In part two, we discussed the America’s entry into what was known at the time as the “Great War” and the need for propaganda on both the enemy and domestic home front. The Great War was perhaps the first use of what we define Psychological Operations in any modern sense. But with the Armistice taking effect on November 11, 1918, both the shelling and the leaflet drops ceased. To some soldiers on the ground, peace was almost as psychologically jarring as the carnage of war itself:

But at the front there was no celebration. Many soldiers believed the Armistice only a temporary measure and that the war would soon go on. As night came, the quietness, unearthly in its penetration, began to eat into their souls.

…What was to come next? They did not know – and hardly cared. Their minds were numbed by the shock of peace. The past consumed their whole consciousness. The present did not exist-and the future was inconceivable.”

– Colonel Thomas Gowenlock, intelligence officer in the American 1st Division

Luckily, the Armistice did hold and a peace agreement was signed the following year. As a result, the American civilian Committee on Public Information (CPI) and U.S. Army Propaganda Section G-2D were both effectively disbanded. Unfortunately, the harsh punitive measures levied against Germany by Treaty of Versailles, as well as lingering social and national hostilities, all but guaranteed that the embers of war would flare up 20 years later.

Reinventing Psychological Warfare

When a militarized Germany invaded Poland in September 1, 1939, America remained aloof and officially isolationist. Perhaps it was because of the memories of the brutal conflict from twenty years prior, or the lingering effects of the Great Depression, but the U.S. stance was what I call “NOPE” (Not Our Problem Europe). However, despite this official stance of the U.S. government, President Franklin D. Roosevelt went ahead and established the Office of Coordinator of Information (COI) on July 11, 1941, aware that U.S. involvement in the war could occur at any time. Like before, the U.S. was greatly inspired by the British system of intelligence, counterintelligence, psychological warfare, and special operations, some of which was ironically cultivated from their experiences from Germany. The COI director, Colonel William J Donovan, desired an all-encompassing agency that would do something similar in the U.S. However, due to a variety of reasons, this would not occur under the COI.

“Wild Bill” William J. Donavan, director of the COI and later OSS | Library of Congress

Colonel, and later, Major General Donavan would become head of the newly established OSS and be the only person to receive all four of the United States highest awards: Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross, Distinguished Service Medal, and the National Security Medal.

Despite general concerns about the European state of conflict, U.S. entry into the war ironically happened because of the Imperial Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. With the subsequent declaration of War by the remaining Axis powers against the U.S., a call to arms was enacted. Like the first world war, the U.S. chose to enact both a domestic civilian propaganda agency and a separate organization for military and civilian audiences abroad. However, instead of re-activating the WWI era organizations, the Roosevelt Administration wanted a clean start and chose to create a new organization: The Office of War Information (OWI), on June 13, 1942 through Executive Order 9182. Under the same order, the COI would be dissolved and reorganized under the OWI and Office of Strategic Services (OSS). While Donavan would continue to head the newly created OSS, Roosevelt appointed Elmer Davis, a well-known and respected news reporter for CBS, to be the director of the OWI.

Elmer Davis, head of the OWI | Library of Congress

The OWI was in charge of the dissemination of all official news in the United States using the Domestic Operations Branch. In principle, all propaganda and intelligence handling abroad (except for Latin America) with allied forces was coordinated through the Overseas Operations and Psychological Warfare Branch (PWB). But this didn’t include the litany of other psychological and propaganda agencies the various military, allied, and government agencies created in their respective areas. This would result to a degree of in-fighting among the different organizations, something that would ebb and flow during the entire course of WWII. The best example of this goes all the way back to the creation of OSS and OWI. Although both agencies shared some activities and functions, OSS became responsible for black propaganda operations (using information from concealed of falsified sources) and the OWI controlled white propaganda operations (using plainly issued or known information). Additional questions and conflicts were perpetrated over the uncertainty from which psychological warfare should be used and in what manner. Should propaganda efforts be restricted to directly support military operations on the ground? Who will control propaganda efforts aimed for partisan, rebel, and civilian behind enemy lines, or ahead of the military’s theater or responsibility? Should the OSS and other agencies seek permission from their respective military counterparts when conducting psychological warfare under their respective area of responsibility? How do military intelligence and special warfare fit into this, if at all? These questions, among others, were a direct result of the growing nature of modern war. A realization that rifles, men, and equipment were perhaps not enough to overcome enemies with ingrained ideologies.

