The Rumor Project
by Gerald Karey (Turkey 1965–67)
Time was, rumors and gossip were neighborhood affairs, exchanged over back-yard fences, in cafes and taverns, doctors’ waiting rooms, barber shops and chance meetings on the street.
Neighbors informed or misinformed neighbors, hearsay was the general rule, (“I heard from a friend who has friend who said . . . ”), lies were sworn by, people may have been slandered and there was occasional hate speech.
But it was a trickle of talk in cities and towns across the U.S. — with a relatively limited number of actors and limited reach — before the Internet provided a conduit for a tsunami of rumors, gossip, lies, misinformation (“It must be true because I saw it on the Internet.”), and hate speech that echoes around the world.
Nevertheless, during World War II this trickle of talk in thousands of places was sufficiently worrisome for a country at war to establish a federal government program to gather, analyze, combat and counteract, if possible, the everyday chatter of ordinary citizens, which the government feared had the potential of undermining the public’s faith in the war effort, of eroding public morale, disclosing military information of use to the enemy, and fomenting hate against religious and ethnic groups.
The program was primitive compared to government high-tech snooping today. But you didn’t need sophisticated listening devices or telephone intercepts to gather intel at neighborhood taverns or across a back-yard fence. Instead the U.S. gathered intelligence in the time-honored, old fashioned way, relying on human beings to be its eyes and ears. (Based on my very limited knowledge of spy craft, HUMINT remains an invaluable tool.)
Was it a network of covert agents spying on U.S. citizens? Undoubtedly that was happening, but other government agencies were tasked with breaking up spy rings, finding saboteurs, surveilling suspicious people and behavior, and developing actionable intelligence. [The Federal Bureau of Investigation under J.Edgar Hoover was already quite adept at compiling files on thousands of Americans based on malicious gossip and rumors.]
Rather, the World War II Rumor Project was a publicized community-based effort that enlisted ordinary citizens who were willing to write down rumors and send them to field representatives from various government agencies. The rumor reports described the circumstances in which the rumor was repeated and the type of person telling it. The actual name of the person was not disclosed, nor was there any effort to track down the originator of the rumor or to assign responsibility for its spread.
A second component of the program involved the collection by teachers of rumors, jokes and anecdotes from their students.
“It is the duty of every loyal American to enlist in the campaign to prevent the development virulent tumors,” reads a memorandum dated January 17, 1942, from the Office of War Information. The OWI established the Rumor Project, but its primary task was to release and censor war news, and serve as the government’s propaganda arm, creating reams of material in every available media to boost American support for the war and denigrating and demonizing the enemy.
The material generated by the Rumor Project is collected in 141 folders contained in 10 boxes housed in the Library of Congress. While the efforts to combat the rumors are spelled out in great detail, there is little indication what specific steps were taken, or if they were effective.
But taken together the raw data are first person accounts of the stress of war on the civilian population: its distrust of Washington and politicians (what else is new?) and the government’s execution of the war; surprising disdain for our British allies; chafing under wartime restrictions and rationing; suspicions that others were cheating and gaming the ration program; accusations of industry profiteering; anti-Semitic and anti-Negro slurs (again, what else is new?); and school-yard jokes.
All was not quiet on the home front.
The government drew its lessons from the Nazis. The rumor “is one form of propaganda used with greatest effect by the Axis,” the January 17 OWI memorandum reads. “The skillful handling of rumors was most helpful to Germany in the preparation and execution of the 1940 campaign in Western Europe, and later in the Balkans. And there is reason to believe that Axis-inspired rumors are already current in the United States.”
The OWI reported that it investigated twenty-five to thirty significant rumors of the period 1939–41, in the following categories:
- The Mousetrap Rumor — Designed to raise unjustified hopes and cause a relaxation of efforts, and “now evident in the United States.” A recent effort is the story of Hitler’s “nervous breakdown.”
- The Slanderous Rumor — Directed against either men or institutions. Usually designed to undermine people’s faith in the integrity, competence and physical and mental health of its civil officials and military leaders.
- The Strategic Rumor — Designed to misled a people and, if possible, its government and armed forces as to the area of imminent military attack. (In fact, it was used very effectively by the Allies to misled the Germans about the location of the D-Day landings.)
- The Confused Rumor — If possible, to destroy the faith of a people in the reliability of its own news services.
Among the techniques employed to combat rumors proposed by the OSI included “direct counteraction,” that is, flat denials. Essentially it is a “reaffirmation of faith in the people’s willingness to choose correctly when an alternative ‘Truth’ and ‘Falsehood’ are clear”, the agency said.
