Office of Censorship

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 Manhattan Federal Building with Office of Censorship at 252 7th Avenue.
Manhattan Federal Building with Office of Censorship at 252 7th Avenue in 1945

The Office of Censorship was an emergency wartime agency set up on December 19, 1941 to aid in the censorship of all communications coming into and going out of the United States. It closed in November 1945.


Employee pin of World War II US War Service, Office of Censorship. The words on the shield in the center read Silentium Victoriam Accelerat (Latin: "Silence Speeds Victory," the motto of the Office)

Voluntary censorship by the American press began before the country's entry into the war after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941. After the European war began in 1939, journalists began withholding information about Canadian troop movements.[1]:21 The First War Powers Act, approved on December 18, 1941, contained broad grants of Executive authority for the prosecution of the war, including a provision for censorship. The next day President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8985, which established the Office of Censorship and conferred on its director the power to censor international communications in "his absolute discretion."

The order also set up a Censorship Policy Board to advise the director with respect to policy and the coordination and integration of censorship activities, and authorized the director to establish a Censorship Operating Board that would arrange for the use by other Government agencies of information acquired through the interception of communications. To effect a closer correlation of censorship activities, representatives of Great Britain, Canada, and the United States signed an agreement providing for the complete exchange of information among all concerned parties and the creation of a central clearinghouse of information within the headquarters of the Office of Censorship.

Byron Price of the Associated Press accepted the position of Director of Censorship on 19 December 1941 after being told that he would report directly to Roosevelt and that the president agreed with his desire to continue voluntary censorship.[1]:34–36 Price immediately began to organize his agency, utilizing existing facilities of the War Department and Navy Department wherever possible. On March 15, 1942, Army and Navy personnel engaged in censorship activities moved from the War Department and Navy Department to the Office of Censorship, where they monitored the 350,000 overseas cables and telegrams and 25,000 international telephone calls each week. Offices in Los Angeles, New York City, and Rochester, New York reviewed films.[2]:144

Radio was especially vulnerable to government control under the Communications Act of 1934. The voluntary nature of censorship relieved many broadcasters, which had expected that war would cause the government to seize all stations and draft their employees into the army. Such authority existed; Attorney General Francis Biddle issued an opinion to Price in early 1942 that gave him almost unlimited authority over broadcasting. As an experienced journalist who disliked having to act as censor, he feared that a nationwide takeover of radio would result in a permanent government monopoly. Price believed that voluntary cooperation must be tried first with mandatory censorship only if necessary, and persuaded other government officials and the military to agree.[1]:200:7–15

As the military situation improved, plans for adjustment and eventual cessation of censorship were devised. All restrictions ended on 15 August 1945, and the Office of Censorship closed in November. Price thanked journalists nationwide for their cooperation: "You deserve, and you have, the thanks and appreciation of your Government. And my own gratitude and that of my colleagues in the unpleasant task of administering censorship is beyond words or limit." He posed for a press photograph hanging an "Out of Business" sign on his door. In a postwar memo to President Harry Truman on future wartime censorship procedures, Price wrote that "no one who does not dislike censorship should ever be permitted to exercise censorship" and urged that voluntary cooperation be again used.[1]:209–211

The Code of Wartime Practices[edit]

The Code of Wartime Practices of January 1942 set forth in simple terms—only seven pages for broadcasters, and five for the printed press[1]:9—subjects that contained information of value to the enemy and which, therefore, should not be published or broadcast in the United States without authorization by a qualified government source. Price promised that "what does not concern the war does not concern censorship." Rather than having government officials review all articles and columns, newspapers and radio stations pledged to seek approval from a relevant government agency before discussing information on sensitive subjects, such as factory production figures and troop movements. A 24-hour hotline quickly answered media questions on appropriate topics. Censorship of information circulating within the United States was on a voluntary basis. Information became subject to border censorship when it was offered for transmission outside of the country, with heavy penalties that did not exist for domestic censorship violations.[2]:142–144

"Man in the street"[edit]

There was no government mandate to publish or broadcast positive news, unlike the Committee on Public Information during World War I. Complying with the code ended popular media features, however. Radio stations had to discontinue programs with audience participation and man on the street interviews because of the risk that an enemy agent might use the microphone.[2]:144–145 Similarly, lost-and-found advertisements ended and All Request programs were asked to avoid complying with specific times for music requests, in both cases to prevent encoded transmission of secret data. Stations cooperated despite losing the advertising revenue from sponsors; Price later estimated that losing man on the street programs alone cost stations "tens of millions of dollars" during the war, although the increase in war-related advertisements more than compensated.[1]:100–111


The Office of Censorship and the Weather Bureau saw weather as especially sensitive. Military authorities asked the Office of Censorship to severely limit information about the weather because they feared too much information would help the enemy attack. Weather-related news comprised about half of all code violations. While newspapers could print temperature tables and regular bureau forecasts, the code asked radio stations to only use specially-approved bureau forecasts to prevent enemy submarines from learning of current conditions. From January 15, 1942 to October 12, 1943 broadcasters said nothing about rain, snow, fog, wind, air pressure, temperature, or sunshine unless it was approved by the Weather Bureau. After Memphis, Tennessee stations could not discuss tornadoes that killed hundreds in March 1942, the code was changed to permit emergency bulletins but only if approved by the office. The office saw current weather conditions as so sensitive that it considered banning broadcasting any outdoor sports event, but decided that sport's benefit to morale was too important. When fog so covered a Chicago football game in August 1942 that the radio play-by-play announcer could not see the field, the Weather Bureau thanked him for never using the word "fog" or mentioning the weather.[1]:100–111

