The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

U.S. was targeted with foreign propaganda and disinformation in WWI

Herbert Corey uses a pair of binoculars to look out from a fortified trench. (Corey papers/Library of Congress)
11 min

When we found Herbert Corey’s memoir of World War I in the Library of Congress, it was a rough first draft produced on thin, ragged paper with a typewriter that cried out for a fresh ribbon. But it sparkled with the distinctive voice of an American journalist who Pearson’s Magazine called the “premier anecdote man of the United States.”

Corey, a writer for the short-lived Associated Newspapers syndicate, covered all four years of World War I, a distinction that appears unmatched among American correspondents. He boarded the Lusitania in New York harbor on Aug. 6, 1914, two days after the British declared war on Germany. He witnessed the war from behind German and French lines and was with the first U.S. soldiers who charged the enemy.

By the end of the war, the staff of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) considered him “the dean of the correspondents with the American Army.” He stayed in Europe through the peace negotiations in 1919.

And yet he is barely remembered. He focused on the human stories of soldiers and civilians rather than the grand stratagems of the generals. Unlike many of his colleagues, Corey did not write a memoir until the twilight of his career. It was never published and sat unnoticed among the papers his widow donated to the Library of Congress after his death in 1954.

That manuscript, now edited, annotated and with an introduction, was published Wednesday by LSU Press as “Herbert Corey’s Great War: A Memoir of World War I by the American Reporter Who Saw It All.” It is especially rich with Corey’s biting observations on the impediments reporters faced conveying the story of the war to Americans — and his tart commentary still resonates as our age struggles with disinformation.

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The war marked the beginning of systematic, pervasive propaganda, including as employed by the U.S. government in the form of President Woodrow Wilson’s Committee on Public Information. Corey was frustrated by military censors, U.S. and Allied officials, and his own editors.

At the end of the war, Corey and four colleagues violated AEF rules against traveling into Germany. As punishment, the AEF killed their stories. In Corey’s case, this amounted to 17 insightful dispatches.

Corey’s memoir focuses on British manipulation of American public opinion. London cleverly cultivated officials and opinion leaders in the United States, planted stories in newspapers and took censorship to a new level by rewriting correspondents’ stories, a practice Corey exposed.

The excerpt below, one of Corey’s ruminations on the pervasiveness of propaganda, is a reminder of the ways in which foreign governments can distort our understanding of the world. It has been lightly edited for length.

One advantage of a democratic form of government is that it is not necessary to tell the democrats what is going on. If a question arises it is only necessary to repeat over and over three words—no, four words: “Duty—Humanity—Our Country.” The democrats will come along like sheep.

In retrospect it hardly seems possible that a large, throbbing land, practically filled with inspired editors and old ladies and professors and a few wage-earners, would bite into such an apple as the Allies offered us, without first determining that there was no worm at the core. But we did bite in. From August 1914 to April 1917, we had been well and copiously fooled.

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Timeout while I thrum again on the single string. The Allies were not to be blamed for fooling us. It was their national duty to save themselves by any means possible. When the Germans refused to abandon the use of gas, in response to their tearful outcries, the Allies began contentedly to use gas themselves. If the Allies had told us everything they knew about their own desperate situation we might—perhaps—have signed up for a war which was to cost us an as yet unknown number of billions of dollars, and lives, and pension plans, and compensation schemes and second-rate congressmen and AEFs. On the other hand, we might not. Who can tell?

I landed in New York on April 5, 1917, which was the day we declared war against Germany. Everyone was excited and cheerful. It had been my intention to go straight to Washington and see for myself what was being done, but it happened that the New York Globe’s annual dinner was on the fifth, and I was easily persuaded to attend it. The dinner guests included the entire editorial and business and mechanical force. By permission I brought with me as my guest Edgar Brown of the Chicago Daily News. Our paths had crossed in Italy, Macedonia, Germany and France.

“Get up and say something,” commanded Henry J. Wright, editor of the Globe.

“Let Brown break the ice.” Public speaking is like chaff down the back. Annoying but inevitable at threshing time.

Brown broke it all right. An impulse of heavenly candor moved him. He went through the situation in the near East item by item, took up the fix in which the embattled European countries found themselves, and outlined the German plans and told of German successes and of Allied dissension and failures. His conclusion was:

“Today the Allies are licked and broke. The only way they can be saved is through the aid and sacrifice of the United States.”

