History Lesson

Censorship’s Trial Balloons

What happens when wartime news gets censored?

Summer officially starts Monday. Are you ready? Have your sunscreen, bathing suit, sunglasses? How about your bottled water, canned food, duct tape, flashlights, extra batteries, and—in case the dirty-bomb fallout drifts in your direction—a prophylactic dose of potassium iodide to ward off thyroid cancer?

Probably not. And yet, here we are, entering the height of travel season with the Homeland Security threat condition at (any guesses?) yellow. Which signifies (any guesses?) “elevated risk.”

And elevated risk means … well, any guesses? Really, do you know? Because few of us do. And that’s the problem with the Homeland Security Advisory System. We know we’re supposed to be on guard, but against what, we’re not sure because more specific information is often withheld.

There are good reasons for the government to withhold information from the public, especially in times of war. But when the state censors news this way—whether it’s terrorism threats, prison scandals, or torture memos—the impact of doing so must be carefully considered. The costs and benefits of wartime censorship are part of a long-running debate. We are vulnerable when the government keeps secrets from us and sometimes more vulnerable when it does not.

In the first Gulf War, for example, critics complained the news had been sanitized to the point of broadcasting bloodless video-game-like footage of missiles battling missiles. In this war, embedded journalists risk divulging too much. Either way, what is at stake each time we erase the news is not just the nation’s security but, more important, our history.

And that’s why it’s helpful to turn to history for an object lesson, a case of wartime censorship where the issue was much less murky and the results—at first glance, at least—unambiguous. You’ve likely heard nothing about it. And that, of course, is the problem.

The censored story was one of World War II’s oddest, and it involved a fleet of handmade balloons sent east by the empire of Japan. Improbable though it may sound, from late 1944 through the spring of 1945, the Japanese launched more than 9,000 balloons from their nation’s eastern shores. Filled not with mild-mannered hot air but extremely flammable hydrogen and armed with incendiary and antipersonnel bombs, the balloons rode the jet stream across the Pacific Ocean for several days before landing throughout North America.

No, really. Throughout North America. From Alaska to Mexico and as far east as suburban Detroit. Perhaps even more incredible, the balloons themselves were not made of any high-tech, weather-hardened fabric but simple paper panels held together with potato glue.

An extraordinary story, right? Irresistible to any reporter and not just because of the balloons themselves, but because of their potential: If a balloon could carry incendiary bombs across the Pacific, without detection or advance warning, what else might travel aboard? Saboteurs? Biotoxins?

Sure enough, stories began to appear. The day after New Year’s, 1945, for example, the New York Herald-Tribune carried a brief story about one of the first balloons to arrive. After that, however, even as the balloons were crash-landing at the rate of two or three per day, the nation’s media remained largely mum. That’s because on Jan. 4, two days after the Herald-Tribune ran its story, the Office of Censorship asked the nation’s print and broadcast journalists to report absolutely nothing more about the balloon bombs. And no one did.

The way the rest of the story plays out proves problematic for foes and supporters alike of wartime censorship. For those who oppose censorship, it’s hard to argue against the outcome: Throughout the spring of 1945, the Japanese carefully monitored the American press for mention of their balloons. They found none. And since supply routes and launch sites were getting hammered by an ever-closer American military, Japanese authorities finally decided they could not keep up their unusual campaign absent any evidence of success.

Yet, unbeknownst to them, or virtually anyone outside the U.S. government, the balloons were proving successful. One balloon, for example, managed to cut through power lines leading from the Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River. A resulting power outage that was quickly restored may sound insignificant; however, that particular dam provided power to a factory in Hanford, Wash., which was secretly manufacturing plutonium for use in the atomic bombs destined for Japan. When the power went out, the plant’s emergency safeguards—which had never been tested—were suddenly called upon to prevent the reactor from melting down. Plant officials held their breath; everything worked as it was supposed to (though it took three days to resume full operations).

In the end, America’s best defense may have been the weather. Designed to start fires—which would deplete natural resources and divert human ones—the balloons plummeted into the Pacific Northwest during its wettest months.

On May 22, 1945, the government suddenly changed its mind about the ban on press coverage. The War and Navy departments issued a joint statement announcing, in part, “It is the view of the departments that the possible saving of even one American life through precautionary measures would more than offset any military gain accruing to the enemy from the mere knowledge that some of his balloons actually have arrived on this side of the Pacific.”

This sounds reasonable and prudent, if a bit tardy. But there’s a reason the departments suddenly came around to this way of thinking, and this is where the balloon campaign becomes a troubling case study for censorship’s supporters.

Seventeen days earlier, on May 5, the Rev. Archie Mitchell and his pregnant wife, Elsie, took a group of children from his church on an outing to Oregon’s Gearhart Mountain. Mitchell let the kids out of the car before he went off to park. His wife got out, too, to supervise. Mitchell found a spot up the road and pulled over. As he was getting out, he saw his charges clustered around a large white object on the forest floor. One of the kids tugged at it.

The bomb exploded, killing all the children and Mrs. Mitchell. They were the only fatalities on the U.S. mainland due to enemy action during World War II, and though a marker remembers them on Gearhart Mountain today, they’re mostly overlooked, as they were by the War and Navy departments in that May 22 statement, which made no mention of the fatalities, only that “Japanese free balloons are known to have landed or dropped explosives in isolated localities. No property damage has resulted.”

That was technically true: Mitchell had parked his car well clear of the blast.

Should we censor the news in wartime? No question: There are times when discretion trumps dissemination. But people need to be told more than just, “Be wary.” Be wary of what? A particular methodology or place, or a suspicious object, like a briefcase—or a balloon?

Case in point: It’s estimated that 1,000 of those World War II balloons reached North America. To this day, only 286 have been found. Here’s hoping the next hiker who finds one has heard the news.

What does the battle of the balloons have to do with today’s war on terrorism (other than the bizarre coincidence that the Mitchell tragedy occurred near tiny Bly, Ore., the same spot where recently arrested Muslim cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri is accused of trying to set up a terrorist training camp)?

Actually, the balloon battle may have less to do with us today than it does with citizens, soldiers, reverends, and children 60 years from now. Because as compelling a case as the balloon story may be for the virtues of wartime censorship, what’s troubling is not that Americans in 1945 didn’t know about these balloons; it’s that most Americans today don’t. The balloon bombs were erased not only from our national awareness, but from our collective history. We believe it never happened, just as our children might have been led to believe Abu Ghraib never happened.

The administration needs to do a better job of providing us with the kind of information that will truly help us—not just this summer, but in decades to come, when we look back and try to learn what happened in this war  and how we can prevent it from happening again. Torture memos, torture photos, and chatter in the system must not be erased. Otherwise, we may never understand what we were fighting for. It’s true, the truth hurts. But gaps in our history hurt more, and the hurt lasts longer.