A History of the Ministry of Information, 1939-46

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Feb 11. 1943

The Office of War Information of the United States Government has prepared the following paper on “Rumours in Wartime”, based on an analysis of 4,500 rumours collected during the past 11 months. The document has been received from the British Press Service in New York, and is almost completely in line with the experience of Home Intelligence. The paper is intended as background information for newspaper editors and civic groups, and as a guide for individual citizens.



It is clear that rumors always arise during periods of tension. Rumors always spread during wartime, because people are under emotional strain. The public tensions and uneasiness which are inevitable during war can best be eased by a continuous flow of news about the war. The antidote to most rumors is information - clear, complete, honest news.

But even the most complete and accurate information about the war, with its multitude of details, can not prevent rumors from springing up. For war increases feelings of anxiety. War sharpens public interest, and focuses public attention upon problems about which full information cannot always be given promptly, or upon situations so complex that even the publication of the known facts does not always provide simple and reassuring explanations. War therefore fosters those conditions in which rumors flourish.

Rumors feed upon many human traits: our prejudices, our fears, our anxieties, our curiosity, our desire to share a secret or repeat an “inside” story, our simple love of gossip. In a time of tension, people naturally tend to seize upon material which reflects their individual fears, their individual hopes, or their fundamental prejudices.

People repeat rumors for a variety of reasons. Some people give vent to their basic hates by repeating rumors which spread prejudice. Some people try to reduce their own uneasiness by passing it on to others - in the form of rumors. Some people spread rumors because telling supposedly “secret” or “inside” information gives them a sense of importance. Some people repeat rumors as an unconscious way of escaping from hard realities through wishful stories. And some people just like to gossip - without realising that they may be spreading false information, creating false fears, or raising false issues.



The 4,500 rumors analyzed by the Office of War Information fall into five general classes:

  1. The greatest number may be called “ hate rumors ”; they express prejudice, animosity, or hostility for groups other than the enemy.

  2. The second group may be classified as “ anxiety rumors ”; they reflect uneasiness or fear, and commonly take the form of unfounded reports of Allied disaster or weakness, or of “overwhelming” enemy strength.

  3. A third group, classifiable as “ escape rumors ” reflect, in the main, wishful thinking about the progress or duration of the war.

  4. A few can be classified only as “ supernatural rumors ”; these contain fantastic prophecies of disaster or impending miracles.

  5. Finally, there are a substantial number of “ curiosity rumors ”, which contain amusing or novel tit-bits, or supposed “news”.

The possible danger of rumors, and the possible effect of rumors on public opinion can be indicated:

Hate rumors unquestionably serve to undermine and disrupt wartime unity - in a community or in the nation - by fomenting suspicion and hatred of special groups.

Anxiety rumors tend to spread undue pessimism and may lead to defeatist attitudes.

Escape rumors tend to encourage undue optimism and, if widespread, foster complacency about the war.

Supernatural rumors tend to arouse unreal hopes and illusions: they may hamper realistic judgment: they serve to distract attention from the real necessities and unavoidable alternatives of war.

Curiosity rumors encourage gossip and therefore encourage more rumors.



A comparison of specific rumors with specific enemy propaganda appeals since Pearl Harbor has shown a relatively low relation between the two. Enemy shortwave radio broadcasts, which reach a very small audience in the United States, have largely been ignored by the American public. Those broadcasts do, however, serve to communicate specific propaganda “Lines” to enemy sympathizers and enemy agents. There can be little doubt that enemy sympathizers and enemy agents in the United States are engaged in planting and encouraging the circulation of rumors which aid the enemy's propaganda objectives.

It is dangerous to overemphasize the role of Axis propaganda in rumors. This may heighten public uneasiness about the enemy to the point where people will believe that the enemy is so subtle and successful in spreading rumors that it is “impossible” to beat his propaganda. It may also encourage people to listen to Axis shortwave, under the delusion that “a lot of other people must be listening to enemy propaganda if all these rumors are Axis-inspired”.

It seems wiser to indicate that certain rumors play into the hands of the enemy instead of suggesting that rumors are invented and circulated by the enemy. The rumors which play into the hands of the enemy are those which spread hatred or suspicion among ourselves and which encourage defeatism or despair.

