Censorship During the War Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

On April 25, 1898, the United States declared war on Spain. The declaration came after several years of repeated newspaper accounts of Spanish atrocities against the Cuban people and the sinking of the battleship USS Maine on February 15, 1898, in the Cuban harbor at Havana—an act most Americans believed was perpetrated by the Spanish.

The United States government imposed censorship restrictions on military personnel and on newspaper correspondents covering the military operations of the war.

On April 25, 1898, the United States declared war on Spain. The declaration came after several years of repeated newspaper accounts of Spanish atrocities against the Cuban people and the sinking of the battleship USS Maine on February 15, 1898, in the Cuban harbor at Havana—an act most Americans believed was perpetrated by the Spanish.

In the several decades prior to the war with Spain, correspondents of the major American newspapers had freely covered both domestic and international events unhampered by any form of official censorship. In fact, the government often relied on reports sent by correspondents from around the world, and in some cases even used reporters in semiofficial capacities to deliver government information. When government censorship was finally imposed for reasons of military security, the press was shocked.

The first act of censorship during the war took place on April 23, 1898, just two days before the U.S. Senate officially declared war. On that day, the U.S. Navy Department took control of the Key West, Florida, cable office in order to monitor all cable correspondence passing through. Key West stood squarely in the path of American naval convoys sailing to the island of Cuba, some ninety miles away.

Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of the New York World. Pulitzer’s sensationalist treatment of the Spanish-American War gave rise to the term “yellow journalism” for irresponsible journalistic practices. (Library of Congress)

Two days later, on April 25, 1898, on President William McKinley’s orders, the Army Signal Corps placed an official censor in each of the six cable companies located in New York City, the headquarters for most of America’s major papers. Censorship by the government was not restricted exclusively to the press, but included reviewing all forms of cable correspondence and any mail going to or coming from Spain. Another form of censorship placed restrictions on the U.S. military itself. Orders from Navy Secretary John D. Long forbade naval personnel from speaking with representatives of the press on matters pertaining to the Navy. Secretary of War Russell A. Alger followed suit by issuing a directive making all War Department records confidential and unavailable for discussion with newspaper representatives.

Enforcement

Censorship of the press was enforced in several ways. Typically, stories were edited so that no information thought detrimental to the military was printed. Often the stories that correspondents cabled back to their home newspapers ended up on publishers’ desks with so many details missing that they proved useless. Another method of enforcement employed by the Army was threatening newspaper correspondents with the loss of their military-issued press credentials if they were caught bypassing censorship rules. Loss of military press credentials precluded correspondents from accompanying troops into battle areas.

Although censorship restrictions worked well overall, persistent reporters found ways to get around them. Some sent messages to cable offices in Haiti or Jamaica, which were then forwarded to the United States. Other reporters sent their stories with stipulations that they were not to be published until they returned home. Given the fierce competition among the papers for fresh news from the front, especially the New York papers, some unscrupulous publishers, such as William Randolph Hearst of the New York Journal and Joseph Pulitzer of the New York World, printed stories that their correspondents had asked be delayed without regard for the repercussions that their reporters would face.

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