Letters From The Western Front: The Correspondence of American Doughboys and American Censorship During The Great War 1917-1918
By Scott Kent
Special to the Doughboy Foundation web site
The road to my dissertation topic was an interesting one. It began several years ago, at the death of my Great Aunt Velma and the discovery of her older brother Clayton’s army trunk. Growing up I knew very little about this soldier of the Great War, only that my mother’s younger brother had been named in his honor, and that Private Clayton Moore had served and died on the Western Front in 1918.
The trunk contained Clayton’s personal effects, his citations, some newspaper clippings, a few photos, and most importantly, several hand written letters sent home to his family and signed “Cash” at the bottom of each one.
At first I had hoped to use these admittedly limited resources to recreate the footsteps of my great-uncle, compare his experience with that of thousands of other doughboys, thereby adding his voice to the collective memory of the “war to end all wars.”
It was at this point that my dissertation morphed into something much larger. Relying solely on my uncle’s letters to tell this story posed a big problem, he did not write all of it down. Researching the writings of the commander of the 27th Division of the American Expeditionary Forces (A.E.F.), Major-General John O’Ryan, revealed that Clayton Moore and the 108th Infantry saw a good deal of action on the Western Front. Yet none of this appeared in his letters. Clayton had purposely withheld many details and events of his experiences in France. Why would he have done this? The answer is quite simple, he was told to do so by the American military and he, like most of the doughboys, self-censored his letters in the belief that doing so would help America’s war effort.
Both the American military and the American government viewed censorship as an essential weapon of warfare, and both were determined to prevent any valuable information from falling into German hands. What would follow was an unprecedented level of censorship that had no antecedent in American history.
The censorship of the First World War was thorough and invasive. It began with the military as the doughboys headed to the newly built cantonments for basic training. The newly created Commission on Training Camp Activities set about censoring any information that might hurt the morale of the newly drafted doughboys. Any book, movie, music, song, or magazine that was deemed “pro-German,” “pacifist,” or “anti-American” was quickly banished by the Department of Military Censorship.
The censorship of the training camps was strict, however, it was not nearly as rigorous as the scrutiny the doughboys would face after their embarkation to the Western Front. Here every letter, photograph, and all printed publications were subject to censorship by army surveillance. The A.E.F. would go so far as to set up a chemical lab in Paris that could test soldiers’ letters for signs for “secret writing” that the army feared was being used to transmit information that might be useful to the German military. Almost none was found. The simple fact is that the doughboys so bought into the idea of self-censorship, that they did the army’s job for it. Few letters were discovered that contained information of a truly military nature.
The passive acceptance of this level of military censorship would, however, have devastating consequences back on the home front. Censorship back in the states reached unprecedented levels. President Wilson’s Committee on Public Information (C.P.I.) waged a war against anything that it determined not to be “100% American.” This new organization attempted to censor out of the public discourse any item that might be seen as pro-German. German literature, philosophy, books, music, newspapers, words, dog breeds, foods, and flags were all to be wiped from the nation. The C.P.I. enlisted an army of untrained volunteer foot soldiers, the American Protective League (A.P.L.), to do its bidding. The A.P.L. wreaked havoc across the nation, trampling the civil rights of any group that got in its way. Perhaps no more than in December 1917 when a vigilante mob attacked the Germantown section of Columbus, Ohio and conducted a slaughter of “German canine breeds” that were forcibly taken from their owners, killed, and then thrown into a large pit. German–Americans in several cities were lynched by their own neighbors, neighbors who questioned their loyalty to the United States.
The censorship of wartime was then extended into peacetime with even more devastating consequences. The Spanish flu had begun to spread during the war, and the news of its very existence was determined to be a threat to the war effort. It was feared that news of the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans would embolden the German government to keep on fighting, so President Wilson said nothing of it. Panic soon spread across the land. The police in Phoenix rounded up and killed the city’s dog population as fake news spread that the canines were spreading the flu. In an eerie parallel with today’s COVID-19 crisis, an anti-masking league was formed in San Francisco, made up of citizens who refused to follow the city’s mask mandate. Over 675,000 Americans would die while our federal government did almost nothing.
The censorship of the Great War era found its way into almost every aspect of American life and was openly supported by the great majority of the American public. So convinced that censorship was a proper tool of wagging the war, our own soldiers aided the military in censoring their own writing. Few examples of doughboys attempting to smuggle out military information have ever been found. This self-censorship by the soldiers themselves greatly improved the military’s ability to control information leaving the Western Front and was seen by the A.E.F. as a key to its successful conduct of the war effort.
Two things make the level of censorship during World War One unique in America’s history. The vast and intrusive nature of said censorship, and the extension of this censorship into peacetime America. Never before had our government intended to keep censorship in place during peacetime. Censorship came to be viewed as necessary to meet any new, or perceived, threats to the nation. This attempted expansion of censorship into the post-war period would have devastating consequences not only on our First Amendment rights, but to the wellbeing of the entire nation, leading to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans during the Spanish flu epidemic.
Scott Kent is an adjunct professor at the Federated Department of History of the New Jersey Institute of Technology and Rutgers University-Newark. He completed his dissertation “Letters From The Western Front: The Correspondence of American Doughboys and American Censorship During The Great War 1917-1918” in May 2021 and was awarded a Doctoral degree from Drew University.
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