Lessons from White House disinformation a century ago: ‘It’s dangerous to believe your own propaganda’

One hundred years ago, the U.S. government published documents that fueled the mounting Red Scare, helped justify the American military invasion of Russia and poisoned American-Russian relations for years to come.

Newspapers across the United States began to publish the fake papers on Sept. 15, 1918.

Unbeknownst to the government, the documents were forgeries. They were created by Russian political interests whose party affiliation remains obscure, but whose objectives were clear. The documents were part of a Russian disinformation campaign – a common propaganda tactic during World War I – to discredit the Bolsheviks, who had just seized power in Russia after leading a Marxist revolution.

The publication of the documents was a classic case of the American government accepting bogus information because it confirmed its preconceptions and justified actions it wished to take.

We are scholars who work at the intersection of media and politics. We believe the incident illustrates the base power of disinformation lies not in technology, which many blame for the rise of counterfeit information today, but in weakness in human nature. The desire to confirm their beliefs about the Bolsheviks led top U.S. leaders to ignore credible and persistent warnings of the documents’ inaccuracy and aggressively assert government authority to discredit those few who questioned them.

The Sisson documents

By 1918, World War I had raged on for nearly four years, and the Russians, who fought on the side of the U.S. and others against Germany, had experienced two recent revolutions.

The first revolution ousted the Czarist regime. The second, led by Bolshevik leaders Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky, ousted the provisional government.

Despite the chaos, the U.S. and Allies desperately needed Russia to continue fighting. But the Bolsheviks were intent on taking an exhausted Russian military out of the war and promised to begin peace talks with Germany once in power.

The Committee on Public Information, which operated as an American propaganda ministry during the war, sent Edgar Sisson, a former muckraking journalist, to Petrograd in November 1917, before the Bolsheviks seized power. He was to use publicity tools, which included press releases, films and speeches, to urge Russians to remain in the war.

By the time he arrived, the Bolsheviks were in power. A month later, they began peace negotiations with Germany.

President Woodrow Wilson wanted to build a case against the Bolsheviks. Library of Congress
The peace talks played into widespread rumors in Russia and elsewhere that Lenin and Trotsky were paid German agents. Before its ouster, the Russian provisional government tried to use the rumors to discredit the Bolsheviks and hasten their demise. But the rumors had never been proven.

This all seemed to change, however, in February 1918.

Raymond Robins, head of the American Red Cross Commission in Russia, gave Sisson confidential documents that implied Germans financed and directed the Bolsheviks. Sisson deemed the documents valid despite Robins’ doubts.

President Woodrow Wilson and the State Department encouraged Sisson to collect evidence that Lenin and his comrades were German pawns, which would support the administration’s anti-Bolshevik policies.

By the time he left Russia in March, Sisson had collected 68 documents, mostly with the help of a shadowy figure, Evgeni Petrovich Semenov. Semenov, a former secret service agent in the provisional government, told Sisson he lifted the papers from Bolshevik headquarters.

Documents make news in the US

American press coverage of Sisson’s story was sensational. Most stories appeared on the front page and were published in installments during the week. They accepted the government view of Bolshevik treachery.

The government’s timing of the release was politically strategic. Wilson had by this time agreed to an Allied military intervention in Russia for the purpose of protecting stockpiles of Allied war material and ensuring the safe travel of anti-German forces through Siberia to the Eastern Front.

In August and September, U.S. troops were arriving in Russia. This move constituted a threat to the Bolshevik government and violated Wilson’s promise of self-determination.

But the fake documents legitimized intervention by suggesting that the Bolshevik stooges were not representative of the Russian people.

The New York Times, Sept. 15, 1918. New York Times archive

Compliant journalists

The documents presented a problem that often arises in national security reporting.