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American Censorship in the World Wars
War Reporting

American Censorship in the World Wars
  • Wartime Censorship of Press and Radio (by )
  • Notes of a War Correspondent (by )
  • War Correspondent (by )
  • Confessions of a War Correspondent (by )
  • Campaigns of a War Correspondent (by )
  • Insurgent Mexico (by )
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How much transparency should there be between the frontlines of war and the public that pays the taxes to fund that war?

Once upon a World War I, there was no transparency. In fact, any journalist who attempted to portray the truth could very easily have been jailed for treason. Propaganda was the name of the game, and every player meant to win through strict censorship. Britain, for example, signed into law the Defense of the Realm Act of 1914 (DORA) only four days after entering the war. It stated: "No person shall by word of mouth or in writing spread reports likely to cause disaffection or alarm among any of His Majesty's forces or among the civilian population."

It was total war, where entire countries and histories were at stake, not simply assets and resources. So with costs this high, propaganda and censorship in the name of your own country’s health is the best option, right?

The United States passed the Espionage Act of 1917 (that was furthered by the Sedition Act of 1918), their version of DORA, in order to curb American war correspondents, anti-war sentiments, and socialists in the homeland. World War II brought more censorship, with Executive Order 8381 issued by President Franklin D. Roosevelt which stated:

That, whenever, in the interests of the national defense, the President shall define certain vital military and naval installations or equipment or requiring protection against the general dissemination of information relative thereto, it shall be unlawful to make any photograph, sketch, picture, drawing, map, or graphical representation of such vital military and naval installations or equipment without first obtaining permission of the commanding officer of the military or naval post, camp, or station concerned.
Despite the growing rigidity of media censorship, human-focused reporting was also developing. Certain journalists like Ernie Pyle (read Brave Men, a collection of his war correspondences)  were commissioned to write from the front lines. On September 5, 1944, he reported from a recently retaken Paris:

I’ve been twenty-nine months overseas since this war started; have written around seven hundred thousand words about it; have totaled nearly a year in the front lines … I have given out. I’ve been immersed in it too long. My spirit is wobbly and my mind is confused. The hurt has finally become too great. All of a sudden it seemed to me that if I heard one more shot or saw one more dead man, I would go off my nut … Every day the war continues is another hideous black mark against the German nation. They are beaten and yet they haven’t quit. Every life lost from here on is a life lost to no purpose.

The war was long, ugly, and dehumanizing. The Second World War differed from the first in that it was a battle for humanity, with a pristine picture of evil found in Nazi Germany. Therefore, describing the horrors of war through Pyle’s relatively upbeat perspective could easily bring ire against the enemy and further resolve to see war efforts through.
FDR eventually gave credence to the controversy of the Espionage Act and its threat upon freedom of speech. He created the emergency, civilian-led Voluntary Censorship Code position to appease the situation. Byron Price, the executive director of the Associated Press (read his essay “Censorship and Free Speech”) was appointed to the position with the initiative to report to the president and censor the press at home and abroad at his own discretion. 

A form of censorship is necessary in times of war. Strategic advantages can be compromised by media leaks, which put soldiers’ lives at unnecessary risk. But the ramifications of quickly legislated wartime censorship laws multiply after the war is over, creating the probability of once patriotic laws turning on people. 

For further reading, check out Wartime Censorship of Press and Radio.

By Thad Higa

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