"Delays and Vexation": Jack London and the Russo-Japanese War

Article excerpt

Jack London and his colleagues attempting to cover the Russo-Japanese War in Korea and Manchuria in 1904 were subjected to systematic and highly restrictive censorship as they tried to send their dispatches to their home newspapers. Little has been written about London and his work as a journalist; this paper examines one part of that career and focuses on the difficulties he encountered in his effort to report on that conflict.

Japanese censorship in the Russo-Japanese War astonished Jack London and his fellow journalists who were covering the combat in Korea and Manchuria in 1904. The Japanese army's censorship of the news from the first land battles between Japan and a Western power was of a new and unexpected magnitude and made little sense to them. "Practically everything" was a military secret, London wrote to the newspapers owned by William Randolph Hearst, and that included something as insignificant as a photograph he took of a Chinese blacksmith and was forced to relinquish to military authorities.1 The army did not allow correspondents representing friendly or neutral countries near enough to the front lines to witness actual combat and seldom left them free enough to send dispatches to the rear that contained significant news. The experience soured London and his fellow journalists on the future of war correspondence.

Despite a massive amount of research on London and his writings, little has been written about his work as a journalist.2 This paper, which examines the influence of Japanese censorship on London's war correspondence, draws on London's notebooks, letters, and newspaper articles. It underscores previous research about the significance of censorship in the Russo-Japanese War by focusing on the difference between London's expectations of covering the war and the surprising reality. It is the first to examine Japan's rules of conduct for foreign correspondents who were covering the combat in Asia in 1904. A copy of these regulations exists in the Jack and Charmian London Papers at Utah State University and is summarized in the text. According to the regulations, journalists had to have escorts at all times on the battlefield and agree to participate in an early form of press pools. Also, journalists had to submit all reports, private letters, telegrams, and other communications to military censorship, which would remove anything that was "liable to disturb the public peace or to dispirit the troops." If London and the other reporters did not like these arrangements, there was little they could do. As guests of the Japanese, they were expected never to do anything disorderly, the code said.3

The war apparently marked a turning point in the role of battlefield correspondents, subjecting them to new levels of censorship. In the nineteenth century, reporters from neutral or friendly countries were, if not welcomed, at least tolerated on most battlefields.4 Military authorities were slow to recognize the potential danger posed by the telegraph, which, through the speed of its transmission, conceivably could lead to combatants reading of their enemy's plans and reacting to them even before they were carried out. Reporters' freedom, despite the new threat of the telegraph, led historian Phillip Knightley to call the last half of the nineteenth century a "golden age" for war correspondents, which he said ended with the RussoJapanese War.5

However, telegraph lines were not an issue at the combat zones in Korea and Manchuria, most of which lacked such instantaneous channels of communication to the outside world. Instead, the Japanese army controlled information partly out of suspicion that foreigners were spies6 but mainly because it feared the potential social and political consequences of uncensored news on the home front. One overriding political interest was harmony. News stories that disturbed morale or the public peace were unlikely to be released by military or government authorities. …