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February 12, 2008 7:04 AM   Subscribe

Free Speech Doesn't Mean Careless Talk! World War II posters from the US Merchant Marine at War. More posters (Rivets are Bayonets, Drive them Home). There's lots of other cool stuff, like this brief history of privateers during the Revolutionary War.
posted by OmieWise (26 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
Were there actual instances of Loose Lips Sinking Ships or was it just paranoia? Anyone know?
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 7:09 AM on February 12, 2008


Yes! but we are not allowed to talk about it because the information remains classified.Your govt never lies.
posted by Postroad at 7:13 AM on February 12, 2008


Keep mum, chum!

Swing it, brother! (Jeez, beefcake much? I wonder how many young men drooled over those posters each night, feeling patriotic in the loins) "Merchant seamen deliver," indeed.

(fascinating link, thanks)
posted by pineapple at 7:23 AM on February 12, 2008


I can't decide if I find it encouraging or discouraging to realise that "security theater" is nothing new.
Great poster art, though.
posted by Western Infidels at 7:23 AM on February 12, 2008


I was wondering that exact same thing. I guess it matters where these posters were hung. (Also note that they are only talking about troop and equipment movements, not just general information.) Like, posters up on an army base or in the surrounding bars would make sense. Grocery stores in $RANDOM_SMALL_TOWN probably not.

It would have to be somewhere an actual spy could overhear the information. If it gets passed along multiple retellers, it would get corrupted a la Telephone. But even so, it doesn't seem too effective.

I mean, imagine a big shipment of tanks about to leave for Europe and there's a spy in town. Every person who knows directly about the shipment has to keep quiet. And their relatives can't talk about how that person is about to make a delivery or be away for a few days or has been working overtime lately. Let's say they are able to keep quiet. There's still plenty of evidence: Increased traffic, traffic at different hours, etc. Or when those people do leave town, just send a telegram ahead to tell Der Fuhrer that the tanks seem to have left, expect them soon, love and kisses.
posted by DU at 7:24 AM on February 12, 2008


DU not to mention counting troops by measuring latrines and noticing that the special forces have deployed when a certain set of bars are suddenly empty.
posted by Skorgu at 7:37 AM on February 12, 2008


These posters are great and all--but I can't help but feel that the same message was best conveyed in Cold-War era song: Careless Whisper.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 7:45 AM on February 12, 2008




Being able to accumulate evidence of a mobilization before it happens gives an enemy time to prepare and react. A real-time report of the boats sailing could be too late. Communications were much slower sixty years ago, compounded by the added time necessary for encryption and handoffs.

Unrelated: "Think--Be Fair" seems timely again.
posted by ardgedee at 7:53 AM on February 12, 2008


How long did it take warships to traverse the Atlantic? Not shorter than a few days, surely. Whereas circa WWII radio was in widespread use, which travels at c.
posted by DU at 8:08 AM on February 12, 2008


We have similar posters, updated for modern times, all over the buildings where I work. I've always like these old posters for some reason. They're comical but there are reasons for the messages.

My hometown of Kansas City has a wonderful WWI museum (Liberty Memorial) with a nice collection of old posters. Worth a visit if you're ever in the city.
posted by Qubit at 8:37 AM on February 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


Were there actual instances of Loose Lips Sinking Ships or was it just paranoia? Anyone know?

Before our entry into the war, German spies used to send convoy sail dates and other info back to Germany through the German embassy in Washington. It's one of the reasons why the merchant marine lost so many ships to the u-boats. Also, this was a huge issue in Vietnam, especially with regards to radio communications -- we had foolishly assumed that the enemy couldn't understand English or properly intercept our communications, so careless radio operators were handing the enemy troop locations, ambush/air strike sites, and other useful info throughout most of the war. A bit of circumspection would have cost us nothing, and might have saved thousands of lives.

