Stanley Johnston’s Blunder

Title:                      Stanley Johnston’s Blunder

Author:                 Elliot Carlson

Carlson, Elliot (2017). Stanley Johnston’s Blunder: The Reporter Who Spilled The Secret Behind The U.S. Victory at Midway. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press

LCCN:    2017024861

D774.M5 C284 2017


  • “Elliot Carlson tells of Stanley Johnston, a Chicago Tribune reporter who exposed a vitally important secret during World War II. After Johnston is embarked in the USS Lexington during the Battle of the Coral Sea, he is assigned to a cabin on the rescue ship Barnett where messages from Pacific Fleet commander Admiral Chester Nimitz are circulated. One reveals the order of battle of Imperial Japanese Navy forces advancing on Midway Atoll. Johnston shares this info in a 7 June 1942 Chicago Tribune front-page story. Navy officials fear the Japanese will discover the article, realize their code has been cracked, and quickly change it. Drawing on seventy-five-year-old testimony never before released, Carlson describes the grand jury room where jurors convened by the FDR administration consider charges that Johnston violated the Espionage Act. Using FBI files, U.S. Navy records, archival materials from the Chicago Tribune, and Japanese sources, Carlson at last brings to light the full story of Stanley Johnston’s trial.”–Provided by publisher.

LC Subjects

Date Posted:      December 6, 2017

Review by Thomas E. Ricks[1]

One of the most misremembered aspects of World War II is the notion that relations between the military and the news media were smooth then. People who think this usually cite the work of Ernie Pyle, who beautifully chronicled the life of the average G.I. The historical record is far different. Perhaps the biggest single intelligence leak to a reporter in American military history came in June 1942, as the journalist Elliott Carlson demonstrates in his sprightly Stanley Johnston’s Blunder.

Johnston, a correspondent for The Chicago Tribune, was a talented drifter and a bit of a scammer. He also was a relative newcomer to journalism when he lucked into being aboard a Navy ship that received a top secret transmission about the Japanese plans for the Battle of Midway. His news article about that, recklessly written and misleadingly edited, was never submitted to censorship, as was the normal practice.

Anyone reading between the lines of the article could deduce that the United States Navy had broken the Japanese Navy’s codes. President Franklin Roosevelt urged the Justice Department to prosecute the reporter and the anti-Roosevelt Tribune. But the Navy refused to discuss its code breaking with a grand jury, rightly fearing any additional publicity, and the case fizzled out. And the Japanese, arrogantly confident in the impenetrability of their codes, apparently did not notice the article and so never realized their secret dispatches were being read by the Navy.

[1] Thomas E. Ricks, the Book Review’s military history columnist, is a former war correspondent and the author of six books, most recently Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom. A version of this review appeared in print in The New York Times on November 12, 2017, on Page BR36 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Military History. Accessed at

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