In our modern world of Internet feeds, push notifications, and twenty-four-hour news coverage, it can be difficult to imagine relying not only on printed material for knowledge of world affairs but on time-delayed information - like this update on the progress of World War II from The Washington Star, dated August 30, 1942. The article was rediscovered on the back of another clipping which was being prepared for digitization from the papers of Samuel Pierpont Langley, third secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. It featured a detailed breakdown of the conflict across all relevant theaters from Europe to the Pacific, and supplemented by a map of Allied and Axis movements in northern France, this war update provides what may have been for many Washington, D.C. residents one of the only resources available to them for following the progress of a struggle that friends and family were directly or indirectly involved in, and that touched all aspects of their lives.
At this point in the war, the extent to which the conflict would continue was a subject of much debate and great concern; as the headline states, "Embattled World Starts Fourth Year of War With Turning Point Still Lying Ahead," highlighting the uncertain future of world affairs. While the article is positive about Allied victories, the pervading sense that the world is being beaten down by the conflict is clear from the author’s stark observation that “there is no end in sight,” and from the characterization of Russia's resistance to the German eastern line as "in an increasingly desperate condition." The article further touches on the German–Russian stalemate at Stalingrad and the Japanese defeat at Guadalcanal, foreshadows the Second Battle of El Alamein in Egypt, and celebrates the declaration of a previously neutral Brazil for the Allied side.
This update is also fascinating for the glimpse it offers of wartime censorship, both subtly through some sub-textual journalistic frustration at lack of information on recent American casualties in the Pacific, and less so courtesy of a second article below the war update specifically discussing the "Herculean task" of censoring news, an intriguing juxtaposition of the two contradictory wartime imperatives to spread and curtail information. The headline’s subtitle is of particular note - "Curbing of News Only Minor Part of Problem of Guarding War Information" - given the general perception of censorship as a negative process. In this case, censorship is functioning in part as a protective measure for the American forces serving overseas, lest sensitive information be acquired by the Axis powers.
The need to keep troop locations and movements under wraps even influenced those servicemen who volunteered to collect natural history specimens for the Smithsonian (when time permitted) to leave physical provenance information out of their reports home, as can be seen in a letter from Sergeant Raymond L. Baker to the Smithsonian. He informs the curators that "the exact geographical location will only be furnished when there is no longer need for censorship," presumably providing those details after the conflict ended. The instructions to keep geographical data out of reports likely came from A Field Collector’s Manual in Natural History, prepared by Smithsonian staff for these soldier-collectors.
As the United States celebrates Veterans Day in conjunction with Remembrance Days throughout the world, the rediscovery of this World War II era news update encourages reflection on the dedicated service of the men and women who fought for their countries and did their best to protect innocent lives.
- Record Unit 7003 - Samuel Pierpoint Langley Papers, 1867-1906, Smithsonian Institution Archives