The US Army and the Press: Censorship in World War I

Published with Permission by:
Lori S. Tagg, Command Historian,
US Army Intelligence Center of Excellence, Fort Huachuca, AZ.

When Military Intelligence became a full-fledged member of the War Department’s General Staff, it took on a number of responsibilities that are not considered applicable to the intelligence mission today. One of those, wartime press censorship, was considered a variant of counterintelligence, or negative intelligence as it was referred to in 1918.

The objective of wartime censorship was to prevent the exposure of sensitive military information to the enemy. Similar censorship had been practiced by the US Army in the Civil War and the Spanish-American War. During World War I, however, the press censorship system was formalized and extended, according to the Army’s official history, to include anything that might “injure morale in our forces here, or at home, or among our Allies,” or “embarrass the United States or her Allies in neutral countries.”

In July 1918, the War Department’s Military Intelligence Division established the MI-10 Censorship Section within the Negative Branch. Under the leadership of well-known author Maj. Rupert Hughes, MI-10 had 15 subsections focused on censorship of the mail, publications, telegraph, radio, photographs, and other sources of information. Subsection 10F, Press, implemented a form of “voluntary censorship,” bolstered by the Espionage Act of June 15, 1917 and the Sedition Act of May 1918, as well as several executive orders. Essentially, in a climate of cooperation fueled by patriotism and common sense, journalists dutifully avoided writing about topics recommended off-limits by the military.

In the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF), Maj. Dennis Nolan dedicated the G-2-D section of his intelligence organization to Censorship and Press. Nolan had personally witnessed how contentious relations between the military and the press could lead to negative consequences.  During the Spanish-American War, when Nolan was Aide de Camp to the commander of the Fifth Army Corps in Cuba, the press leaked US plans to supply Cuban guerillas with weapons and horses. The operation had to be scrapped as a result. Nearly 20 years later, as the AEF’s senior intelligence officer, Nolan was determined to prevent similar compromises of military information.

The Press Section of the G-2-D was led by 44-year-old Frederick Palmer, a personal friend of Gen. John J. Pershing. Having covered nearly every military conflict in the world between the 1890s and World War I, Palmer was arguably the most experienced war correspondent in the American press community. As the only American correspondent accredited by the British, he had been covering the war with Germany since late 1914.  Just two weeks before the US entered the war, Palmer addressed students at the Army War College promoting the appointment of a civilian censor to work with Army forces.  Taking this recommendation, Pershing convinced Palmer to turn down a $40,000 annual salary at the New York Herald and instead take a Major’s commission at an annual salary of $2,400 to head the Press Section.

Maj. Frederick Palmer (in uniform) meets with American press correspondents in the garden of the AEF Headquarters in Paris, 1917. (National Archives Photo)

Under Palmer’s direction, the Press Section supervised accredited war correspondents and even provided their transportation and billeting. Unlike the British and French militaries, the AEF allowed the press unrestricted access to the troops.  However, when reviewing their dispatches, Palmer insisted on accuracy and censored any mention of specific units, their locations and capabilities, aircraft, supplies, lines of communications, and conditions or morale of the troops.  He also suppressed information that cast American soldiers in a negative light, such as an incident in which a German prisoner was killed during capture.

For the most part, journalists willfully cooperated with all Palmer’s requirements; however, at least three were banned from the AEF for publishing articles not reviewed by the censors.  Palmer also received criticism from commanders who felt the restriction against publishing information about specific units meant their military successes were being ignored.

For his part, Palmer may have regretted his pre-war recommendation and he reportedly considered resigning his post numerous times.  While he wholeheartedly supported the need to safeguard military secrets, he struggled to find balance between satisfying the American citizen’s right to the truth and preventing erosion of popular support for the war. He lamented being “cast for the part of a public liar to keep up the spirits of the armies and peoples on our side” and often “squirmed with nausea as he allowed propaganda to pass.”

Despite his internal struggle, Palmer undoubtedly played a key role in saving the lives of American soldiers and ensuring the support of the American public for the United States first large scale war effort. Gen. Pershing recognized this when he awarded him the Distinguished Service Medal, making Palmer the first war correspondent so decorated.

Wartime censorship remained the responsibility of Military Intelligence through the early 1970s.  While the military does not censor the press today, both entities continue to struggle with the same dilemma that Palmer faced: that delicate balance to protect wartime secrets, avoid propaganda, and defend the First Amendment.