At any rate, it's still a bad idea to talk about troop movements, unit locations, deployment/rotation dates, etc. Keeping quiet about this is part of OPSEC -- as in operations security, not "security theater". But I guess it's all just American paranoia, right?
posted by vorfeed at 8:42 AM on February 12, 2008 [3 favorites]


DU: "How long did it take warships to traverse the Atlantic? Not shorter than a few days, surely. Whereas circa WWII radio was in widespread use, which travels at c."

This is true, but radio transmitters powerful enough to broadcast intercontinentally weren't exactly common in the late 30s or early 40s, and the ones that did exist weren't very portable or subtle. Hams were operating on shortwave (although amateur radio was suspended during the war for obvious reasons), but it was still pretty new technology. (Here's a photo of a shortwave transmitter in 1927 ... hundreds of feet of antenna wire somewhere outdoors not included.)

A German spy in the U.S. might receive instructions from the Fatherland via radio, but they probably wouldn't be reporting back that way. It's just impractical.

I suspect the route for intelligence heading back the other way would be via coded cables to an intermediate country (say, Switzerland) and then from there passed or radioed out. Before the formal beginning of the war, it probably could have gone to the embassy and been encrypted and disguised with the diplomatic traffic, then passed out either by courier or cable.

All that said, cables were pretty fast -- for all practical purposes instantaneous -- so your overall point stands. I just don't think that radio would have been the easiest method at the time.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:50 AM on February 12, 2008


Common methods of data transfer in WW II were also handwriting, photography and microfilm. Transmitting pictures electronically was possible but not practical.
posted by ardgedee at 9:07 AM on February 12, 2008


Must. Have. High Resolution. Versions.
posted by mecran01 at 9:17 AM on February 12, 2008


OMG, the fourth poster in the link looks exactly like Darth Vader. I see now exactly where George Lucas got his idea from.
posted by Melismata at 9:20 AM on February 12, 2008


Like, posters up on an army base or in the surrounding bars would make sense.

Posters up on the walls of a merchant seamen's union halls or bars surrounding the piers, more likely...
posted by pax digita at 9:39 AM on February 12, 2008


mecran01-I just poked around a bit at the LOC, and there are high(er) def copies of some of them there. The WPA poster archive has some, there may be more other places. Check the source below the posters on the pages in the FPP.
posted by OmieWise at 10:16 AM on February 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


vorfeed: My crack about "security theater" wasn't intended to apply to the execution of actual military operations.

Many of these posters are clearly directed at civilians. And that is security theater. After a long shift at the tank factory, Joe Blow wasn't about to hand the Third Reich a victory by telling his bartender "Boy, we sure made a lot of tanks today!" It's not as if a spy would need to cunningly weasel information out of a dockhand to see that the fleet was setting sail.

In many cases, intentionally or not, these posters undoubtedly served the same purpose the absurd color-coded Homeland Security Advisory System serves today; to keep people scared, to keep them in line and loyal to the throne, to quash critical thought.
posted by Western Infidels at 11:25 AM on February 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


Western Infidels: "In many cases, intentionally or not, these posters undoubtedly served the same purpose the absurd color-coded Homeland Security Advisory System serves today; to keep people scared, to keep them in line and loyal to the throne, to quash critical thought."

I think this is definitely true.

However, I think you should be very careful of the road you're walking down. After all, World War II is generally considered -- by Americans, anyway -- to be a great success. The epic defeat of Fascism -- our crowning achievement; the heralding of the pax Americana; the birth of 'The Greatest Generation'...

A whole lot of people seem to think that we need to get right back to whatever we had then, and quick.

Pointing out that it was achieved by rigid press control, propaganda, widespread curtailing of civil liberties, and carefully groomed paranoia ... it starts to look like a recipe for success.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:35 PM on February 12, 2008


Kadin2048 writes "A whole lot of people seem to think that we need to get right back to whatever we had then, and quick."

