Myron Fox is a past vice president of the Military Postal History Society, a group that studies the mail that is sent to and from soldiers. He is an expert on United States military and civilian censorship in World War I and World War II. In this interview, conducted in 2000, he describes how wartime letters were censored.
When were the first soldiers' letters censored in the United States?
We do not believe it was done in an overt manner before the Civil War. It might be that most of the troops before then were illiterate and officers were largely trusted, so they didn't bother.
There was some censoring in the Civil War because letters sometimes had to cross enemy lines. Most of the censoring comes from the prisoner-of-war camps. For example, if someone was writing a letter from Andersonville [a Confederate prison camp where many Union soldiers starved] those at the camp didn't want people to know what was happening, so the prisoners wouldn't be allowed to say anything bad about a camp. The first heavy censorship of U.S. soldiers took place during World War I.
What were the censors looking for?
The censors were looking out for two things in World War I and World War II. They didn't want the soldier to say anything that would be of value to the enemy, such as where they were. They always wanted to camouflage how strong the troops were. "Loose lips sink ships" was the phrase that was very prevalent in WW II and that was the theory in WW I as well.
Officers also were looking to see any weakening of desire among the troops. It's very important in wartime for officers to know about morale issues.
Were the letters ever censored for moral reasons?
One of our researchers recently found over 500 confiscated and condemned letters at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland. They included letters that used graphic language dealing with sex. Our member also found that in some cases the same writer would keep having his letters confiscated and apparently didn't get the message. These letters were never delivered and apparently the sender was never sent a notice of the offense.
Letters that were sent in foreign languages were also intercepted. Many members of the armed forces were immigrants or the children of immigrants and they were more comfortable communicating home in their native language. A letter written in Polish or Italian usually wasn't delivered because the typical censor didn't know what it said.
Did censoring influence the quality of the letters written?
In general, in the Revolutionary War and Civil War the letters have much more information. The writers would say, 'We're outside of Fredericksburg' or 'I'm in the 12th division,' and that's important information that was often cut out in World War I and World War II.
In WW II, it's common for a soldier to write, 'I can't say much or the censors will cut it out.' Early in World War II, the soldiers couldn't say where they were. People back home didn't know if they were in the Pacific or the Atlantic. You'll see letters where the soldier will say where he is -- it's cut out -- and how many people are in the building -- and that's cut out too. People would do very simple things to get around the censor like write on the inside of the flap but they were usually unsuccessful. So the World War letters often just include just Mom and Pop stuff.
Who did the censoring?
The enlisted soldier was censored by an officer in his unit. It was considered an unimportant job and often someone like the chaplain or the dentist would get saddled with the job. If the enlisted man did not want his officer to read his mail -- if he had been giving him a hard time, let's say -- the soldier could use what was called a 'blue envelope.' The writer would certify that there is nothing in here that shouldn't be and the letter would go up to the next level where it might be looked at a little more kindly.
The officers were self-censored. They didn't have anyone looking at their mail regularly, although the higher level staff or base censors would randomly check officers' letters to keep an eye on them. Officers seemed to say more in their letters. Whether it was because they knew better what was allowed or whether they were more brazen or whether their mail often was not censored is debatable.
If the section they wanted out was very big, they would confiscate the letter. If it was small, they cut out the words or obliterate it with ink. If they had to use special chemicals to check for invisible writing -- something they did when they suspected a spy -- they would confiscate the letter because they didn't want people to know they were doing it.
The censors returned very few soldiers' letters. They confiscated them; they didn't send them back. They didn't necessarily give the word back to the soldier that his or her letter was withheld. It depended where it was stopped and how fast the troops were moving.
From the soldier's perspective, you often didn't know if it was going to get through. The soldiers were all given guidance on what they could say, so you would think they would know how to avoid getting their mail intercepted, but not all did.
What happened to you if your letter was censored?
You might be talked to, because it's important. I don't know of any soldiers who were severely punished for what they wrote in a letter. It wasn't considered an overt act of sabotage; it was considered carelessness.
Why did censorship end after World War II?
It took a lot of time and effort to censor mail and the military probably just figured that it just wasn't worth it. Some censored letters are known from the early part of the Korean War. We believe this was an error with World War II veterans implementing WW II policy until things settled down. Communications changed too. Things were supposed to be faster and that included the mail to and from soldiers. In the latter part of the Vietnam War, the military didn't even bother to cancel letters.