This post was written by Stephanie Hall and was originally published in Folklife Today.
Disclaimer: This collection contains historical materials that are products of their particular times, including offensive language and negative stereotypes.
The World War II Rumor Project collection contains manuscript materials compiled by the Office of War Information (OWI). The OWI was established by an Executive order on June 13, 1942, for the purpose of achieving a coordinated governmental war information program. The information program was designed to promote an informed and intelligent understanding of the status and progress of the war effort, war policies, activities, and aims of the United States government.
As the United States entered the war in 1941, the government faced a complicated public education challenge. The majority of the American people had wanted the United States to remain neutral in the war. But with the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7 and the German declaration of war on the United States on December 10, the war had come to America. Americans had to accept rationing of many goods. Recruitment and a draft to build up the armed forces was quick to follow. The government sought ways to turn public opinion to support the war effort. Understanding how misinformation spread and how accurate information could be promoted became a matter of national security. Understanding the ways that the news media influenced the public was a part of this. The radio was a relatively new and popular source of information and opinion as well as entertainment. Though television was a developing new invention at the time, few people could afford television sets. Accepted broadcast standards and less expensive sets didn’t become available until after the war.
The Office of War Information wanted to understand more about the ways that misinformation spread through the media and how the same media could be used for public education about the war. Although the project was often described in its own documents as a “rumor control” effort, the researchers were well aware that control of rumors and misinformation in a free society with a free press is extraordinarily difficult. The project was an opportunity to study the spread of rumors, to learn about rumors circulating that might have an impact on national security (such as speculation on military preparedness that might be used as propaganda by the enemy), and to create educational outreach in order to help head off rumors in the first place. In a draft for a document titled “Rumor Control Projects” the organizers wrote “Rumors can be converted to positive value if they are studied as a guide to information gaps which need to be filled — not by rumor denials but by intensive information programs” (page 3). Studying the spread of rumors and collecting them was to be used as a way of countering misinformation with public education. Using newspaper columns about the war effort, radio broadcasts, and other media they hoped to provide positive information that would influence public opinion for the good of the war effort were important parts of the war effort.
The first part of the project involved recruiting people in communities who could report on rumors circulating in that area. These collected reports were sorted into local rumors, to be dealt with by a local rumor group, and rumors of wider impact that might require national attention and could be addressed as topics in newspapers and radio broadcasts. One of the things they found is a familiar issue. A lack of transparency about attacks on the United States, such as delays in reporting casualties as next of kin were notified, led to mistrust of the government and understandable fears that the American people were being kept in the dark about the truth about the war. Here are a couple of examples from page 2 of a list of rumors collected for analysis. These also show how the collection was done, with locations listed only and no names of the people who provided the rumors.
I don’t think the government is giving us the correct information as to what is actually happening. We know that things were much worse at Pearl Harbor than indicated. I think the American people can take it on the chin because we do not like to be fooled. (Utah).
Why don’t they tell us about the Aleutian Islands. Why don’t they tell us about the rest of it. Our losses have been terrific. Somebody is making mistakes and trying to cover up. (Indiana)
Concerns about the kinds of demoralizing speculation and rumors that a lack of transparency could cause led to a greater effort to report as much as possible about the progress of the war in newspapers, on the radio, and on the new medium of television. Some efforts needed to be kept secret, but an openness about the reasons for that secrecy was also made part of the war-time public education plan.
One hope about the effort to encourage people report rumors to a community collection point was that if people were given a place to report rumors it would stop the transmission of the rumors by giving people something constructive to do with them. This seems a bit overly optimistic from a modern perspective, but this was part of a larger effort to make the American civilian population partners in the war effort and show them that they had positive things to contribute. Taken as a whole, these various programs had a positive impact on the war effort.
A different part of the project was an effort to survey high school and college students about rumors and opinions related to the war as well as jokes, sayings, and poetry. The answers given were wide-ranging, but often focused on the things most likely to capture the attention of young people, such as concerns about the draft and the impact of the war on social life. Some students made drawings on their papers. These responses by high school and college students from white and non-white schools provide a fascinating glimpse into the minds of the young people, many of whom would be most directly involved in the war effort. Some of the slogans collected from students indicated that they were getting the messages that were part of the education effort, such as “loose lips sink ships.” The following were collected from white students:
Parachute trooper: ‘Hey Joe, won’t it be awful if this parachute doesn’t work?'”
Second parachute trooper: ‘Oh, don’t worry about that Mac. Go ahead and jump. If that one doesn’t work you can take it back and get another one.’
Dennison College, Granville, Ohio. White female college sophomore.
I have heard that Churchill is an old windbag and that he is practically an ally of the Axis. They say that he is only interested in the English aspect of the war.
Dennison College, Granville, Ohio. White male college sophomore.
An older woman of Indiana said of Roosevelt, ‘We don’t have to fight a war against dictatorship, we already have a dictator.’
Unknown school. White female sophomore.
The war stirred up issues of prejudice and social inequity. Many of the responding schools were African American. The reports of African American students about what they had heard are particularly interesting at this moment in American history when they were frustrated with the extremely slow progress towards the more equal society that they envisioned and now had to deal with the realities of the war.
Hitler isn’t a woman, but he sure can take your man
(Tuskegee Institute, Tuskegee, Alabama. African American female college sophomore.)
The white race has stopped saying you people in referring to the colored race. But we people must win this war.
(Tuskegee Institute, Tuskegee, Alabama. African American female college senior.)
My Mondays are meatless
My Tuesdays are wheatless
I’m growing more eatless every day
My coffee is sweetless
My bed is sheetless
They’ve been sent to the YMCA
My socks they are feetless
My pants they are seatless
Man how I hate Adolf Hitler
(Parker High School, Birmingham, Alabama. African American student.)
Conditions won’t be better for the Negro after this war. Look at the many race problems he faced after the last war for Democracy.
(Wilberforce University, Wilberforce, Ohio. African American freshman male.)
The Negroes should not be in this war, they should be fighting for their rights here in the United States.
(East High School, Columbus, Ohio, African American male)
The issues that the Office of War Information were dealing with at the time are all too familiar to us today and offer insights into the ways that our thinking has and has not changed when it comes to the ways that rumor and false news spreads. This collection provides some of the history of how we came to think about these issues as we do today.
These highlights are interesting and useful–keep them coming.
I was just entering grade school at the time covered here, and remember much of it vividly, due not only to radio broadcasts, but due to movie newsreels, which were Heavy Propaganda, vivid because the only medium with moving pictures and sounds, as well as voice-over commentary, which for me was the most vivid at all. An uncle from each side of my parents’ family served in the South Pacific; one came back; the other didn’t.
I also recall V Mail, another excellent war effort.