Just point out that there was no internet, that church was telling them that sex is a sin and that they had to obey their parents at come back at home before midnight. Oh and homework !
posted by elpapacito at 1:05 PM on February 12, 2008


Many of these posters are clearly directed at civilians. And that is security theater.

Civilians were massively involved with the war effort in WWI and WWII. Through their roles in production and management (not to mention having relatives and friends in the army), civilian individuals often knew something about when and where men and materiel were moving. Reminding people who may know about war matters not to blab about them is security, not "security theater", especially considering that we really were losing ships because of German espionage. There were entire battles in WWII that were lost due to the enemy having advance notice; who can tell where they heard it from?

And, again, this is by no means a thing of the past. Military families, reporters, and other civilians in the know are constantly reminded NOT to give out deployment details or unit locations. For example, moderators at the various "military wife" message boards police postings for OPSEC violations. I suppose that's "security theater" as well -- we're only fighting a war in which many (if not the majority) of the casualties are caused by ambush, so what harm could loose lips cause, right?

Joe Blow wasn't about to hand the Third Reich a victory by telling his bartender "Boy, we sure made a lot of tanks today!" It's not as if a spy would need to cunningly weasel information out of a dockhand to see that the fleet was setting sail.

Obviously not. That said, the fact that a ship is setting sail is not particularly useful to a spy. A spy wants to know where to, arriving when, and carrying what, and this is exactly the sort of thing these posters were meant to remind people not to talk about. The problem is in the details, and since there's no way to know which details might aid the enemy, well...

to keep people scared, to keep them in line and loyal to the throne, to quash critical thought.

Oh, come on. In WWII we kept people in line by arresting them for sedition and/or interning their entire race. Posters with "work harder" and "don't talk about war preparations" on them don't quite compare, especially considering that the posters in the link are extremely tame by WWII propaganda standards. There isn't even a looming Hun and/or vampire Tojo... what fun is that?
posted by vorfeed at 1:10 PM on February 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I don't see the security theater angle very strongly here. That kind of compartmentalization is normal in the military; a friend of mine is on leave from Iraq. We didn't ask for details and he wouldn't have told us if we had. Since basically the entire population of the US was involved in WWII in some capacity, OPSEC had broader applicability than at more peaceful times.
posted by Skorgu at 1:46 PM on February 12, 2008


vorfeed: There were entire battles in WWII that were lost due to the enemy having advance notice; who can tell where they heard it from?
That's really the problem in a nutshell. We don't know what the enemy knew, when they knew it, or how they found it out. Consequently we have no idea how that leak could have been prevented. There's no reason to think that any particular security measure (like a few "don't blab" posters) would have made any difference at all.

The same can be said about many modern anti-terror measures, like the liquids ban on airplanes. There's no sound reason to suppose it will work, but we're doing it anyway, largely because we feel compelled to do something.
...we're only fighting a war in which many (if not the majority) of the casualties are caused by ambush, so what harm could loose lips cause, right?
Unless you know what information your enemy is acting on and how its obtaining that information, any countermeasure you come up with is going to be a stab in the dark, a guess. It may be an educated guess, but it's still just a guess. That is scary and unpleasant. It's true anyway.

Look, I'm not saying that it's a good idea to share information needlessly. I'm not saying that there is no such thing as security.

I am saying that I think it's unlikely that these posters did much good, but that they likely increased fear and anxiety in general. I see parallels between these posters and some of the "scare the citizens" measures the government is in the habit of taking today. You don't even seem to be arguing with that.
...the fact that a ship is setting sail is not particularly useful to a spy. A spy wants to know where to, arriving when, and carrying what, and this is exactly the sort of thing these posters were meant to remind people not to talk about.
Look at this.
Oh, come on. In WWII we kept people in line by arresting them for sedition and/or interning their entire race. Posters with "work harder" and "don't talk about war preparations" on them don't quite compare...
Who's comparing them? There are layers of social control, just as there are layers of security. The practice of more draconian measures doesn't make propaganda any less real.
posted by Western Infidels at 8:53 AM on February 13, 2008


That's really the problem in a nutshell. We don't know what the enemy knew, when they knew it, or how they found it out.

If you look at the link you're replying to, you'll see that we did have a decent idea of what they knew and when they knew it. With regards to this particular case, we had information from "numerous accounts of interrogated German prisoners, German captors, and French citizens who all conveyed to Canadians that the Germans had been preparing for the anticipated allied landings for weeks". Also, there are some cases in which we were able to catch spies (Lehmitz, von Rautter, and others) and find out how they knew what they knew. It turned out that some of it was gleaned from idle talk.

Look at this.

You'll note that "carrying what" is among the information the spy in that comic is sending back to Germany, along with the name of the ship and advance warning of its departure time & location. This is more than just "the fleet is setting sail". The idea here is that these seemingly innocent details get around town, even though each individual person might not have said enough to give the game away, and are enough to cause problems in aggregate.

Unless you know what information your enemy is acting on and how its obtaining that information, any countermeasure you come up with is going to be a stab in the dark, a guess.

You are neglecting the fact that the military does have plenty of data on these matters, collected over more than sixty years and five major conflicts, up to and including whatever happened in Baghdad last week. No, you can never have complete data on what the enemy does and does not know, but it's not as if enemy personnel suddenly vanish into thin air upon capture, and it's not as if we've decided that counterintelligence isn't worth our time. If anything, the US military knows more about what does and does not make good security that it ever has before, and it treats OPSEC more seriously than ever, even among civilians. IMHO, that suggests something about how much of a "shot in the dark" it isn't!

Look, I'm not saying that it's a good idea to share information needlessly. I'm not saying that there is no such thing as security.

No, you're just saying that reminding people that there's such a thing as security, and that they shouldn't share information needlessly, is actually an attempt to "keep people scared, to keep them in line and loyal to the throne, to quash critical thought". Do you also consider those "safety first" posters at construction sites to be propaganda? IMHO, they actually are, but, as in the case of posters like the ones linked above, not in the pejorative sense that you seem to be trying to imply. If warning someone of a real danger or threat to security is quashing critical thought, then so are anti-smoking campaigns, or safe-sex ones, or even anti-illiteracy posters in the school lunchroom. Where propaganda is concerned, what is being said is at least as important as how it is being said, and I think I've shown that OPSEC is something worth saying.

I am saying that I think it's unlikely that these posters did much good, but that they likely increased fear and anxiety in general. I see parallels between these posters and some of the "scare the citizens" measures the government is in the habit of taking today. You don't even seem to be arguing with that.

How am I supposed to argue with it? You think it's unlikely that these posters did much good, and likely that they made people afraid. You've backed this up with zero evidence, other than "we just can't know" and "I think so; I see parallels". I've done my best to show that we can know, in many cases, and that not spreading details about military matters serves a vital security purpose. Unlike banning liquids and making people take their shoes off at the airport, the usefulness of OPSEC is not mainly symbolic; in fact, it's so much so that posters like these were meant to remind people of its importance, because it's easily forgotten or neglected.

There are layers of social control, just as there are layers of security. The practice of more draconian measures doesn't make propaganda any less real.

Yes, there are layers of social control. My point is that you seem to be thinking that these posters were part of a much more insidious and harmful layer than they actually were. In context, I think that these are way closer to today's environmental or health messages than to the color-coded terror alert system or to airport security measures. As I said before, there were many WWII posters that were meant to spread fear and discourage critical thought; these aren't among them. Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar, and "work hard and don't spread military data" really means exactly what it says.
posted by vorfeed at 1:16 PM on February 13, 2008 [1 favorite]


Metafilter: free speech doesn't mean careless talk!
posted by telstar at 4:49 PM on February 13, 2008


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