| Jr. Feature |


Busting rumors during World War ll

Rumors take on a life of their own. One person’s rumor quickly becomes another person’s reality. Spreading rumors is never a good idea. But sometimes rumors can be downright dangerous  especially during wartime.

During World War II, some concerned citizens decided to put an end to rumors once and for all. And so, they established the “Rumor Clinic.”

Tall Tales

Boston, 1942

The newsroom at the Boston Herald is a bustling hive of activity. The clickety-clack of typewriters sets a steady background rhythm as reporters mill about exchanging opinions or chasing down leads on their rotary desk phones. In one of the offices that line the room, an editor and a reporter are having an important conversation.

“What have you got?” asks the editor.

The reporter glances down at his notes. “Atabrine is causing serious health issues among GIs,” he reports. (During World War II, US soldiers were nicknamed “GIs.”)

“Atabrine?!” The editor is clearly shocked. “The anti-malaria drug?”

The reporter nods. “There’s no evidence to support this rumor, but the soldiers are scared. They’re refusing to take the medication. Our army is at risk!”

The editor sighs. “Sounds like Japanese propaganda to me. Leave it with me. I’ll get to the bottom of this.”

This conversation sure sounds bizarre, don’t you think? But this was a typical day at the Boston Herald Rumor Clinic during World War II, where rumors were the topic of the day.

Rumor Mills

During World War II, rumors flourished. These weren’t the yenta kind of rumors, like, Did you hear that so-and-so is getting engaged? The wartime rumors were way more depressing — so depressing that they threatened to lower the morale of civilians, and worse still, the military.

Morale is how people feel — their level of spirit and confidence. Why is morale so important during war? Imagine a game of soccer where there are two teams playing and lots of fans watching from the stands. One team is hyped up, full of energy and confidence, and their fans are super excited and yelling words of encouragement. The other team is one big group of nebs, with a defeatist attitude and fans to match. Which team do you think is going to win? Probably the confident team who have healthy egos and supportive fans. That’s because they have high morale. The nebby team has low morale — no way are we ever gonna win — and so they are much more likely to fail.

In war, morale is obviously much more important than in a soccer game. Lives are at stake! If civilians back home are not confident that their country will win the war, that defeatist attitude will filter all the way through to the troops on the battlefield, who won’t feel encouraged to give it their best shot.

After America joined the war in December 1941, her enemies knew that they had to do everything they could to lower the country’s morale. And so, they created rumors that quickly spread like wildfire.

For example:

“No US Navy vessels survived Pearl Harbor.”

“A bomb containing bubonic plague germs was dropped over Oregon.”

These tidbits of information might sound ridiculous now, but in the thick of war, they scared the Americans.

Fighting Malaria

What was more dangerous than an enemy’s bullet during World War II? Almost 300,000 US soldiers were killed in combat during the war, but US commanders actually thought that mosquitoes were more deadly than a bullet. Mosquitoes spread malaria, a disease that causes high fever, chills, and flu-like symptoms, and can sometimes be fatal. A soldier who is shaking with 106oF fever isn’t going to perform well on the battlefield.

During World War II, US soldiers fighting in the Mediterranean and the Pacific Theatres (a series of battles in the region of the Pacific Ocean) were at risk for malaria. The army provided an anti-malaria medicine — Atabrine — as part of the soldiers’ rations, and soldiers were required to take it. But due to false rumors spread by the Japanese, many soldiers refused to take the medicine.

Fact or Fiction

In January 1942, just weeks after America entered the war, rumors were already causing a headache for the US government. The rumors had to go, but how to get rid of them?

Someone came up with the novel idea of a “Rumor Clinic.” Rumors would be traced to the source and then publicly refuted. There would be Rumor Clinics in universities across the country, led by volunteer professors and students who would research every damaging rumor they came across. Eight potential clinics were originally suggested, and one of them was to be run by Boston-based psychologist Robert H. Knapp.

As with many projects that are connected to the government, the official Rumor Clinics never got off the ground. There was too much red tape and too many regulations involved. But in the meantime, some concerned citizens decided to launch Rumor Clinics of their own.

Robert Knapp teamed up with the Boston Herald and created the “The Rumor Clinic” on March 1, 1942. This wasn’t a doctor’s office where people could come with their sob stories. It was actually a newspaper column that was published in the Boston Herald every Sunday. Each week, the newspaper refuted a common rumor — like this:

Rumor: “Soldiers are being charged exorbitant prices in Army canteens for cigarettes and beer, etc.”

FACT: Army Public Relations says, “False! Post exchanges are operated to the benefit of the soldiers. Soldiers are able to purchase commodities at the exchanges at GREATLY REDUCED RATES!”

But how did the clinic get hold of these rumors in the first place?

There were 300 “morale wardens” stationed across Boston, whose job it was to collect rumors. Yes, that’s how seriously the folks at the Boston Herald were taking this issue.