The most dangerous rumors are hate-rumors . The evidence shows clearly that many hate-rumors originate in the United States as symptoms of domestic social and economic problems - especially those problems which war creates or intensifies. Enemy propaganda has often picked up these rumors and tried to increase their circulation as an essential part of the enemy strategy of “divide and conquer”.

A list of the groups against which most current hate-rumors are directed follows, in alphabetical order:

Army administration



Defense workers

Draft boards







Rationing Boards

Red Cross (blood donor service)



The most dangerous rumors are hate-rumors because the false information carried by hate-rumors is less important than the hatred which the rumors convey. Factual denials appear to have had little effect in stopping hate-rumors. As one hate-rumor is exposed it is replaced by another rumor conveying the same hatred. It seems clear that persons who feel certain hatreds will readily believe and repeat any rumor which gives expression to that hatred. Hate-rumors obviously must be attacked at the source - by curing the cause of the hatred, by creating immunity against the poisons of group hate.

Information can, however, be used effectively to combat hate-rumors insofar as they may be thoughtlessly believed or repeated by persons who would otherwise feel no violent or urgent hatred. Adequate information can serve to make the repetition and progress of hate-rumors more difficult.

The analysis of the Office of War Information leads to the conclusion that it is dangerous to print or repeat a hate-rumor even in order to deny it . Hate-rumors should never be repeated or printed by themselves (even in order to be denied) because this tends to keep a group in the focus of attention and encourages controversy and suspicion. The enemy wants us to be pre-occupied with false “scapegoats”. The enemy wants us to debate false issues with false facts.

The technique recommended by the Office of War Information is as follows: hate-rumors about any group should be handled only as part of a long list of similar rumors about other groups . For example:

Current Rumors

“The British are getting rich on the war.”

“Big Business is getting rich on the war.”

“Labor is getting rich on the war.”

“Farmers are getting rich on the war.”

“Catholics are getting rich on the war.”

“Jews are getting rich on the war.”

“Baptists are getting rich on the war.”

“Stalin is getting rich on the war.”


Such a barrage demonstrates, by its very inclusiveness, that this is a common kind of rumor, indiscriminately applied: that the particular rumor is just another version of another rumor: and that all rumors of this character are to be mistrusted. Listing hate-rumors about different groups en masse helps to expose the basic strategy and fallacy of hate-rumors.

There are people whose hate - for the British or the Russians or the Chinese, business or farmers or labor, Catholics or Baptists or Jews - is so great that they will believe or repeat the most preposterous rumors and the most vicious allegations about the group they hate. Those people who repeat rumors about any racial, religious, or social group in this country are - whether they mean it or not, whether they know it or not - playing into the enemy's hands.

We are not fighting England or Russia or any “scapegoat” group in our country: the American war effort is harmed when energy is distracted from the war against our real enemies by the insinuations of hate-rumors and hate rumor-mongers. A significant service can be performed in making people aware that in spreading hate-rumors they are playing into the hands of the enemy's strategy of “divide and conquer”. Hate-rumors present a continuing danger to democracy's war effort. One necessary answer to hate-rumors lies in widespread community campaigns designed to attack the sources of hate, to expose the prejudices which lead to hate-rumors: and to blanket hate-rumors with energetic information programs.

Rumors are not going to win the war for the Axis. But rumors may slow up our winning of the war - by weakening our unity, our convictions, and the mutual respect and trust which we must maintain for a united war effort.

The harm of rumors lies not in the disclosure of any secrets, but in the spread of misinformation.

The potential damage of rumors lies in the confusion they may foster, the anxiety or despair or false illusion they may spread.

The greatest danger of rumors lies in the prejudices which they incite, the suspicions which they foment, and the disruptive hates which they seek to inflame.

In this war the American people must not permit their strength to be split or their unity weakened - either by enemy propagandists or irresponsible rumor-mongers.



Fighting rumors is a complicated, technical task. It raises problems in public information, military security, and social psychology. It involves specific techniques for handling the uneasiness and hostility which any war necessarily arouses.