The OWI was “dedicated to this principle.” It also cautioned that the use of the word “rumor” is unwise in print, “since it may tend to increase public anxiety by presenting as objects of possible belief reports which otherwise would be laughed at.”
Items that are simply not true “are difficult to counteract, since in their original form they are in the range of the plausible. “They might be true, except they aren’t,” OWI said. “Under these circumstances, the only thing that can be truthfully said is, ‘this is not so,’ or some equivalent.”
The risk is that this type of response is rarely as colorful as the original rumor, and a dull categorical denial is unlikely to prevail, the OWI cautioned.
The agency acknowledged its daunting task: “Fighting rumors is a complicated, technical task,” it said in a December 29, 1942 release. “It raises problems with public information, military security, and social psychology. . .. But it is clear that as long as war continues to produce a succession of situations about which there is bound to be apprehension and anxiety, even the most complete information will not be able to destroy rumors entirely.”
We are hearing repetitions of rumors that boys in southern camps are writing back that they are getting no pay, food is bad, and conditions in the camps so terrible that there is a terrible suicide rate. — Iowa
Rumors fill in where information fails or is lacking, the Office of War Information said in a release dated December 29, 1942.
“The rumor control project should see itself primarily an information agency in the community, taking on itself the responsibility for detecting and meeting unfilled gaps in information.”
The first responsibility of a rumor control project is “the collection and analysis of rumors,” the OWI said. “In order to have a truly representative collection of rumors, representatives of all groups must work with the rumor control project.”
A local dairy planning to poison milk. Owner suspicioned [sic] of being sympathetic to the Axis and thought to have been committed to a Federal institution. — Housewife, Austin Texas
Submarine has been spotted in Lake Austin. — Store Manager
[Lake Austin is a reservoir on the Colorado River formed in 1939 by the construction of Torn Miller Dam. Its maximum depth is 75 feet.]
The ranks of rumor reporters should be drawn from civic clubs, unions, minorities, educators and professional men, the OWI said. The names of reporters would never be disclosed.
The good reporter “is one who has many social contacts . . . [but] one on the periphery rather than the center of the group,” the agency said. “A taxi driver represents an illustration of a person who is professionally in a good position. He can hear conversations without being expected to participate. He has opportunity for contact with many different people.”
Dentists prove to be good sources of rumor reports because of the “more intimate contacts between dentist and patient . . .. The socially active, exuberant person is not necessarily a good rumor reporter because such a person is too often in the focus of a conversation and should therefore have difficulty in preparing a careful record of what passes.”
Descriptions of Persons Collecting Rumors:
Beauty Parlor Operator: About 35 years old. Operates in neighborhood of [the state] Capitol and trade is composed chiefly of state employees.
Labor Union Official: 46 years of age, heavy, good personality. Is well thought of in labor circles.Visits war projects every day . . .. Meets all classes of people. Good central location in center of city.
Dentist: About 34 years of age. Nice looking. Good personality. All classes of patients. Well informed man.
The OWI categorized the rumors by subject matter. Among the most prevalent were rumors about treatment in camps, morale, troop movements, recruitment and the Selective Service, criticism of the government, price controls, war bonds, anti-British, anti-Negro (it was well before African-American and black came into use), and anti-Jewish rumors.
The United States is treating war prisoners better than many of its civilians. — El Paso, Texas
I heard that gasoline rationing is only because the big oil companies and war officials want to get rich out of it in the end.” — enroute to El Paso by train
The 36th Division (Texas National Guard), was ordered overseas but that order has since been countermanded. — Newspaperman, San Antonio
It’s a waste of money to contribute to the various agencies to help the American soldiers. Once they are out of this country they are forgotten about and half never get the things sent to them. — St. Louis
Crooked politicians in Washington are responsible for the present state of affairs. The president being the most crooked. — Wisconsin
The President is going to use the war to make himself a dictator. — White collar worker for large industry, Birmingham
A munitions dump is to be constructed north of Blossom [Texas]. I got this straight from the engineer’s office at [Camp Maxey]. — Paris, Texas
We buy defense bonds and the money is going to be thrown away paying defense workers high wages. And these guys squander their money in beer joints. — Minnesota
It’s a shame that government is allowing industry and big business to make so much money. — Laborer, San Francisco
AWOLs from camp are very numerous. — Louisville, 8/10/42
War bonds will never be paid. — Connecticut
The Limeys [British] are yellow cusses and stuck up. They’re certainly learning how to run backwards, fast. — San Francisco.
