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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.

The 1st Corps Observation Group in World War I

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

In the latter half of the 19th century, military organizations around the world began experimenting with aerial technologies. By the early part of the 20th century, advances in airplanes and cameras inevitably linked these two technologies for military intelligence purposes. By the time the US entered World War I, aerial visual and photographic reconnaissance had become principle sources of intelligence used by the British and French for planning and executing battles. Following the lead of the Allies, the fledgling US Air Service deployed 18 Aero Squadrons (Observation) to France in 1917 and 1918. Of these, 14 served with 1st, 3d, 4th, 5th, and 6th Corps. The first corps-level observation group was established in 1st Corps.

In April 1918, the 1st Corps Observation Group was assigned to the Toul Sector in support of the 26th Division. The Group consisted of the 1st Aero Squadron, responsible for long-range visual observation and aerial photographic missions and adjustment of divisional heavy artillery fire, and the 12th Aero Squadron, which conducted short-range visual and photographic missions, light artillery spotting missions, and infantry contact patrols. During its eight months of operations, the Group also temporarily included the 50th and 88th Aero Squadrons.

Courier Cpl. Roland McFall receives plates from Observer, 1st Lt. James B Harvey. At the end of the aerial photo mission, the motorcyclist waits to retrieve the glass photographic plates for speedy delivery to the photo lab for processing.

Each squadron consisted of 18 pilots and 18 observers, all officers. The Group also had a Photographic Officer, responsible for installing cameras on the aircraft and overseeing development of photographs after the missions, and a Branch Intelligence Officer (BIO). The BIO, assigned by the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) G-2, studied and interpreted the photographs and distributed all relevant information to higher commands. The Group also included a motorcycle courier, who sped the photo plates from the aircraft to the lab where 30 enlisted technicians and specialists printed and enlarged the photos and got them in the hands of the BIO within six hours.

In the early days of aerial operations, weather and mechanical problems cancelled more missions than were actually flown and many of the initial photographs had little intelligence value. Squadron personnel used their time in the relatively quiet sector to complete their training in preparation for more active operations. In addition to providing valuable training, the constant overwatch in the sector made it difficult for the enemy to make preparations for large-scale attacks without the Allies’ knowledge.

These quiet days in Toul came to an end in early July 1918 when the US began large-scale military operations against the German lines. The 1st Corps Observation Group had active participation in the Aisne-Marne, St. Mihiel, and Meuse-Argonne offensives. Commanders who had initially expressed skepticism about the value of aerial reconnaissance were now relying heavily on the discipline when planning operations. Weather permitting, aero squadrons flew daily dawn and twilight patrol missions and other missions as the tactical situation dictated. The BIO compared photographs from successive missions to identify changes in enemy battery positions, movement on roads and railways, and evidence of new works and troop concentrations. As the squadrons gained experience in actual combat conditions, they became more responsive to the needs of Corps and Division G-2s, air-delivering timely “First Needs” packets of photographs directly to command posts.

As the war moved out of the trenches as became more mobile, photographic reconnaissance became less important than artillery adjustment and infantry contact patrols. Because most of the observers were field artillery officers, they were attuned to and focused on meeting the requirements for artillery targeting. During contact patrols, air crews kept the command informed of the location of its front line by flying low enough to mitigate issues of unfavorable weather, while braving the dangers of both friendly and enemy ground fire. Communication issues between air crews and infantry units were partially overcome by more intensive collective training, although the rapidly changing battlefield challenged even the best efforts at liaison.

In reviewing its efforts, the US Air Service identified issues related to weather, air-to-ground communication, timeliness of photographic processing, and inadequate training that would need to be addressed in post-war developments. Still, the success of the Aero Squadrons cannot be overlooked. The Air Service understated the value of aerial visual and photographic reconnaissance as “satisfactory,” while historians noted that it had become the primary information source influencing decision-making by the end of the war. General John J. Pershing, commander of the AEF, concurred, stating, “No army ever went out with the information as to what was in front of it as the American army did at St. Mihiel and the Argonne.” Clearly, aerial reconnaissance would continue to be a critical component of Army Intelligence operations.

