Martha Gellhorn on press censorship during WWII
After reading Martha Gellhorn's remarkably prescient
1961 Atlantic Monthly article about the Palestinians, I wanted to read more of her work. I recently and serendipitously happened upon a copy of her Travels with Myself and Another (the "other" being short-term husband Ernest Hemingway), and have been slowly savoring it.
Gellhorn had a mordantly witty and idiosyncratic approach to travel in some very out-of-the-way places--in fact, the book is devoted to what she calls "horror journeys." She throws herself into adventure with the reckless abandon worthy of a Hemingway heroine, although she herself was angry that her biographers tended to focus on her brief marriage to him. Despite the fact that this is a travel book--although it's a travel book like no other--it was as a war correspondent that she made her name.
Gellhorn began her war reporting with the Spanish Civil War and ended it in the 80s with the fighting in Panama, and spent a long time arguing passionately against the Vietnam War (and those of you who have read my Vietnam essays here know that I now have some disagreements with that point of view).
In the following passage, Gellhorn is looking back on the outset of WWII. Though a seasoned war correspondent, she accepts the necessity for press censorship at the time:
During that terrible year 1942, I lived in the sun, safe and comfortable and hating it. News reached us at regular hours on the radio and none of it was good. But we didn't understand how bad it was; piecemeal and (I now see) wisely censored, the news gave us no whole view. The only war I understood or could imagine was war on land and that was enough to shake the heart with the Germans moving like a tidal wave into Russia and Rommel rampaging in the desert. I think my ignorance was typical; the general public, which is most of us, did not realize that the fatal danger was on the sea. We would have lost the war if we went on losing ships at the appalling rate of 1942.
To Gellhorn, and to other Americans, censorship was a question of survival. Her words remind me of Sandlin's essay on the chaos of WWII as it was actually lived through in real time, discussed here. That Gellhorn, a woman dedicated to getting the truth out during war, came to realize that it was necessary to block the terrible news of the first year of WWII in order to sustain morale on the home front, was an admission of the extreme importance attached to winning that particular war, the "good war."
I'm not suggesting we go back to generalized censorship of war news. I'm not even so sure it could be accomplished any more, global communications being what they are. But it sometimes seems nowadays as though we've gone to the opposite extreme, and that the news is skewed to the worst rather than the best. It's almost as though the goal were to demoralize those at home.