Spying on the Neighbours in Second World War America, or Loose Lips Sink Ships, But Those Index Cards Will Help

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Poster that says 'Loose Lips Sink Ships'
Why do Germans have to go to Switzerland to have their teeth pulled?

Because they are not allowed to open their mouths in Germany.

This joke went international across the northern hemisphere in the 1940s. Germans whispered it to trusted friends. Anti-Hitler organisations in European countries not yet occupied collected it and published it in anthologies. This version was repeated in an American high school and collected by the Rumor Control Project of the Office of War Information (OWI).

In Germany, jokes like that could get you arrested by the Gestapo for Miesmacherei. Complaining was illegal in Hitler's Germany. The consequences in the US were far less serious – although your remark could end up on an index card and reported by a diligent volunteer. The Rumor Control Project caused some unease, even among its volunteers, and generated a lot of paper. That paper has ended up in the care of the Library of Congress, so we get to read it and make up our own minds. We also get to find out what the person on the street was saying about the war. Some of it might surprise you.

Why Collect Rumours?

The US government in wartime was concerned about rumour-mongering. The Office of War Information was, first of all, worried about the spread of misinformation that might hurt morale among workers and military personnel. They also needed to track the spread of possibly accurate information that might fall into the hands of enemy spies. Films like this Private Snafu cartoon alerted soldiers, sailors, and airmen to the dangers of spreading 'latrine rumours'. But what to do about civilians in a democracy?

The OWI was established in 1942. Their brief, according to the Library of Congress, was to 'promote an informed and intelligent understanding of the status and progress of the war effort, war policies, activities, and aims of the United States government.' The OWI set up the Rumor Control Project, which ran from 1942 to 1943, to collect information about rumours and to brainstorm ways to combat them. It also used the press to 'get out the word' about avoiding the spread of rumours. In addition, it ran 'rumour clinics' to inform the public about the dangers of rumours. They even produced films for public consumption, like MGM's Mr Blabbermouth.

The OWI took this rumour business very seriously. How seriously? They made flow charts about rumours.

Flow chart of rumours, 1942.

That's just one example: the Library of Congress has dozens, some quite arcane. The workers drafted – and critiqued – instructions for volunteer rumour investigators.

Instructions for rumour gatherers, 1942. The draft suggests avoiding the idea that this is a Gestapo tactic. The proofreader says, 'You can't say that in a government document!'

Here, the commentator has underlined the word 'Gestapo' and protested, 'You can't say that in a government document!'

Who Collected?

Index card with a rumour from Pittsburgh.

Care was taken to recruit the right kind of rumour gatherers:

The good rumor reporter is one who has many social contacts. He should, however, be the sort of person who, either through occupation or temperament, is on the periphery rather than in the center of the group. 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.

A look through the collection of reports suggests that barbers and beauty parlour operators turned out to be good rumour reporters, too. One beauty parlour operator in Minnesota cooperated in a one-week rumour sweep but became alarmed at the idea that her beauticians might go around boasting that they worked for the FBI. She also felt that it would be bad for business to get a reputation as a government spy. As a result, her supervisor had to write to his supervisor, requesting that the OWI not send her a thank-you note for her patriotic help.

We bet the Gestapo never sent out thank-you notes.

Some of the rumours were typed neatly on cards like the one above. Others, not so much. They were typed on sheets of paper, or handwritten. Most gave the information requested, such as the approximate age and occupation of the person who spread the rumour, along with an indication of race. There were also assessments of more subjective criteria, such as 'character' and intelligence.

Most of the rumours were of a general nature, but sometimes informants turned in reports implicating specific individuals. There's no evidence whether any of this 'information' was followed up on, but it was obviously dangerous to be a German immigrant with a suspiciously prosperous business in 1942.

The rumours were collated into categories such as 'military', 'civilian front', 'rationing', 'farmers', 'inflation', etc. One entire (and large!) category involved 'Anti-British Sentiments':

Rumour that says a soldier wrote home to say the British snubbed American soldiers.

They could get quite vituperative, these rumours.

Rumour from San Francisco that says the British won't fight.

The OWI filed this information away, no doubt with the intention of making yet another film, Reader's Digest article, or other propaganda effort to combat these counterproductive attitudes.

Involving the Students

One component of the project was seeing how the rumour mills affected students in schools and colleges. Students were encouraged to write down rumours, slogans, catchphrases (what we might call 'memes'), and jokes. The students were very informative – unless the teachers interfered. In spite of censorship for literacy and good taste, some gems do show up in the collection. The Project collected information from both white and Black schools to see what differences there were.

Drawing of a girl and soldier about to kiss, with the girl saying that she wouldn't because they are rationing 'sugar', which is Southern slang for a kiss.

In this imaginative drawing by a student from Birmingham, Alabama, a girl refuses to give a soldier a kiss because 'they are rationing sugar.' 'Give me a some sugar' is a Southern US colloquialism meaning 'give me a kiss.'

A poem about rationing and how the student hates Hitler because of it.

Rationing was an annoyance that apparently occupied the minds of students. This 'poem' expresses a student's frustration at the shortages and the student's consequent dislike of Hitler.

One group of students even made a film, illustrating the way in which rumours could have a negative impact on community. Their example was a student, innocently reading Schiller in the school library, who is mistaken for a subversive German sympathiser.

Still from a student film about rumour-mongering and prejudice.

It is to be hoped that those students took those lessons with them into the 1950s and that their views influenced the eventual downfall of Senator McCarthy.

Conclusions

In the end, this method of collecting rumours wasn't terribly productive. As one volunteer supervisor put it in a report:

I do not believe this method of collecting rumors is good for the following reasons:

1. It seems to require fairly close local checking and supervision if substantial results are to be obtained.

2. It has the tendency, I noticed, of making the participant think he is being asked to sort of spy on others.

3. The idea of choosing a few people to report rumors, if it gets about, might be distorted and give rise to the impression that the Government is using "Gestapo" methods.


– Field Represenative for Minnesota, October, 1942

Even if the OWI avoided mentioning the Gestapo, the volunteers found that the concept sprang to mind. Better to concentrate on public information campaigns, and watch out for enemy spies.

Would you like to investigate these rumours of rumours yourself? Visit the Library of Congress online. There's lots to see in the World War II Rumor Project files.


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