Sometimes the commonly accepted fact is not a fact
There's value in digging into citations
Have you ever read a statement of fact by a historian and wondered, “huh, that’s interesting”? Hopefully, you do, and hopefully often. History is great. However, I get frustrated when I see historians or writers reciting history who roll with the accepted or received facts and fail to dig deeper. Narratives around the Smith-Mundt Act's origin, and to a lesser degree its evolution, are packed with unfounded facts that are contradicted by the historical record, for example. Some are minor, but some are significant. I’ve discussed some of these elsewhere and eventually, a comprehensive discussion will be available with significant details (and receipts).
However, that’s not the reason for this note. No, what triggered me today are some things I read by a historian for my work on the Freedom Academy. To be fair to the historian, whom I’m not naming, they shared accepted facts that are to be found in nearly every reference to the Committee on Public Information. Some of these facts I’ve shown to be incorrect by further research, such as Stephan Vaughn’s attributing Major Douglas MacArthur’s speech, as seen by and thusly triggered Arthur Bullard, to MacArthur when he was actually reading text written while he was still assigned to the expedition against Pancho Villa. Vaughn, to his credit, is the only historian I can find who dug deeper beyond writing something like “President Wilson created CPI.” Yes, he signed the executive order, but it was an idea brought to him by members of his cabinet (and no, the Secretary of State wasn’t one of them).
No, the fact that triggered me just now has to do with the shutting down of CPI. Last year, a friend asked me to review something for them, and I flagged the phrase “Congress had not allowed its survival into peacetime” as inaccurate and asked for their source. We discussed a recently published book on CPI, which ignored the creation of CPI, and did not provide citations for the shuttering of CPI.
In the paper I just read, I saw a similar statement. Mind you, this paper was written earlier this century and wasn’t, as I just pointed out, out of the ordinary. In fact, it was quite an ordinary statement, an accepted fact, as it were. In this case, the author cited George Creel’s self-promoting book of 1920, How We Advertised America. To take Creel’s book without a grain of salt is a mistake, as Mock and Larson explain in their 1939 book about CPI, Words That Won the War. I’ll return to that.
Here is Creel’s statement from How We Advertised America: “On June 30, 1919, every dollar of our appropriation, every dollar of our earnings, was swept back into the Treasury, and the Committee itself wiped out of existence, leaving no one with authority to sign a check, transfer a bank balance, employ a clerk, rent a building, or with any power whatsoever to proceed with the business of settlement.” (p427)
That sounds bad, right? Creel also wrote the Complete Report of the Chairman of the Committee on Public Information, which, unlike How We Advertised America, was a government report. Though published in 1920, the Complete Report was completed by June 1, 1919, based on the dated memo opening the report. Mock and Larson noted, again in 1939, the “principal sources” about CPI were "both written by George Creel “with his customary verve and loyal pride in the organization, but far from complete because of [the] hasty and chaotic liquidation of the Washington office while Mr. Creel was at the Peace Conference” (p ix).
These two statements would seem to support the argument Congress was out for retribution, right? One might write something like, “When the war ended, Congress withdrew all funds and closed down the CPI so abruptly that nobody even remained who could complete an orderly liquidation of it or even put files in boxes” and point to Creel’s statement on page 427 of How We Advertised America.
Let’s look at this a bit more. Creel acknowledged the “demobilization order” for the operation came in February 1919 (p383). Creel noted that when he returned from Europe in March 1919, the shuttering of CPI was in full swing:
…the associate chairman left in charge, had carried out the demobilization orders successfully, and that each of the domestic divisions had either ended its audit or else was completing it. The work of settlement in the Washington office was proceeding slowly, owing to the resignations of purely clerical employees, but as this was a matter that concerned the business management only, I gave release to all executives upon the turning in of their accounts. I discharged myself on April 1st, but as a private citizen continued to assume full responsibility for the settlement, journeying to Washington week after week at my own expense, directing the liquidation personally.
Let’s be clear. In April, the operation was shut down, with managers and staff leaving because of a lack of future employment. Even Creel let himself go. At his own expense and time, Creel is continuing to do the work (something that cannot be done today… I forget the name of the law, but consider the instances when a budget isn’t passed and the government is “shut down” with only “essential” employees permitted to work).
