Psychological Warfare

This is the planned use of propaganda to influence enemy audiences in times of war. In 1950 one official document defined psychological warfare as consisting of “activities, other than physical combat, which communicate ideas and information intended to affect the minds, emotions, and actions of the enemy, for the purpose of disrupting his morale and his will to fight.” The British government, which conceptually pioneered modern psychological warfare in World War I, divided its Ministry of Information (MoI) into departments of home, allied, neutral, and enemy propaganda. Psychological warfare can be distinguished from other forms of external propaganda in that it is directed at an “enemy” rather than peoples of neutral or friendly nations. Sometimes known as combat propaganda, psychological warfare has gradually come to have wider applications at the strategic and political levels, no longer being confined to formal war situations, which is why psychological operations (psy-ops) is now the preferred term. Like propaganda in general, psychological warfare can assume black, white, and gray forms. Psychological warfare has become a characteristic of conflict in the twentieth century, figuring not only in both world wars but also in the ideological “peacetime” warfare that culminated in the Cold War. It has also played a role in endemic smaller wars, including Korea, Vietnam, and the Gulf War, as well as counterin-surgency conflicts in Kenya and Malaya.

German soldiers surrender in Brittany, France, in 1944, carrying the "safe conduct" passes dropped in an Allied psychological warfare campaign.

German soldiers surrender in Brittany, France, in 1944, carrying the “safe conduct” passes dropped in an Allied psychological warfare campaign.

Sun Tzu (active ca. 500-350 B.C.E.), an ancient Chinese thinker on the art of war, wrote that “to subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.” Preliterate ages used frightening sounds, scary images, and rumors spread by word of mouth to weaken the enemy’s morale. During the American Revolution, American forces encouraged British troops to desert by wrapping such messages around stones and throwing them behind the British lines. Printed leaflets aimed at Hessian mercenaries proved particularly effective and may have accounted for the high level of desertion among these sol-diers—by some estimates five or six thousand of the thirty-thousand-strong force. The modern period can be said to have begun with the dropping of millions of leaflets by balloon and aircraft over enemy lines during World War I. This “paper war” was designed to undermine the will of the enemy to continue the fight, to sow doubts about his government’s aims and honesty, sap his morale, and ultimately to induce desertion, defection, and even insurrection. Pioneered by the British, who referred to it generically as political warfare, the U.S. Army used the term “psychologic warfare” after joining the war in 1917. Britain’s campaign was at first conducted by the War Office and its branch MI 7, reaching its climax in 1918 when Lord Northcliffe (1865-1922) was appointed to head the department of propaganda in enemy countries, with headquarters at Crewe House. The British and their allies principally used leaflets, pamphlets, and trench newspapers written in all the enemy languages to play up ethnic and political differences. After the Bolshevik takeover, the Russians concentrated on exploiting social discontent. The principal psychological warfare campaigns during World War I included: Britain, France, and Italy against Austria-Hungary, Germany, and Bulgaria; Germany and Austria-Hungary against Italy; and Soviet Russia against both of the Central Powers.

At the conclusion of the war both victors and losers made extensive claims for the effectiveness of psychological warfare. In 1 91 9 the Times of London concluded that “good propaganda probably saved a year of war, and this meant the saving of thousands of millions in money and probably at least a million lives.” General Erich von Ludendorff (1865-1937), the German chief of staff, claimed that “we were hypnotized by the enemy’s propaganda as a rabbit is by a snake.” General Hindenburg (1847-1934), German commander in chief, wrote that “besides bombs which kill the body, his [i.e., the enemy's] airmen throw down leaflets which are intended to kill the soul . . . Unsuspectingly many thousands consume the poison.” Both men claimed that psychological warfare was a principal factor contributing to the final collapse of Germany in November 1918, a conclusion with which Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) agreed in Mein Kampf (1925). Of course, they each had good reasons for blaming the defeat of Germany on causes other than either the military conduct of the war or the fighting abilities of German soldiers.

