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On April 13, 1917, Wilson created the Committee on Public Information (CPI) to promote the war domestically while publicizing American war aims abroad. […] “So great are the psychological resistances to war in modern nations,” wrote Lasswell “that every war must appear to be a war of defense against a menacing, murderous aggressor. There must be no ambiguity about who the public is to hate.” American propaganda was not the only source of anti-German feeling, but most historians agree that the CPI pamphlets went too far in portraying Germans as depraved, brutal aggressors. For example, in one CPI publication, Professor Vernon Kellogg asked “will it be any wonder if, after the war, the people of the world, when they recognize any human being as a German, will shrink aside so that they may not touch him as he passes, or stoop for stones to drive him from their path?”
A particularly effective strategy for demonizing Germans was the use of atrocity stories. “A handy rule for arousing hate,” said Lasswell “is, if at first they do not enrage, use an atrocity. It has been employed with unvarying success in every conflict known to man.” Unlike the pacifist, who argues that all wars are brutal, the atrocity story implies that war is only brutal when practiced by the enemy. Certain members of the CPI were relatively cautious about repeating unsubstantiated allegations, but the committee’s publications often relied on dubious material.
After the war, Edward Bernays, who directed CPI propaganda efforts in Latin America, openly admitted that his colleagues used alleged atrocities to provoke a public outcry against Germany. Some of the atrocity stories which were circulated during the war, such as the one about a tub full of eyeballs or the story of the seven-year old boy who confronted German soldiers with a wooden gun, were actually recycled from previous conflicts. In his seminal work on wartime propaganda, Lasswell speculated that atrocity stories will always be popular because the audience is able to feel self-righteous indignation toward the enemy, and, at some level, identify with the perpetrators of the crimes. “A young woman, ravished by the enemy,” he wrote “yields secret satisfaction to a host of vicarious ravishers on the other side of the border.”
“Honest, unbiased news simply disappeared out of the American papers along about the middle of August, 1914.” C. Hartley Grattan
Incredible tales of German barbarism in Belgium and France gave rise to a myth of unique German savagery that continues to color the thinking of many persons to this day. German soldiers, the world was gravely informed, amused themselves by cutting off the hands of Belgian babies. Another oft-repeated tale related how German soldiers amputated the breasts of Belgian women out of sheer viciousness.”