What is special about June 30? That’s the end of the fiscal year. In the pages after p427 of How We Advertised America, Creel mentions how Wilson sought to have other federal departments, including the Treasury, take on the costly responsibility of completing the shutting down of CPI, including organizing its papers. No other agency wanted to spend a portion of its budget to take on this work, which is not surprising.
Let’s remember – because those citing Creel don’t – the nation incurred a large debt due to the war, and Congress, naturally, sought to address the executive branch’s expenditures. According to Creel, and thus everyone else who cites him and doesn’t read what he wrote after his complaint, Congress had it out for CPI. Creel had from February to ensure everything was in order by the end of the fiscal year, June 30. He utterly failed to do this and blamed Congress for his failure to secure the records over the course of several months (February through the end of June), a period in which he hemorrhaged staff, even firing himself. “All through May and June we pleaded with Congress” as “the business office personnel dwindled daily as men and women accepted permanent positions elsewhere” (p428). The rumor he heard that Congress was “planning to ‘put the Committee out of business’ entirely on June 30” (p428) may have been true, but let’s be serious. The committee was out of business in February, and the deadline of the end of the fiscal year is normal if you have ever worked in government.
I have no sympathy for this complaint:
The Paris and New York offices were not to be closed until June 15th; there were many foreign commissioners yet to report; and in various banks reposed large balances waiting for audit and acceptance. Nor was it the case that the Committee begged with empty hands. We had already turned more than two million dollars into the Treasury, and yet we still had sufficient funds on hand to settle every bill and meet every liquidation expense. What we asked, in effect, was the right to use a small portion of our own earnings for proper purposes of settlement. At the last moment Congress refused flatly, and on June 30th the Committee on Public Information ceased to be. (p428)
The fiscal year ended, George. Anyone who has worked in government can tell you stories about the effect of Congress failing, inadvertently or intentionally, to continue an authorization or appropriation for this or that program.
Knowing the budget situation after the war, and July 1, 1919, started the first post-war fiscal year, there is nothing here or offered by anyone other than George Creel, who is seems to be complaining about his own failure by shifting the blame onto Congress, the committee was singled out. Creel noted Wilson unsuccessfully tried to get another department to pick up the tab to finish the work Creel didn’t complete. According to Creel, though, it was an angry Congress that is to blame for the chaotic archiving, and failure to archive, the committee’s paper.
Mock and Larson noted the product of the failure to properly close up shop and archive the committee’s materials:
From June 30, 1919, until the files were placed in the custody of the Archives, they shrank to less than a quarter of their former bulk partly because of the ministrations of the “Useless Papers Committee” and partly for unexplained reasons. (p viii)
By this time you’re probably asking, “So what?” Well, the framing by Creel that an angry Congress gunned for CPI is very often used as “evidence” of a deep-seated opposition to activities like CPI’s in narratives about the US government’s “propaganda” activities later, including the Freedom Academy proposal of the 1950s-1960s, and through to the present. I’m not arguing that opposition didn’t – and doesn’t – exist, just that this accepted fact isn’t what it’s held out to be.
The picture of the Mock and Larson book, Words that Won the War, for this article is of my copy. Inside the cover is written (naturally in cursive, so maybe my kids won’t be able to read it): Property of Alice E van Diest, 1730 No Cascade, Colorado Springs, Colorado, June, 1940. The van Diest family was quite prominent, with the stately family home still standing at 1730 N. Cascade. Born in 1892, Ms van Diest passed away in 1968, and eventually, her book landed in my collection.
On a personal note, I participated in a 3D archery tournament this past Sunday. Not having shot much for nearly a year – this was perhaps the fifth time holding my bow since March – I’m happy that I wasn’t last. There was a light rain much of the day, but we were walking around a forest, so that wasn’t bad. What’s 3D? Shooting at targets like this (which vary in size, distance, and angle from the shooting position):
There were 28 stations at this tournament, meaning 28 groups rotating around the stations in and around the forest. My bow, which I need to use more to be worthy of:
That’s it for now.