US Stamps

Postal evidence of World War II civil censorship tells interesting stories

Jul 10, 2024, 10 AM
This 1943 cover and the message inset at lower left are only part of the fascinating story of civil censorship on the home front during World War II. Censorship began within a few days after the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor.

U.S. Stamp Notes by John M. Hotchner

The censorship system during World War II was complicated. Reasons for the inability to send material abroad were numerous. Shown with this column is an interesting example recently shared by Jerry Johnson of Kennewick, Wash.

Mailed early in January 1943, this cover was “Returned to Sender by Censor” after being inspected. Curiously, the inclusion of postage stamps was the reason for its return. The censor had inserted the notice shown here inset at the lower left of the cover. The notice reads: “Postage stamps may be sent to points outside the United States only upon permit issued by the Office of Censorship. Applications for permits should be made to the Philatelic Control Unit, U.S. Postal Censorship, 244 Seventh Avenue, New York, New York.”

Censorship began within a few days after the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, as the military had been studying British practices in media censoring prior to U.S. involvement in the war. Thus, a plan was ready.

On Dec. 18, 1941, after Congress had passed a law known as the First War Powers Act (Public Law 354), President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Office of Censorship, to be run by civilians.

The Office of Censorship worked with the Post Office, War and Navy departments to establish procedures. The latter two departments were responsible for censorship within their own organizations.

There were many reasons besides containing philatelic material that a letter could be returned to the sender: It contained information of possible use to the enemy; it was to a prisoner of war from a person who appeared to be unknown to the POW; it was addressed to an enemy or enemy-occupied country; it was to a prisoner of the Japanese and not in the form specified by them; it didn’t have a return address, and many more.

Given that the Pacific Ocean was a giant war zone, and most civilian mail destined overseas went through New York, it is not a surprise that the headquarters of the Office of Censorship was located there. However, it also had stations in other major cities.

Some problematic mail cases were routinely sent to New York, and mail containing philatelic material was among them. In late 1942, a dedicated entity called the Philatelic Control Unit was established in New York. Later, the unit opened branch offices in other locations, but that had not happened when this letter was sent from San Francisco to the postmaster at “Nukua Loa, Oceanica,” today known as Nuku’alofa, Tonga, in the South Pacific.

But why ban postage stamps? The reason was financial control. Keeping in mind that postage stamps had intrinsic value, the objective was to prevent enemies of the United States from exploiting trade in postage stamps as a money substitute for contributing to funding their enemies’ war effort.

The end of WWII civil censorship came with the Aug. 15, 1945, directive from President Harry S. Truman to the director of censorship, in which he ordered that censorship of all international communications cease at once. The office was officially closed on Nov. 15, 1945.

But for the four years that civil censorship operated, a wide range of markings on both incoming and outgoing mail was created. It makes for a fascinating area of collecting and research for today’s collectors.

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