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The Globe force listened with its collective jaw dropping. It had hoped for a nice, rousing speech of enthusiasm and cheer. Brown was as comforting as a wet rag. They called on me. Recent practice in hypocrisy had formed me into a fairly habitual cheat. Only by the repetition of glad words in which I did not believe had it been possible to stay on in Verona as a war correspondent. Brown’s example temporarily pushed me off my pedestal and I followed his truths with truths of my own. When it was all over, Mr. Wright asked: “Are these things really true?”

The editor of a New York paper, in constant touch, presumably, with every source of news, actually did not know how desperate was the state of the Allies in the spring of 1917, when they finally sold us the pup. It must not be understood that the newspapers of the United States did not get and print news from the various seats of war, which was to all intents and purposes accurate. But it was not truthful.

If a communique from either side stated that “An operation which has been in progress for several days has finally succeeded in moving the line from Mont Here to Lac de There,” that communique was perfectly accurate. But to be entirely truthful it should have continued with the statement that the side issuing the communique had just had all the bark beaten off it between the points named, and that the operation was successful only in that the bedeviled, starved, exhausted soldiery had been able breathlessly to dig in on a new line and hold on until the reserves could be rushed up.

It was not possible to keep the United States ignorant of a majority of the physical facts, but the careful censoring and the delaying of the news and the fairly complete control of the sources kept the United States in ignorance of much of the significance. In 1917, conditions in France seemed so desperate that several regiments were on the edge of revolt.

“They will not suffer much longer unless some hope is offered,” said a friend who was an officer of artillery in the French army. “It is not that we have lost courage, but we are a practical people. If we are to be beaten in the end, we had best take our licking now, and get it over with, and hope for better luck next time.”

I told my friends of the New York Globe of these things. For weeks my friend, the artillery officer, had been standing by, ready to turn his guns on the mutinous troops. He grieved over the necessity, for he sympathized with the men who felt that if further suffering were to be useless, the sensible thing to do was to end it. But he would have mowed down the mass as relentlessly as though they were Germans. War is like that.

The United States did not know these things. Yet people who do not know us speak of us as a practical people.

American correspondents were not to blame. They did their very damnedest to get the facts across. Their editors edited whatever guts out of their stories the censors had left in, and business managers prodded the editors constantly for more and better pro-Allies stuff. Pro-Allies stuff was popular stuff.

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Again, I must repeat that this is not being said in criticism. Whatever American journalism may have been in the old days when editors wore high hats, with pistols under the spiked tails of their coats, journalism now has become a big business. W.L. Rogers left the New York Globe to establish a weekly paper for the technical instruction of newspapermen in the new factory idea. No business in which so much money is interested can be anything else than practical. It is, however, regrettable that this fact was not more fully recognized in 1917. The factory still had the golden rules of a past day pasted on its office walls.

For reasons of my own I will not use the name of the correspondent, but most newspapermen who were in France at the time will know him. He represented one of the great American papers. I had and have an intense admiration for it. The fight of the Chemin des Dames came on, in which France did not gain a victory. The cost in blood of the operation was extravagant. Behind it was an important story of the French army and parliamentary politics. This correspondent filed the story to his paper.

If that story had been published, at that time, it would have helped to open the eyes of the American public to what was going on. After holding it for some weeks the editors decided against publication. Their reason was a perfectly straightforward and logical one. The sentiment of the United States was wholly with France, and such disclosures might weaken us in the faith and give comfort to those who still were skeptics.

The correspondent asked permission to offer it to a weekly magazine that had asked for some of his stuff, and that permission was granted. The weekly magazine published it some weeks later, and the politicians in France who were offended by its disclosures began to raise merry hell. Mark this: The truth of the facts disclosed had never been questioned. The reputations for sanity and generosity of certain politicians was affected. The fuller and more dramatic revelation at the time of writing of the discord in French high politics—already well known to those Americans who followed such things—might have been a warning to the United States.

The upshot was that the correspondent lost his job with the daily paper. Then he went with the weekly magazine. Eventually he lost his job with the weekly. I do not know why, but I presume that the editors grew tired of having the French diplomatic corps dance around in the outer office every time one of his stories was published. He stayed on in France, and more eventually still he was decorated and has lived happily ever after.