For many in the United States the sinking of the Lusitania solidified the belief that Germany was a brutal, degenerate monarchy. Public opinion was not yet ready to go to war, but many Americans began to speak out for entering the conflict on the Allies’ side. Following the disaster, both Germany and Britain began systematic and wide-ranging government propaganda in both its forms:  the provision of information and the suppression of it. The poster was a major tool for broad dissemination of information during the war.  Countries distributed them widely to garner support, urge action, and boost morale.  They also served as effective recruitment tools to stoking a sense of outrage and a desire for revenge.

The Germans restricted what their own citizens knew and assiduously aroused support not only among their citizens at home but also among German-Americans, whose influence might keep the United States out of the war. Most propaganda was in military hands, and accordingly had a martial heavy-handedness to it. Particularly damaging in terms of American public opinion was the German government’s defiant belligerence and even jubilation over the sinking of the ship, a sentiment picked up by its heavily controlled press.

The British were far cleverer in their propaganda, which was carried out from a government building named Wellington House. Despite Britain’s avowed democratic principles, Wellington House worked so quietly, even members of Parliament were unaware it existed.

In the United States this work was surreptitiously carried out by the novelist Sir Gilbert Parker, journalist Willert, and others who wooed opinion molders and planted stories in the American press. But they also had an enormous advantage in communicating their point of view. In the first hours of the war, they cut Germany’s transatlantic cable lines. This limited Germany’s capacity to send news to the United States and the ability of American correspondents in Berlin to send their reports home.

“American public opinion,” wrote journalist Mark Sullivan,in a post-war recounting of pervasive Allied and Central Power propaganda in the United States, “constituted a sector of the battle-front rather more important to capture than Mons or Verdun.”

Britain won that novel battle. In April 1917 President Wilson took the country into the war. After entering the war, the United States itself undertook wide-ranging, systematic propaganda for the first time in its history and has not stopped since.

The fight for public opinion is today a regular feature of diplomacy in war and in peace.

“Conventional wisdom holds that the state with the largest army prevails,” wrote Joseph Nye, Jr, a former State Department official and foreign policy scholar, “but in the information age, the state (or the non-state actor) with the best story may sometimes win.”

Created by Anne Curran on Oct 2nd, 2018 @ 10:10 AM.
Updated on Oct 2nd, 2018 @ 2:29 PM.