Fog of War: Canada's Media Censorship in World War II

The first casualty of war is the truth, or so goes the saying. But what about the Second World War, where 1.1 million Canadians were in uniform and almost no sector of society was untouched by the war effort? In a war against Hitler’s evil regime, did Canadians need to be protected from enemy propaganda or morale-damaging news? Without a doubt, according to Mark Bourrie’s The Fog of War. While this new offering found its birth as a University of Ottawa Ph.D. dissertation, Bourrie is an experienced journalist who has published nine other books and countless articles in newspapers and magazines. He knows how to tell a good story, and this book is far removed from the usually arcane dissertations of academia.

Throughout Canada’s war that raged from 1939 to 1945, there was a tension between the media aching to expose a good story and the need for secrecy to avoid abetting the enemy, either through the sharing of vital information or by dampening Canadian morale. Most journalists understood that reporting on the departure times of troop ships or highlighting despair over casualties was crossing the line, but there was a broad grey area where the media was forced to police itself.

There were also the official English and French censors, who had varying degrees of success in watering down stories, softening messages, and acting as a liaison with a military that often sought to clamp down on all journalists. However, the tight control of press stories often created a vacuum, such as with the sinking of merchant ships in the St. Lawrence in 1942, which then led to wild and dangerous rumours that were even harder to suppress.

Quebec papers were especially reluctant to follow Ottawa’s guidelines, with Le Devoir printing pro-fascist and anti-war articles, and even a shocking series of letters early in the war by none other than German dictator Adolf Hitler. “This news that Canada declares war on me has caused me great sorrow,” someone at Le Devoir wrote maliciously under Hitler’s name. “What in the world has urged the government of His Very Canadian Majesty to declare war on me?”

This was more than rubbish; it was dangerous. But even as the censors recommended imprisonment and even closing down the paper, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King and his powerful French-Canadian ministers balked at the potential political backlash. Nothing was done.

There were other questionable cover-ups, especially the muzzling of the press and political opponents by the King government over the Hong Kong Royal Commission, which was a farce that protected the government from blame in sending Canadian soldiers to that doomed outpost.

Despite the censorship, the journalists usually found a way to get the story out, and in Canada — a democratic nation fighting in a war for liberal rights — freedom of speech was fiercely guarded.

Specialists in media and the Second World War will benefit greatly from this book, but more general readers may have to fill in some of the war narrative with other sources, since many of the chapters are based on case studies. That said, Bourrie writes well and has researched deeply; he has filled many holes in the nation’s wartime history and has given us a new perspective on “all the news that’s fit to print,” as well as on that which was censored, killed, or distorted in the name of victory.

— Tim Cook (Read bio)


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