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.

US Army’s First Code and Cipher Bureau Created June 10, 1917

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

When Ralph Van Deman established the War Department’s intelligence organization shortly after the US entered World War I, he was faced with building his section from nearly nothing.  Although his background was more in the field of counterintelligence, he readily recognized the need for an office dedicated to cryptology.  He received numerous letters from amateur cryptologists offering their services, but he was intrigued by one person in particular: a bored State Department telegraph operator named Herbert O. Yardley who had deciphered a communication between President Woodrow Wilson and his aide in two hours.  Putting aside concerns about Yardley’s age—he was only 28—Van Deman chose him to create the Army’s first code and cipher bureau, known originally as the American Cryptographic Bureau but most popularly as MI-8.  Yardley reportedly remarked that “it was immaterial to America whether I or someone else formed such a bureau, but such a bureau must begin to function at once.”

Yardley was commissioned a First Lieutenant in the Signal Corps on June 29, 1917 and was given two civilian assistants.  Over the next year, MI-8 grew rapidly to 165 military and civilian personnel working in five subsections:  Code and Cipher Solutions, Code and Cipher Compilation, Secret Inks, Shorthand, and Communications.

Code and Cipher Solutions examined communications from commercial telegraph and cable companies, intercepted radio traffic, and seized mail.  Every suspicious missive, military or civilian, ended up on the desks of this subsection.  In addition to written communications, the section analyzed atypical items like postage stamps, musical scores, religious amulets, even a pigeon’s wings. The amount of work was overwhelming, especially after the US Navy stopped its cryptology efforts and let the Army take the lead.  During the course of the war, the subsection read more than 10,000 messages and solved 50 codes and ciphers used by eight foreign nations. This included the celebrated case in which Capt. John Manley deciphered a coded message found on Lothar Witzke (aka Pablo Waberski), a suspected German spy and saboteur.  Manley’s solution to the code sealed Witzke’s conviction for espionage.

The Code and Cipher Compilation Subsection established secure communications for 40-plus military attachés and hundreds of intelligence officers in the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF).  Its services were critical for several reasons.  First, the Army’s 1915 telegraph code book had been stolen during the Punitive Expedition and had yet to be updated.  Additionally, British cryptologists informed the War Department that German telegraph operators on U-boats were able to copy US messages sent to the AEF and its allies via the transatlantic cables.  Because breaches in US communications would ultimately compromise the whole Allied effort, the subsection revised the entire War Department code and cipher system.  In conjunction, the Communications Subsection operated round-the-clock, averaging the secure transmission of more than 100 sensitive and classified messages per day.

The Secret Ink Subsection established two laboratories specifically for MI-8 use.  Chemists succeeded in developing an iodine vapor reagent for all types of secret inks.  As a result, the MI-8 uncovered communications directing sabotage, which allowed the War Industries Board to implement tighter security measures.  At its peak, the subsection was reviewing more than 2,000 items weekly. As more sophisticated methods to conceal messages were developed, the subsection continually worked on new reagents.

The Shorthand Subsection was an impromptu addition to the organization.  Military censors provided MI-8 with a number of messages believed to be in code but were found instead to be written in shorthand.  The subsection cultivated a community of experts in more than 30 shorthand systems used worldwide.

MI-8’s work was at times exciting and often fruitless, but personnel persevered.  In a series of post-war articles, Capt. Manley stated, “…it is the business of a Cipher Bureau never to allow its interests or energies to flag, for although a thousand suspicious documents may turn out…to be entirely innocent or insignificant, the very next one might be of the greatest importance.”  Manley also stressed that the organization successfully uncovered cases of nefarious activities but also cleared the name of several innocent civilians wrongly accused of spying for Germany.

Although employing relatively simple deciphering methods using little more than pen and paper, MI-8 constituted a significant development for military intelligence during World War I.  Brig. Gen. Marlborough Churchill, the Army’s Director of Military Intelligence, predicted in 1919, “Code attack is indeed still in its infancy.  It is capable of rapid and incalculable development.” Consequently, both the State and War Departments continued MI-8’s efforts as the Black Chamber in the post-war period. Soon thereafter, cryptology evolved into more sophisticated codes and ciphers requiring the invention of mechanical devices that would dominate both Allied and Axis code operations during World War II.

Lieutenant Herbert O. Yardley created the Army’s first code and cipher organization.  By the end of World War I, he had been promoted to Major and oversaw all cryptologic efforts for the US delegation to the Peace Commission in Paris.