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.
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.
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.
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