Avoiding Bloodshed? U.S. Journalists and Censorship in Wartime

“[Union journalists]…are the direct cause of more bloodshed
than fifty times their number of armed Rebels.”

-Union General William Sherman, 1863


Should the U.S. government or military censor wartime information in national security’s name? In my recently published article “Avoiding Bloodshed? US Journalists and Censorship in Wartime” in War & Society, I argue the answer is no and that any withholding of wartime information by U.S. journalists should be voluntary.

Focusing on World Wars I and II and the Korean War, Vietnam War, and Persian Gulf War, my article also examines censorship of U.S. journalists in wartime and, from war to war, trends in types of censored information. My article further answers whether any censorship has avoided bloodshed or been legitimate.

I begin with World War I because it was the first U.S. war with large-scale censorship. During earlier American wars, such as the Revolutionary War and Mexican War, communications and printing were slow and so journalists couldn’t keep up with war’s pace. Thus, for the most part government and military officials were unconcerned with wartime reporting. However, by the Civil War many journalists used telegraphs, so news spread more quickly. Multiple reports of war information, such as battle plans, angered such Union generals as William Sherman. Nevertheless, in the Civil War there was no official, widespread censorship of war information. In the Spanish-American War, military personnel routinely censored journalists’ telegraphs for mentions of “projected movements of bodies of troops, naval vessels, and transports.”

In World Wars I and II and the Korean War, Vietnam War, and Persian Gulf War, the government or military used varying methods of censorship.  For instance, in World Wars I and II the government suppressed journalists with the Espionage Act of 1917, which banned publication of such information as “false statements with intent to interfere with the…success of the military”; the Post Office blocked the distribution of publications in the U.S. mail; and military personnel censored thousands of journalists’ communications sent through the war zones.  In the Korean War and Persian Gulf War, journalists in war zones had to submit all their articles, photos, and videos for censorship review before publication.  During the Vietnam War, a federal court blocked several newspapers from publishing articles about the Pentagon Papers that disclosed, among other revelations, decisions by U.S. officials to secretly escalate the war.  These injunctions ranged from five to fifteen days.

Troop Movement

Nevertheless, in all five wars the government or military did perhaps most censorship with long lists of censorship rules that the government or military forced journalists to follow. For instance, in World War II the lists for journalists operating in the United States were called the Code of Wartime Practices for the American Press (for print journalists) and Code of Wartime Practices for American Broadcasters (for radio broadcasters). These lists banned revelation of such information as troop movements, statistics on critical war supplies, and locations of bomb shelters in the United States. The government forced compliance with these lists by threatening more censorship of journalists in general using the Espionage Act, the Post Office’s mail censorship, and other methods. For journalists operating in war zones, the military had a separate list that prohibited release of such information as inaccurate information, information embarrassing to the United States, and effects of enemy fire on targets in war zones. Journalists who violated the military’s rules faced possible detainment, expulsion from a war zone, or suspension or revocation of accreditation to cover war operations.

In each war, much and sometimes perhaps most censorship was unrelated to protecting national security. For instance, in World War I a court convicted communist leader Rose Stokes of violating the Espionage Act for writing in the Kansas City Star, “I am for the people[,] and the Government is for the Profiteers.” In World War II, the Post Office blocked issues of X-Ray (Indiana) in the U.S. mail after it declared Pearl Harbor “sunk the hopes of Jewry in this country — and the world forever, Amen and Amen.” In the Vietnam War, President Lyndon Johnson ordered the Federal Bureau of Investigation to investigate CBS broadcaster Morley Safer for “[c]ommunist ties” after he reported a story critical of U.S. Marines fighting in Vietnam.

