supporters of the war. And lots of people were not! The government had done a terrible job of explaining to everyday people why we were getting involved in this war. The Irish sure didn’t want to fight on the side of the British. Millions of immigrants from Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire were either indifferent or opposed to American fighting this war. Radical labor was outright opposed. For that matter, many farm boys from Georgia or Arkansas or whatever not only didn’t want to fight but did all the could to avoid the draft and provide for their families on the farm. So one might argue that the government propaganda campaign was needed, but you might also argue that the war was a stupid enterprise that the U.S. had no business with. In any case, we know where Creel stood. When all of this led to the horrible anti-German actions such as beating and burning homes and such, Creel didn’t care. As for arresting radicals such as Eugene Debs who opposed the war, Creel thought that was great stuff. There were posters, songs, plays, movies, speeches, anything you can think of to gin up support for this war.
Wilson loved Creel for all of this. Creel’s major personality traits that came into play here was a very good ability to suck up to the powerful and total loyalty. He also was highly competent and had a ton of energy, so he actually was a good administrator, even if for nefarious ends. This is exactly what Wilson wanted in his men during the war.
After the war, the CPI ended. Creel went back to journalism, mostly at Collier’s, where he worked until the 1940s. He also got involved in the New Deal, particularly in labor issues. He chaired the Regional Labor Board under the National Industrial Recovery Act for the southwest in the early days of the New Deal. But he remained horrified by radicalism of any sort. When Upton Sinclair decided to run for governor of California under the Democratic Party ticket, Creel jumped into the primary race to represent conservative Democrats. But Sinclair whooped him in the primary. None of this got in the way of being a useful Democrat. In 1935, FDR named him to the National Advisory Board for the Works Progress Administration. He was a good administrator and loyal Democrat after all. He also worked with the Mexican government to start its own propaganda agency, the Ministry of Public Information and Propaganda. Creel loved him some brainwashing, let me tell you what.
In his late life, Creel went all in on his anti-radicalism again, publishing early Cold War screeds such as Russia’s Race for Asia, published in 1949. He published a lot of books later in life for that matter, including War Criminals and Punishment in 1944, which was adapted into a successful radio play. It will not surprise that this novel, such as it was, revolved around the need to punish all Germans after the war. Creel was living in San Fransisco by this point and he died there in 1953. He was 76 years old.
There’s an entire American Experience film on Creel. I haven’t watched it but he’s an important and quite scary person.
George Creel is buried in Mount Washington Cemetery, Independence, Missouri.
If you would like this series to visit other World War I American propagandists, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. James Montgomery Flagg is in The Bronx and Howard Chandler Christy is in Hartsdale, New York. Previous posts in this series are archived here.