The Censored War

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George Roeder, Jr. The Censored War: American Visual Experience During World War Two. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1993. pp. xi, 189. ISBN 0300057237



Roeder examines "what Americans saw during World War II, why they saw it, and how it affected the way they perceived the world then and later" (2). His focus is mainly on the efforts of the federal government—through propaganda and censoring— to shape American perceptions of the war experience. The Office of War Information (OWI) and the Office of Censorship are the key institutions Roeder follows, although he gestures toward the numerous military and private print media organizations that had a voice in the kinds of images presented to the public. He argues that the primary lesson learned from World War I regarding information control was that the "public would accept strict government control over information from combat areas, and that withheld images were less likely to rouse skepticism than prettified ones" (8).

The Censored War has four textual chapters with four visual essays interspersed, in which he juxtaposes censored and published images for the reader with additional analysis of the images. The chapters follow a rough chronological order, starting with Franklin Delano Roosevelt's establishment of the Office of Censorship shortly after Pearl Harbor and ending with a discussion of the legacy of the WWII imagery.

Conflicting messages and diffused authority are central to Roeder's narrative. Photographers had considerable leeway in composing their images, although this freedom to take images was overwhelmed by the multiple layers of censorship that occurred in the selection, captioning, and eventual publication. Censors worked for all branches of the military, along with the OWI and Office of Censorship. Public print organizations submitted to voluntary censorship in order to maintain their trusted position as those participating in withholding information for the war effort. Wartime imagery also expanded the positive depictions of African Americans and women, although always with the point of reinforcing American unity and smoothing over social discontent and difference.


Celeste Sharpe, Spring 2013

Roeder ably describes the often contradictory and chaotic layers of censorship that occurred in numerous agencies. Over the course of the war, the OWI tended to argue for sharing more images of soldier hardships and death in order to show the public the extent (within limits) of the horrors of war. This would serve several purposes: maintain homefront support to the calls for rationing and sacrifice, as well as to start to prepare the public for the return of soldiers who were traumatized by the war. The OWI and Office of Censorship lacked a great deal of power over the publication of images. Instead they relied on persuasion and the support of FDR to convince military censors and public newspapers and filmmakers to publish images that conveyed the seriousness of the war and called for American unity while stopping short of fully revealing the graphic violence and mental duress of the soldiers.

Roeder's analysis is strongest when focused on the OWI or a set of specific images, like the chapter on the increase of images of women and African Americans which nonetheless aligned with narrow representations of these groups supporting the war effort. What is lost in this study are the people who dealt directly with the captioning, refining, and suppression of numerous images. Who were these people, how many worked across all of the agencies, what were the official parameters for censorship? Roeder implies that these individuals had considerable latitude for deciding which images to use and how they were presented, but his focus on top officials like Elmer Davis and Milton Eisenhower further obscures these people. Roeder's visual essays are more galleries of images than a series of photographs that make an argument. He juxtaposes censored and non-censored images, but it would have been more effective if the images were placed in the text where they are referenced and analyzed.

Kirk Johnson, Spring 2013

The title of this book is more nuanced than it might seem at first, because Roeder makes it clear that while censorship and control was exercised by the government and the private sector during World War II, it was done so in a manner less comprehensive and onerous than any of the other major combatant nations, and in fact much less so than the level maintained by the American government in World War I. The fact that many Americans remembered the crude and overbearing tactics of their own government during that earlier war was one of the most important factors contributing to the policy of relative openness pursued by American authorities during the war. Thus, while the American government exercised a great deal of control over the visual information the public received, that control was not absolute, nor was it uncontested by civilians, service members, and government officials throughout the war. Therefore, the version of World War II experienced by Americans was neither entirely a complete, unfiltered record of events nor a thoroughly sanitized and tightly-controlled official version. The "Censored War" that many Americans saw was a construct which certainly shaped public opinion in some ways that authorities wanted, but it also implicitly acknowledged at least some ambiguities and uncomfortable truths which a more totalitarian approach would not have countenanced. The American public were too aware that a narrative was being crafted for the the censors to act with complete impunity.

The four chapters and the four visual essays deal with different aspects of the "censored war," with each visual essay essentially paired with the preceding chapter. While the discussion is interesting overall, the facet of Roeder's study which gives this book more import and interpretive breadth than if it were simply yet another investigation of yet another facet of World War II history is in the final chapter, "War Costs", in which he argues that the "polarized" nature of depictions of the enemy and the mission during war created an interpretive framework which was ultimately more durable and influential than the specific content of wartime propaganda. Americans were ill-equipped to understand or think critically about the post-war reality of a globally-involved USA and its position as the most powerful nation in world. Furthermore, Roeder argues that the iconography and interpretive approaches of the anti-war movement during the Vietnam conflict worked within the same simplistic polarity, only with the content largely reversed; i.e., then only the victims of American atrocities would be shown, rather than vice-versa, and so on.

Megan Brett, Spring 2014

Roeder is as much concerned with the process of censorship as the images which were censored. In his account of federal censorship during World War II, he describes a system which lacked a central authority, rather requiring the military branches to cooperate with the two offices charged with conveying the right amount of truth to the American people. One of the most compelling sections of the work is his discussion of the use of images of wounded or dead American soldiers, and the reasons why the censors were more willing to show the public these images as the war continued. In addition to desensitization (or emotional fatigue), which he briefly mentions, there was the need to prepare the public for the condition of returning GIs. While images of happy soldiers happily serving, as had been used in World War I, made it seem safe to send one’s sons to war, Roeder finds that officials were concerned that a public exposed to such images would fail to truly appreciate the sacrifice and suffering of returning soldiers.

While Roeder’s visual essays are coherent, I concur with Celeste Sharpe that his argument would have been better served by incorporating at least some of them into the text, or perhaps adding more text to those sections. The contrast between advertising and official images, between censored and non-censored photographs was strong in the visual essays, but weaving these images into the text would not have weakened the strength of that contrast.

===Andrew Salamone Spring 2016

In The Censored War: American Visual Experience during World War II, George Roeder Jr. tells the story of the government effort to control the dissemination of news, particularly pictures of the battlefield. He argued that these images were “components of a visual environment mobilized to make a distant war seem real to those who were expected to supply the resources, human effort, and political support needed for victory.” His intent is to understand how Americans on the homefront experienced the complexity of war through these images as well as those who sought to limit the complexity by employing censorship and propaganda. He concluded by arguing that “what Americans saw between 1941 and 1945 helped determine what type of society they shaped during and after the war.” On this account, he contended that the overly simplistic depiction of the world in terms of good vs. evil as well as the dehumanization of those who were culturally different from Americans, poorly equipped U.S. leaders to deal with the postwar world.

Part of reducing this complexity was to depict the war in terms of good vs. evil. America, with its racial and ethnic diversity and in which everyone played an equal role in the march towards victory, represented the good. Films and other images depicted military units and war workers from mixed racial and ethnic backgrounds contentedly working together to achieve victory. He contended that this “Imagery often served as a substitute for, or one barrier to, more substantive changes in the distribution of opportunity within the United States.” The “sanitization of America’s bombing campaign” further reinforced this divide between good and evil; America only destroyed what was bad, while the enemy conducted brutal assaults on unarmed civilians. He argued that the cultural and racial differences between Americans and Japanese made it easy to dehumanize them in propaganda and to depict their brutality on the battlefield, contributing to the public’s view of them as evil.

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