From war to war, there has been little consistent consensus expressed in censorship rules on specific types of war information.  As my article’s Appendix shows, of 120 types of information that the government or military censored between the five wars only the following five (4%) types of information were in censorship rules in all these wars:

  • Information on future military operations/military plans/secret war plans
  • Movements of troops, warships, fighter planes, ships, or rails
  • Statistics on critical war supplies
  • Effectiveness of the enemy’s camouflage, cover, deception, direct and indirect fire, intelligence collection, or security measures
  • Aerial photos/views of sites of military importance

Most specific reporting restrictions lasted only one or two wars. For example, the Vietnam War had several rules unique to that conflict, including bans on revealing the number of air strikes and identification of enemy weapon systems used to down friendly aircraft.  And in only World Wars I and II, the rules banned mention of harbor defenses and merchant ships’ departure times. Why was there so little consistency from war to war? Among other reasons, changes occurred from war to war in the types of threats facing the U.S. military, homeland, civilians, or allies (e.g., artillery, submarines, or A-bombs).

Numerous censorship rules from World Wars I and II and the Korean War may now seem excessive or silly, such as rules banning mention of information that is inaccurate, injurious to the morale of U.S. citizens, embarrassing to the United States, or that vilifies U.S. armed forces. Nevertheless, throughout all five wars many of the censorship rules were legitimate and surely have avoided bloodshed, such as rules banning mention of troop locations, information about U.S. harbor defenses, activities of friendly guerillas, and operations and methods of U.S. intelligence in war zones.

Regardless, my article concludes that to most legitimately ensure safe reporting and avoid censorship of information unrelated to national security in any future U.S. wars, the U.S. government or military should do the following:

Without forcing journalists or threatening to force their compliance…the government or military [sh]ould issue all journalists… a list of potentially dangerous types of war information. Such a list would have no stipulations mandating journalists agree to censorship rules to cover war operations or, if there were violations, that journalists face possible detainment, expulsion from a war zone(s), or suspension or revocation of accreditation. There could be no censorship of journalists in the United States or war zones by, say, threatening enforcement of the Espionage Act or having a review system of correspondents’ articles, videos, and photos by public affairs officers. In such a war, rules’ rationales, such as Sun Tzu’s following rationale for concealing war plans in The Art of War, may help journalists distinguish when it would be safe versus possibly dangerous to report certain war information:

The spot where we intend to fight must not be made known; for then the enemy will have to prepare against a possible attack at several different points; and his forces being thus distributed in many directions, the numbers we shall have to face at any given point will be proportionately few.

Thus far in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the government has issued U.S. journalists operating in the United States no censorship rules. Nevertheless, throughout both of these wars journalists operating in Afghanistan and Iraq have been following censorship rules that the Department of Defense (DOD) and military devised. The rules have banned release of such types of information as details of search and rescue missions, the effectiveness of improvised explosive devices, and identifiers of enemy prisoners of war. Of course, these journalists have been under the usual threat of losing access to cover war operations for rule violations. However, it’s not too late for the DOD and military to issue all U.S. journalists a voluntary list of “censorship” rules for rest of these wars.1

1 Some readers may be alarmed that this article espouses absolute freedom for journalists to report war information, even if a report could hurt national security.  However, as I’ll argue in a future article, the past censorship of war information by the U.S. government and military has violated the original meaning of the First Amendment’s “freedom of…the press.” My suggestion that, in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and any future U.S. wars, the government or military should issue journalists a voluntary list of “censorship” rules would comport with this original meaning. Readers who may want the “freedom of…the press” to have a national security exception should be prepared to ignore the original meaning of “freedom of…the press” and accept other violations of press freedom.

About Dan Smyth

Dan Smyth earned his Master of Public Policy from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. His articles have appeared in the Washington Times, American Thinker, the Freeman, and other publications. Find him on Twitter at @DanielSmyth7.


Dan, I think you meant Morley Safer, and not Marley Safer.


Dan, I think you meant Morley Safer, and not Marley Safer.

Daniel Smyth
Daniel Smyth

@Gary  Thanks! Great catch and you're right.  I corrected the spelling in the text.