Imagine you walk into the general store, as the postman brings Mrs. Smith a letter:
“A letter from your boy, Mrs. Smith. What’s the news from the boys at the front?” A shady fellow in the back of the store perks up his ears, listening into the latest gossip. “Oh, mostly quiet exercises. Thankfully not much action. But he says he’s looking forward to seeing the girls in Versailles once his division breaks through.” Everyone shares a good laugh and raises three cheers for the boys in arms.
One week later, Mrs. Smith receives another letter, this time from the Army, informing her that her boy died in an air attack outside Versailles.
“Rumors Cost Us Lives” was a mantra of the home front during WWII, with the suspicion that American bars and alleyways were filled with enemy agents eager to catch gossip about the soldiers and use it against them.
My grandfather’s letters home were very detailed – talking about his buddies and the ladies – while he was still in Texas training for the war. But once he got to the Pacific, he had to watch his words carefully.
Americans were accustomed to speaking freely and carelessly, and that left our soldiers vulnerable. According to the Library of Congress’ exhibit “Margaret Mead: Human Nature and the Power of Culture,” social scientists worked with the government on a campaign to promote caution in describing anything about the front. The effort produced a number of posters and films disseminated across the country.
I came across the “Rumors Cost Us Lives” poster while I was creating a new page for WWII-era cigarette packs in my cigarette collector store – check it out here – and I was absolutely blown away by the picture. The smoking man in a bowler hat is a perfect undercover agent. He’s shady inside and out, with the brim of his hat literally casting a shadow over half his face. Hand to his ear, cigarette burning down, he hears all. Who knows what he does with what he learns? A menacing newspaper clipping at the bottom reveals the outcome: the information was passed to a German U-Boat Captain who destroyed the Allied vessel and laughed as he torpedoed the survivors’ life boat!
Nowadays, with WikiLeaks and traitors like Edward Snowden, it’s a miracle our army is able to keep any secrets. Modern spies seem to hang out in chat rooms and hacker dens rather than bars and general stores. In the war against terrorism, watch what you type about our soldiers.
(For more information on this poster, see the Library of Congress Website: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/93505049/)
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