During World War I, the German naval intelligence agent Felix A. Sommerfeld helped the fledgling German effort to counter a very successful British propaganda campaign. Eventually, the United States joined the war effort on the side of the British, not solely but certainly to a large degree as the result of the British success to divide the United States population, create a huge spy panic in 1915 and 1916, and create the sense of an emergency that only a military cooperation against Germany could resolve. Still today, historians are grappling with and often failing to differentiate facts from fake news and propaganda. When I researched my book, one of these facts that appears in virtually all histories on the time, is that the German sabotage agent Franz Rintelen spearheaded an effort to install the former dictator Victoriano Huerta back in Mexico. For that end, the German government supposedly made millions of dollars available. These, according to Barbara Tuchman, Friedrich Katz, Michael Meyer and others, came from Germany via Havana to New York. When I discovered the financial records of the German embassy and the entire North American spy organization, I was perplexed to find, that not only did this money exist, the German government actually supported a different plan for Mexico, one in which Huerta had no place. German agents indeed helped the U.S. authorities to dismantle the conspiracy and get the Mexican agitator arrested. Those were the facts.
Where then did Tuchman and others receive their information? I looked at Tuchman’s sources and found a reference to a New York Times article. The first words of the article said: “Tomorrow the Providence Journal will report…” The facts that followed came from John Rathom, a British agent in charge of British propaganda in the United States and the editor-in-chief of the British owned Providence Journal. Maybe Ms. Tuchman did not know who Rathom was, maybe she ignored the first sentence of the article. Katz referenced Tuchman, Meyer referenced Katz and on it goes with a fake news item remaining in the public realm for 100 years. The use of propaganda of a foreign government in the United States to move the political environment towards its end, seems to be happening today. It might be well worth and enlightening to study what happened 100 years ago in this country. After all, the U.S. support of the Allies and the eventual entry into World War I had a far-reaching impact on U.S. and world history.
Sommerfeld identified four rules that govern successful propaganda:
1) Limit access to information and control the message for each targeted channel.
2) Preempt an attack, line up the important players beforehand and win the argument.
3) Mold the message in such a way that the target audience understands it.
4) Control the message with surrogates who are beyond reproach.
The first act of war in August 1914 by the British was the cutting of the German trans-Atlantic cables and installation of censors for all transatlantic information flow. This brilliant move made it impossible for the German government to communicate with its embassy and consulates in the United States. All news from German or pro-German or neutral sources had to come through Great Britain, where censors eliminated anything that did not fit the propaganda goals of the British government.
German-Americans constituted the largest minority in the United States, although this group was not at all as cohesive as English propaganda made it out to be. German communities included those united the Lutheran church, the German-American Roman Catholic community, the Amish and the Mennonites, both of whom had anti-war leanings. Poor laborers, farmers, and craftsmen had to worry more about their daily bread than joining a confrontation with the pro-British American movement. Many immigrants from the lower classes in Germany had changed their names and integrated fully into their communities as Americans. German merchants and traders, especially in the west and southwest, often were integrated in a way that there was no palpable difference from the rest of society.
These groups could not take sides for fear of losing their customer base. Thus, the raw numbers of Americans who identified their background as German, paint a superficial and wholly inaccurate picture. The 1910 census reflects that 8.2 million persons named Germany as their land of origin, of whom 2.5 million had been born in Germany. In addition to the German communities, other minorities courted by German propaganda also had the potential of being perceived as disloyal to the United States: The Jewish community, in general, wanted Germany to win against Russia since Jewish citizens there had few rights and were persecuted. The Irish and Indian communities sought independence from England and, as a result, were generally supportive of Germany.
The British propaganda effectively stoked the fears that these huge minorities would rise against their country of residence. The American public swayed into doubting German-American loyalty over the course of the first year of the war. The German government understood clearly that the reality was different, but failed to assert the facts. Even before the war started, Ambassador Bernstorff had “[…] informed the Wilhelmstrasse that the majority of German-Americans were lost for the German cause as far as direct engagement was concerned.”
The British systematically disseminated messages among American papers through genuine journalists as surrogates, acknowledging the other side’s argument to give the impression of impartiality. Their intelligence services provided sensational news immediately when – sometimes even before – events occurred. The British operation combined restricting and controlling access to the news, and backed their reporting with thorough intelligence work. English propagandists exploited the realization that the American hunger for facts and sensation trumped any German efforts, even without a highly anglophile American press, public, and government.
Walter Nicolai, the head of the German Military Intelligence Service in World War I commented in his 1923 memoirs, that there was no intelligence link with the propaganda effort. “The ‘Press Service,’ which has often been, and still is, in Germany confused with the ‘Intelligence Service,’ first devolved on the General Staff after the outbreak of the War, because no government department had made any preparations for its establishment. The Imperial Government had not comprehended that without such a service even military operations were impossible […] Unlike her opponents, Germany had not at her command a political, economic, and military service of information concocted in co-ordinated fashion by the Government. She did not […] take any advantage of political conditions in enemy countries or influence the neutrals by means of propaganda […]”
Heinrich Albert seconded the spy chief’s analysis. He spoke to the same issue as Walter Nicolai, head of German military intelligence, noting in his diary in the winter of 1914-15: “The English have systematically worked long before the war, and especially in the first few weeks when German news was not available here, in order to malign us, and to paint a fake picture of us. We neglected both to gain sufficient influence, and to win the entire American people; the only means [for us to counter the English propaganda would have been] English printed news papers [sic], which would give the readers, and impregnate them without their knowing or noticing it, German ideas. A great neglect, that we do not own one, just now when the newspapers play such a big part...”
The media 100 years ago were newspapers and magazines. If it was hard then to fight targeted foreign propaganda, one can only surmise what a vast Internet, social media, television, and film can achieve for a skilled propaganda person. If you want to learn more about propaganda, sabotage, undue influence in politics during the years leading up to the American entry into World War I, check out my books, The Secret War on the United States, and The Secret War Council.