RICHARD BABB: Overlooking WW I misses important historical lessons

By Richard Babb

Lord. Claude Choules has done up and died. Mr. Choules, a Brit and 110 years old, was the last known combatant of WW I, aka the Great War, the War to End All Wars. He was preceded in death by Frank Buckles, the last American WW I vet, also 110, who died a few months back. The press noted it was the passing of an era, but to be honest it was an era that passed long ago, say about 1939, when Germany invaded Poland setting off WW II.
Fact is, WW I always seems to get overlooked not only in our history books but in the popular imagination. And yet, you wonder why, since 20 million people died between 1914 and 1918. I suppose the reason is time and numbers, with 50 million dead in WW II. Still WW I was important.
For one thing, it shot to hell both literally and figuratively the idea scurrying around the early 20th century that life was getting better all the time. Nothing like a war between ostensibly Christian nations and then 1.2 million deaths over a six month period – as happened during the Battle of the Somme – to put a damper on the power of positive thinking.
But WW I was also important, because without it, there probably wouldn’t have been World War II. Germany’s economy was debilitated by the war and further stressed by forced reparations. Combined with the collapse of Wall Street in ’29, Germany fell into economic chaos.
And with extreme economic chaos, you can predict one absolutely verifiable certainty: It is going to vomit up some demagogue to incite the masses. The demagogue vomited up from the vortex of Germany’s economic despair was no corn pone huckster like Glenn Beck, but a former corporal in the German Army, one Adolph Hitler. Hitler seized and popularized the already circulating idea that the Jews were the reason Germany lost, and the rest, as they say, is history.
But for American history, World War I was important in another way. It was the first modern war when the government and media melded to sell a war the American people they did not want.
Woodrow Wilson, a preacher’s kid and a Democrat, had campaigned on staying out of the war, even later officially declaring neutrality. But the pressure built. Literally running out of bodies, England and France were begging for reinforcements. Wall Street was making money on selling and shipping arms to England and France, and had loaned a truckload of money to those countries which was at risk if England and France fell. Even when the Lusitania was sunk by a German U boat, Americans were reticent.
Well, if the citizens don’t want a war, what do you do? What Wilson did was establish a government propaganda agency, the Committee on Public Information. The CPI utilized all available resources to convince citizens that America needed to enter the war. Thousands of posters were disseminated. Movie making, in its infancy, was utilized. He recruited 75,000 “minute men” who would speak for only four minutes at functions, adjudged the average attention span. He effectively manipulated an uncritical mainstream press.
One of the most important members of the committee was Edward Bernays, the double nephew of one Sigmund Freud. And while Uncle Sigmund had taken his insights into the human psyche to help people, his nephew, Bernays, took these notions in a different direction. He used them and developed advertising techniques, believing in the necessity of manipulating the masses for their own good, something he referred to as the “engineering of consent.” After the war, Bernays made a ton of money selling soap and cigarettes, among other items, connecting them to psychological needs.
But selling war ain’t selling cigarettes and soap. And so during the run up to the war, Bernays whipped up hysteria against “the Hun” as militaristic barbarians. Combined with the use of other propaganda techniques, opinion changed and America entered the war in 1917, the infusion of materiel and men turning the tide.
The idea of a free press is that it must be free to press. And when the press engages in an unthinking alliance with the government to manipulate the American people, the press has given up its independence for critical inquiry. Wilson not only blurred the lines between the government and the press, he created a de facto state-run propaganda arm.
Not long ago, Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, said the reason we went to war in Iraq was because of oil. Bernays’ ideas were used by Goebbels in the Nazi campaign against the Jews. And for his part, Claude Choules eventually became a pacifist.

Richard Babb is a Tupelo attorney. Contact him at