England got us into this war and the last one. — Wisconsin
I am not pro-German, but England has got to be beaten in this war, she has sneaked out of everything for too long. — Massachusetts.
British don’t fight.
We are not being told the truth about our losses. — Missouri
Washington is withholding true information on the status of the war. — California
War news is sugared. Government is withholding bad news. — California
There was some truth behind the “war news” rumors. The war was going badly for the Allies in 1942, both in the European and Pacific theaters, and what could be reported was limited by official silence and censorship. However enough dire news was reported to suggest that things were not going well. American newspapers were not permitted to show pictures of dead soldiers or of people weeping. Britain permitted no images of the dead or badly injured from bombing raids. Of course, the toll of the war could not be hidden in cities and towns in the U.S. where neighbors were losing husbands and sons in combat; and in cities and towns in the U.K. where the carnage and death from bombing raids could not be hidden.
African-Americans and Jews were the frequent subjects of hate-rumors and slurs. “Hate-rumors present a continuing danger to democracy’s war effort,” the OWI said. “One necessary answer lies in widespread community campaigns designed to attack the source of hate, to expose prejudices which lead to hate-rumors, and to blanket hate-rumors with energetic programs.”
Wish they would keep the nigger soldiers out of our USO houses. I hear the boys are not going to stand for being pushed around much longer. I know they can’t push me around and get away with it. — Soldier, San Francisco
The federal government is going to try to use Negroes in the Army to subdue the South and impose a second reconstruction on us. — Alabama
A friend of mine called me today and said a mob of Negroes in Suffolk have bought up all the icepicks in preparation for race riots. — Virginia
Violence is inevitable if the government insists on stationing Negro troops down here. — Tennessee
A union official says the Negro program for advancement in Detroit includes placement of a Negro family in every white block. — Michigan
This administration (Roosevelt’s) is overloaded with crackpots. They’ve got too many Jews down there. — Business conversation, Pittsburgh
I talked with a captain at the Army induction station and he said that there was a definite feeling among many people that we were fighting a Jew war and that the Jews were using all their influence possible to get into units of the Army other than combat units. — Virginia
I haven’t seen any Jewish volunteers in the Army or being drafted.
The Jews have caused this war. If it wasn’t for them there wouldn’t be a war. They are running the country. — Minnesota
Girls at USO Centers are primarily Jewish and soldiers stay away as they don’t want to dance with them. — Illinois.
Most of the material I saw was dated 1942. I don’t know if the Rumor Project was terminated; if the files for subsequent years are elsewhere; or if the Federal government decided that trying to refute rumors through information and educational campaigns was of limited utility and would rely on its propaganda campaign as well as commercially produced movies and radio programs to inspire faith in the war effort and boost moral.
As the OWI pointed out, anxiety and fear provide fertile soil for rumors and I have no doubt that rumors were the stuff of everyday conversations throughout the war. But while all war years are bad years, 1942 may have been the worst bad year for the United States. Unlike Great Britain and France, who had been fighting Germany for more than two years, 1942 was the first year of active combat for U.S. forces. American soldiers and sailors were dying and being wounded in increasing numbers; Allied forces were reeling in the face of Axis advances; and the war, it seemed, would go on forever. Victory was not a foregone conclusion.
As for the rumors directed against African-Americans and Jews, despite well-intentioned efforts and “energetic programs,” racial and religious hatred and bigotry are extremely difficult to expunge from the human heart.
In response to its request for students to submit any kind of story, joke, pun or jingle about the war, the Rumor Project received material from several high schools and colleges. Englewood High School in Chicago apparently made it a school-wide project because the collection includes ten folders of material from that one school.
The students were asked to choose five of the submissions that most impressed them, and which they had heard, but not seen in pictures or print.
“There have been rumors that Hitler is dead,” one student wrote. “Also that Hitler has the newspaper read to him as he is supposed to be too nervous to read it himself.”
This joke was submitted several times: “The efficiency of the assembly line is truly amazing. Even the Army physical exams are being speeded up. One doctor looks into one ear, another looks in the other. If they can see each other, they reject the man.”
The war would continue for three more terrible years and what was no joke was that many of these students would either enlist or be drafted, and some would lose their lives.
Gerald Karey taught English in a middle school in a Turkish village from 1965 to 1967. After the Peace Corps, he worked as a general assignment reporter for two newspapers in New Jersey, and for a McGraw-Hill newsletter in Washington, D.C., where he covered energy and environmental issues. A collection of his essays entitled Unhinged, was published in October, 2014.