16. Editorial Note

In Switzerland, a dispute arose between Embassy officials and the Committee on Public Information (CPI) representative in Bern over the degree to which the latter’s work should be publicly acknowledged. Vira Whitehouse, CPI Commissioner in Switzerland, argued that she should be allowed to operate openly as a CPI representative. Writing to CPI Chairman George Creel on February 8, 1918, she reported that “I have found on approaching editors of both classes of papers in Switzerland that such information as your Department furnishes, developed in the way I have already proposed to you, meets a warm welcome, especially when connected with an exchange of news.” However, Whitehouse noted, not all Embassy officials were in accord with this approach. Specifically citing Secretary of the Embassy in Bern Hugh Robert Wilson, Whitehouse wrote: “Our main difference of opinion is that he fears a frank news policy and I am convinced that it will be great value in view of the basic resemblances between the Swiss Government and our own and this conviction has been strengthened by the conversations I have had already with editors and officials. The other method to my mind resembles too closely that German method which has brought the word propaganda into disrepute.” (Telegram 2599 from Bern, February 8; National Archives, RG 59, Central Decimal File 1910–1929, Box 736, 103.9302/24)

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For his part, Wilson wrote Creel on the same day that “I feel that acknowledged Governmental activities in propaganda are highly inadvisable. Since the beginning of the war German propaganda has flooded Switzerland to such an extent that public opinion in this country turns away in a natural reaction from any thing that tends to that direction.” He continued: “Furthermore I am convinced that one article written by an editor from conviction of his heart is of more value than tons of literature and that personal and unofficial relations with editors to explain America’s views is the best type of propaganda.” He concluded: “I feel that if she were a recognized emissary from the American Committee on Public Information this would preclude her from reaching such relations with the editors of newspapers.” (Telegram 2600 from Bern, February 8; National Archives, RG 59, Central Decimal File 1910–1929, Box 736, 103.9302/25)

Carl W. Ackerman, a journalist and colleague of Presidential adviser Colonel Edward House, wrote to House immediately after Whitehouse and Wilson wrote to the Department, arguing against Whitehouse’s open work: “Public opinion not influenced by editorials but by news. German propaganda which is successful is German news despatches. Our failure here is that little news from America printed. Result that no one believes American war preparations serious. Eighty-five percent news despatches concerning America speak of mistakes, failures, miscalculations, food and coal shortages and of small army. Perhaps fifteen percent constructive or favorable. Establishment official bureau here would meet same reception as establishment of Swiss official bureau at Washington. Everything submitted will be thrown away. If America thinks its bureau an exception it is mistaken. Swiss friend just returned from America, writing articles for NEUE ZURCHER ZEITUNG was instructed by editors to recast some statements favourable to America so as not to antagonize German readers. Editor stated neutral policy of paper had offended Germans and editor was informed that unless attitude friendlier coal would be cut off by Germany.

“Believe Mrs. Whitehouse can work effectively in certain lines but American Government should not permit her to open bureau as instructed. We need not a bureau but despatches distributed through an American news agency such as Associated Press or United Press. We must compete with German and Austrian agencies because they, and not editorials and personality, influence public opinion.” (Telegram 2613 from Bern, February 9; National Archives, RG 59, Central Decimal File 1910–1929, Box 736, 103.9302/26)

Creel responded to Whitehouse’s telegram on February 16. He informed her that James Kerney, CPI representative in Paris, was scheduled to arrive in Europe soon and instructed her: “Let your situation [Page 36] wait until arrival of Kerney and shipments when clear cut decision will be made. Stop. Original instructions unaltered and President personally instructed State Department of his approval of our plans but think wise to wait before establishing office and presenting letters. Stop. Continue survey and unofficial contacts. Stop.” (Telegram 1506 to Bern, February 16; National Archives, RG 59, Central Decimal File 1910–1929, Box 736, 103.9302/40f)

Whitehouse discussed her perception of this incident in her memoirs, A Year as a Government Agent, pages 208–211, and reprinted relevant documents on pages 289–316.