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early years were rocky (e.g., the Philadelphia General Advertiser's publication of the 1795 peace treaty with England was the "Pentagon Papers" incident of the time), pure military censorship apparently did not occur during the War of 1812, or during the Mexican War (1846-1848), the last American conflict where the idea of press censorship was not entertained, possibly because the war came too soon for the telegraph system.

By 1856, however, when Great Britain was fighting in the Crimea, telegraph communication had given war reporting unprecedented speed and, as Phillip Knightley relates in The First Casualty, military press censorship came with it. When the American Civil War began in 1861, both sides employed censorship widely, if not well.

Southern newspapers had more difficulties than did Northern ones. A lack of trained journalists, chronic paper shortages, and constant efforts to satisfy the Confederate government's stringent censorship created an enormous burden. But, while Southern censorship was rigid, it was, at least, consistent - a trait badly lacking in the North where censorship policy shifted on a daily basis.


Early in the war the Union government suggested a voluntary, self-imposed newspaper censorship, but the idea went largely unheeded primarily because no government censorship guidelines were provided. The effort at voluntary censorship having failed, the government subsequently moved to enforce a compulsory system that essentially consisted of after-the-fact (of publication) suspension of offending newspapers and close supervision of what was transmitted by the press over the far-flung system of telegraph lines.

Military actions against the press were numerous in the North and included the cases of the New York Journal of Commerce and the New York World. Both newspapers were suspended from publication for two days in 1864 because they published what turned out to be a forged letter-purportedly written by President Lincoln - that called for a 400,000-man draft in that year. On other occasions, several publishers were denied postal privileges by the government as a punishment for censorship violations, and General Ambrose Burnside shut down the Chicago Times for three days in 1864 because of its generally anti-administration editorial views. The suspension was lifted only after Lincoln countermanded Burnside's closing order."

Censorship also generated among the media a distrust of government because of the use of censorship to stop the release of unfavorable news about

3. PHILLIP KNIGHTLEY, THE FIRST CASUALTY 16 (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975).

4. JOHN HOHENBERG, FREE PRESS/FREE PEOPLE, 122-23 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1971).

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Summer 1983

American Military Press Censorship

command cowardice and bad judgment, a distrust not eased by the military's antipress attitudes. Early in 1862, for example, General Henry W. Halleck flatly refused to allow newspaper correspondents anywhere in his zone of command. Halleck was not unique. General William T. Sherman consistently kept reporters at a distance. Sherman based much of his opposition to the press on security considerations. In his opinion, the Confederate government obtained more intelligence from Northern newspapers than from its espionage efforts, a point that cannot be disregarded after noting the log entry written by Captain William Semmes, commander of the C.S.S. Alabama, a famous Confederate commerce raider. After capturing the S.S. Manchester, bound for Liverpool from New York, and aboard which Semmes found a number of Northern newspapers, he wrote:

"I learned from them [the newspapers] where all the enemy's
gunboats were, and what they were doing.... Perhaps this
was the only war in which the newspapers ever explained,
beforehand, all the movements of armies and fleets to the


Despite harassment and obstruction from Burnside, Halleck, Sherman, and others, correspondents continued to report, and newspapers continued to print the news - both good and bad. The New York Times summed up the issue during the war by noting:

More harm would be done to the Union by the expulsion of
correspondents than those correspondents now do by occa-
sional exposures of military blunders, imbecilities, peccadil-
loes, corruption, drunkenness, and knavery, or by their occa-
sional failure to puff every functionary as much as he thinks
he deserves."

By April 1898, when William Randolph Hearst proudly took credit for war with Spain, better transportation enabled correspondents to reach places in days rather than weeks, and stories could be filed quickly because of ever faster communications. These journalistic capabilities created military censorship problems that were not properly addressed in the SpanishAmerican War, probably because of its brevity.

As in the Civil War, security was a problem. Correspondents aboard war

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Command at 16-17 (Washington, DC.,: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1973).

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ships during the early days of the war freely cabled news about American ship movements and combat intentions, news that was released to Madrid as soon as it appeared in the daily newspapers. Clearly, some censorship was necessary and the result was the formation of naval censorship units that were established at Key West, Florida, Washington, D.C., and in seven cable offices in New York City. 10 The nominal head of military censorship in New York by mid-summer of 1898 was Grant Squires, a former New York Tribune reporter who, as a civilian official, served in a liaison role between the military and news organizations. The Navy retained complete censorship control.

American naval censorship was imposed in 1914 at Vera Cruz following U.S. intervention there," but no military censorship was used during the U.S. Army's expedition against the Mexican bandit-revolutionary, Pancho Villa, in 1916.

Once America entered the First World War in 1917, George Creel, a former newspaper editor (and a confidante of President Woodrow Wilson), was named to head the Committee on Public Information, the nation's newly formed propaganda and censorship agency headquartered on Jackson Place in Washington, D.C. Creel's management of domestic news censorship was based on a set of regulations prepared by the State, War, and Navy Departments before the United States entered the war. 12 These regulations, which the press voluntarily accepted, prohibited publication of such things as troop movements in the United States, ship sailings, and the identification of units being sent overseas.