Presidential travel[edit]

The code specifically restricted information on "movements of the President of the United States". As Price reported only to the President, Roosevelt effectively became censor of all news about himself. When he toured war factories around the country for two weeks in September 1942, for example, only three wire service reporters accompanied him on the private railroad car Ferdinand Magellan. They filed articles for later publication, and despite being seen by tens of thousands of Americans, almost no mention appeared in the press of the president's trip until after it ended. Similar procedures were used on later domestic and international trips, such as to Casablanca in 1943 and Yalta in 1945. While the majority of reporters supported voluntarily censoring themselves over such travel, Roosevelt also used the code to hide frequent weekend trips to Springwood Estate and, some believed, the meetings with former lover Lucy Rutherford that began again in 1944. During the 1944 presidential election, he may have used his ability to avoid press reports to hide evidence of worsening health. Such arbitrary use of the code was controversial among Washington reporters, and Price privately wrote that Roosevelt "greatly abused" the press' cooperation.[1]:166–171,174–183


Price stated throughout the war that he wanted censorship to end as soon as possible. The code of conduct was relaxed in October 1943 to permit weather information except barometric pressure and wind direction, and weather programs returned to radio. Most restrictions ended after V-E Day in May 1945, with the code only four pages in length after its final revision.[1]:111–112,187

Censorship failures[edit]

Two conspicuous censorship failures of World War II:[citation needed]

Censorship of the atomic bomb[edit]

Price called the Manhattan Project, the United States' development of the atomic bomb, the best-kept secret of the war.[3] It and radar were the two military topics that, if a code violation occurred, his office did not use as a precedent for permitting other media outlets to also do so. The government made a general announcement on radar in April 1943, and government and military officials frequently leaked information on the subject, but restrictions did not end until the day after Japan's surrender in August 1945.[1]:195–197

From mid-1943 until the bombing of Hiroshima in August 1945, the Office of Censorship helped keep the Manhattan Project secret by asking the press and broadcasters to voluntarily censor information they learned about atomic energy or the project. Perhaps the worst press violation occurred in August 1944, when due to procedural errors a nationwide Mutual Network broadcast mentioned the military creating a weapon in Pasco, Washington involving atom splitting. The Office of Censorship asked all recordings of the broadcast to be destroyed. As with radar, officials sometimes disclosed information to the press without authorization.[1]:201–203 That was not the first request for voluntary censorship of atomic-related information. Price noted in comments to reporters after the end of censorship that some 20,000 news outlets had been delivered similar requests. For the most part censors were able to keep sensitive information about the Manhattan Project from being published or broadcast. Slips of the tongue occurred with individuals knowledgeable about the project.

Another serious breach of secrecy occurred in March 1944, when John Raper of the Cleveland Press published "Forbidden City". The reporter, who had heard rumors while vacationing in New Mexico, described a secret project in Los Alamos, calling it "Uncle Sam's mystery town directed by '2nd Einstein'", J. Robert Oppenheimer. It speculated that the project was working on chemical warfare, powerful new explosives, or a beam that would cause German aircraft engines to fail. Manhattan Project leaders called the article "a complete lack of responsibility, compliance with national censorship code and cooperation with the Government in keeping an important project secret", and considered drafting Raper into the military, but the article apparently did not cause Axis spies to investigate the project.[4] After Hiroshima The New York Times was first to report on the specifics of the Manhattan Project on August 7, 1945, saying the bomb was built in "three 'hidden cities' with a total population of 100,000 inhabitants"; Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Hanford, Washington. "None of the people, who came to these developments from homes all the way from Maine to California, had the slightest idea of what they were making in the gigantic Government plants they saw around them," the New York Times said.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Sweeney, Michael S. (2001). Secrets of Victory: The Office of Censorship and the American Press and Radio in World War II. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 0-8078-2598-0. 
  2. ^ a b c Kennett, Lee (1985). For the duration... : the United States goes to war, Pearl Harbor-1942. New York: Scribner. ISBN 0-684-18239-4. 
  3. ^ "No News Leaked Out About Bomb". Lawrence Journal-World. Associated Press. 1945-08-08. p. 5. Retrieved April 15, 2012. 
  4. ^ Wellerstein, Alex (2013-09-20). "The worst of the Manhattan Project leaks". Restricted Data. Retrieved 23 April 2014. 
  • Henry T. Ulasek. The National Archives of the United States Preliminary Inventories: Number 54: Records of the Office of Censorship. The National Archives and Records Service: 1953. p. 1-4.
  • History of the Office of Censorship. Volume II: Press and Broadcasting Divisions. The National Archives and Records Administration. Record group 216, box 1204.
  • Price, Byron (1945-11-15). "Report on the Office of Censorship" (PDF). United States Government Printing Office. 

Further reading[edit]

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