When the United States entered World War II in December 1941, its enemies weren’t limited to the Axis powers of Germany, Italy and Japan. The nation also faced an adversary at home: rumors that undermined morale, sowed distrust of the U.S.’s laws and leaders, and turned Americans against each other based on racial and religious differences.

In an era before the internet, social media, artificial intelligence and ultra-partisan TV hosts, rumors could only spread the old-fashioned way, from neighbor to neighbor. Many were planted by Axis propagandists, but others appear to have originated with everyday citizens, frequently arising out of their anxieties, suspicions, prejudices or simple misunderstandings. Whatever was behind them, rumors were often detrimental to the Allies’ cause and, in the worst cases, actually deadly.

While the government’s Office of War Information waged its own fight against rumors, a grassroots movement took hold across the country to stop gossip at its source. Over the course of World War II, more than 40 newspapers and magazines in the U.S. and Canada started “rumor clinics” to debunk the lies and fight back with facts.

Taking their name from medical clinics set up to battle tuberculosis and other diseases, these clinics collected the latest war rumors from local citizens, chose the most persistent ones, and assigned professional reporters or volunteer “rumor wardens” in the community to fact-check them. The results of these investigations would appear in the publication’s rumor clinic column, often on the front page.

Many contemporary accounts credit Boston activist Frances Sweeney as the driving force behind the movement. According to an article reprinted in Reader’s Digest and read into the Congressional Record, the “blue-eyed, golden-haired Irish girl … had long been distressed by the antisemitic, anti-British and defeatist rumors current among certain sections of the Boston Irish.” In February 1942, Sweeney took her concerns to the Boston Herald newspaper, which convened a meeting of local leaders to come up with a plan.

At the urging of Harvard University psychologist Gordon W. Allport, attendees shared the rumors they had personally heard about the British ocean liner Queen Mary, which had recently made an unexpected visit to Boston Harbor. One rumor maintained that the Army had loaded the vessel—repurposed as a troop ship during the war—with Black soldiers who were being sent to Europe on a suicide mission. Another reported a mutiny on board, apparently led by those same troops. Still another claimed that no Jewish soldiers were on the ship because they had all been exempted from overseas duty. One man had heard that the Queen Mary sank off Boston, with great loss of life. (All of these tales were untrue, of course, and today the ship enjoys a peaceful retirement in Long Beach, California.)

The Queen Mary arriving in New York Harbor on June 20, 1945, with thousands of American soldiers on board
The Queen Mary arriving in New York Harbor on June 20, 1945, with thousands of American soldiers on board Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The Herald launched the first installment of its “Rumor Clinic” column in March 1942. Life magazine soon came calling, featuring the Herald and “fearless firebrand” Sweeney in an October 1942 photo essay.

Life noted a key difference between the current rumors and those that circulated during World War I: While the earlier rumors often focused on enemy atrocities, “the vast majority of hate-and-horror tales are [now] directed against the U.S. itself.”

The reason, the magazine speculated, was that “the Axis [have] been clever enough, via shortwave broadcasts and moral saboteurs, to exploit existing lines of discontent. Thus the people of the U.S. are led to a sort of psychological suicide by serving to circulate dangerous lies about U.S. Jews, U.S. Negroes, U.S. allies, U.S. leaders. No better could they aid the Nazi tactics of divide and conquer.”

Within months, rumor clinics appeared in Miami, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Atlanta and many other cities. They worked independently, each with its own set of rules. Many of the rumors they fielded were purely local, but others popped up spontaneously all over the country.

A wartime propaganda poster cautioning against "careless talk"
A wartime propaganda poster cautioning against "careless talk" Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
A wartime propaganda poster issued in 1943
A wartime propaganda poster issued in 1943 Boston Public Library via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY 2.0

Some types of gossip seemed designed to sabotage the home-front war effort. According to one such rumor, people with victory gardens were being told to destroy their extra vegetables instead of sharing them with friends and neighbors. Other reports insisted that scrap metal drives did little for the war effort, merely enriching greedy dealers who sold the donated scrap to the government at a tidy profit.

Many rumors disparaged the war bonds sold to everyday citizens to help finance the fight, claiming the government had no intention of ever paying investors back. Still others attacked civilian blood drives, falsely maintaining that the Red Cross didn’t sterilize its needles, wasted much of the blood it collected and made wounded soldiers pay for transfusions.

Certain rumors were in a class of their own: Soldiers were returning from Alaska with frozen brains. A woman’s head exploded when she went to her factory job after getting a hair perm. The West Coast was being evacuated in anticipation of a Japanese invasion. The 1944 presidential election would be called off because of the war.

Federal Bureau of Investigation Director J. Edgar Hoover and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt lauded the work of the rumor clinics—one of the few matters they agreed on. Roosevelt herself was the subject of endless rumors, the best known of which involved “Eleanor Clubs.” These rumors, which spread primarily in the American South, maintained that Black maids, cooks and other domestic workers were organizing to walk off the job at the first lady’s urging, leaving their white employers to do their own housework. The rumor gained such traction that the FBI was called on to investigate it, and the attorney general had to publicly repudiate the claim.

