Public Opinion







The picture of a general presiding over an editorial conference at the
most terrible hour of one of the great battles of history seems more
like a scene from The Chocolate Soldier than a page from life. Yet we
know at first hand from the officer who edited the French communiqués
that these conferences were a regular part of the business of war;
that in the worst moment of Verdun, General Joffre and his cabinet met
and argued over the nouns, adjectives, and verbs that were to be
printed in the newspapers the next morning.

“The evening communiqué of the twenty-third (February 1916)” says M.
de Pierrefeu, [Footnote: _G. Q. G_., pp. 126-129.] “was edited in
a dramatic atmosphere. M. Berthelot, of the Prime Minister’s office,
had just telephoned by order of the minister asking General Pelle to
strengthen the report and to emphasize the proportions of the enemy’s
attack. It was necessary to prepare the public for the worst outcome
in case the affair turned into a catastrophe. This anxiety showed
clearly that neither at G. H. Q. nor at the Ministry of War had the
Government found reason for confidence. As M. Berthelot spoke, General
Pelle made notes. He handed me the paper on which he had written the
Government’s wishes, together with the order of the day issued by
General von Deimling and found on some prisoners, in which it was
stated that this attack was the supreme offensive to secure peace.
Skilfully used, all this was to demonstrate that Germany was letting
loose a gigantic effort, an effort without precedent, and that from
its success she hoped for the end of the war. The logic of this was
that nobody need be surprised at our withdrawal. When, a half hour
later, I went down with my manuscript, I found gathered together in
Colonel Claudel’s office, he being away, the major-general, General
Janin, Colonel Dupont, and Lieutenant-Colonel Renouard. Fearing that I
would not succeed in giving the desired impression, General Pellé had
himself prepared a proposed communiqué. I read what I had just done.
It was found to be too moderate. General Pellé’s, on the other hand,
seemed too alarming. I had purposely omitted von Deimling’s order of
the day. To put it into the communiqué _would be to break with the
formula to which the public was accustomed_, would be to transform
it into a kind of pleading. It would seem to say: ‘How do you suppose
we can resist?’ There was reason to fear that the public would be
distracted by this change of tone and would believe that everything
was lost. I explained my reasons and suggested giving Deimling’s text
to the newspapers in the form of a separate note.

“Opinion being divided, General Pellé went to ask General de Castelnau
to come and decide finally. The General arrived smiling, quiet and
good humored, said a few pleasant words about this new kind of
literary council of war, and looked at the texts. He chose the simpler
one, gave more weight to the first phrase, inserted the words ‘as had
been anticipated,’ which supply a reassuring quality, and was flatly
against inserting von Deimling’s order, but was for transmitting it to
the press in a special note … ” General Joffre that evening read the
communiqué carefully and approved it.

Within a few hours those two or three hundred words would be read all
over the world. They would paint a picture in men’s minds of what was
happening on the slopes of Verdun, and in front of that picture people
would take heart or despair. The shopkeeper in Brest, the peasant in
Lorraine, the deputy in the Palais Bourbon, the editor in Amsterdam or
Minneapolis had to be kept in hope, and yet prepared to accept
possible defeat without yielding to panic. They are told, therefore,
that the loss of ground is no surprise to the French Command. They are
taught to regard the affair as serious, but not strange. Now, as a
matter of fact, the French General Staff was not fully prepared for
the German offensive. Supporting trenches had not been dug,
alternative roads had not been built, barbed wire was lacking. But to
confess that would have aroused images in the heads of civilians that
might well have turned a reverse into a disaster. The High Command
could be disappointed, and yet pull itself together; the people at
home and abroad, full of uncertainties, and with none of the
professional man’s singleness of purpose, might on the basis of a
complete story have lost sight of the war in a melee of faction and
counter-faction about the competence of the officers. Instead,
therefore, of letting the public act on all the facts which the
generals knew, the authorities presented only certain facts, and these
only in such a way as would be most likely to steady the people.

In this case the men who arranged the pseudo-environment knew what the
real one was. But a few days later an incident occurred about which
the French Staff did not know the truth. The Germans announced
[Footnote: On February 26, 1916. Pierrefeu, _G. Q. G._, pp. 133
_et seq_.] that on the previous afternoon they had taken Fort
Douaumont by assault. At French headquarters in Chantilly no one
could understand this news. For on the morning of the twenty-fifth,
after the engagement of the XXth corps, the battle had taken a turn
for the better. Reports from the front said nothing about Douaumont.
But inquiry showed that the German report was true, though no one as
yet knew how the fort had been taken. In the meantime, the German
communiqué was being flashed around the world, and the French had to
say something. So headquarters explained. “In the midst of total
ignorance at Chantilly about the way the attack had taken place, we
imagined, in the evening communiqué of the 26th, a plan of the attack
which certainly had a thousand to one chance of being true.” The
communiqué of this imaginary battle read:

