Censorship During the War Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

During World War II, censorship became part of a broader attempt on the part of combatant nations to develop an effective overall news policy that, in addition to protecting military information from the enemy, would also serve to bolster civilian morale. News of military victories, of course, required little censorship, while defeats were normally ignored, then denied, then explained as unimportant. Depressing news was generally taboo in all belligerent, or warring, nations. Beyond such common factors, censorship varied from country to country.

During this conflict censorship was extended beyond military security material to delete, minimize, or classify any news conceivably useful to an enemy or damaging to home front morale.

During World War II, censorship became part of a broader attempt on the part of combatant nations to develop an effective overall news policy that, in addition to protecting military information from the enemy, would also serve to bolster civilian morale. News of military victories, of course, required little censorship, while defeats were normally ignored, then denied, then explained as unimportant. Depressing news was generally taboo in all belligerent, or warring, nations. Beyond such common factors, censorship varied from country to country.

United States

Censorship in the United States during the war avoided the heavy-handed bungling of World War I and caused relatively few media complaints. The war itself enjoyed broad public support, and antifascism was overwhelmingly endorsed by journalists, who wanted to be “on the team.” The public was less ideologically oriented, but after Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Americans were ready for extensive control of war news, including the Navy’s refusal to reveal its losses at Pearl Harbor.

Under the War Powers Act of 1917, President Franklin D. Roosevelt named Byron Price on December 19, 1941, to head an Office of Censorship, which would develop guidelines for voluntary censorship by the producers of newspapers, magazines, radio shows, and films. Military plans, presidential trips overseas, intelligence operations, and new weapons (such as the atomic bomb) were secret, as were statistics concerning war production, shipping losses, and so on. The 1917 Espionage Act and the Trading with the Enemy Act were invoked to restrict use of the mails and to suppress, directly or otherwise, about thirty publications, most notably Father Coughlin’s Social Justice. An attempt to prosecute the Chicago Tribune for revealing intelligence secrets failed to gain a grand jury indictment. The 1940 Smith Act, making it illegal to advocate the overthrow of the American government, was used more to prosecute individuals–mostly communists–than to censor the media. Most of the sixteen thousand employees assigned to censorship-related matters spent their time reading letters to and from servicemen stationed overseas.

A consistent theme in wartime propaganda on the homefront was the need for maintaining secrecy in any and all matters relating to the military and war industries. This 1942 poster suggests that an indiscrete remark by someone could have consequences as dire as the sinking of an Allied ship. (National Archives)

Broadly speaking, bad news in the media was discouraged, and the government gave the African American press a particularly hard time for its supposed insufficient enthusiasm in support of the war effort. In war reports, censors deleted or minimized news of units refusing to go into combat, officers’ cowardice, soldiers panicking or going AWOL, and casualties incurred from friendly fire, as well as of looting, black marketeering, rape, race riots, and mutiny. The tendency to sanitize the news obscured brutality and blunders and encouraged an ongoing tendency to “classify” inconvenient information.

The American Civil Liberties Union reported in 1945 that “wartime censorship raised almost no issues in the United States.” Newsmen hailed what was widely called “the best reported war in history,” although some admitted that they didn’t always write the whole truth. Indeed, a Vietnam-era journalist might well have been surprised at the military misconduct that did not get reported.

United Kingdom

The Emergency Powers (Defence) Bill approved on August 24, 1939, authorized the renewal of the censorship powers contained in the Defence of the Realm Acts of 1914 (DORA), apparently including many of DORA’s well remembered faults. A new Ministry of Information provided voluntary censorship guidelines, but, with the outbreak of war, it was not clear who was in charge of releasing news. Ministry of Information censorship was largely entrusted to former navy officers whose instinct was to tell the public nothing and refer all problems to higher authorities, sometimes with incongruous results. American journalist John Gunther, for example, asking for a copy of a propaganda leaflet scattered by the millions in Royal Air Force flights over Germany, was informed that the government was not allowed to disclose information which might be of value to the enemy.

The fall of France in 1940 prompted a new spirit. The British mythologized the “Dunkirk Miracle,” deleting from press reports all negative comments by returning troops. The tally of planes downed in the Battle of Britain was reported with a view to impressing public opinion in both Britain and neutral countries such as the United States. Making a favorable impression in America was considered to be worth security risks; Edward R. Murrow, for example, was allowed to do live and unscripted radio broadcasts critical of Britain during London air raids. On the other hand, any British public comments on the 1940 U.S. elections or the 1941 Lend-Lease Act were strictly forbidden. Among other countries, Canada was considered an especially important military and intelligence link with the United States, and the three countries often coordinated censorship operations.

British military censorship was successful in controlling news of advances in radar, details of the Normandy invasion, and the invention of the atomic bomb. It was a remarkable achievement to develop an effective news management system during a period of military defeats. Some confidential material remained classified after 1945, not by wartime censorship but under the Official Secrets Act of 1911.

France

French censorship from 1939 to 1940 by the information ministry under Jean Giraudoux was a model of ineffective news management. Compared to news from Berlin, Paris wartime bulletins were invariably late, vague, and misleading. French censorship did protect military secrets from the enemy, but it also promoted ignorance and complacency about the state of the country’s defenses. From the debacle of 1940 to liberation in 1944, censorship in both occupied France, which was administered by Germany, and Vichy France, which was administered by a collaborationist French government, was under direct or indirect German control.

