U.S. newspaper coverage of World War I (1914-18) provides a unique perspective on wartime propaganda. The scope of articles and images clearly exhibits America’s evolution from firm isolationism in 1914 to staunch interventionism by 1918. Once American soldiers joined the war, public opinion at home changed. And newspapers helped change it.
President Woodrow Wilson was reelected in 1916 with a campaign slogan: "He kept us out of the war." Newspapers from that year reflected this relative neutrality. On July 11, 1916, the first two pages of the New York Times were devoted to the visit of a German submarine carrying dyestuffs to Baltimore. There were photographs and stories of the crew—including a jovial interview with the captain, Paul Koenig, who spoke at length about his U-boat's on-ship library and Shakespeare. A December 10, 1916, photograph showed a German soldier mourning at a fallen comrade's grave. The dehumanization of Germans, a trademark of wartime propaganda, had not yet begun.
The president's eventual shift in wartime policy was mirrored in the newspapers. On April 6, 1917, the United States declared war on Germany. Headlines in the New York Times and the Washington Post over the next few days declared: "Call for 'Republic' in Reichstag; America Will End Autocracy by Entering War, London Thinks—German People Learning—And Our Taking Up Arms Will Complete Their Enlightenment" and "Germans Lose Hope—Strong Demand Develops for 'Peace Without Annexation.'—Conservatives are in Fear—Campaign Against Wilson's Appeal to Teuton Democracy." The United States was optimistic that the declaration of war would compel Germany to lay down its arms. This optimism proved unfounded. By June, it was evident that Germany had no intentions of surrendering.
Patriotic propaganda, as well as a succession of censorship laws beginning with the Espionage Act of June 15, 1917, went into full swing. Photographs in the rotogravure sections showed scores of young men registering for the draft—the American flag visible in more than half the images. Photographs of German soldiers ceased, as did any stories from German or Austro-Hungarian perspectives. Countless portraits of a heroic President Wilson appeared. In June the war drive became a competition to see which state, or even which city, was the most patriotic. The New York Times posted graphics daily showing which states had contributed the most recruits and purchased the most war bonds. As intervention became imminent, newspapers ran fewer photographs from the battlefield and replaced them with pictures of parades and training regiments. Editorial policies became even more vigorously pro-American once American soldiers began to fight in the war.
Five headlines from June 1917 summarize various aspects of the war drive: "Columbia Calls"; "New Police Arms Awe Socialists"; "American Liner Thinks She Hit a U-Boat; Came Up Alongside, Cook Poured Soup on It"; "[Germany] Went Exultantly 'Goose-Stepping' Over a Neutral People"; and "Germans Gave Poison in Candy." These headlines exhibit the insistence of patriotic duty; the criticism of pacifism; and the fault, inferiority, and heartlessness of the Germans. In a matter of months, the United States had rejected isolationism and embraced its role as protector of democracy throughout the world. The American newspaper had embraced a new role as well—no longer just a reporter of news, but an agent of public opinion.