Censorship in the american press in World War II and the 'Code of Wartime Practices'

Organization, enforcement and consequences

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2007 21 Pages

Communications - Media and Politics, Politic Communications



1. Introduction

2. Censorship in times of war: an overview

3. US-authorities' censorship policy
3.1. The Office of Censorship
3.2. Censorship enforcement
3.3. Consorship – voluntary or quasi-mandatory?

4. Freedom of the Press after World War II
4.1. The end of the Office of Censorship
4.2. Censorship in later wars

5. Conclusion


“When one's nation is at war,
reporting becomes an extension of the war effort.”

– Macdonald Hastings,

British war correspondent[1]

1. Introduction

On June 25th, 1943, American press editors received a confidential note, the contents an purpose of which was hard to understand even for those who were familiar with the technical terms. It said:

“[...] you are asked not to publish or broadcast any information whatever regarding war experiments involving: Production or utilization of atom smashing, atomic energy, atomic fission, atomic splitting, or any of their equivalents. The use for military purposes of radium or radioactive materials, heavy water, high voltage discharge equipment, cyclotrons. The following elements or any of their compounds: polonium, uranium, ytterbium, hafnium, protactinium, radium, rhenium, thorium, deuterium.”[2]

What sounded “like Greek”[3] to the selected adressees of the request, in retrospective can be identified even by an amateur as the attempt to hide evidence that the US government was doing research on a nuclear device. It was about to play a decisive role in the ending of the Pacific War.

Since the United States' entry in World War II, domestic censorship had to draw a line very carefully: On the one hand, the First Amendment to the Constitution grands the freedom of speech and the press; on the other hand, sensitive information, if revealed to the public, could fall into the hands of enemy agents. To handle this task, the government set in effect a voluntary censorship, building up on every journalist's patriotic instinct not to publish anything that might be a threat to the war effort.

How was censorship organized? What kind of information was censored? Is there an actual difference between voluntary and mandatory censorship? These are questions the following research paper will elaborate on. A brief overview of the practices of censorship in times of war will accompany the analysis. Finally, the text makes an attempt to answer the question how the United States “survived” the censorship period and how it affected further censorship strategies.

An important source for this paper is the book “Secrets of Victory. The Office of Censorship and the American Press and Radio in World War II” by Michael S. Sweeney, that has been published in 2001.[4]

2. Censorship in times of war: an overview

Censorship of the press during war is common to many countries and has been used for strategic ends in many periods of time. A characteristic for modern wars in particular is a “difference of interest”, with journalists torn between their task to report “as truthfully as possible” and a responsibility not to help the enemy.[5] It's especially the wars in the 20th century that have seen almost exhaustive censorship not only of the press, but also of “new” media such as radio or wire services.

Generally, some important distinctions have to be made: Domestic censorship is the banning of all uncomfortable press (or other media) within a country's media system. It is enforced by law and government institutions. Foreign censorship is the restriction of journalist's access to military relevant information in the area the war takes place, mostly supervised by the military. In many cases journalists have to sign an agreement, putting them under an obligation to have stories and articles cleared by military personnel.[6]

Keeping sensitive information secret is only one of the many tasks both kinds of censorship have to fulfill. By suppressing negative information about suffering civilians at home, front soldiers can be kept motivated to fight; by banning disturbing news about casualties and territorial losses, people at home are held in favor of the war.[7] The latter has often been considered important for victory[8] especially when war loans were being sold. Combined with propaganda, which is used for the same reasons, censorship is a major part of a government's media strategy.

Important decisions regarding the European and American censorship policies in the Second World War were already made between 1914 and 1918. Especially Germany and France seeked a way to establish a total censorship, banning not only non-official military information but also all kinds of negative news.[9] German media were mainly controlled by the military; the various political institutions had separate press offices. The French government built up a decentralized system of censorship, creating the strictest form of media control of all warring nations. Dominant government agencies were the Bereau de la Presse and the Control Commission of Telegraphic Communications, but many provicial commissions existed to supervise censorship on a local level.[10]

Censorship was not limited to press and radio but extended to other kinds of moving data like postal traffic between frontlines and homecountry. Soldiers were ordered to remain silent about the cruelties of every-day life in the trench, while families at home had been asked not to complain and wail in their letters.[11] Still, censorship was not all-embracing. In Germany, foreign newspapers and other printed material could be read freely[12] ; French censorship concentrated mostly on bad news, which made good news sometimes look very odd.[13]

In Great Britain, censorship was maintained by the Official Press Bureau that acted by ligitimation through the Defense of the Realm Act.[14] This law gave the King the power to regulate almost every area of public activity in order to keep up national security.[15] Correspondents near or in the war theatres had to obey strict rules and weren't allowed to take pictures – on penalty of death.[16] Like in other countries, censorship ship rules touched not only information directly concerning the war, but also affairs of foreign policy. For example, no stories praising the bolshevik government in Russia were allowed in the press.[17]

Unlike the visions of US officials, who claimed that freedom of the press was granted plainly by the Constitution[18], the public in the United States was not going to be better informed than people in other countries. In fact, US censorship was very similar to its British counterpart.[19] Correspondents had only limited access to war sites; the papers or companies they worked for had to pay a $ 10,000 bail bond to ensure their writers' loyalty.[20] On top of that, military would check and revise all articles that were to appear in newspapers.

