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Secrets of Victory
The Office of Censorship and the American Press and Radio in World War II
By Michael S. Sweeney
University of North Carolina Press
Copyright © 2001 The University of North Carolina Press.
All rights reserved.
A young Frenchman who came from a royalist family but hoped to shape his country along more democratic lines spent nine months observing life in the United States in 1831 and 1832. His original intention was to focus on the prison system, but as he traveled and talked and observed the young republic, his mind wandered much further. He sought the reasons for the vitality and deficiencies of America's public sphere, and among his interests was an issue he considered crucial to the future of France: the balance between liberty and equality. When Alexis de Tocqueville returned home and wrote his insightful Democracy in America, he described Jacksonian democracy in terms that still ring true. He noted that although political liberty occasionally gives citizens great pleasure, equality "every day confers a number of small enjoyments on every man." As much as democratic communities crave and cherish freedom, he said, they harbor an equally ardent passion for sharing life's conditions. These communities "call for equality in freedom; and if they cannot obtain that, they still call for equality in slavery. They will endure poverty, servitude, barbarism, but they will not endure aristocracy."
If de Tocqueville had been able to observe the mature republic a little more than a century later, he would have seen his words still fitting America like a well-tailored suit. The nation's citizen army and navy, under the direction of a citizen government, fought World War II with dual motivations. Foremost, expressed in government-approved Hollywood films, armed forces training lectures and movies, and publicity from the White House and the Office of War Information, was the belief in the need to halt fascism and preserve democracy. But underneath was an equally powerful reason that ordinary Americans chose to put themselves at risk. Once they were in combat, they were not fighting for their country and its ideals as much as they were fighting for a team. They felt strong bonds of comradeship, and it was hard to let down the rest of the team's members. Each person was expected to shoulder a portion of the load, and as long as soldiers and sailors were willing to recognize such a sharing of responsibility, they were willing to make the necessary sacrifices of war.
On the home front, Americans made sacrifices, toowillingly, as long as the burdens appeared to be shared. Most ordinary Americans accepted rationing as necessary. Homemakers adjusted to cutbacks in the availability of sugar, meat, and butter in order to do their part for the war. Unfair advantages in obtaining scarce items were met with howls of outrage by the have-nots, especially during mid-1942, when thousands of drivers fraudulently obtained rationing cards entitling them to extra gasoline. Those who willingly had sacrificed their automotive freedom protested that others had placed their own selfishness above the needs of the country, prompting renewed federal efforts to foster cooperation and restore the feeling of equality.
And in the news media that covered the war both overseas and domestically, journalists also were willing to cooperate and do their part. The public did not see journalists (and journalists did not see themselves) as being against the team. Journalists were part of the team. Some, such as roving correspondent Ernie Pyle, repeatedly visited combat zones even though they did not have to do so, and they paid with their lives. Others, such as Wisconsin State Journal publisher Don Anderson, were too old to fight or cover the war in person but nevertheless felt compelled to volunteer for war-related duty. In Anderson's case, he monitored the newspapers of his home state for compliance with the domestic censorship code and tried to educate the rule breakers to work harder to comply. In the case of Associated Press (AP) executive editor Byron Price, wartime service called him to abandon the business he loved and direct the nation's censorship system.
Voluntary domestic censorship was one of the shared sacrifices of war for American journalists. On one hand, World War II was perhaps the most newsworthy event of the century, offering opportunities for lucrative and significant "scoops." On the other hand, no nation can fight a modern war by refusing to exercise some control of information. Journalists who wrote or broadcast stories about wartime secrets would, in effect, be handing the enemy a weapon. To prevent the disclosure of sensitive information during wartime requires a restraint that is distasteful to democracies; but if successful, such censorship can become what one memoir of World War II describes as a "weapon of silence." The dynamic question of the war for American journalists was whether they would agree to restrain themselves or report some of the biggest stories of their careers.
