Union soldiers in the Civil War requisitioned the local printing press after they captured the town of Bloomfield, Missouri, in November 1861 and quickly produced the first edition of a newspaper they called The Stars and Stripes. It was to be a journal for the troops by the troops, they said.
More than 150 year later, that newspaper appears to have performed another death-defying feat: surviving the Pentagon budget ax with a last-minute assist Friday from President Trump.
It’s still not a done deal, but partisans of the editorially independent military-oriented newspaper and website hope crucial funding finds its way into the spending bill compromise that Congress must pass by the end of the month to avoid a government shutdown.
Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper appeared dead set on denying Stars and Stripes its funds. He drew up plans to cease publishing Stars and Stripes on Sept. 30 and “completely dissolve” the organization by Jan. 31.
A Pentagon memo signed by Army Col. Paul Haverstick said Mr. Esper confirmed plans to end the funding after a department-wide budget review. Staffers were instructed to prepare to vacate offices and bureaus around the world by the end of the month.
But Mr. Trump, engulfed in a controversy over his relations with the military, took note of the strong backlash to the closing plans and vowed Friday that Stars and Stripes would get its money.
“The United States of America will NOT be cutting funding to [Stars and Stripes] magazine under my watch,” Mr. Trump tweeted Friday afternoon. “It will continue to be a wonderful source of information to our Great Military!”
The about-face was a response to bipartisan pushback on Capitol Hill and expressions of support from veterans who said they had relied on the newspaper’s coverage over the decades.
“Stars and Stripes is an essential part of our nation’s freedom of the press that serves the very population charged with defending that freedom,” a bipartisan group of senators said in a Sept. 2 letter to Mr. Esper, before Mr. Trump’s intervention.
“The $15.5 million currently allocated for the publication of Stars and Stripes is only a tiny fraction of your department’s annual budget and cutting it would have a significantly negative impact on military families and a negligible impact on the department’s bottom line,” the senators wrote.
Ernie Gates, ombudsman for Stars and Stripes, told The Associated Press on Friday that shutdown would represent “fatal interference and permanent censorship of a unique First Amendment organization that has served U.S. troops reliably for generations.”
Stars and Stripes’ online edition Friday carried a straight news story on the letter, along with coverage of new COVID-19 outbreaks in the ranks, the controversy of recent remarks by Mr. Trump on the military, and the easing of travel restrictions for U.S. Army personnel in Japan.
Michael Mastrangelo first came across a copy of Stars and Stripes in 1968 when he was a young Army platoon leader in Vietnam. He called it “an invaluable tool” for ordinary soldiers stationed far from home.
“When we were in places like Korea, Vietnam, Europe or wherever, it really was the only English source of information we could get,” said Mr. Mastrangelo, who retired after 30 years as a full-bird colonel.
By the time a copy of Stars and Stripes reached him in the jungle, it was usually a couple of days late.
“That didn’t make any difference. It was a source of comfort,” he said. “It got you back up to snuff with the news that was going on.”
The House version of the massive 2021 defense bill authorizes $15.6 million to keep the paper funded, but the Senate version of the bill does not. Meanwhile, Congress is working on a stopgap spending bill, which funds the Pentagon, to avoid a government shutdown by Sept. 30.
Conservative Republicans such as Sen. John Boozman of Arkansas and Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas warned that the paper may need to shut down for a lack of funding on Sept. 30 even though the defense authorization bill will authorize the money — months later.
House Democrats who support funding for Stars and Stripes mobilized Friday after reports of its proposed demise.
“I read it on active duty when I served in Guam, and it is something that is improving the quality of life for military families and military personnel, and I cannot understand why we would get rid of Stars and Stripes,” Rep. Ted Lieu, California Democrat and Air Force veteran, told reporters on a press call Friday afternoon.
Stars and Stripes has published continuously since World War II. Its alumni include major names in journalism such as two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Bill Mauldin, CBS “60 Minutes” commentator Andy Rooney and Gustav Hasford, whose Vietnam novel “The Short-Timers” was adapted into the 1987 feature film “Full Metal Jacket” by Stanley Kubrick.
Stars and Stripes has sustained a decline in readership that has affected most other newspapers across the country.
S.D. Panter of Texas, who spent more than a decade in the Marine Corps, said the paper was mostly for “the old guys” and that younger recruits used Facebook and social media to stay current.
“If it’s not on TikTok or SnapChat, you might as well forget about it,” Mr. Panter said.