The morale wardens were dentists, hairdressers, shopkeepers, librarians, cops — anyone in a position to hear tongues wagging. The Rumor Clinic recruited these people to remember the rumors they heard during the day and to report them to a Boston Herald reporter at night. Then the people at the Rumor Clinic got to work, sifting through the most common rumors and doing everything they could to separate fact from fiction. A council that included the Boston police commissioner, the state’s attorney general, representatives of local unions, and the chamber of commerce vetted each edition of the column.

At the end of each column, readers were encouraged to send in any rumors they may have heard. The column was so popular and deemed so important that it was widely circulated. The column was cut out and posted on bulletin boards at factories; it was attached to pay stubs — anywhere it was likely to be seen and read.

War Effort

Boston Herald’s Rumor Clinic was very popular. Other newspapers wrote about the effort to clamp down on rumors:

Send in your rumors! What wild, damaging, morale-eroding stories similar to those described in this article are current in your community? Readers who wish to help the Boston Rumor Clinic, and further the organization of similar clinics throughout the country, are urged to put such stories in writing and send them to Robert H. Knapp.

Soon, volunteer Rumor Clinics were cropping up all over the country, operated by women’s groups, students, social scientists, and university clubs. At one time, there were more than a dozen Rumor Clinics in cities like San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Syracuse, and as many as 40 newspapers across the country published rumor clinic columns of their own. People were thrilled to have a worthy cause they could get involved in.

On June 13, 1942, President Roosevelt signed an executive order creating the Office of Wartime Information (OWI). The OWI was meant to oversee and disseminate wartime information in the USA. The Rumor Clinic became official.

The OWI printed a series of posters designed to educate the public about the dangers of spreading rumors:

“No Room for Rumors.”

“A rumor, like the seeds we sow, will grow and grow and grow. Don’t be a blabbermouth. Keep your eyes open and your mouth shut.”

The Fake News Town

If you thought that the whole “rumor” concept in World War II sounds a lot like “fake news” in modern times, then you’d be right! But if you think that Donald Trump coined the term “fake news” (as he has claimed), then you’d be believing some fake news. Hillary Clinton used the term in a speech in December 2016, while Donald Trump first publicly used it a month later. But this doesn’t mean that Hillary Clinton coined the phrase. Fake news has been around forever.

Donald Trump loudly declares that fake news is everywhere, and he may have a point.

During the 2016 presidential election, American media editor Craig Silverman made a shocking discovery. In the small town of Veles in North Macedonia (bordering Greece and Albania), a group of tech geeks had created a thriving fake news industry. Young writers who were fluent in English were being paid to write news stories and post them on American news sites. But these “news stories” were completely false. Even worse, the stories were clearly designed to create division and strife among Americans.

Each day, the writers would receive an email from a man named “Marco,” with a spreadsheet. The spreadsheet would contain eight stories and eight deadlines. The writers had to write and publish each story in time for each deadline. Now, the stories were real events that were based in the US, which is thousands of miles away from North Macedonia. The writers’ job was to copy parts of real news reports on these stories and embellish them with false facts to give a skewed version of events. They were told to choose random images to accompany the articles and write catchy headlines that would draw in readers. The fake news stories were then posted on fake — but very real-looking — news sites for anyone to read. You’d be surprised by how many people were, and still are, fooled.

Since Craig Silverman exposed the Macedonian scheme, teenagers from Veles have come forward claiming to have earned thousands of dollars a day writing and publishing their fake news articles. Which led people to ask: Who is behind the fake news? Who is Marco? Who is Marco working for? Why do they want to sow fear and strife in America?

Will we ever know for sure?

Help or Hindrance

For a while, the OWI worked together with the various Rumor Clinics. But eventually, officials realized that they didn’t like the idea of social scientists like Robert Knapp having so much influence over wartime information. By October 1942, the OWI was trying to limit the reach of the Rumor Clinics by discrediting their work however they could and making it difficult for them to operate.

The OWI issued official guidelines for how the Rumor Clinics should be run. It was a time-consuming process to get a new Rumor Clinic approved. Once approved, the Rumor Clinic had to follow what became known as the “rumor bible” — basically a set of laws that were almost impossible to follow. The rumor bible required each clinic to have a project director, research director, educational director, field reporters, general advisory council, and so on. Local clinics simply did not have the time or resources to meet these requirements — which is exactly what the OWI was hoping for.

But the OWI didn’t stop there. The office published negative articles about the clinics. The articles criticized the way that Robert Knapp and the Boston Herald researched their rumors, claiming that they made mistakes. In 1943, the OWI wrote an article in the New York Times that said that the Rumor Clinics did more harm than good.

Could it be that trying so hard to disprove a rumor actually made people believe the rumor to be true? That’s what the OWI argued. They became wary of printing rumors just for the sake of denying them.

By the time the war came to an end, the Rumor Clinics had all been disbanded. But until today, experts can’t agree on whether the strategy of disproving rumors was a help or a hindrance.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha Jr., Issue 912)

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