This question embodies the same tension between liberty and equality that Tocqueville documented more than a century earlier. Under the rules of voluntary, domestic censorship in the United States during World War II (as opposed to the army's and navy's mandatory censorship in the combat zones), each journalist had the freedom to report an especially sensitive news story, resulting in a short-term gain at the expense of others who suppressed the story or were ignorant of it. However, to violate the voluntary censorship code would have conflicted not only with the needs of the military and governmentwhich ostensibly were fighting in defense of liberties such as free press and free speechbut also with the value of equality. Journalists claimed the rights of the First Amendment, and they demanded that censorship give no one an advantage in exercising those rights. At least, they demanded that their competitors enjoy no advantage over them. If they must sacrifice, they reasoned, all must sacrifice to be members of the team.
"It is an amazing fact to me to see the press and radio asking for rather than standing solidly against such a thing as censorship," presidential press secretary Stephen T. Early said on the last day of December 1941. Even the Chicago Tribune, the metropolitan paper that most objected to the politics of the man in the White House, was willing to submit to the censorship system the president had helped establish. "We recognized that you had to have a censorship code," said Tribune reporter Walter Trohan. It is curious today to realize the degree to which American journalists abided by the voluntary rules of censorship. No print journalist, and only one radio journalist, ever deliberately violated the World War II voluntary censorship code after having been made aware of it and understanding its intent. Thousands of violations did occur, but they were ones of omission rather than commission. Journalists who had not received a copy of the censorship code, or had not read it, or had not understood it, violated it in many ways, from revealing the departure of troop units to giving the location and nature of stateside war industries. What did not occur was a wholesale sabotage of censorship for personal or corporate gain. Journalists who possessed military secrets, kept them. Liberal crusading columnist Drew Pearson knew about the development of the atomic bomb many months before the bomb was tested in New Mexico and dropped on Japan, but he never revealed that fact. The same is true for William L. Laurence of the New York Times, who signed on with the Manhattan Project to chronicle the bomb's development but did not publicize it until after the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Journalists also agreed to comply with censorship prohibitions on everything from publicizing President Franklin Roosevelt's many trips to Hyde Park, to the 1942-43 broadcast regulations that so severely limited weather news that baseball announcers were not supposed to say a game had been halted by rain.
This book aims to explain why the Office of Censorship, which administered voluntary censorship inside the United States and mandatory censorship of information crossing the nation's borders, had so many successes and so few failures. It examines the censorship of American newspapers, magazines, and radio, focusing on personalities from the highest government offices to the smallest weekly journals and rural radio stations. This book is the first to examine World War II censorship in America by thoroughly analyzing the records of the Office of Censorship's Press and Broadcasting Divisions at the National Archives, in addition to the censorship director's personal papers and many other primary sources. The only other histories of the Office of Censorship are fragmentary or anecdotal, or they treat censorship of the press and radio as a small piece of a much larger picture of information control.
It is unfortunate that this book must rely so heavily on written sources. Death has claimed all who staffed the Press and Broadcasting Divisions, as well as Byron Price and his assistant, Theodore F. Koop. Fortunately, the written record is rich and full. The Office of Censorship kept records of every telephone, mail, and telegraph inquiry it received between mid-January 1942 and August 1945, claiming a substantial portion of the 400 feet of shelf space occupied by World War II censorship records at the National Archives. Yet, it is difficult to assess the full impact of censorship. It remains impossible to describe the unrecorded impact of the many censorship decisions reached independently in the early 1940s by the nation's 2,700 daily newspapers; 11,000 weekly newspapers; 7,000 magazines; 5,000 trade, scientific, and business journals; 14,000 commercial and industrial house organs; and 9,000 miscellaneous publications from newsletters to fraternal lodge bulletins. The historian happily can discover much of what the news media censors said and did, and what was said and done to them. Almost without exception, journalists, military leaders, and government officials considered domestic censorship to have been wisely administered.
President Harry S. Truman awarded Price the Medal for Merit on January 15, 1946, congratulating him for "distinctive and complete success" in his administration of censorship and his simultaneous defense of freedom of the press. After voluntary censorship expired in August 1945, Stephen T. Early told Price he should receive an award for "best performance of service to Government and Country in time of war." That sentiment was echoed by the American Civil Liberties Union, which declared in 1945 that wartime censorship "has raised almost no issues in the United States." And James F. Byrnes, who was in charge of war mobilization, inscribed a book that he gave to the chief censor, "To Byron Price, who did what I thought impossiblecensored the press and made them like it."
