Strange tales circulated around 1940s America. There was one about a lady whose head exploded at a beauty salon after her perm ignited residue from her job at the munitions factory. Others claimed Japan was planning to spike America's water supply with arsenic, and that a Massachusetts couple reported picking up a hitchhiker who claimed Hitler was on the verge defeat, before vanishing like a ghost from the back of their car.
All of those stories were lies—but that didn't stop people from spreading the rumors. As the United States plunged into the Second World War, newspapers fought fake news amid fears of Nazi propaganda efforts.
The Rumor Clinics
About three months after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, the first rumor clinic was created in Boston on March 1, 1942, under the leadership of Harvard Professors Gordon Allport and Robert Knapp and the Eastern Psychological Association. The Boston Herald worked with the Massachusetts Committee on Public Safety's Division of Propaganda Research and a network of volunteers who hunted down rumors and their origins to dispel misinformation the publishers believed could harm the war effort, civilian defense, or the general morale of the country. 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.
The Boston Herald’s weekly rumor clinic column was duplicated across the country, with as many as 40 different newspapers running their own versions, according to a January 24, 1943 New York Times feature. At the time, there was fear that Germany’s propaganda prowess would sow dissent among the U.S. population. “The United States was convinced that the moment war broke out they would be completely bombarded by rumors planted by the Germans. In order to head off these rumors, people who wanted to defend the United States decided to track these down,” Nick Cull, a University of Southern California professor and expert in war time propaganda, tells Mental Floss.
Rumors undercut rationing and industrial war efforts, such as the rumor about a woman whose head exploded at the hair salon. Other tales re-enforced racism and other prejudices already present in the country. Some of those rumors included that Jewish people were not required to serve in the military, or that white soldiers were having Black children after receiving Red Cross blood donations from Black civilians.
“It was stories that Americans told each other,” Cull says. “The rumors were so colorful that you could never forget them once you heard them.”
Nailing a Local Lie
About three months after the first column ran, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt created the Office of War Information through executive order on June 13, 1942. As Sidney Shalett wrote in The New York Times, the OWI looked to local communities as “the best place to nail a local lie.” The OWI began working with the rumor clinics and soon found that despite the assumptions German saboteurs were wreaking havoc on America’s psyche, most of the rumors were race-based lies spread by other Americans, according to Cull.
By the end of the war, the rumor clinics started disbanding, as the OWI adopted a new strategy of spreading facts without repeating rumors. Instead of directly challenging racist rumor mongering, the OWI released materials and information promoting the idea that all Americans were in the fight together against the Axis.
According to Julie Smith, a Webster University instructor and media literacy expert, while debunking rumors can be effective, the repetition of the debunked rumors can also re-enforce them. This became a concern for the OWI, leading it to grow wary of printing rumors just for the sake of denying them. “Misinformation has been around forever," Smith says, "and we have not gotten any smarter."