The Soviet Union

Czarist censorship, which ended in 1917, was soon followed by that of the communists, and under the dictatorship of Joseph Stalin there was ample information for the censors to keep from public view–devastating famines, crippling production shortages, the ruthless purge of military and political opponents, and so on. In any case, the purpose of the Soviet news media was less to provide information than to define correct opinions and attitudes. World War II did not constrict the scope of Soviet news but even slightly expanded it.

The major problem facing Soviet news agencies during World War II was explaining why the unpreparedness, defeats, and casualties of 1941–1942 were not the fault of Stalin and the communist leadership. Censoring news about British and American war efforts made more plausible the emerging Stalinist interpretation that the British and Americans were covert partners in Adolf Hitler’s treachery–an international conspiracy of fascists and imperialists attacking the Soviet Union again, as it had in 1919. Censorship left Stalin’s leadership as the only hope of resistance. For the Soviet people, wanting to believe in victory meant having to believe in Stalin.

China

The struggle against Japanese aggression in World War II was complicated by the intense internal conflict between Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist party (Guomindang) and a rival offshoot, Mao Zedong’s Chinese Communist Party. Between 1927 and 1937, as communist writers called for radical policies, the Guomindang censored or banned their books and articles and bribed, shot, or beheaded their editors. The Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945) produced an official but uneasy truce between the Chinese rivals. In Chiang’s wartime capital of Chongqing, the communist activist Zhou Enlai supervised The New China Daily’s attacks on the Guomindang, while Nationalist officials tried to prevent the paper from being delivered. Even the Guomindang papers depended on left-wing writers who had to be censored. After 1945 the government’s obvious inability to control inflation, corruption, and inefficiency could not be disguised by censorship, and popular support as well as armed force brought the communists to power in 1949.

Germany

In 1933 Adolf Hitler appointed Joseph Goebbels minister of propaganda in order to gain and keep control of German thought and opinion. While it was deemed important to advertise the positive objectives of Nazism, it was also considered essential to conceal a great deal about Hitler’s character, associates, goals, and methods. A journalism law of October, 1933, systematized Goebbels’s approach.

Censorship of foreign reporters kept the West from realizing the extent of antiwar sentiment in Germany during the West’s calamitous appeasement of Hitler at the Munich Conference in 1938. However, newsreels showing Nazi Brownshirts attacking Jewish shops and homes in the 1938 riots known as the Night of Broken Glass were allowed to leave Germany, as was a 1939 film of Hitler rudely mocking Roosevelt in a speech to the Reichstag. Censorship also surrounded the staged incident in 1939 which Hitler used as an excuse to invade Poland and start the war.

German victories in 1939 and 1940 needed little censorship except to delete images of German dead from combat films. However, after the failure to take Moscow in 1941, soldiers’ letters home began to be censored, and newspapers were limited to a “quota” of obituaries for local soldiers. As the war progressed, reporting on shortages of food, coal, and other necessities had to be censored, as did accounts of Allied air raids.

It was forbidden to report in the press on the extermination of the Jews and other victims of Nazi death camps. Nazi propaganda attempted to portray Germany’s defeat as a tragic misfortune for Hitler and to conceal his indifference to German suffering. After the war ended, many Germans still found it impossible to blame Hitler for the Nazis’ unspeakable crimes.

Italy

Statutes passed in 1923, the year after the Fascists seized power, proclaimed that “the press is free, but a law regulates the abuse thereof.” In practice, editors applied censorship according to government directives. The primary specific goal was to present dictator Benito Mussolini as a great and infallible leader and conceal his many shortcomings and failures. Censorship helped to glamorize the conquest of Ethiopia in 1935–1936, minimize Italian defeats from 1936 to 1939 in the Spanish Civil War, and conceal Mussolini’s mismanagement of the supposed conquest of Albania in 1939. However, after Italy entered World War II, the military’s many failures–France in 1940, Greece in 1941, and the campaign against the British and Americans from 1941 to 1943–were impossible to hide from the Italian people. Censorship served only to further weaken confidence in Mussolini, who was ousted from power in 1943, prior to Italy’s surrender.

Japan

Imperial Japan’s traditionally nationalistic and authoritarian society favored unity rather than the ideological divisions encouraged by a free press. A government agency dictated which news would be available to the press. Censorship in the form of “token suppression” or jailing “token editors” in the 1920’s became stricter as Japan’s expansion into China became an undeclared war in 1937. The National Mobilization Law of February, 1941, tightened secrecy and censorship rules, assisting preparations for the December 7 attack on the U.S. Navy base at Pearl Harbor.

As war extended the Japanese Empire, propaganda and censorship, usually in English, were aimed at conquered peoples. The main attempts at thought control, however, were directed at the Japanese people themselves. Victory depended on loyalty and obedience to the hierarchy of authority in Japanese life–neighborhood groups, local officials, national leaders, and the emperor. The censors’ task was to exclude ideas that might challenge this pattern of united action.

Following the war, Japan eventually lifted censorship on such topics as its wartime biological warfare research program, which was continued as a highly classified project by the U.S. armed forces. As the secret weapon changed hands, it was protected by a new shield of censorship.

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