Byrnes exaggerated, of course. No journalist likes being censored. What the press and radio appreciated about the voluntary censorship program was that it was better than the alternatives. Complete lack of censorship would have helped the enemy. Complete government control would have been intolerable in a nation that had been born during a revolution in which the press played an active role and that had cemented freedom of expression in the First Amendment. At the very least, the absolute control of media would have led to public distrust of the news, as well as the recklessness of a democracy attempting to wage war without the advantage of an open and robust discussion of its options. In between these extremes lay a more acceptable path. American censorship rules in World War II had no built-in legal penalties for journalists who violated the censorship code. If a newspaper or magazine broke the rules, the censor could do little more than publicize the offense and subject the offender to ridicule and competitors' wrath. Fines and prison time could be assessed only if the code violation were so egregious as to cause demonstrable damage to the war effort. With one exception, involving the Chicago Tribune's reporting of the battle of Midway in 1942, the government never considered any journalist's code violation severe enough to warrant prosecution under the Espionage Act. Army and navy officers cringed at violations they considered dangerous, but journalists tried to stay within the boundaries of the censorship guidelines they received from the Office of Censorship. They knew that to do otherwise could damage the nation's security, lead to compulsory censorship, or both. Even more compelling, being identified as a code violator could hurt a newspaper's circulation or the size of a radio audience, posing a threat to profits and perhaps the paper's or station's survival.
Price had faith in most journalists. A former reporter and wire service administrator, he knew hundreds of them. One key to his wartime success was his belief that journalists were as supportive of the war as other Americans, and that his role would be to help them censor themselves. As he sought their cooperation, he followed his rule "that you could get more out of people by asking them to do something than by ordering them" and that press and radio censors must be courteous. Price decreed that censors would suggest, not order, although sometimes the suggestions were pointed when journalists threatened to violate the code.
On the wall of Price's office in the Federal Trade Commission Building at Seventh and Pennsylvania Avenues in Washington, D.C., was a framed quotation. The author was British publicist Owen Tweedy, and Price considered his words as something of a "God Bless Our Home" motto. Not only did he place the quotation in his own office, he ordered copies displayed at the dozen censorship stations that read mail entering and leaving the country and monitored cross-border telephone and cable traffic. The motto listed among the virtues of a good censor "the Voice of a Dove"the soft attempt at persuasion, rather than the noisy threat. That was Price's way. A censor should speak softly, or even better, not have to speak at all. At the end of the war, Price was happy to put a quick and quiet end to his role as censor and leave the Fourth Estate as he found it.
Of all of the federal offices created during World War II, none had a corporate life so closely paralleling the period of American combat as the Office of Censorship. It was born within days of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and it expired when Japan announced it no longer would fight. Thus, censorship existed no longer, and no shorter, than was necessary. This was appropriate for Price's administration. Strangely, it seems so many decades later, the conduct of American censorship during World War II is symbolic of the need for the news media to be as free as they can, for as long as they can.
1. Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 2:96-97.
2. For an oral history and a study of soldiers' motivations in the front lines, see Ambrose, Citizen Soldiers, and Glad, Psychological Dimensions of War.
3. Goodwin, No Ordinary Time, 356-59.
4. Don Anderson to E. P. Adler, Mar. 20, 1942, box 3, folder 4, DAP. Anderson's correspondence with Wisconsin newspapers concerning compliance with the censorship code is in box 7.
5. STE to Kent Cooper, Dec. 31, 1941, box 14, "Price, Byron" folder, STEP.
6. Trohan interview.
7. Clough, "Operations of the Press Division," 222.
8. Harry S. Truman, "Citation to Accompany the Award of the Medal of Merit to Byron Price," box 7, folder 4, BPP.
9. STE to BP, Aug. 31, 1945, box 14, "Price, Byron" folder, STEP.
10. American Civil Liberties Union, Liberty on the Home Front, 45.
11. James F. Byrnes, inscription, box 7, folder 5, BPP.
12. NRH, "Editor's Column," Cleveland News, Aug. 21, 1945.
13. BPM, 223.
Excerpted from Secrets of Victory by Michael S. Sweeney. Copyright © 2001 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.