The Rumour Watchers (Part 1 of 2)

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 was far more than "a date that will live on in infamy."   While the American people were well aware of the massive war that was raging across much of the world, isolationists remained determined to keep the United States from getting involved.  

Though the U.S. government had been slowly building support for entering the war, public mistrust meant that even the  attack on Pearl Harbor would not be enough to overcome resistance.  In the months leading up to the attack, government mishandling of public information on the war (much of which had been censored due to security concerns) meant that the American public continued to be suspicious about what they were (and weren't) being told.

Even after the attack on Pearl Harbor, government delays in providing details about the number of dead and how the United States would respond led to a wide variety of rumours.    Much like the aftermath of 9/11, public confidence in government press statements dropped to an all-time low.   That the governnment waited weeks before releasing an official statement on Pearl Harbor hardly helped matters.

Rumors continued to fly and government warnings about avoiding "loose talk" did nothing to help.   It was about this time that the concept of "rumor clinics" first began to be floated.   While rumors in wartime are often unavoidable due to news blackouts, the role that rumor played in other countries affected by the war was getting serious attention.   In many places, spreading rumors had become a criminal offense, especially political rumors (this was pre-social media).  But what if the government actively monitored rumors to prevent "sensitive information" from being leaked and control misinformaton from getting out?   

And the U.S. government took the control of information very seriously.  On June 13, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order creating the Office of War Information (OWI).   Designed to consolidate several existing government information agencies (including the Office of Facts and Figures),  the OWI was placed in charge of delivering war propaganda, both domestically and internatioally.   Though the move was controversial considering that the American public was already suspicious of what the government was telling them, creating a central source of wartime information made sense from a military standpoint.  

Along with other OWI operations, including patriotic radio broadcasts and Voice of America,  the OWI implemented what would be known as the Rumor Project.   First proposed in January of 1942 due to  the possibility that Axis-inspired rumors might undermine the war effort, the Project was intended as a way of educating the American people on how to identify and analyse rumors.  After launching a formal study of existing rumours, the agencies in charge of the Project would examine how they were spread in foreign media and in the United States.  

The most radical proposal however involved the creation of "rumor clinics" established in colleges and universities across the United States.  In the proposal, rumor clinics were defined as "a specialized group of volunteer professors and advanced students, prepared by a short intensive course on psychological warfare under the supervision of the Civilian Morale Service to collect, analyze, and route to the Office of Education significant rumors current in the clinic’s area."

Not only were the clinics intended to research rumors but also to provide "counseling" and ensure that accurate information would be released.   Eight potential clinics had already been identified and another twenty were planned.   Much of the work in maintaining the rumor clinics would be done by social psychologists as part of a collaboration with the U.S. government.   It was the prominent role of social scientists in a wartime project that would be the sticking  point for many Washington bureaucrats, however.

Except for pioneering work by Kurt Lewin and Gordon Alport, social psychology was largely non-existent prior to World War II.   Still, with America's entry into the war, social psychologists were suddenly in demand.    With projects looking at leadership, public opinion, morale, and the highly-secret field of psychological warfare,  the U.S. government became the primary employer of social psychologists, both in Washington, D.C. and around the country.

It was hardly an ideal collaboration though.   Along with government micromanagement and problems with bureacracy, many psychologists who had previously only worked in academia were less than thrillled at the problems involved with getting funding.  Many initiatives never got past the proposal stage due to boundary disputes between different departments and misunderstandings over how psychology worked.  Others were flatly dismissed as impractical because of resistance to new ideas.   

As for the proposal that led to the establishment of the first Rumor Clinics,  getting approval was a fairly involved process until it reached the desk of the then-Commissioner of Education who offered his support.   There were still some reservations over how social scientists would be used but the Rumor Project was finally underway.  A letter sent to college presidents across the country asked for their support in setting up rumour clinics. 

The plan, as specified in the letter, was ambitious enough.   The rumor clinic would be headed by a professor of psychology or sociology chosen by the college president.   Once appointed, the professor would then recruit thirty other professors or graduate students willing to volunteer at least two hours a week to the clinic.   After a two-week specialized training course in psychological warfare,  the participants passing the course (who also had to show "demonstrated loyalty to American institutions") would then establish the clinic.    After the Rumor Clinic was formally granted official status, it would  then be run according to a special syllabus developed for the U.S. government.   Following the syllabus, all rumors coming to the clinic's attention would be evaluated and classified depending on whether the rumor should be passed on to Washington or dealt with at the local level.

Unfortunately, government bureacrats became apprehensive about the level of autonomy being granted to each clinic.  The lack of any kind of centralized control and the possibility that sensitive information might be released to the public by social scientists without proper government clearance was a sore subject for all branches of the government.  Despite calls to restrict social scientists to collecting data exclusively, plans to set up the first Rumor Clinic were already underway at Harvard University.   The psychologist who was placed in charge of the proposed clinic, psychologist Robert Knapp was a former student of Gordon Alport and an early researcher in the psychology of rumor.

The government now found itself in an awkward position since Knapp's clinic was ready to begin operation and other groups in Boston and North Carolina were preparing to launch clinics of their own.   While government agencies were considering scrapping the Rumor Project completely, that still meant that the Rumor Clinics would be operating independently without any government oversight at all.   Eventually, the Office of War Information scrapped the idea of rumor clinics completely and ordered all rumor analysis to be carried out by government agencies.

Except of course, for the fact that Rumor Clinics were already up and running and quickly spread to campuses across the United States and Canda.   The most successful of these rumor clinics would be the one at Harvard University under the direction of Gordon Alport and Robert Knapp.    While Allport continued his own research on rumour and civilian morale, the Boston Rumour Clinic was largely run by Knapp in collaboration with the Boston Herald.  It would quickly become one of the most copied clinics of its kind in North America.  

To be continued



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