Censorship During the War Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

North Korea’s invasion of South Korea in June, 1950, triggered a renewal of American military operations barely five years after the end of World War II. American press coverage of the Korean War represented a sharp departure from the role the media had played in the earlier conflict. Whereas the media generally accepted the need to support the Allied effort against the Axis powers, American involvement in the Korean War was controversial and less generally accepted.

During this U.S.-led war against North Korea’s invasion of South Korea, U.S. government efforts to constrain negative media coverage contrasted sharply with World War II censorship policies, foreshadowing an even more adversarial government-media relationship during the later Vietnam War.

North Korea’s invasion of South Korea in June, 1950, triggered a renewal of American military operations barely five years after the end of World War II. American press coverage of the Korean War represented a sharp departure from the role the media had played in the earlier conflict. Whereas the media generally accepted the need to support the Allied effort against the Axis powers, American involvement in the Korean War was controversial and less generally accepted.

General Douglas MacArthur, the supreme commander in Korea, initially instituted a system of voluntary censorship resembling the system used in the world war. However, as it became evident that journalists were less willing to toe Washington’s official line, MacArthur instituted a system of formal, prepublication review for all dispatches from the war zone. As a consequence, many press reports were heavily censored, fostering resentment among members of the press corps. This further weakened the shared sense of mission that had characterized military-press relations in the previous war. Moreover, the increasingly critical perspective of press reports in turn fostered the belief among military leaders that the press was handicapping the war effort.

More than practicing simple censorship, MacArthur’s headquarters has been accused of deliberately disseminating misinformation during the Korean War. Press conferences, communiqués, and other official statements from the military headquarters in Tokyo, Japan, were frequently challenged by journalists and columnists in the United States and Britain. The official exaggerations of foreign threats and the downplaying of national casualties might partly be explained as owing to the Cold War climate that permeated virtually all aspects of international relations. However, some critics attributed the high command’s thorough-going control and manipulation of war information to be a function of the supreme commander’s personal hubris. Against this interpretation, the fact that press censorship and media manipulation did not significantly ease after President Harry S. Truman’s dismissal of MacArthur in April, 1951, suggests that there was a driving force larger than MacArthur’s ego behind military censorship. Indeed, censorship was significantly strengthened after the United States began committing troops to the Vietnam War during the 1960’s.

Meanwhile, as late as 1996 investigations were continuing into charges that the U.S. government had deliberately hidden embarrassing information about the Korean War effort. U.S. Senate hearings and Pentagon investigations uncovered documents revealing that up to a thousand American prisoners of war (POWs) remained in North Korea after the July, 1953, armistice and prisoner exchange. The possibility that POWs had been left behind has often been raised, but it has repeatedly been discounted by U.S. authorities. Recently discovered evidence indicates, however, that President Dwight D. Eisenhower himself may have been aware that some POWs remained behind in North Korea.

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