World War II’s “Rumor Control” Project

Black and white sketch of American flag on a pole, waving gently, with Pledge Allegiance and Silence in black lettering

Office of War Information posters in World War II urged people not to spread rumors or to talk openly of the war effort.

In the summer of 1942, shortly after the United States entered World War II, the newly minted Office of War Information began to try to find out what people were saying about the conflict, from jokes in Georgia to conspiracy theories in California.

The “Rumor Control” campaign, now preserved in the Library’s collections, came and went with the OWI, shutting its doors in 1945 when the war was over. But, for three years, in addition to producing radio series and working with Hollywood to produce heroic films about the war effort, the OWI enlisted secret civilian “reporters” from all over the country to report what their neighbors, coworkers and fellow students were saying about the war.

In short, to spy on one another in the name of patriotism.

It targeted everyday citizens, in small towns and large. The idea was not to identify rumor spreaders by name, but capture what was buzzing around town at barber shops, dentists’ offices, classrooms and so on.

“Our democratic system will not survive the war – the President desires a socialist state,” read one reported rumor from “Seven widely scattered States.” Another: “Japanese treat Negroes as equals – this is a white man’s war. (Seven States, Southeast and Northeast.)” Others reported German submarines that had been sunk of the Florida coast, that the losses at Pearl Harbor had been much worse than had been reported, or that parachutes had been spotted in the central part of Florida and spies were now among us. And so on.

On a yellowed sheet of paper, arrows in red ink point to and then encircle the words "rumor carrior." "Identify the source!" is written below

An Office of War Information worksheet sketches out the importance of identifying “rumor carriers.”

The project was taking place at an early stage of mass communications, with radio and newspapers and magazines being dominant and television just coming on the scene. Local rumors couldn’t go viral because there was no technology to make it happen, unlike today’s social media. So the OWI recruited hundreds of everyday Americans – bank workers, taxi drivers, clerks, anyone – to confidentially report  what their fellow citizens were saying in private conversations. Teachers were enlisted to listen in on students.

The natural comparison would be to George Orwell’s “1984,” the dark tale of a government that monitors everything its citizens say and think and encourages its civilians to spy on one another — but that landmark book wouldn’t be written until after World War II.

An editor’s note orders the word “Gestapo” cut from a government document.

In a document that set out the campaign’s methods and goals, organizers took a pseudo-scientific approach to identifying what constituted an actual “rumor,” like it was an odd species of fish; made pen and ink charts of “social networks” along which they spread; and recruited and trained “reporters” on how to memorize bits of conversation, going so far as to develop training skits.

Although much of the OWI’s operations were abroad — creating the same kind of disinformation to target enemy populations that they were guarding against at home — their domestic programs were controversial from the start. Lots of people in congress and people on their front porches did not like the idea of domestic government spying, no matter what it was called.  Several employees resigned in a high-profile protest, and, over the years, a few others were discovered to be Soviet agents. The only significant part of the program that wasn’t shut down at war’s end was the Voice of America, which broadcasts news around the world to this day.

Some of the OWI slogans seeped into pop culture. The most famous was “Loose Lips Sink Ships,” a War Advertising Council phrase that was used on OWI posters. It  became a pop-culture idiom used to urge discretion in almost any setting, often light-heartedly.

But even in the depths of war, the OWI seemed aware of the perils of a democratic nation urging citizens to report on one another, and cautioned that “care must be taken to prevent the community from feeling that a Gestapo is being organized.” An editor, red pen in hand, underlined “Gestapo” and, apparently without a sense of irony, scribbled in the margin, “can’t say in a govt. document.”

It’s a line Orwell might have penned himself.

Subscribe to the blog— it’s free! — and the largest library in world history will send cool stories straight to your inbox.

4 Comments

  1. Nicholas Dujmovic
    November 2, 2021 at 2:03 pm

    It’s an overwrought comparison to suggest that a democracy’s collecting information on the content of rumors–but not taking down any names–is akin to the totalitarianism of Orwell’s 1984 or that enforced by the Gestapo, which was very much interested in taking down names. So your too-cute “gotcha” line at the end is a non sequitur–having a policy against mentioning the Gestapo is not, in fact, being like the Gestapo.

    • Neely Tucker
      November 2, 2021 at 4:14 pm

      Hi,

      Thanks for writing. I think the article stands as written. This was not merely “a democracy collecting information,” like a government news-clipping service, as witnessed by the fact that several government officers resigned, even under the stress of a nation at war, rather than participate. The last line, as is apparent, refers to Orwell (and the “1984” philosophy of Ingsoc, to be precise), not the Gestapo.

      All best,
      Neely

  2. Roger Thomas
    November 2, 2021 at 4:45 pm

    The records of FDR’s and ONI’s domestic spying is a little known governmental abuses of power that largely been ignored by commentators. Ditto JE Hover and the FBI exceeded their governmental license.

  3. Dmitri Gheorgheni
    November 18, 2021 at 5:03 pm

    Thank you for this overview! I have started reading some of these ‘rumor reports’, and they don’t make for cheerful reading – especially when the informants classify the sources as ‘below average intelligence’, ‘Character – questionable’ and such.

    The number of antisemitic rumors is also discouraging. Surprisingly (or not), some of those ‘rumors’ turned out to be true. Research should be interesting.

Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.

Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.