Magazine article National Forum

Missing on the Home Front

Magazine article National Forum

Missing on the Home Front

Article excerpt

Civilians on the home front saw some of these same films, and many learned to identify hundreds of different aircraft or master a new war-generated job. As they followed accounts of the war with keen interest, they learned about the geography of the Soviet Union or the natural resources of Indonesia Millions of Americans who had never traveled more than a few miles from their birthplace found themselves in distant lands or worked in a war plant far from home. The 1944 Servicemen's Readjustment Act (the "G.I. Bill") extended the impetus to mass education into the postwar period, contributing to a more than doubling of the number of Americans graduating from college between 1940 and 1950.

Wartime policies and circumstances also left a legacy of ignorance. Even as governmental and private organizations provided the public with the massive amounts of information necessary for productive involvement in the war effort, they withheld information deemed detrimental to that effort. This article examines the censorship of visual materials.

Because of the immense popularity of Life magazine, other illustrated publications, and newsreels and films, visual imagery played a major role in educating Americans as to the nature of the war. Military personnel reviewed all pictures taken in American war zones and censored many, most for reasons of operational security, but some because they might raise disturbing questions. Hollywood studios, newspaper editors, and others involved in presenting images of the war occasionally disagreed with official policies (as did some in government), but usually made similar choices as to what the public should and should not see of the war. Thousands of recently declassified photographs in the National Archives reveal that censors suppressed images that blurred the distinction between friend and foe, suggested that the war might bring about disruptive social changes, or undermined confidence in the ability of Americans to maintain control over their institutions and their individual lives.

The Images We Did Not See

Photographs published during the war created the impression that American bombs, bullets, and artillery shells killed only enemy soldiers. Pictures of young, elderly, and female victims always ended up in the files of censored images. So did photographs of the residents in allied and occupied countries killed in traffic accidents involving military vehicles. Wartime necessities often required weary soldiers to rush these vehicles through unfamiliar terrain. Investigators visually recorded the numerous casualties that resulted. Authorities censored all the documents they produced, such as a poignant photograph showing a little Italian girl killed by an army truck after American troops occupied the southern part of her country.


The enemy committed all visible atrocities. Officials suppressed photographs of G.I.'s taking Japanese body parts as trophies. On rare occasions visual evidence of this practice slipped through holes in the censorship net, such as when Life published in its May 22, 1944, issue a photograph of a prim woman from Arizona looking at a Japanese skull that her Navy boyfriend had managed to get smuggled home to her. He and thirteen friends had signed it and added an inscription: "This is a good jap -- a dead one picked up on the New Guinea beach." But officials censored all such photographs under their control, such as a 1945 image of a Japanese soldier's decapitated head hung on a tree branch, probably by American soldiers. This was mainly a phenomenon of the Pacific War; in reviewing thousands of censored photographs and tens of thousands of uncensored ones, I never have encountered one documenting that American soldiers took as trophies body parts of European soldiers.

The wish to maintain clear visual distinctions between friends and enemies was one reason for the decision to remove Americans of Japanese ancestry from coastal areas and place them in guarded camps in sparsely inhabited areas of the West. …

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