The Committe on Public Information (CPI) became the first state propangada agency. It managed the entire press- and information policiy of the US government and was responsible for domestic censorship.[21] The committee's chairman, former journalist George Creel, considered a voluntary censorship being in everybody's interest and the best contribution to the war effort. This attitude was to become a leading idea in the establishment of World War Two's Office of Censorship. But although the press generally agreed Creel's recommendations for censorship, they were never fixated and remained somewhat of a “Gentlemen Agreement”.[22]

Although the US Congress pressed for a more qualified journalism after censorship became heavily criticised at the end of World War I[23], it passed some important decisions to ensure media control in upcoming crisises: The Espionage Act of 1917, for example, allowed criminal prosecution of writers who made false reports “designed to interfere with the war effort”.[24] 1918's Sedition Act “provides criminal penalties for those who say, print, write or publish anything disloyal, profane or abusive about the United States service, flag, or uniforms”[25], but it was repealed before World War II. In 1919, the Supreme Court acknowledged the Espionage Act, drawing a “distinction between speech that is permissible during wartime and speech that is permissable during peacetime”[26].

The censorship parctices in the First World War made the public blind and deaf to what was actually going on.[27] The late emergence of facts about the First World War paradoxically contributed to a tense situation among these nations and “increased the likelihood of the next [war]”[28]. Especially in European countries, the “discovery by governments of their ability to manipulate public opinion did serious and lasting damage”[29].

Building up on their experience in World War I, by the time of World War II governments could organize censorship even more effectively. Due to the larger scale and greater length of the war and new developments in media technology, censorship had to cover a greater amount of information. In Great Britain, the Ministry of Information (MOI) provided both propaganda and censorship, without being answerable to the parliament.[30] Although working highly ineffective in the beginning of its activity, it became more experienced and organized by the mid-1940s.[31] After having been closed down, some of its work was even transferred to the Central Office of Information.[32]

In Nazi-Germany, the press was forced into gleichschaltung and thus came under total control by the government. Also almost all other parts of entertainment, media and civil life were bound to do their part for military efforts. Authors, publishers and producers were “conscripted into the propaganda division of the army” and even “were expected to fight when necessary”.[33]


[1] Jones, Derek: War Reporting. Censorship. A World Encyclopedia. Ed. Derek Jones. 4 vols. London & Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 2001, p. 2607.

[2] “Note to Editors and Broadcasters – Confidential – Not for Publication”. Sweeney, Michael S.: Secrets of Victory. The Office of Censorship and the American Press and Radio in World War II. Chapel Hill & London: University of North Carolina Press, 2001, p. 200.

[3] These word appeared in the article “Biggest Secret” in Editor & Publisher; quote taken from Sweeney, p. 200.

[4] Please notify that Sweeneys book, although an accurately exercised analysis of the OC's work, is in some parts an all-too patriotic praisal of a “great man's deeds”.

[5] Jones, Censorship. A World Encyclopedia, p. 2607.

[6] Demm, Eberhard: World War I, Censorship. A World Encyclopedia, p. 2644ff.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Jesser, Peter: Kosovo, Censorship. A World Encyclopedia, p. 2610.

[9] Demm, Censorship. A World Encyclopedia, p. 2644ff.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., p. 2645.

[13] Ibid., p. 2646: “When, in the terrible battle of Verdun in 1916, the official communiqué proudly announced the taking of the fort of Douaumont by the French troops, the population was quite surprised to learn that it had been in German hands.”

[14] Rose, Tania: Britain. Censorship. A World Encyclopedia, p. 2647.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., p. 2648.

[17] Ibid.

[18] “One congressman said that he expected that there would be 'no public in the world which would be so well informed as the opinion of the USA'”. Knightley, Phillip: United States. Censorship. A World Encyclopedia, p. 2649.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Elter, Andreas: Die Kriegsverkäufer. Geschichte der US-Propaganda 1917-2005. Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp 2005, p. 27.

[22] Ibid., p. 41

[23] Knightley, Censorship. A World Encyclopedia, p. 2649.

[24] Riley, Gail Blasser: Censorship. New York: Facts On File, 1998, pp. 73+74.

[25] Ibid., p. 74.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Rose, Censorship. A World Encyclopedia, p. 2648.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Chapman, James: World War II: Ministry of Information. British wartime censorship, 1939-46, Censorship. A World Encyclopedia, p. 2654.

[31] Ibid. pp. 2654+2655. A remarkable footnote in history is the fact that, according to James Chapman, George Orwell has worked for MOI, which certainly gave him inspiration for creating the “Ministry of Truth” in his 1948 novel “1984”.

[32] Ibid. p. 2655.

[33] Knightley, Phillip: World War II. Britain, United States, Soviet Union, Germany. Censorship. A World Encyclopedia, p. 2651.


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Code Wartime Practices Censorship



Title: Censorship in the american press in World War II and the 'Code of Wartime Practices'