Against the patriotic backdrop of the Creel Committee's activities appeared the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918. The former was so broad that for the press not to have violated some portion of it would have been miraculous. Under its provisions, publishing any information that could be remotely considered as aiding the enemy or interfering with American military operations or war production was punishable by as much as twenty years in prison and a $10,000 fine. 13 And under the terms of the Sedition Act of 1918, any criticism of the conduct or actions of the American government or its military forces, including negative remarks about the flag, military uniforms, etc., could be similarly punished. 14

Meanwhile, the chief American press censor serving in France with the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) was a former New York Herald reporter and Associated Press correspondent named Frederick Palmer, who had been personally recruited by General Pershing and directly

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American Military Press Censorship

commissioned as a major assigned to public relations. 15 Palmer was an excellent reporter, but his inability to handle the censorship problem quickly became clear. The correspondents accused him of not passing sufficient information, while the Army complained that he was not censoring enough. 16 Palmer was soon replaced by a committee composed of ex-journalists, who had been commissioned as reserve officers for public relations duties, and Regular Army officers. The combination was chaotic and, in retrospect, it is amazing that only five journalists out of approximately sixty correspondents assigned to cover the war lost their AEF press credentials." The war nevertheless ended with a major censorship incident, the "False Armistice" story.

The military censors passed for publication a United Press dispatch filed by Roy Howard announcing the armistice a full four days before the real one was actually signed. Howard had filed his story based on information given to him by a reliable source, an American admiral at Brest, France. But, as a result of that story, the censors blacked out contact between the United Press in New York and Howard in France for three hours, thus stopping any possibility of correction, addition, or explanation. 18 Interestingly, the end of the Second World War in Europe would involve another censorship blackout. When war came to America in December 1941, some government censorship was already in operation. On December 31, 1940, Secretary of the Navy Knox formally requested the media to stop publishing any data about certain subjects (new ships, troop movements, etc.) without specific naval authorization; and in September 1941, both the Army and Navy announced that press censorship plans had been formulated to control information flowing from the United States in the event of a national emergency.

While the Roosevelt administration had formulated tentative censorship plans involving various executive departments and agencies including the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Federal Communications Commission, there was no central press censorship authority.

Pearl Harbor produced the jolt necessary for government action. On December 8, F.B.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover was given temporary powers to direct all news censorship and to control all other telecommunications traffic in and out of the United States. Simultaneously, President Roosevelt requested that the American news media voluntarily respect the Department of the Navy's censorship guidelines published a year earlier. Only eight days later, Roosevelt appointed Byron Price as Director of Censorship, relieving Hoover


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KENT COOPER, THE RIGHT TO KNOW, 215-16 (New York: Farrar, Strauss &
Cudahy, 1955).

Communications and the Law 39


of that responsibility; and on December 18, 1941, pursuant to the War Powers Act, the President created the Office of Censorship with Price as its chief. Since the Office of Censorship could only issue guidance relevant to domestic news censorship, it relied on the power of persuasion linked to a voluntary news censorship system that was worked out with the full cooperation of the media. The product of these labors was the Code of Wartime Practices, which became effective January 15, 1942.

The nation was hungry for war news and looked anxiously toward Washington, particularly during the grim, early days of the conflict. The Office of War Information (O.W.I.), created in June 1942 as America's propaganda agency, stood between the government and the press and was bound to feel severe stings of criticism from all quarters. Elmer Davis, the highly respected newsman and Director of the O.W.I., was powerless to force government agencies (including the military) to supply more accurate and timely non-sensitive information to the public, a situation that made relations between the O.W.I. and the media extremely tense. And it was military news censorship that caused many of the problems. 19

The only theater in which American forces were actually engaged early in the war was the Pacific. There, a combination of MacArthur's almost dictatorial censorship20 and the overtly antipress attitudes of Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Ernest J. King21 made attempts at news coverage difficult at best.

MacArthur's restrictive news media policy (e.g., multiple censorship of correspondent's copy before release)22 and his use of censorship for "image building "23 were matched by the Navy's policy of delaying the news and then compounding the belated release by linking bad news with stories of combat success. While MacArthur got away with it, the Navy began suffering a loss of credibility. 24 The incidents of news management were not insignificant ones-e. g., news of the American naval defeat off Savo Island was released almost nine weeks after the battle.25

The press, quick to recognize the government's heavy-handedness and suspicious that a lack of candor could mean a cover-up of military incompetence, bitterly complained of the Navy's attitude, particularly since the voluntary censorship program aided the Navy's attempts to manage the news. It fell to Davis to strike the delicate balance between picturing America's war




Lloyd J. Graybar, Admiral King's Toughest Battle, NAVAL WAR COL. REV., 40-43 (February 1979).


Graybar, Admiral King's Toughest Battle, 39.


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