Journalism professor's book examines American press censorship during wartime
the USU journalism & communication department
A Utah State University journalism professor has published what some historians are calling the most comprehensive and compelling work to date on censorship of the American press during wartime.
Michael S. Sweeney's book, Secrets of Victory, tells how the U.S. government during World War II instituted what may have been the most effective system of press censorship in the nation's history.
During the war, the U.S. Office of Censorship oversaw a comprehensive effort to control what went into the news in American newspapers and radio. Using government records and other sources, Sweeney recounts how press censorship evolved from the trauma of Pearl Harbor in 1941 into a nearly water-tight and largely voluntary system designed to protect American national security.
Central to the story Sweeney recounts is Byron Price, a former journalist who directed the Office of Censorship during World War II. Rather than threatening the press, Price persuaded journalists to censor themselves in the interests of the nation. Only once during the War, Sweeney reports, did a U.S. journalist deliberately break the censorship code.
Sweeney also reveals that many journalists, including muckraking columnist Drew Pearson, knew about the effort to develop an atomic bomb as early as 1943, two years before the test at Alamogordo and the bombings of Japan, but decided to keep the biggest scoop of the war a secret.
Further, Sweeney says, few Americans know that U.S. radio nearly was nationalized during the war, an act that would have been difficult to reverse. The government suggested that Price take full control of American radio to guarantee that no national secrets would accidentally be broadcast.
"But Price decided against 'absolute control,'" Sweeney says, "reasoning that once radio content was controlled by the government, the government would never give it up. In other words, I think the most important thing that Price did was not to take over American radio, when he carte blanche to do so."
John P. Cosgrove, a former Pearl Harbor journalist who later served as president of the National Press Club, says Sweeney recounts a story with important lessons for government and journalists today. "Sweeney tells the untold story of World War II censorship," Cosgrove says. "Bureaucrats should study it. Journalists will appreciate it."
University of Wisconsin historian Stephen Vaughn applauds Sweeney's work as "a highly readable book on an important and timely subject. 'Secrets of Victory' is simply the best work I have read on the censorship of American newspapers and radio during World War II."
USU journalism department chair Ted Pease says Sweeney's history provides lessons for today. "In an era when few Americans believe that 'journalistic responsibility' exists, it is instructive to journalists and to citizens alike that reporters do understand restraint," he said. "Mike Sweeney's excellent research offers all of us important reminders from history that journalists are citizens and patriots, too."
Sweeney, a former newspaper reporter and editor, has taught at Utah State since 1996 and directs the graduate program in journalism. A nationally respected media historian, Sweeney joined veteran journalists Walter Cronkite and Richard C. Hottelet in a televised discussion from New York on press performance during wartime. In addition to "Secrets of Victory," Sweeney's research on media history has been published widely.
"Secrets of Victory" will be released from the University of North Carolina Press late next month. Sweeney will discuss his work in a Media and Society Lecture, sponsored by the USU Department of Journalism and Communication, on the USU campus in March.
(Sweeney, Michael S. SECRETS OF VICTORY: THE OFFICE OF CENSORSHIP AND THE AMERICAN PRESS AND RADIO IN WORLD WAR II." (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2001) 288 pp., ISBN 0-8078-2598-0, $49.95 hardcover, $18.95 paper)