“A bitter struggle is taking place around Fort de Douaumont which is
an advanced post of the old defensive organization of Verdun. The
position taken this morning by the enemy, _after several
unsuccessful assaults that cost him very heavy losses_, has been
reached again and passed by our troops whom the enemy has not been
able to drive back.” [Footnote: This is my own translation: the
English translation from London published in the New York Times of
Sunday, Feb. 27, is as follows:

London, Feb. 26 (1916). A furious struggle has been in progress around
Fort de Douaumont which is an advance element of the old defensive
organization of Verdun fortresses. The position captured this morning
by the enemy after several fruitless assaults which cost him extremely
heavy losses, [Footnote: The French text says “pertes tres elevees.”
Thus the English translation exaggerates the original text.] was
reached again and gone beyond by our troops, which all the attempts of
the enemy have not been able to push back.”]

What had actually happened differed from both the French and German
accounts. While changing troops in the line, the position had somehow
been forgotten in a confusion of orders. Only a battery commander and
a few men remained in the fort. Some German soldiers, seeing the door
open, had crawled into the fort, and taken everyone inside prisoner. A
little later the French who were on the slopes of the hill were
horrified at being shot at from the fort. There had been no battle at
Douaumont and no losses. Nor had the French troops advanced beyond it
as the communiqués seemed to say. They were beyond it on either side,
to be sure, but the fort was in enemy hands.

Yet from the communiqué everyone believed that the fort was half
surrounded. The words did not explicitly say so, but “the press, as
usual, forced the pace.” Military writers concluded that the Germans
would soon have to surrender. In a few days they began to ask
themselves why the garrison, since it lacked food, had not yet
surrendered. “It was necessary through the press bureau to request
them to drop the encirclement theme.” [Footnote: Pierrefeu, _op.
cit._, pp. 134-5.]


The editor of the French communiqué tells us that as the battle
dragged out, his colleagues and he set out to neutralize the
pertinacity of the Germans by continual insistence on their terrible
losses. It is necessary to remember that at this time, and in fact
until late in 1917, the orthodox view of the war for all the Allied
peoples was that it would be decided by “attrition.” Nobody believed
in a war of movement. It was insisted that strategy did not count, or
diplomacy. It was simply a matter of killing Germans. The general
public more or less believed the dogma, but it had constantly to be
reminded of it in face of spectacular German successes.

“Almost no day passed but the communiqué…. ascribed to the Germans
with some appearance of justice heavy losses, extremely heavy, spoke
of bloody sacrifices, heaps of corpses, hecatombs. Likewise the
wireless constantly used the statistics of the intelligence bureau at
Verdun, whose chief, Major Cointet, had invented a method of
calculating German losses which obviously produced marvelous results.
Every fortnight the figures increased a hundred thousand or so. These
300,000, 400,000, 500,000 casualties put out, divided into daily,
weekly, monthly losses, repeated in all sorts of ways, produced a
striking effect. Our formulae varied little: ‘according to prisoners
the German losses in the course of the attack have been considerable’ …
‘it is proved that the losses’ … ‘the enemy exhausted by his losses
has not renewed the attack’ … Certain formulae, later abandoned
because they had been overworked, were used each day: ‘under
our artillery and machine gun fire’ … ‘mowed down by our artillery
and machine gun fire’ … Constant repetition impressed the neutrals
and Germany itself, and helped to create a bloody background in spite
of the denials from Nauen (the German wireless) which tried vainly to
destroy the bad effect of this perpetual repetition.” [Footnote: _Op.
cit._, pp. 138-139.]

The thesis of the French Command, which it wished to establish
publicly by these reports, was formulated as follows for the guidance
of the censors:

“This offensive engages the active forces of our opponent whose
manpower is declining. We have learned that the class of 1916 is
already at the front. There will remain the 1917 class already being
called up, and the resources of the third category (men above
forty-five, or convalescents). In a few weeks, the German forces
exhausted by this effort, will find themselves confronted with all the
forces of the coalition (ten millions against seven millions).”
[Footnote: _Op. cit._, p. 147.]

According to M. de Pierrefeu, the French command had converted itself
to this belief. “By an extraordinary aberration of mind, only the
attrition of the enemy was seen; it appeared that our forces were not
subject to attrition. General Nivelle shared these ideas. We saw the
result in 1917.”

