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Comparison and Contextualization

Censorship during World War I

  • Documents in this Activity:
  • Historical Eras:

    Turn of the Century and WWI (1890 - 1930)

  • Thinking Skill:

    Historical Analysis & Interpretation

  • Grade Level:

    Middle School
    High School
    College University

  • Topics:

    Civil Rights
    World War I

  • Primary Source Types:

    Written Document

  • Regions:

    New York State

  • Creator:

    NYS Archives Partnership Trust Education Team

  1. Load Letter from Hamilton Fish to His Father, April 8, 1918 in Main Image Viewer
  2. Load Letter from Hamilton Fish to His Father, April 8, 1918 in Main Image Viewer
  3. Load My File Upload - January 28, 2021 in Main Image Viewer

Suggested Teaching Instructions

Topic: Censorship in the military, World War I correspondences

 Skills: Inferencing, Perspective taking

This document shows the role of letters in communication between soldiers and civilians, the prevalence of censorship at that time, the types of information provided by wartime letters, and the attitude of soldiers.

Historical Context: Captain Hamilton Fish Jr. was a well-connected New York officer who earned his commission when he agreed to command the newly formed 369th US Infantry, the nation’s first all-Black Regiment. In his letters home to his father, Captain Fish expressed confidence and optimism in his Regiment even if the Army did not. In fact, when they arrived in France in1917, the 369th was slated to become railroad laborers. Eventually transferred to the command of the French Army, the 369th saw action with their French counterparts during the all-important defense of the Marne Salient.  From there Captain Fish and his soldiers would spend 191 days at the front, the most of any US Regiment.
              Censorship of personal correspondence was a fairly common practice in the American military since at least the Civil War. In World War One the newly created Intelligence Corps took the responsibility for the AEF, still, most mail was censored at the unit level probably by an officer or a non-commissioned officer. The purpose of censorship was to limit knowledge that might be of value to the enemy such as unit location or strength and issues that might suggest the morale of soldiers.

Essential Question: Does the military or government have the right to censor individual thoughts or ideas?

 ​​​​​​Document Analysis:

1.      Ask students to define censorship in their own words, write a working definition on board

2.      Introduce the class to the notion that the government typically limits free speech during times of war and conflict and that during WWI these freedoms were questioned in a high profile Supreme Court case involving a series of laws passed by the US Government

(Schenck v. US, The Alien Act, The Sedition Act, and The Espionage Act)

3.      Introduce the letter by having the class “source” the document by identifying who wrote it, who was it to, when was it written, where was it sent from, what was the tone, and is it primary or secondary. Discuss answers

4.      Have the class locate the parts of the letter that were censored and ask what was taken out

5.      Ask the class why the military/government would want this information left out

6.      Have the class reread the letter silently individually taking highlighting lines that indicate Captain Fish’s feelings toward the War in general and the 369th US Infantry

(For example: See the first, sixth, and seventh sentences in the 2nd paragraph)

7.      Have students work in partners to answer the questions on the handout (see attached). Have the students turn in this work when they have finished.

8.      As homework, have students independently write a short one-paragraph analysis of whether the censorship in the letter infringes on Captain Fish’s personal ideas. Discuss answers the next day.

Optional Extension Activity

The following activity could be completed in order to extend students’ thinking and encourage them to make connections:

Discuss some pros and cons of censorship. In what ways is it beneficial in keeping sensitive information secret? In what ways is it invasive? With the advent of technology, are we more or less worried about censorship?