In 1920 some military historians were predicting that in the future physical combat would be “replaced by a purely psychological warfare, wherein weapons are not used or battlefields sought.” A new factor after 1918 was the emergence of Soviet Russia, followed by Fascist Italy and then Germany. The commencement of ideological warfare, which lasted until 1989, made psychological warfare a permanent feature of international relations; it was often conducted by newly emerging secret intelligence services. The British called it “that aspect of intelligence in which information is used aggressively to manipulate opinion or to create special conditions by purely intellectual means.” The Germans preferred the term “Geistige Kriegs-fuhrung” (intellectual warfare).

During World War II, the British government continued to use the term “political warfare”—based on its Political Warfare Executive (PWE)—until the Americans joined in after 1941, when the term “psychological warfare” replaced it. Allied Psychological Warfare branches were established in the various theaters of action. The largest of these was set up in North Africa in November 1942. As part of the preparations for the invasion of Europe, a Psychological Warfare Division was established at Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces (PWD/ SHAEF). Although this suggested greater inter-Allied cooperation than was, in fact, the case, the British and Americans were united in their overall approach to psychological warfare, which was based on a distinction between “white” propaganda, which manifestly emanates from the government, and “black” propaganda, which appears to emanate from somewhere else. In white propaganda—best exemplified in the BBC’s broadcasts to occupied Europe as well as Germany and her al-lies—the approach was “propaganda with truth.” Hugh Carleton Greene (1910-1987) of the BBC defined it as “to tell the truth within the limits of the information at our disposal and to tell it consistently and frankly … It is a strategic weapon and must not deviate from the truth for tactical reasons.” The emphasis on truth and credibility was shared by Richard Crossman (19071974), the assistant chief of PWD/SHAEF, who gained the reputation of a “propaganda genius” thanks to his almost clairvoyant ability to transport himself into the mind of the enemy. He later served as a Labour M.P. and cabinet minister.

A group of fictitious radio stations— which gave the impression in their broadcasts of conversations between underground cells of disaffected German soldiers but were, in fact, put out by a secret transmitter in Britain whose code name was Aspidistra—constituted the principal black propaganda technique employed by the Allies, reinforced by secret agents disseminating false rumors. Since it was purportedly coming from within occupied Europe, black propaganda did not have to worry about lies or false promises. For example, following the Casablanca Conference of 1943, Allied policy was one of unconditional surrender, which implied that negotiation would not be possible even if the German people rose up against their Nazi rulers. Black propagandists, on the other hand, could suggest that if “we” get rid of “Hitler’s gang,” then “our” situation might well improve.

Most post-1945 studies of psychological warfare assumed that it was both a necessary and legitimate response to the growing political, military, and ideological threat posed by international communism. Following North Korea’s invasion of South Korea, in 1950 U.S. president Harry Truman (1884-1972) established the Psychological Strategy Board in the White House to coordinate the wider effort, both overt and covert. A bolstering of the white propaganda machinery occurred first within the State Department in the form of the International Information Administration (IIA). In 1953 U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower (1890-1969), who had seen the potency of psychological warfare on the battlefields of Europe, established the autonomous United States Information Agency (USIA), with the Voice of America (VOA) as its white broadcasting arm. The CIA funded Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty as gray broadcasting organs. The degree to which the activities of these groups were effectively coordinated is doubtful, with each branch going its separate way until the Bay of Pigs disaster of 1961 exposed the myth of a coordinated psychological effort.

Psychological warfare (psywar) was used episodically in Vietnam, but with the defeat of the United States it went into disrepute in western military thought. The Soviets retained their faith in it, terming it “active measures” and scoring some notable Cold War successes, in particular the campaign surrounding the neutron bomb and later campaigns accusing the United States of manufacturing the AIDS virus in a biological warfare lab. President Ronald Reagan revived U.S. psychological warfare in the 1980s in the form of the Department of Defense’s “psyops Master Plan” of 1985 and its application since then in the form of psychological operations. Psyops played a role in U.S. intervention in Panama, the Gulf War, Bosnia, Kosovo, and the War on Terrorism of 2001.

Next post:

Previous post: