In the totalitarian states, including all three Axis nations and also the Soviet Union and China, state control of the media was already well established when the war began. These countries had no long-standing tradition of a free press as a voice against government encroachments on the rights of the people, and throughout the war, their mass media functioned primarily as outlets through which governments could present their preferred version of reality. Until August 1945, for example, press and radio told the Japanese people that their armies were still winning glorious victories overseas. In those territories occupied by Axis armies, the press was quickly reduced to a similar condition. In both Axis and occupied states, however, some clandestine publications circulated—at great danger to their authors and distributors, who ran the risk of arrest and imprisonment or execution, fates that frequently befell them.
The United Kingdom and the United States each had a strong free press tradition, and in these states, the government control over the press in wartime was more restrained. With the onset of World War II, Great Britain and France again placed restrictions on their media, which applied to both radio and print journalism. Some of these constraints affected not only their own citizens but also foreign journalists reporting from Allied countries, who could be denied access to sensitive areas and also to the facilities they needed to transmit their stories. In practice, many leading American correspondents were staunchly pro-Allies in sympathy, and the Allied censors therefore granted them considerable latitude. Edward R. Murrow of Columbia Broadcasting Service, for example, transmitted radio broadcasts from the London Blitz that gave the American people a sense of the war's immediacy and helped to generate popular support for Britain's battle against Adolf Hitler's forces. The United States, a neutral during the first two years of the war, retained its tradition of independent journalism based on the foundation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This ended when that country entered the war after Japan's surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941.
In part because the very nature of the Japanese attack struck almost all Americans as the epitome of duplicitous and dishonorable behavior, U.S. media representatives immediately acceded to their government's requests that they submit to censorship, engage in self-censorship, and submit any questionable materials to the government and the military for vetting prior to their release. Even movies were expected to showcase the official view of the war—that all American soldiers were patriotic and honorable and their enemies evil, untrustworthy, and despicable. The media also presented a sanitized, even glamorized view of war, playing down its horrific aspects and ensuring that only enemy soldiers, not the home team, were seen to encounter gruesome deaths. Before the advent of television, straight battlefield reporting was highly restrained, emphasizing the heroism of commanders and troops on one's own side and omitting the filth, foul language, and other unsavory aspects that also formed part of the combat experience. As in other nations at war, such censorship in the United States created a public perception that all its fighting men and women were brave and patriotic, that the home front was united behind the war effort, and that government decisions were wise and just. If reported at all, military disasters were presented as merely minor reverses. One exception was that the press was encouraged to pillory fraudulent activities or overly opportunistic "war profiteering." Even so, in both Britain and the United States, newspaper criticism of governmental incompetence, especially instances in which officials had allegedly been inefficient in prosecuting the war effort, continued to appear, often as part of the normal political process, which was by no means suspended during the war.
Military commanders expected war correspondents accredited to their forces to function primarily as adjuncts to their own efforts, disseminating only those messages and images acceptable to the government. Only occasionally, as when Lieutenant General George S. Patton Jr. slapped a hospitalized soldier who had suffered a nervous breakdown, did correspondents report news that was unflattering or discreditable to the military. These policies brought a near total suspension of in-depth investigative journalism over a wide range of topics. The complete censorship of communications coming from military units (extending even to the personal correspondence of soldiers) made reporters doubly dependent on the goodwill of the armed forces. One by-product of this was to preclude the publication of critiques of military operations or strategy in the open forum of the press.
As a result, in almost all combatant nations, the bulk of World War II military journalism consisted of variations on the "personal interest" or "feature" story. Generally, these stories eschewed hard facts (who, what, when, where) for profiles emphasizing human interest stories. In the United States, the recognized master of this format was the military journalist Ernie Pyle, whose affinity for the common infantryman won him the label "friend of the dogface." Pyle produced classic pieces that became more realistic over time and, as he moved to the Pacific Theater, grew increasingly honest and made less effort to minimize the misery and deprivation the fighting troops experienced. Even today, his famed dispatch entitled "The Death of Captain Wasko" remains a staple for American soldiers. Like a number of other war correspondents, Pyle paid the ultimate price for his efforts to accompany soldiers to the front when a Japanese sniper killed him on the island of Ie Shima off Okinawa in the closing days of the war.
Together with many other well-known American journalists, among them the young Walter Cronkite, Pyle often wrote for the Stars and Stripes, a four-page (later, eight-page) daily newspaper produced by the armed forces and widely circulated among the troops. This journal first appeared during the American Civil War and reappeared in World War I; in 1942, the U.S. military resumed its publication in London, with the first issue carrying an article by Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall lauding its contributions to morale in World War I. The paper's editors and correspondents accompanied the U.S. forces through their various campaigns and had to locate suitable publication facilities as they moved through the different theaters of war. In 1945, the Stars and Stripes also began to issue a Pacific edition, and from World War II onward, it continued to appear without a break. Unlike publications designed for a civilian audience, the Stars and Stripes could afford to be somewhat more frank about the rigors and dangers of combat. Both Marshall and General Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces, took pride in the fact that this newspaper belonged to the "free press" and instituted a hands-off policy forbidding military censorship of its contents. Although its articles were far more honest than those in similar Axis publications designed for the troops, contributors to the Stars and Stripes were usually, in practice, military employees who firmly supported the overriding wartime objective of victory. On those occasions the newspaper criticized military practices it considered unfair or inefficient, it did so from the perspective of the insider who sought to improve an institution he fundamentally supported and on which, indeed, he depended.
Throughout World War II, the media in all belligerent countries were expected to support their own nation's war effort. Although press controls were far more stringent in totalitarian countries, even democracies with a traditionally strong free press exercised a substantial degree of censorship over the media and demanded that print and broadcast outlets alike publish nothing potentially detrimental to the war effort. Bulky equipment often made live newsreel coverage from the front impracticable, and except when the intention was to stir up popular feeling against the enemy, newspapers were forbidden to disturb the public by featuring overly graphic photographs of bodies of soldiers or civilians who had suffered particularly horrific deaths. In practice, even where censorship was relatively restrained, the home front media usually presented a simplistic and sanitized view of the experience of combat troops in fighting that deliberately minimized brutality, dirt, and bodily discomforts; omitted the mention of savage fighting tactics or atrocities unless these were committed by the enemy; and tended to present all soldiers from their own country as invariably brave, heroic, steadfast, and patriotic. Although there were other reasons for such sentiments, practices of this type undoubtedly contributed to the continuing popular view of World War II as a "good war." In the 1960s, when war reporting became far more graphic and immediate, with vivid images of actual combat and civilian deaths in Vietnam televised within hours throughout the United States and the rest of the world, public attitudes toward the Vietnam conflict quickly became far more ambivalent than they had been toward World War II.
Robert Bateman and Priscilla Roberts
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