News from the front


The relationship between the military and the media in World War II involved censorship, but also an uneasy alliance

Walter Cronkite became a household name in the United States as anchorman for CBS Evening News, but in 1943 he was working as a war correspondent for the news agency United Press when he was selected to report on a bombing raid over Germany. Poor visibility meant that the B17 flying fortress he flew in could not drop its bombs on the primary target, but Walter came back from the “assignment to hell” with vivid copy and having manned a machine gun and fired at a German fighter aircraft.

Cronkite later wrote that, while reporting on battles in Europe and North Africa, he was “scared to death all the time”. However, the outward image of the war correspondent that he embodied, as independent, intrepid and danger-seeking, is an enduring one.

What he, Martha Gelhorn and other famous World War II correspondents rarely mentioned in their copy, or their autobiographies, was the more bureaucratic and practical side of reporting which was essential to their success – their relationships with the military.

Steven Casey, Professor of International History and a specialist in US foreign policy, studied journalism and censorship in World War II because he was interested in how these later informed how the American military dealt with the media in the Korean and Vietnam wars.  

Professor Casey says that the reality of reporting in World War II was that: “The big war name correspondents would often go and risk everything to report on a battle only to be scooped by a staff journalist sitting in London or Algiers. They would write the story from the military briefing because that was the only information that got back from the front – either because communication was logistically impossible or the copy was deemed too sensitive.”

In the context of today’s global communication, twenty-four hour news and citizen journalism it seems inconceivable, for example, that crucial details about the bombing of Hiroshima, the Pearl Harbor attack and the D-Day landings –  events upon which history pivoted – were reported weeks after they happened. 

“There were good reasons why governments didn’t release information in a timely fashion,” explains Professor Casey. “For example, in the case of D-Day, the Allies were trying to deceive the Germans that the invasion was going to be in the Calais region.

“A key issue with amphibious operations isn’t so much the landing but rather the reinforcements that will be needed in the ensuing weeks. The last thing that General Eisenhower wanted was for Rommel to be able to get Panzers down to Normandy before sufficient troops had landed. 

“Alongside this there were practical communication problems. The military had tried to get radios to Omaha beach, but all but one were sunk and the correspondents couldn’t find it.”

However, Professor Casey points out that attempts by the military to create a complete news blackout around major events could be counterproductive.

“When censorship was too brazen and too absolute, what tended to happen is that rumour – even from enemy sources – filled the vacuum,” he says. “During the Battle of the Bulge the New York Times had to turn to German estimates of casualty figures because it needed to print something and, of course, these figures were massively inflated. The press was up in arms about the censorship – and it came back to kick the military in the teeth.

Approaching Omaha“Clearly, if you’re losing you don’t want the enemy to know exactly how disastrous a situation is.  But there is a thin line between trying to censor information while allowing the media to publish something.”

A more modern concern for governments in dealing with the media during World War II was citizen morale. They wanted to ensure that support for war didn’t collapse, and it didn’t.

In 1943 the US government was actually concerned that public thought that success would come too easily. To help counter this idea that victory was around the corner, President Roosevelt sanctioned the release of a film for general audiences, originally made as a training film, which shows American marines dead on the beaches at Tarawa.

“The media-government relationship is not always a matter of concealment. Sometimes officials want to flourish the idea that war is hell, to jolt the homefront into some kind of realisation of the reality of war,” explains Professor Casey.

Similarly, in autumn 1940 the British government allowed radio broadcasters like Edward R. Murrow to air live descriptions of the blitz into American homes, despite concerns that it would provide the Germans with useful information about the success of their raids. By emphasising that the stubborn and determined Londoners could take everything the Nazis threw at them, the British government hoped to cement US support for the war effort.

While journalists would balk at the idea of being a tool of government, in World War II there was a strong incentive for the media to cooperate for the simple reason that they would only have access to the war if they were given a place by the military. And even the most courageous or scoop-seeking reporter wouldn’t have liked the idea of  D-Day being leaked when they themselves were going to land on a hostile shore with only a typewriter to defend themselves.

Indeed, three days before D-Day an English secretarial worker in the offices of Associated Press was typing practice dispatches when she pressed the wrong button and sent the ‘news’ that the American have landed on the coast of France. The news was out for 15 minutes before being retracted. Perhaps understandably, at least one senior American reporter suggested that she should be shot.

However, as the danger receded, with the tide of war turning, the rationale for censorship began to ebb away. When the unconditional surrender document was signed early on Monday May 7 1945, reporters were told that it’s was not going to be released until Tuesday afternoon. However Ed Kennedy, working for the Associated Press, ignored the censorship stop and released the story – meaning that for American the war effectively ended a day early. Kennedy was sent home in disgrace, but he argued that there was no security rationale for withholding the information.

Despite this final controversy of the war, journalists were generally seen as being on the militaries’ ‘team’. Partly they were motivated by a strong ideological sense that –  in the face of Hitler and Nazi Germany –  the war was about right and wrong, in a way that later wars, such as that in Vietnam, would not be seen to be.

Professor Casey says: ”When the media conveyed graphic images of the fighting they invariably used this to reinforce, rather than challenge, their propagandists’ depiction of the war. News from the front was candid enough to satisfy the home front, but not explicit or intelligence-sensitive enough to undermine the war effort. Censorship, in short, worked.”

Posted January 2016 

Useful links

For full details of Professor Steven Casey’s research and publications see his profile page

This article draws on Professor Casey’s chapter Reporting from the battlefield: censorship and journalism  in The Cambridge History of the Second World War and  When Soldiers Fall: How Americans have confronted combat losses from World War I to Afghanistan

Image credits 

War photographers during the Battle of Normandy, National Archives USA

"Approaching Omaha"  Licensed under Public Domain via Commons