Censorship Missionaries of World War II

By Sweeney, Michael S. | Journalism History, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

Censorship Missionaries of World War II


Sweeney, Michael S., Journalism History


To promote compliance with its voluntary guidelines for domestic self-censorship during World War II, the Office of Censorship recuited editors and publishers for around the U.S. to act as informal liaisons between censorship headquarters and the nation's press, particularly the thousands of weekly papers. The liaisons, known as "missionaries," were highly respected and well known in their home states. This article draws on the personal archive of Madison, Wisconsin, publisher Don Anderson in the State Historical Society of Wisconsin as well as the Office of Censorship records in the National Archives to examine the reasons for the creation of the missionary group, their wartime work, and their methods of persuading editors to refrain from publishing sencitive information. It concludes that the missionaries' calm voice of reason, coupled with appeals to patriotism and egalitarianism, strongly influenced compliance.

When the Office of Censorship asked for veteran newspaper journalists to help promote self-censorship among the American print media three months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Wisconsin State Journal Publisher Don Anderson in Madison did not hesitate to offer his services. He had been feeling a bit guilty about not having done more to help the war effort, and he thought the censorship work would be interesting. Besides, he told an associate in the syndicate that owned the Journal, "I do not think it will involve any great amount of work."1 He could not know at that time of the immense effort required to inform editors about censorship and persuade them to conform to a voluntary code of regulations. Furthermore, he could not predict the hundreds of letters he would write, calls he would make, or speeches and bulletins he would produce on behalf of the federal agency that aimed to keep sensitive information out of print during the war.

Anderson was one of about four dozen volunteers, each representing a state or group of states, who served as liaisons between the civilian Office of Censorship and the 2,700 daily and 11,000 weekly newspapers in the United States during World War II These volunteers, chosen because they were respected, veteran journalists, helped smooth contacts primarily between rural editors and what those editors viewed as a distant bureaucracy at censorship headquarters in Washington, D.C. They informed thousands of journalists about the need for censorship and helped maintain compliance. Although their impact on the war effort is hard to quantify-one cannot measure the number of battlefield casualties avoided or ships kept from harm's way because of censorship-many state volunteers received hearty praise for their wartime role from Censorship Director Byron Price and his staff of nine press censors. Anderson was one of eight "solid gold friends" among the state volunteers, according to Assistant Director of Censorship Nathaniel Howard, who oversaw the Press Division of censorship from May 1942 to June 1943.(2)

The relationship between the civilian censors and state volunteers was harmonious, owing partly to the patriotic spirit that swept the nation starting in December 1941 and partly to Price's quiet administrative style, which he called the "Voice of a Dove" and imposed on the Office of Censorship.3 Conflicts were few, but one that occurred early involved the volunteers' job title. They had none. Volunteer Tom Keene of Elkhart, Indiana, told the Office of Censorship that an official title would help him impress small-town editors. Some of them "wouldn't have any conception of what an `ambassa dor without portfolio' is," he said. He explained that one Indiana editor had ignored his letters because she did not believe he represented a government program.4 All of the titles suggested in respouse to Keene's plea-"state helper," "representative," "code advisor," and "transmitter of... official data"-did not take hold.5 Instead, the volunteers became known by a name fitting the religious lexicon that the censors had created for themselves and their work. …

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