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The Great War in Stereoviews

Committee on Public Information (CPI)

CPI was formed by Executive Order, 14 April 1917:

"I hereby create a Committee on Public Information, to be composed of the Secretary of State, the Secretary of War, the Secretary of the Navy, and a civilian who shall be charged with the executive direction of the committee. As civilian chairman of the committee I appoint Mr. George Creel. The Secretary of State, the Secretary of War, and the Secretary of the Navy are authorized each to detail an officer to the work of the committee. /s/ Woodrow Wilson"

The organization's purpose was to counter hostile propaganda by fighting for public opinion in the USA and overseas. Besides overseeing press censorship, it issued the daily war news and supplied feature articles to newspapers. The CPI conducted speaking campaigns and supervised the "Four-Minute Men," who gave patriotic talks at movies, theatrical performances and other gatherings. It prepared and distributed movies and photographs, including stereoviews.

Stringent CPI rules explain the rather dull wartime stereoviews and the use by Keystone and Underwood of older military file photos from the Spanish-American War, Boxer Rebellion, and Great White Fleet. A 10 August 1917 CPI pamphlet, Information Concerning the Making and Distribution of Pictures That Show The Activities of the Army and Navy, established CPI as the central office to grant permits to make pictures of government activities and set forth guidance for the press, news syndicates, motion-picture companies, and independent photographers. Pictures of the following were prohibited unless special permission was obtained:

The directive required that all photographs not taken by official photographers, even those for which permission had been granted, be submitted for approval before publication. It barred any photographers other than "official photographers in the Government service" from accompanying Army units abroad, although in December 1917, General Pershing was authorized "to grant permits to civilians to take pictures subject to censorship by the American Expeditionary Force." Any such pictures had to be exhibited in the USA only by approval of CPI. The rule regarding facilities was also relaxed. According to a War Department report, "with the exception of of certain camps where secret tests [were] being made, cantonments have been free to photographers from the beginning of the war." Numerous Keystone and Underwood stereoviews showing military training are evidence of the companies' cooperation with CPI.

The American public had a hunger for reporting on the war even before the USA declared war on 6 April 1917 and created CPI the next week. Judging from books and magazines of the period, CPI recognized the need to make the process for inclusion of photographs as simple as possible. Collier's produced a 128-page New Photographic History of the World's War in 1918 that relied heavily upon official photos and approved news photos. Of the hundreds of pictures and sketches, CPI is credited with providing the images of the actual Declaration of War and several items of equipment, including a locomotive, an artillery range-finder, a coastal defense gun, the Browning machine gun and automatic rifle. CPI also provided a humorous image of trench-building instruction by French soldiers and an actual aerial photograph of a section of German trench in France. These subjects fairly reflect the emphasis in the 1917 directive.

American stereoview companies manifested a tilt toward the Allies from the beginning, but in the early years of war they maintained some pretense of objectivity. After the US entered the war, there became apparent a number of propaganda themes, no doubt responding to CPI guidance:

For taking official photographs, each corps and division headquarters had a Signal Corps photo detachment of one officer and three enlisted men. In a 9 July 1918 report from the Secretary of War to the House of Representatives, the total number of personnel in these detachments and associated service units was given as 17 officers and 102 enlisted men. The General Staff made the Signal Corps responsible for compiling a photographic record of the war, but recognized CPI as "the sole medium of distribution."

The 250 paid employees of the CPI were organized into 27 divisions, including the Division of Pictures, which issued permits for taking photos of government activities, decided what pictures could be published, distributed official photos, and coordinated with similar organizations in the French, British, and Italian governments. "Sets of stereopticon slides [were] prepared for the use of ministers, patriotic societies, lecturers, etc.," at the nominal cost of 15˘ per view.

The Division of Pictures published periodic catalogues of official images. A description of one image illustrates the effect of censorship:

"2366. FINDING THE RANGE. Officers of the ____ Field Artillery on the range at X_____, France, are observing the results of shots of the light field guns upon distant targets, and finding new ranges."

Sets available in February 1918 were:

Information in this section was largely obtained from Records Group 63, National Archives and Records Administration. Thanks to Mr. Gene Morris of the College Park office of the National Archives.

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