Dennis Nolan Builds the First US Army G-2 Section

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

In May 1917, General John J. Pershing had cause to celebrate and lament his appointment as Commander-in-Chief of a “theoretical army which had yet to be constituted, equipped, trained, and sent abroad.”  As his first step in the monumental effort to build the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF), he carefully chose his field general staff comprised of Administrative (G-1), Intelligence (G-2), Operations (G-3), Logistics (G-4), and Training (G-5) sections.

While Pershing searched for his most trusted staff members, Maj. Dennis E. Nolan was completing a two-year assignment on the War Department General Staff.  His first experience in intelligence work was preparing products used by the General Staff for planning and mobilization purposes. This included a threat estimate on Germany’s capability to invade the United States.  Nolan had been commissioned a Second Lieutenant in Infantry following graduation from the US Military Academy in 1896.  He received two citations for gallantry in action during the Spanish-American War and commanded a squadron of the 11th US Volunteer Cavalry during the Philippine Insurrection. It was during this latter assignment that Nolan had come to know Pershing and the future AEF Chief of Staff, James Harbord.  Between 1901 and 1915, Nolan held a variety of positions including, instructor of law and history at West Point, director of Southern Luzon in the Philippines, and officer with the 30th Infantry.

Despite his impressive service record, Nolan was hardly holding his breath for a position on the AEF staff.  Consequently, when Maj. Harbord summoned him for dinner one night and informed him of his appointment as the AEF G-2 in charge of the Intelligence Section, Nolan declared himself “surprised and delighted.”  He sailed with Pershing and the rest of the AEF staff less than two weeks later.

Once on the ground in France, Nolan built, from the ground up, the Army’s first multi-discipline theater intelligence organization.  Following the British model, Nolan divided his Headquarters G-2 Section into four divisions: Information, Secret Service, Topographical, and Censorship and Press.  Nolan’s staff, totaling nearly 350 personnel, compiled daily intelligence reports based on a multitude of sources.  In addition to the traditional methods of intelligence collection, such as patrolling, observation, prisoner interrogation, and document translation, Nolan added aerial observation, photographic interpretation, sound and flash ranging, and radio intelligence.  He also played a direct role in organizing the Corps of Intelligence Police, the Army’s first permanent counterintelligence organization.  Venturing outside the normal intelligence arena, Nolan’s press division started up The Stars and Stripes newspaper to communicate orders and regulations, provide news of events, and boost the morale of American soldiers in Europe.

Because Pershing’s General Staff organization was repeated in the tactical units, intelligence officers were appointed at every echelon down to battalion.  To increase their effectiveness, Nolan drafted a set of intelligence regulations applicable to each echelon and established a school at Langres, France, to train all intelligence officers down to division.  Throughout the war, these tactical intelligence sections pushed intelligence up through higher headquarters to Nolan’s G-2 Section, which also pushed intelligence down to give lower echelons a broad picture of the enemy’s situation.

In the closing days of World War I, Nolan was given an opportunity to command the 55th Infantry Brigade, 28th Division, for ten days. For extraordinary heroism in action near Apremont, France, on October 1, 1918, he received the Distinguished Service Cross and the respect of his men, who recalled Nolan was “right up there with us doughboys.”  He then returned to his G-2 Section for the duration of the war.

Nolan’s G-2 Section, the Army’s first theater intelligence organization, unquestionably contributed to the AEF’s success.  Declaring that “no army was better served by its intelligence bureau than our own,” Pershing awarded Nolan the Distinguished Service Medal.  Secretary of War Newton D. Baker praised “the fidelity and intelligence with which General Nolan supplied [Pershing] eyes to penetrate the fog which clouds military actions.”

After the Armistice, Nolan was detailed to the Peace Commission until returning to Washington in July 1919.  After a year instructing military intelligence at the Army War College, he was named as the War Department’s Assistant Chief of Staff, G-2. Perhaps his most important contribution during this assignment was the establishment of the Military Intelligence Officers Reserve Corps—the first formal recognition of the Army’s need to retain professional MI officers.  From 1924-1926, he served as the Army’s Deputy Chief of Staff, receiving promotion to the rank of Major General in 1925. His final assignment was Commander, Second Corps Area and First Army.  In 1936, when he reached the mandatory retirement age of 64, Nolan had served 44 years and was the second-highest ranking officer of the US Army.

 

Dennis Nolan

Dennis Nolan

Col. (later Maj. Gen.) Dennis Nolan sitting at his desk in AEF Headquarters, May 23, 1918.