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  • World War I, Public Intellectuals, and the Four Minute Men:Convergent Ideals of Public Speaking and Civic Participation
  • Lisa Mastrangelo (bio)

How can we reach [the people]? Not through the press, for they do not read; not through patriotic rallies, for they do not come. Every night eight to ten million people of all classes, all degrees of intelligence, black and white, young and old, rich and poor, meet in the moving picture houses of this country, and among them are many of these silent ones who do not read or attend meetings but who must be reached.

Public Speaking Professor Bertram Nelson, University of Chicago, Associate Director of the Four Minute Men Division

The onset of World War I occurred during a particularly rich period of social, political, and educational change in the United States. During this time there were tremendous educational changes, including revisions in the overall university structure and the first appeals from the [End Page 607] State for professional consultations from university and college faculty. In addition, large social shifts included appeals from progressives for more social reforms and more access to democratic education, and the first large-scale development of the intellectual as a public figure. Although many histories cover this time period, very few rhetorical histories make in-depth references to World War I or to war-related rhetorical educational activities in which students might have participated.1 Instead, most gloss over the complexities that the war brought to rhetorical activities such as public speaking, declamation, and debate. Fewer still refer to the ways in which rhetorical education was affected. And yet these histories would have ready-made source material if they chose to use it; one of the best examples of a public, rhetorical, intellectual endeavor can be seen through the Four Minute Men public speaking initiative. The Four Minute Men, developed and overseen by the United States Government's Committee on Public Information (CPI), was so widespread and so successful that its disappearance in rhetorical history is both surprising and unfortunate. Of particular interest to rhetorical historians are the ways in which the Four Minute Men promoted public rhetorical engagement and a large-scale display of public intellectualism, used a select, educated American public to spread a government message, and created and fostered connections between universities and their local communities.

The Four Minute Men

The Four Minute Men was a public speaking initiative, designed and implemented in 1917 to garner public support for the United States' entrance into World War I. Woodrow Wilson had run for reelection with the promise of peace, and with more than forty official peace organizations in the United States, needed to convince U.S. citizens that entry into the war was necessary and desirable. He appealed to George Creel, a muckraking journalist who had worked on Wilson's 1912 and 1916 campaigns, for help with this goal.2 Creel was hired by the Wilson administration to direct programs designed and overseen by the government's Committee for Public Information. The goal of the CPI, under Creel's direction, was to "use every possible rhetorical technique to sell the United States on war."3 To do so, Creel created divisions within the CPI and used such rhetorical media as pamphlets, posters, news items, magazine advertisements, films, school campaigns, and the Four Minute Men.4 [End Page 608]

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Four Minute Man Assignment and Report Card. Courtesy of the Seaver Center for Western History Research, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

The Four Minute Men were named after the Revolutionary War "minute men," who stood ready to fight at a moment's notice, and four minutes was the time it took for movie theaters to change reels. This gave volunteer public speakers four minutes to address a CPI-assigned topic, prepared individually with the help of CPI guidelines, to a movie-going audience.5 By the end of the 18-month program (the duration of U.S. involvement in the war), Four Minute Men associations across the country spoke publicly about the war effort in movie theaters and eventually in other locations, reaching audiences from varying racial, economic, and social levels.6...


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pp. 607-633
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