It is necessary to emphasize that anti-rumor activity which is conducted without an awareness of the inherent dangers of anti-rumor activity may tend to:

  1. Circulate the very rumors which are being denied.

  2. Circulate more rumors than are effectively denied.

  3. Make the community too “rumor-conscious”.

  4. Create wide-spread uneasiness, which is fertile soil for more rumors.

  5. Exaggerate the danger of enemy propaganda - creating unnecessary fears about the enemy's cleverness or propaganda success in the United States.

  6. Deny only certain kinds of rumors, allowing other rumors to circulate more freely.

  7. Monopolize rumor-fighting by a given group so that the rumors denied are simply those which offend the particular sensibilities or interests of the group - ignoring those rumors which the group does not recognise as rumors or as dangerous.

These dangers are involved in the anti-rumor activity of even the most conscientious, patriotic, best-intentioned groups. Because they are aware of these dangers, many local groups seek the co-operation and counsel of Advisory Boards of competent psychologists, educators, or sociologists.



The American press and radio can be relied upon to give the public all of the facts about the war which they get. It is obvious that sometimes certain facts must be held up for military reasons - to keep the enemy guessing. It is obvious that sometimes certain facts must be withheld - to keep the enemy ignorant. It is also obvious that sensational stories which have not appeared in the newspapers or over the radio are exactly the kind of stories for Americans to disbelieve. War demands that each person defer belief until the facts have been printed in the newspapers or stated over the radio.

There are occasions when facts are known to many persons and yet must remain unpublished. When a warship is in an American harbor; for example, that fact cannot be published without aiding the enemy - even though the ship and its sailors are visible to many people in the port area. Extravagant rumors - about the ship or crew or cargo - may spring up in such a situation. It is an unavoidable situation. But the rumors need not spread if people keep what they see to themselves.

There is no reason to assume that others know what you know; and there is plenty of evidence that the enemy, or his agents, does not know what hundreds of Americans do know about a given war plant or war port. To repeat facts or rumors, in such circumstances, is to make it easier for the enemy to find out what he may not know, or may simply suspect.



The free interchange of free opinions is a fundamental part of the democratic process. In war no less than in peace every American has the right to say what he thinks. It is precisely for that reason that the American people, determined to preserve freedom of mind and conscience, must guard free opinion against corruption by malicious and irresponsible rumor. No American conscious of his right to speak freely can fail to be conscious of the parallel and profound responsibility to be critical of what he hears and cautious about what he repeats.

The American people are justly famed for their common sense and their healthy skepticism. If any people on earth is endowed with the natural talents for handling rumors it is the people of the United States. The nation that has made “I'm from Missouri” a national trade-mark (and has coined phrases like “Sez who?” or “Oh, yeah?”) is skilled in the art of preserving good judgment or in the technique of recognizing suspicious statements. The American people have invented a word far better than “rumor” to describe false facts and false insinuations; that word is “phony”. Most rumors are just phony.

Every American can help to win this war by toughening his mind and his ears. Every American can help to win this war by refusing to believe sensational stories which are not carried in the newspapers or over the radio. Every American can help to beat the enemy by refusing to spread suspicion and hate in the United States.

The press and radio of America are fighting rumors - not by the endless process of denial (which may help to circulate rumors) but by blanketing the rumors with authoritative information. Local groups can fight rumors best by working to achieve the widest possible dissemination of information in their communities. Information can be designed to blanket rumors without mentioning the rumors themselves.

If each American refuses to repeat a rumor, the rumor will be denied another outlet. If enough Americans refuse to give either credence or circulation to rumors, rumors will be stopped in their tracks. Each American can inoculate himself against rumors and rumor-mongers simply by becoming a Rumor-Warden - for himself.

There are several simple rules which each American can observe.

1. Never repeat a rumor.

2. Do not repeat a rumor verbally even to deny it.

3. If you know the facts which can deflate a rumor, cite the facts promptly.

4. If you do not know the facts which can stop a rumor, ask the rumor-teller where he got his facts.

5. Don't give a rumor the benefit of any doubt.

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