In 1917, as World War I
raged in Europe, the United States was on the sidelines, with a president, Woodrow Wilson
, having just won re-election with the campaign slogan - He Kept Us Out of War
. American public opinion
about the war was conflicted by the claims and counterclaims of German and Allied propaganda
. Wilson entered the war anyway, but needed public opinion on his side. He leaned toward accepting the proposals of his military chiefs for a censorship
law that would give him iron control of the American press. George Creel
, however, convinced Wilson that the country needed not suppression
, but the expression of a coherent
So, in April 1917, Wilson created by executive order the Committee on Public Information. In reality the committee was one man, George Creel. Its function was to mold American opinion in favor of the war - i.e., government propaganda. As the date drew near when all males would have to register for the draft (June 5, 1917) many remembered and feared a repeat of the draft riots of the Civil War. This would be Creel's first test. A month before draft registration commenced, Creel unleashed his ace in the hole: the Four Minute Men.
In movie theaters across the US, a slide was shown on the stage curtain before or after the main feature. It announced the appearance of the local Four Minute Man and certified that he was speaking under the auspices of the Committee on Public Information. These were local professional men with good public speaking skills. They stirred the audiences' patriotism and discouraged pro-German sentiment. In order to join the FMM a man needed endorsements from three prominent citizens in his hometown. If his performance did not measure up, he was quickly removed.
Creel supplied the Four Minute Men with bulletins and four-minute speeches, but urged them to add a personal touch. Their first topic was "Universal Service by Selective Draft." From May 12th to 21st, 75,000 orators deluged moviegoers with the idea that registration day should be a festival of honor for the future draftees.
The country's response was overwhelming. On draft registration day, 10 million men signed up without a murmur of protest. Seattle gave a public banquet for its draftees before they departed. In hundreds of small towns, Civil War veterans turned out to escort the new soldiers to the railroad station. By the end of the year, the country had 516,000 draftees in training with hardly a protest.
The Four Minute Men moved on to tackle other topics, such as Why We Are Fighting and What Our Enemy Really Is. Creel never stopped trying to improve their performances, sending teams of speech teachers and noted writers around the country to coach them.
The FMMs spoke at lodge and labor union meetings, granges, lumber camps, and even on Indian reservations. College FMMs operated in 153 universities. There was even a cadre of Junior FMMs who spoke in high schools. Two hundred thousand high schools participated in support of the Third Liberty Loan drive.
By the time the war was over, the Four Minute Men had given 755,190 speeches to a total of 314,454,514 Americans. They reached more than 11 million people per month. The Four Minute Men were the most effective form of propaganda during World War I. The whole program cost the government a mere $101,555.10.