The U.S. system of wartime censorship also employed written censorship codes, but the government enforced these codes in a less intrusive way. This unique system of "voluntary self-censorship" was created just after Pearl Harbor. President Franklin D. Roosevelt decided that American censorship should begin with separate spheres for military information and domestic news. Thus, the U.S. Army and Navy kept control of their information by such traditional expedients as editing the mail of military personnel (the extent varied widely from unit to unit) and issuing very general press releases. In the field, the army and navy required American correspondents to agree to specific rules or be banned from combat theaters. Military censors also reviewed the copy written by correspondents, which had to be approved before it could be transmitted to their home offices.
For the most part, correspondents accepted military censorship without protest. At one point, virtually the entire press corps in Sicily voluntarily suppressed the story about Lieutenant General George S. Patton slapping two soldiers. Writer John Steinbeck, who spent about five months in Europe as a war correspondent, remembered that he and his colleagues censored themselves more vigorously than did the military censors.
For domestic news, Roosevelt created the Office of Censorship. This body was similar to the Creel Committee of World War I, which had developed a general censorship code that the media then pledged to follow. However, knowing how American reporters and editors had resented George Creel's heavy-handed approach, Roosevelt shrewdly selected Byron Price, lead editor of the Associated Press, to head his new office. Price, in consultation with a censorship operating board composed of representatives of several federal agencies, handled the press fairly by applying the new censorship codes for the press and for radio news in a consistent manner.
Neither of the codes was very long, and the details were deliberately somewhat vague. Price preferred to ask editors to guide their own actions by asking themselves, "Is this information I would like to have if I were the enemy?" This appeal to patriotism worked well, for throughout the war, editors tended to censor their agencies' stories so heavily that Price's staff and the volunteer monitors who reviewed local newspaper stories for the office often suggested that deleted information could be returned to the text.
The most serious challenge to censorship came in June 1942, when Stanley Johnston, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, gained access to a confidential navy communiqué based on the navy's ability to read Japan's naval codes. From this information, Johnston wrote a story revealing that the U.S. Navy had advance information about the Japanese attack on Midway. This scoop, which the Chicago Tribune published without submitting it to Price's censors, threatened to expose U.S. code-breaking operations. Outraged at the harm this could have done to the war in the Pacific, the Department of Justice prepared a case against the newspaper for violating the Espionage Act. In the end, however, the government dropped the matter, partly because the story had not contravened the existing censorship code but largely because a public trial would only further jeopardize the code-breaking secret. Fortunately for the Allies, the Japanese apparently were not aware of the story.
The censorship code was then revised and reissued with greater restrictions. The main impact of the incident seems to have made most editors even more cooperative in censoring their own stories. By 1944, a few reporters had picked up gleanings about the purpose of the top-secret manhattan Project, yet all of them kept quiet about the knowledge that America was building an atomic bomb. The fact that one of these reporters was the notorious whistle-blower Drew Pearson only underscores how readily the media accepted the need for wartime censorship.
Throughout the war, most of the Office of Censorship's 15,000 employees were not battling with the press but instead were monitoring the vast amount of mail, cables, and telephone calls that went overseas, seeking to keep information from falling into the wrong hands. As had the media, American citizens accepted this censorship without great protest. Indeed, few Americans seemed to complain about censorship at all, which was very different from the way they groused about rationing, taxes, shortages, or many of the other restrictions that the war had placed on their freedoms.
Even after 1945, there was remarkably little criticism of wartime censorship, in marked contrast to the complaints that followed the war in Britain and elsewhere. These attitudes shed light on popular American views of the emergency in the early months after Pearl Harbor. They also suggest that Byron Price had been right when he told President Roosevelt that he would get more cooperation from Americans by asking them to help him rather than telling them what to do.
Steinbeck, John. Once There Was a War. New York: Viking, 1958.; Summers, Robert, ed. Wartime Censorship of Press and Radio. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1942.; Sweeney, Michael. Secrets of Victory: The Office of Censorship and the American Press and Radio in World War II. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.