Many of the generals leading the American Expeditionary Force in World War One had been junior officers in the Spanish-American War. They remembered how sensational reporting had fed a war fever that McKinley could not ignore, and how the press had then turned on the military and accused it of war crimes in the Filipino Insurrection. Determined to prevent new abuses, they imposed heavy censorship of war dispatches, tried to limit the number of reporters at the front to 30, and required a $10,000 bond be posted by each correspondent.
On the home front, Congress passed the Espionage Act, the Trading With The Enemy Act and the Sedition Act — all of which contained provisions for suppressing “disloyal” war coverage. A censorship board worked with the attorney general and postmaster to prevent reporting harmful to the war effort. But most papers (other than the anglophobic Hearst chain) believed the war was being waged to defend democracy, so coverage tended to be positive and patriotic. In fact, 189 New York Times employees quit their jobs to join the military.
World War Two saw a similar pattern. Although isolationists tried to keep America out of the war — the Chicago Tribune even published Roosevelt’s secret war plans three days before Pearl Harbor — once the nation was attacked the press lined up behind the war effort. General Eisenhower captured the closeness of the military-media relationship when he called the reporters accredited to his headquarters “quasi-staff officers.” About 800 U.S. reporters covered the war at any given time, and all of them adhered to the Office of Censorship’s “Code of Wartime Practices for the American Press.”
Censorship at the front was more restrictive than at home. A report in the Tribune disclosing Japan’s code had been broken before the battle of Midway got past civilian censors, but would never have survived military scrutiny. New technologies such as radio and newsreels made the transmission of sensitive information more likely. But the government recognized positive coverage was a strategic commodity contributing to victory, so it helped reporters as long as they played by the rules. Coverage was heavy on human-interest stories and light on real information. The Navy suppressed details of Pearl Harbor losses for months.
Military-media relations were more strained in the Korean War. The war began in June 1950 with a defeat of United Nations forces by North Korea, which was redressed by MacArthur’s Inchon landing in September, only to lead to new setbacks when Red China attacked in October. War coverage focused heavily on U.S. losses and doubts about how the conflict was being waged. Military officers complained that the tenor of the reporting was undermining the war effort. But MacArthur did not impose censorship until December, 1950.
Despite stringent censorship thereafter at the front, Newsweek published as sensitive map on June 18, 1951 detailing deployments of the Eighth Army in Korea. That stoked military resentment of war coverage, but journalists complained that inconsistencies in the application of censorship exacerbated problems. Battlefield setbacks, the limited nature of the war, and controversy surrounding its conduct all contributed to tense relations. A generation later, Vietnam proved Korea was no anomaly.
Loren B. Thompson, Ph.D., is chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute and teaches in Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program.
Find Archived Articles: