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Brian McCall
History/political science teacher
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Lesson Plans

Wartime, Censorship and American Democracy

Wartime, Censorship and American Democracy

Brian McCall of Interlochen Arts Academy in Interlochen, Mich.

Brian D. McCall
Interlochen Arts Academy
Interlochen, Mich.

Title: Wartime, Censorship and American Democracy

Description of School and Students

Interlochen Arts Academy is a private boarding high school for students interested in pursuing a career in the performing arts. The school is located near Traverse City, Mich. Student enrollment is approximately 450 with a full time arts and academic faculty of over 300.

Interlochen has a diverse student population from all over the United States and the world, with over 50 international students admitted every year from about 25 countries. Michigan provides the largest cohort of students, with 116 admitted in 2001-02. While most of our students tend to come from upper middle class backgrounds, many have overcome large obstacles to make it into Interlochen, as over 70 percent of students receive some level of financial aid and scholarships.


This unit is designed for the American political process course, a semester long political science offering which meets the state of Michigan’s graduation requirements for American government courses.

  • Social Studies Content Strand I. Historical Perspective
    Students use knowledge of the past to construct meaningful understanding of our diverse cultural heritage and to inform their civic judgements
    • Standard I.3: Analyzing and Interpreting the Past: All students will reconstruct the past by comparing interpretations written by others from a variety of perspectives and creating narratives from evidence.
    • Standard I.4: Judging Decisions from the Past: All Students will evaluate key decisions made at critical turning points in history by assessing their implications and long term consequences.
  • Social Studies Content Strand III. Civic Perspective
    Students will use knowledge of American government and politics to make informed decisions about governing their communities.
    • Standard 111.3: Democracy in Action: All students will describe the political and legal processes created to make decisions, seek consensus, and resolve conflicts in a free society.
    • Standard 111.5: American Government and World Affairs: All students will understand how the world is organized politically, the formation of American foreign policy, and the roles the United States plays in the international arena.
  • Social Studies Content Strand VI. Public Discourse and Decision Making
    Students will analyze public issues and construct and express thoughtful positions on these issues.
    • Standard VI. 1: Identifying and Analyzing Issues: All students will state an issue clearly as a question of public policy, trace the origins of the issue, analyze various perspectives peoples bring to the issue, and evaluate possible ways to resolve the issue.
    • Standard VI.2 Group Discussion: All students will engage their peers in constructive conversation about matters of public concern by clarifying issues, considering opposing views, applying democratic values, anticipating consequences, and working towards making decisions.
    • Standard VI.3: Persuasive Writing: All students will compose coherent written essays that express a position on a public issue and justify the position with reasoned arguments.

Generative Topics

  • Censorship during wartime
  • Informed public
  • Morale during wartime

Generative Objects

  • Photograph of Coventry, England, after the night bombing raid of Nov. 14, 1940
  • Photograph of the R.M.S. Lancastria
  • Photograph of the S.S. Leopoldville
  • Photograph of Slapton Sands Beach in Devon, England
  • World War II Western Union telegraph with “Missing in Action” message (name and address deleted)
  • Photograph of the World Trade Center burning on Sept. 11, 2001

Understanding Goals

  • Essential Questions
    • What role should the press play during times of war?
    • How much information about war should the military provide to citizens of a democracy?
    • Is the bitter truth more beneficial to morale in wartime or should news of disasters be censored to keep public support for war high?
  • Critical Engagement Questions
    • How can citizens of a democracy monitor their nation’s conduct of war without accurate information?
    • Is freedom of the press an asset or a hindrance for a democracy in the midst of war?
    • How well do citizens of a democracy handle the grim reality of war and its horrors?

Performances of Understanding, Rationale and Timeline

This lesson is designed to focus on three tragic incidents of World War II that were so devastating in their impact that the Allied commanders and the civilian leadership decided to keep them secret from their citizens for fear of hurting morale. Students will then compare and contrast the World War Il events with the current war on terrorism and amount of public information available to citizens. While strict censorship and misinformation are standard practices for dictatorship, can such measures be justified by democratic states, even in the heat of battle? Students will work to identify the major questions surrounding these events and analyze the rationales for either informing the public or using secrecy as a means to prevent a collapse of support.


Activity 1

  • The instructor will introduce the problems of censorship, democracy and a free press with a brief lecture on codes and code breaking during the World War II. This war within the war had profound impact on how the Allies were able to stop the Axis military machine and then turn the tide towards victory. Without secrecy and security, the Allies’ efforts to break the Axis codes and protect their own communications would have been exposed, drastically altering the course of the war.
  • The questions to be addressed during this lecture will include the following:
    • How much should the public be told about their nation’s defenses
    • How should the press during times of war approach stories which contradict the official version released by the government
    • How much trust should citizens in a democracy at war place with their leadership.
  • Assign students to research two separate 1940 events of World War II following this lecture.
    • British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s decision to keep secret the sinking of the RMS Lancastria
    • “Ultra” information that warned of a major air raid on Coventry.
  • Students will divide into two groups and use the Internet and text-based sources to complete this brief project for discussion the following class period.
  • Each group will chose a spokesperson to present their findings in class.

Activity 2

  • The instructor will begin the session by having both groups briefly present their research to the class as a whole.
  • The instructor will then lead a class discussion on the moral and military issues surrounding Churchill’s decision to keep news of these events from the British public.
    • What were the critical differences between the two disasters?
    • Are citizens of a democracy “too soft” to be informed of bad tidings?
    • Does the morale of a people falter in the wake of disaster during wartime?
    • Without the truth, how can citizens trust their leaders to make the right decisions?
    • What impact on confidence is the result if the real story somehow leaks out to the public by way of the press or the enemy?

Activity 3

  • The instructor will begin the session with a brief lecture on the Normandy invasion of Europe on June 6, 1944.
    • The secrecy surrounding the buildup and preparations to the invasion was unprecedented, as the Allies tried to deceive the Germans as to where and when the landing would be made.
    • On April 28, 1944, during the run up to the invasion, a training exercise named Operation Tiger went terribly wrong when German torpedo boats attacked a convoy, resulting in the deaths of over 900 American soldiers and sailors.
    • News of this disaster was kept secret from the public and the Germans.
  • After the lecture, students will be assigned readings detailing the story of Slapton Sands and break into their small groups to further research the event and the decision to keep it top secret.
    • One group will take the role of the military commanders to understand why they believed it was crucial to maintain silence.
    • The second group will assume the role of the family members who were not told the whole truth about the fate of their loved ones.

Activity 4

  • The instructor will begin the session with the reports of both groups and then lead a discussion about military secrecy vs. the right of families to know what really happened.
    • Should the military be more forthcoming after the fact with news of mistakes and blunders, or should national security trump all other factors, including the right of the public to know the facts and families to have closure?
  • At the close of this discussion, students will be assigned readings about the sinking of the SS Leopoldville, which went down off the French coast on Christmas Eve 1944, drowning over 800 American troops. Most of these men needlessly died due to blunders and misconduct on the part of those who should have come to their aid.
  • The instructor will briefly introduce this story before the students break into their groups.

Activity 5

  • The students will watch The History Channel’s presentation of “Cover Up: The Sinking of the SS Leopoldville” (50 Minutes).
  • The instructor will then introduce the writing assignment that concludes this unit.


  • Students will write an essay that analyzes all of the events covered during the previous class sessions.
  • Each essay will evaluate the decision to keep news of military disasters secret and the role of the media in keeping the citizens of a democracy informed of their government’s conduct of war, addressing the specific essential and critical engagement questions listed at the beginning of this unit.
  • Students will conclude with a discussion of how the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the ongoing war on terrorism, and the imminent war in Iraq will change the relationship between the public, press and the government in terms of access to news during wartime.
    • Citizens are charged with ruling themselves in a democracy, but in order to accomplish this duty, they must have information in order to monitor those who lead. How should military objectives and the public’s right to know be balanced?


  • Photographs from various textbooks, newspapers and magazines concerning World War II history
  • Neal Hickey, “Access Denied: Pentagon’s War Reporting Rules are Toughest Ever”, CJR, Jan/Feb 2002
  • www.bbc.com , “Lancastria: The Secret Disaster”, 6/1/00
  • www.historychannel.com, “History Undercover: Cover Up: The Sinking of the SS Leopoldville” story and video
  • Hoyt, Edwin P., "The Invasion Before Normandy the Secret Battle of Slapton Sands" (Lanham, Md.: Scarborough House, 1999).
  • Longmate, Norman, "Air Raid The Bombing of Coventry, 1940" (London: Hutchinson, 1976).
  • Small, Ken, "The Forgotten Dead Why 946 American Servicemen Died off the Coast of Devon in 1944, And the Man Who Discovered Their True Story" (London: Bloomsbury, 1993).
  • www.winstonchurchill.org, “Winston Churchill and the Bombing of Coventry”, Peter McIver, FH 41, (Autumn, 1981)

Brian McCall’s lesson plan, “Wartime, Censorship and American Democracy ” was published in The Media and Democracy Curriculum Compendium 2002, Barrett and Greyser editors, published by Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., p. 271

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