18. Letter From the Director of the Foreign Section, Committee on Public Information (Irwin) to the Committee on Public Information Commissioner in France (Kerney)1

Dear Mr. Kerney:

I have taken charge of the work of foreign propaganda, vice Commissioner Woods resigned. Mr. Hugh Gibson, as you doubtless already know, is on his way to Paris via London. He will doubtless see you and put you in touch with our plans. I cabled you today asking you to report on progress and to tell me what you thought should be done.2 We are prepared greatly to expand the French work, and I shall very shortly be sending you assistance. In the meantime, a great deal of assistance can probably be picked up in Paris. I know the French better [Page 42] than any other European people in this war, and so can perhaps do a little judging on the situation, myself.

In the first place, I am of the opinion that printed propaganda has worn itself out a little in all countries, and that word of mouth stuff is infinitely more valuable. I also know that the French are great on conferences, and that public lecturers are excellent propagandists. Much was done in an organized way last winter by such speakers as Herbert Adams Gibbons.3 I think you should do all you can to organize the Americans capable of making an acceptable speech in French language, and sending them forth with the general ideas which we wish to implant. This work is much better done by perhaps Americans than by Frenchmen, provided the Americans can speak the language acceptably. If you are going heavily into that department please let me know, because I think I can send you a few people from here.

If I were you, I should avoid the mistake of allowing myself to be closely connected with what we call “the ex-patriot bunch” in Paris. These people look to Paris society and the French Official class for their social sanctions, and are no more in touch with the real people of France than a foreigner who had invaded New York society would be in touch with the real people of America. Too much has been done perhaps with the upper classes of the French and not nearly enough with the people in general. Just before I left France in February, I took a trip through the South in order to find what the people were thinking and talking about, as regards America. I found that the German whispering propaganda has been busy down there, and that nothing had been done among them to controvert the idea that we are money grabbing people who entered the war to prevent financial panic, who are loaning funds to Europe at luxurious interest, and who, when the allied nations are exhausted, will come over and collect on the mortgage with fresh armies. As you have probably perceived by now, Europe is getting very radical, and what is whispered among the submerged classes today may be the dominant thought of the governing classes tomorrow, so even in friendly France we cannot overlook the working and peasant classes.

Here is the thing upon which I suggest immediate action: In thinking over this matter of propaganda. I realize that the most effective propaganda done in America during the period of our neutrality, was done by prominent newspaper and magazine writers for our American publications, who went to Europe, took one side or the other, came back and wrote about it. A statement from Clemenceau, Maeterlinck,4 [Page 43] or Anatole France5 did not have nearly so much influence as a magazine article by William Hard,6 Irvin Cobb7 or Richard Harding Davis.8 These Americans had their own following among our magazine or newspaper readers and talked our own intellectual language as the Europeans did not. Now, I want to encourage star French journalists and literary men to come to America and write us up. One problem confronts us there. The European publications are run on a very much more narrow margin of expenses than the American and cannot afford to pay huge expense accounts as ours can. It may be necessary for us to offer to pay their expenses. I dislike to do this for two reasons—first our money is somewhat limited in proportion to the job we have to do, and second this method might be criticised. But, after all it is not really illegitimate, and the main thing is to get the men here. If you can arrange for such men, the more eminent the better, to visit America, we will arrange at this end to have them taken in hand, given a good time and shown everything.

This is about the organization that I have suggested for most of the European nations. We will have to modify it sometimes to suit individual circumstances. First, the Director, second one or two expert newspaper men or professional publicity agents; third, a bureau of speakers in which should be included someone to take charge of distribution and use of moving picture films; fourth, one or two first rate American advertising men; at least one person whose job it is to travel through the country and gather information for our use; about what the people are saying about us with a view to ascertaining what our needs are in the way of propaganda.

Item four may strike you as curious. It is, in fact, one of my hobbies. I have been watching both British and French propaganda. They are both rather inept because these people are a generation behind us in the advertising game. We invented and developed it, and we are the only people, except the Germans, who have been trained to be experts on psychology. I want to send over to Europe and use there, the kind of American advertising man who has the priceless jewel of originality in him—who will think of the thing that no one else will think of. Of course, I should want his work gone over and experted by those who better understand the people, in order to prevent his making a mistake. Please do not understand this idea in its narrow sense. I do not want a man to write American advertising. I want one to think of the thing that no one else thought of before in the way of influencing people.

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Since you are new to France and do not, I understand, speak the French language, I should suggest that you make connections with someone who really understands the people and that you talk most of your plans over with him and be guided by his advice. The French are a people of great intelligence, as you know, but of various mental peculiarities; methods that go great with us, frequently fall down absolutely with them and vice versa. Moreover, in no other country of Europe except Spain, is it so easy for the well intentioned outsider to give offense to his public.

Hugh Gibson will doubtless talk over our plans more fully when he arrives.

Wishing you every success in the job, I remain,

Very sincerely yours,9

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 63, Entry 106, Correspondence, Cables, Reports, and Newspapers Received from Employees of the Committee Abroad, Nov. 1917–Apr. 1919, Box 8, Kerney—Corres. March–July 1918. No classification marking. The letter was sent to Kerney in care of the Embassy in Paris.
  2. Telegram 3339 to Paris, March 19. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Decimal File 1910–1929, Box 732, 103.93/91c)
  3. U.S. journalist.
  4. Maurice Maeterlinck, Belgian author.
  5. French author.
  6. U.S. journalist.
  7. U.S. author.
  8. U.S. journalist.
  9. Printed from an unsigned copy.