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Censorship and World War II

The institutional identity of censorship was firmly in place during World War II. The across-the-board agreement of all parties – military censors, newspaper owners, and rank and file war reporters – is well illustrated by a specific instance of censorship immediately after Germany’s surrender.

Although government censorship and propaganda conjure sinister motivation and heavy handed authoritarian measures, the experience of World War II belies the instinct to draw that conclusion.

Indefinite suspension was the lot of Edward Kennedy, the chief of the Associated Press’ Western front staff. Kennedy was the first to report, on May 7, 1945, the end of the European campaign. His story was based on a German radio broadcast announcing that nation’s unconditional surrender. His story was filed prior to approval from the censors. Condemnation of Kennedy was swift, not only from the Army censors, but also from his employer. The Associated Press and fellow journalists roundly criticized his violation of news censorship protocols. Kennedy steadfastly maintained that surrender information was already broadcast on German radio, thus negating the requirement to adhere to censorship strictures. The reflex action of the entrenched military censors, unconditional enemy surrender notwithstanding, was to denigrate Kennedy, a move which adversely affected his career, as Julia Kennedy Cochran wrote in Ed Kennedy’s War (LSU Press, 2012).

Edward Kennedy

Associated Press reporter Edward Kennedy. Kennedy ran afoul of the strict censorship rules when he was the first to report that Germany had surrendered on May 7, 1945. AP Photo

A close cousin to war censorship is propaganda. Censorship keeps news from reaching citizens; propaganda slants the method by which news is presented. Both approaches were utilized in World War II to influence America’s perception of the war effort. An important aspect of presentation was war photography. The Office of War Information controlled, through government censors and media self-censorship, the image of combat as experienced on the battle fronts. The first two years of World War II saw a continuation of a censorship of photographs that was practiced during World War I – a complete ban on photos of American casualties. Although graphic images of American casualties were never presented, censorship of more acceptable images was softened a few years into the war in 1943. A dead soldier could be shown if his face was not obvious and if his manner of death was relatively serene and not bloody or horrific. It was thought that demonstrating sacrifice would rally the citizens at home who were growing weary of the war. Along with this censorship of the harsh realities of war, propaganda was used to generate collective action on the home front. Housewives were transformed into armament assemblers, victory gardens sprung up across the nation, silk stockings were collected as war material and war heroes were sent on Victory Bond tours, according to George Roeder’s The Censored War (Yale University Press, 1993).

A dead soldier could be shown if his face was not obvious and if his manner of death was relatively serene and not bloody or horrific. It was thought that demonstrating sacrifice would rally the citizens at home who were growing weary of the war.

Although government censorship and propaganda conjure sinister motivation and heavy handed authoritarian measures, the experience of World War II belies the instinct to draw that conclusion. Censorship outside of the war zone was largely voluntary and readily acceded to by the press and radio in its war reporting of soldiers fighting. The aforementioned Office of Censorship, an agency created early in the war, issued guidelines to newspapers, magazines and radio stations. Over the years of the war, only one radio journalist deliberately violated the censorship code.

Dead U.S. Army Soldiers

U.S. Army soldiers, stripped of all equipment, lie dead, face down in the slush of a crossroads somewhere in western Europe, ca. 1944. Until 1943 there was a complete ban on photos of the dead, but that was loosened as long as the photos did not show the face of the dead. National Archives photo

In combat zones, censorship was not voluntary. Photos taken therein were vigorously reviewed prior to publication. The process consisted of a system of field censors and further review by the War Department Bureau of Public Relations in Washington, D.C. The types of photos that were censored included civilian victims of American firepower and GIs who committed atrocities, as well as enemy soldiers being treated by American medics.

The termination of hostilities did not end World War II-related censorship issues. A 1946 John Huston documentary, Let There Be Light, did not have a public screening until 1980, because of an Army directive that kept the film from distribution. Produced in 1945, the movie dealt with the topic of the psychological trauma of returning war veterans who were being treated at an Army hospital in Long Island, N.Y. Huston, then a major in the Army Signal Corps, was directed to make the film with the original working title The Returning Psychoneurotics. A group of veterans with psychiatric injuries ranging from anxiety neurosis to psychosis were followed for eight weeks, from their arrival to discharge from the hospital. Huston’s goal was to demonstrate the effectiveness of treatment in restoring the men to psychological health and future employability. Upon completion of the documentary, top Army brass viewed it and deemed it inappropriate for general viewing with the supposed excuse of protecting the men’s privacy. However, the men had all signed releases and were eager for the film to be shown. Huston felt the reason for the film’s suppression was to maintain the warrior myth and not allow the true cost of war to be shown, according to the National Film Preservation Foundation.

Ultimately, many aspects of World War II were hidden from public view, from the horror on the battlefield to the mental suffering of combatants. Unlike subsequent wars, which television brought into America’s living rooms, the presentation of World War II was carefully managed to maintain popular support.