Wilsonianism and international electronic communication
Most of the major British and imperial cable reformers (Edward Sassoon, Heaton and Sandford Fleming) had died by 1915. By then, however, the First World War had placed the world’s communication system under immense strain. Most of the cable rate reforms were shelved for the duration. Ciphers and codes were forbidden. Government messages, and those from the troops, were sent without charge. By war’s end, the cable networks, increasingly supplemented by long-distance radio-telegraph, proved inadequate to meet government and business demands. Moreover, prior to US entry into the war in 1917, actions by the Allies had created long-term American hostility. Britain and France unilaterally cut and rerouted the German Atlantic cables, which had been administered on the US side by the Commercial Cable Company, and thereby cut off direct American contact with Germany until the early 1920s. Japan, on the Allied side, seized the German cables in the Pacific, and took control of the island of Yap, which was a vital centre for American cable communications in Asia. In addition, the position of London as the great entrepˆot for international cables gave rise to charges that British authorities were actively intercepting and censoring US diplomatic and commercial charges, not only during the war but into the early 1920s. Though Britain denied the accusations, they became another factor influencing US attacks on British cable dominance (see Britain, 1921a).
All this was occurring as President Wilson’s flirtations with progressivism began to be translated into policies designed to break up cartels, or at least to rein them in, culminating in the Federal Trade Commission Act of 1914 (Braeman, 1973: 6). In the same year, Postmaster General Burleson advocated nationalizing the American telegraph system and at the close of the war the federal government temporarily assumed control of the telegraph, telephone and cable systems in order, it was argued, to facilitate their efficient functioning during the communications crisis.21 Another factor was Wilson’s advocacy of a new American diplomacy ‘which placed the good of mankind above the selfish interests of the US’ (Braeman, 1973: 7) – which was translated into American proposals at the Paris Peace Conference that called for open communication and open markets as the foundation of world peace and economic stability. From this view, monopolies had to be eliminated and a concerted programme to develop cables and wireless pursued. But, as we have seen, in the world of electronic communication, most of the monopolies were British, and they controlled cable access to eastern South America – a black eye for the Munroe Doctrine – as well, de jure or de facto, the cable routes to the Far East.
British cable supremacy, and hence dominance over much of the news flow via Reuters, mediating for the British government, became important to the US as the war spawned greater demand for international news by the American public, and also when the Wilson administration became aware of just how thin had been previous American efforts to export US-sourced
news to other countries. The American news agencies prided themselves, somewhat self-righteously, on their lack of government subsidies and avoidance of propaganda.22 However, as a case in point, they had made negligible effort before the First World War to send American news to South America. Then between 1915 and 1918, United Press (UP) and AP had to rely on the Western Telegraph, a member of the Eastern group, to carry news to the region after their contracts with All-America Cables were aborted as the cable company intensified its focus on more lucrative commercial business.23 Matters turned personal, when, in China, a speech by President Wilson was apparently so badly garbled by one of the European news agencies that he concluded that firm action should finally be taken to improve news portrayals of the US both domestically and externally.
The response was the creation of the Committee of Public Information (CPI) in 1917, presided over by Walter Rogers. This committee was undoubtedly a propaganda agency, although Rogers strenuously denied it, claiming that it ‘distributed news as impartially as the AP or the UP’ (US National Archives, 1921a). Beyond heading the CPI, Rogers was a lead adviser to the Wilson government at the Paris Peace Conference and for some while thereafter. In this position, he favoured the second of two opposing policy courses on communications outlined by Wilson’s press secretary at Versailles, Ray Stannard Baker: the first being ‘a scramble by each nation for cables, telegraphic and telephonic control, and the use of those instrumentalities for purely selfish national purposes’; the other, ‘a comprehensive, cooperative scheme by which those instrumentalities of human civilization should be internationalized and used for the equal
benefit of all nations and all people’ (Baker, 1922, vol. II: 470–1). Baker favoured the ‘internationalist’ course, and stressed Rogers’ and Burleson’s role in promoting it, but complained that they were never able to overcome the position adopted by other members of the Wilson administration at the conference. This, claimed Baker, combined with Wilson’s failure to study communication issues in detail, led to existing monopoly systems being reinforced, and crippled any proposals for the international control of cables and radio (Baker, 1922, vol. II: 477). Ultimately, these issues were largely shunted from the Peace Conference to a preliminary international communication conference scheduled for Washington in 1920.