We have learned to call this propaganda. A group of men, who can
prevent independent access to the event, arrange the news of it to
suit their purpose. That the purpose was in this case patriotic does
not affect the argument at all. They used their power to make the
Allied publics see affairs as they desired them to be seen. The
casualty figures of Major Cointet which were spread about the world
are of the same order. They were intended to provoke a particular kind
of inference, namely that the war of attrition was going in favor of
the French. But the inference is not drawn in the form of argument. It
results almost automatically from the creation of a mental picture of
endless Germans slaughtered on the hills about Verdun. By putting the
dead Germans in the focus of the picture, and by omitting to mention
the French dead, a very special view of the battle was built up. It
was a view designed to neutralize the effects of German territorial
advances and the impression of power which the persistence of the
offensive was making. It was also a view that tended to make the
public acquiesce in the demoralizing defensive strategy imposed upon
the Allied armies. For the public, accustomed to the idea that war
consists of great strategic movements, flank attacks, encirclements,
and dramatic surrenders, had gradually to forget that picture in favor
of the terrible idea that by matching lives the war would be won.
Through its control over all news from the front, the General Staff
substituted a view of the facts that comported with this strategy.

The General Staff of an army in the field is so placed that within
wide limits it can control what the public will perceive. It controls
the selection of correspondents who go to the front, controls their
movements at the front, reads and censors their messages from the
front, and operates the wires. The Government behind the army by its
command of cables and passports, mails and custom houses and blockades
increases the control. It emphasizes it by legal power over
publishers, over public meetings, and by its secret service. But in
the case of an army the control is far from perfect. There is always
the enemy’s communiqué, which in these days of wireless cannot be kept
away from neutrals. Above all there is the talk of the soldiers, which
blows back from the front, and is spread about when they are on
leave. [Footnote: For weeks prior to the American attack at St. Mihiel
and in the Argonne-Meuse, everybody in France told everybody else the
deep secret.] An army is an unwieldy thing. And that is why the naval
and diplomatic censorship is almost always much more complete. Fewer
people know what is going on, and their acts are more easily


Without some form of censorship, propaganda in the strict sense of the
word is impossible. In order to conduct a propaganda there must be
some barrier between the public and the event. Access to the real
environment must be limited, before anyone can create a
pseudo-environment that he thinks wise or desirable. For while people
who have direct access can misconceive what they see, no one else can
decide how they shall misconceive it, unless he can decide where they
shall look, and at what. The military censorship is the simplest form
of barrier, but by no means the most important, because it is known to
exist, and is therefore in certain measure agreed to and discounted.

At different times and for different subjects some men impose and
other men accept a particular standard of secrecy. The frontier
between what is concealed because publication is not, as we say,
“compatible with the public interest” fades gradually into what is
concealed because it is believed to be none of the public’s business.
The notion of what constitutes a person’s private affairs is elastic.
Thus the amount of a man’s fortune is considered a private affair, and
careful provision is made in the income tax law to keep it as private
as possible. The sale of a piece of land is not private, but the price
may be. Salaries are generally treated as more private than wages,
incomes as more private than inheritances. A person’s credit rating is
given only a limited circulation. The profits of big corporations are
more public than those of small firms. Certain kinds of conversation,
between man and wife, lawyer and client, doctor and patient, priest
and communicant, are privileged. Directors’ meetings are generally
private. So are many political conferences. Most of what is said at a
cabinet meeting, or by an ambassador to the Secretary of State, or at
private interviews, or dinner tables, is private. Many people regard
the contract between employer and employee as private. There was a
time when the affairs of all corporations were held to be as private
as a man’s theology is to-day. There was a time before that when his
theology was held to be as public a matter as the color of his eyes.
But infectious diseases, on the other hand, were once as private as
the processes of a man’s digestion. The history of the notion of
privacy would be an entertaining tale. Sometimes the notions violently
conflict, as they did when the bolsheviks published the secret
treaties, or when Mr. Hughes investigated the life insurance
companies, or when somebody’s scandal exudes from the pages of Town
Topics to the front pages of Mr. Hearst’s newspapers.

Whether the reasons for privacy are good or bad, the barriers exist.
Privacy is insisted upon at all kinds of places in the area of what is
called public affairs. It is often very illuminating, therefore, to
ask yourself how you got at the facts on which you base your opinion.
Who actually saw, heard, felt, counted, named the thing, about which
you have an opinion? Was it the man who told you, or the man who told
him, or someone still further removed? And how much was he permitted
to see? When he informs you that France thinks this and that, what
part of France did he watch? How was he able to watch it? Where was he
when he watched it? What Frenchmen was he permitted to talk to, what
newspapers did he read, and where did they learn what they say? You
can ask yourself these questions, but you can rarely answer them. They
will remind you, however, of the distance which often separates your
public opinion from the event with which it deals. And the reminder is
itself a protection.