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Censorship, Military


CENSORSHIP, MILITARY. Military censorship was rare in the early Republic due to the primitive lines of communication in areas of American military operations. Reports from the front were more than a week removed from events and embellished with patriotic rhetoric, making the published accounts of little value to the enemy. Advances in communication during the nineteenth century brought an increased need for censoring reports of military actions. During the Civil War, the government federalized telegraph lines, suppressed opposition Newspapers, restricted mail service, and issued daily "official" bulletins to control the flow of information and minimize dissent. Nevertheless, the public's voracious appetite for war News fueled competition among Newspapers and gave rise to the professional war correspondent. Field reports were unfiltered and sometimes blatantly false; however, they demonstrated the press could serve as sources of intelligence and play a vital role in shaping public opinion. The Spanish-American War saw renewed attempts to control and manipulate the media's military coverage, though these efforts failed to prevent embarrassing reports of American atrocities and logistical mismanagement.

During World War I the government maintained strict control of transatlantic communications, including cable lines and mail. Media reports were subject to the Committee on Public Information's "voluntary" censor-ship regulations and the 1918 Espionage Act's restrictions seeking to limit antiwar or pro-German sentiment. With U.S. entry into World War II, the government established the Office of Censorship in mid-December 1941. The Office of Censorship implemented the most severe wartime restrictions of the press in the nation's history, reviewing all mail and incoming field dispatches, prohibiting pictures of American casualties, and censoring information for purposes of "national security." Reporters accepted these limits and practiced self-censorship, partly out of patriotic duty and partly to avoid rewriting heavily redacted stories.

The Vietnam War tested the relatively cordial rapport between the military and press. Limited in their ability to restrict information without a declaration of war, the government had to give the press virtually unfettered access to the battlefield. The military's daily briefings on Vietnam (derisively dubbed the "five o'clock follies") seemed overly optimistic and contradictory to field reports. Television broadcast the graphic conduct of the war directly into America's living rooms and exposed muddled U.S. policies in Vietnam. Thus, the "credibility gap" grew between the government and the public, particularly after the 1968 Tet Offensive and 1971 Pentagon Papers report. The military became increasingly suspicious of the press, blaming it for "losing" the war.

The emergence of live, continuous global News coverage forced a reevaluation of competing claims about the need for military security and the public's "right to know." After the controversial press blackout during the 1983 invasion of Grenada, the military developed a "pool" system that allowed small groups of selected reporters into forward-operating areas with military escorts. The pool system failed to meet media expectations during the 1989 invasion of Panama but was revised for the 1990–1991 Persian Gulf War and subsequent actions with only minor infractions of military restrictions.


Denton, Robert E, Jr. The Media and the Persian Gulf War. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1993.

Hallin, Daniel C. The "Uncensored War": The Media and Vietnam. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Knightly, Philip. The First Casualty: From the Crimea to Vietnam: The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist, and Myth Maker. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975.

Vaughn, Stephen. Holding Fast the Inner Lines: Democracy, Nationalism, and the Committee on Public Information. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980.

Sweeney, Michael S. 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.

Derek W.Frisby

See alsoFirst Amendment .

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