An August 1944 rumor clinic column published in Reno, Nevada
An August 1944 rumor clinic column published in Reno, Nevada Nevada State Journal via Newspapers.com

But not everyone was a fan of rumor clinics. Some critics faulted them for helping hearsay reach an even larger audience. In fact, the U.S. government’s anti-propaganda efforts took a different approach, releasing floods of facts while rarely mentioning the rumors they were meant to extinguish.

Of course, rumors weren’t just a problem on the home front. They could cause damage on the battle front as well. A 1943 book titled Psychology for the Fighting Man urged company commanders to form their own rumor clinics based on the Boston model: “He can encourage his men to form the habit of asking, in the words experienced American soldiers have used for many years, ‘What latrine did you hear that one in?’”

Even so, the book’s authors added, “the best way to scotch rumors is to oust them from mind. Keep your troops busy. Keep busy yourself. Since nobody can keep the great public busy, there have to be these rumor clinics and campaigns. But the right things will happen oftener if the soldier is too busy with his job for wishing, worrying and passing guesses along.”

A poster promotoing war bonds
A poster promotoing war bonds Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
A poster promoting victory gardens
A poster promoting victory gardens Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

With newspapers across the U.S. urging civilians to send in any rumors they heard, the clinics soon collected thousands of examples. That influx allowed social scientists to make a serious study of the phenomenon. The scholars, in turn, began to see patterns in the data, showing that rumors fell into distinct categories.

In the 1947 book Psychology of Rumor, Allport and co-author Leo Postman divided gossip into three major types: fear rumors; wish (or wishful-thinking) rumors; and wedge rumors intended to drive a wedge between the lie’s recipients and another group, such as Black Americans, Jews, the British, the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration and labor unions. Analyzing 1,000 rumors collected during the summer of 1942, the researchers reported that 65.9 percent fell into the wedge category, 25.4 percent into the fear category and just 2 percent into the wish category. They classified the remaining 6.7 percent as “miscellaneous.”

For a rumor to gain traction, Allport and Postman believed, it needed two things: The subject of the rumor “must have some importance to [the] speaker and listener,” and “the true facts must be shrouded in some kind of ambiguity.” Ambiguity arose, they wrote, in the absence of news, a distrust of the news or an unwillingness “to accept the facts set forth in the news.” The pair even proposed a formula, arguing that the intensity of a rumor could be determined by multiplying its importance to those involved by its ambiguity in their minds.

A wartime diagram of how rumors spread
A wartime diagram of how rumors spread Library of Congress

As to whether the clinics were effective, the researchers wrote that it was difficult to measure whether they had cut down on the spread of rumors, but they seemed to have at least made people more “rumor conscious,” conferring a certain amount of “rumor immunity” on the American public. Many citizens would now think twice before buying into a rumor or passing it on to others.

In a 1954 book, The Nature of Prejudice, Allport expanded on that theme. “It is doubtful … that the exposure of a rumor changes any deeply rooted prejudices,” he wrote. “What it does at most is to warn those of mild or negligible prejudice that wedge-driving rumors in wartime or in peacetime are not in the best interests of the nation.”

Sadly, Sweeney didn’t live to see the end of the war. She died of heart failure on June 19, 1944, at age 36.

“Warned at the start that a merciless round of speeches, committees and crusades of counter-propaganda could not be sustained by her congenitally weak heart,” wrote the Commonweal magazine in August 1944, “Frances had a ready answer: ‘Well, then, I’ll die fighting for what I believe, won’t I?’”

Rumor clinics in various forms saw an occasional resurgence in the postwar years. Beginning in the late 1940s, the Anti-Defamation League of B’Nai B’rith conducted presentations billed as rumor clinics at civic group meetings across the country, explaining how malicious gossip spread and how to combat it. During the racial tensions of the late 1960s, dozens of cities set up telephone hotlines that functioned as “rumor control centers.” Chicago’s version, known as Rumor Central, reportedly fielded more than 35,000 calls in the week following the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

An October 1942 edition of the <em>Philadelphia Inquirer</em>'s Rumor Clinic column
An October 1942 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer's Rumor Clinic column Philadelphia Inquirer via Newspapers.com

So, could rumor clinics help Americans separate fact from falsehood today? Probably not as they did 80 years ago.

For one thing, newspapers no longer play the same central role in people’s lives, notes Dannagal Goldthwaite Young, a political scientist at the University of Delaware and the author of the 2023 book Wrong: How Media, Politics and Identity Drive Our Appetite for Misinformation.

“Back then, you had really strong gatekeepers who controlled access to information,” she says. “Today, it’s much more fragmented.” (According to the Pew Research Center, only 5 percent of Americans prefer reading the news in print. At least half of the individuals polled get their news at least in part from social media.)

What’s more, Young adds, the country’s political culture has changed since World War II. “Today, we have splintered notions of reality,” she says. “Our social identities have become so tied up with our politics that people from different political parties perceive the world in entirely different ways.”

Some things never change, however, one of them being human nature. “There have always been, and will always be, people who are willing to believe things that aren’t true,” Young says. The challenge will be finding ways to keep the rumormongers of the future, whether foreign or domestic, from dividing Americans even further. As she sees it, “I don’t think the media alone can fix that.”

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