The war at home

Although the focus of psychological operations is directed at foreign audiences, there was the initial conflation between that and wartime control of domestic dissemination. The Roosevelt administration had a variety of different concerns it wanted to address to the public: reasons why the U.S. had to enter the war, how to contribute to the war effort, limiting information against enemy exploitation, promoting morale while containing fear, build a spirit of cooperation between hostile workers and managers, push productivity, highlight the American way of life, etc. All this required a single agency to direct and even control the broad swath of communications in the U.S. Some of these efforts harkened back to WWI, such as the use of posters and advertisements to promote various messages. But even such a simple task faced issues, with the agency split over to adopt a simplified “war art” that emphasized stylization and symbolism, or posters that resembled typical “modern” advertisements. Generally, government agencies seem to favor the former, being relatively easy to design and print as well as reminiscent to posters promoting New Deal programs during the 1930s. But a new generation of workers from the civilian sectors pushed for the latter based on experience and public feedback, which would become more prominent as the war progressed.

Early posters tend to have a simplified, symbolic look. Some critics contend they were too simple, even confusing. |


Later posters became more like modern advertisements, reflecting the influx of more professional civilians into the OWI. |

Most of these posters tend to be informative or down-to-earth in nature, but others were more salacious and ominous. Whether it was artwork of a sinking allied ship and drowning American Sailors with the slogan “Loose Lips Sink Ships!” or a drawing of brutish, bucktooth Japanese Soldiers with a scantily clad (white) woman slung over his shoulder, these posters ran a wide gamut of style and messaging.

Since WWI, films had become more relevant and accepted for mass consumption, which in turn provided fertile ground for propaganda efforts. The Bureau of Motion Pictures (BMP) as part of the OWI, was established to work with Hollywood as a means of buoying support for America’s war effort. Although the BMP didn’t have overt authority to ban films that didn’t meet their criteria, they could control overseas distribution. Over 340 movies related to the war were created between 1942 and 1945. Most of these were short films, documentaries with varying themes such as “Why We Fight!” “Defining the Enemy, Defining the Allies,” and “The Negro Solder.” Viewed through the context of history, many of these films conveyed an idealized version of the subject, moreso than the reality of the situation. Not all films were documentaries in nature, Hollywood was still a business after all. Although Hollywood made films criticizing Nazis before WWII, such as “Confessions of a Nazi Spy” (1939), films like “Casablanca” (1942) were made after America’s entry into the war and with little, if any, U.S. Government sponsorship (although the government had a hand in approving movie scripts among most major movie studios). Even animation studios such as Disney and Warner Bros got involved, creating wartime propaganda and training cartoons for both civilian and military audiences.

Some of these films were obviously not what we now consider “politically correct” | Youtube

Prior to the start of WWII, the United States was the only prominent nation without any government sponsored radio service, content with leaving that to commercial and private entities. The exception to this was the little known, but extremely important, Foreign Broadcast Intelligence Service (FBIS), established nine months prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor. The FBIS was charged with keeping abreast of what the enemy radio was saying to its own people, to neutrals, and to its enemies. To most Americans, however, better known were radio addresses from the front, as well as Roosevelt’s “fireside” chat which he gave since 1933. Besides news, government sponsored broadcasts pushed the message of recycling and planting “Victory” gardens, as well as conservation efforts for water, gas, and electricity. However, the true legacy was overseas news programs geared toward a foreign audience, such as Voice of America, which we will discuss further in the next part.

Domestic propaganda under fire

Regardless of the supposed successes of the various domestic efforts, the public and Congress were always wary of the domestic propaganda efforts. The OWI continually faced varying levels of scrutiny, especially in comparison to Nazi Germany’s propaganda efforts. Additionally, various OWI employees became increasingly disillusioned from the growing censorship due to military and public safety concerns. They, perhaps almost naively, thought that there would always be allowed a hands-off approach and a level of “objectivity” in covering the war. Another accusation was that some key employees within the OWI harbored sympathy or favoritism to the Soviets or Communism, whom Davis admitted having to fire when questioned about it after the war. Additionally, Republican critics of the administration levied accusations of partisanship, as well as charges of mismanagement and incompetence within the OWI. Congressional opposition to the domestic OWI agency culminated in funding largely (but not completely) being cut in 1943, with operations mostly shifted to foreign operations in 1944.

Despite these misgivings, the American people seemed to accept this as a necessary evil. But even this was a stretch, which was probably the reason WWII was the last time the U.S. would engage in such large-scale wartime domestic propaganda. Luckily for the Roosevelt Administration, the need to galvanize the American public into WWII was not as necessary as WWI was. An unprovoked Japanese attack did much more than a sinking of a passenger ship or telegram promising an alliance with Mexico could ever do. Besides, the real effort was needed toward the foreign audience on and off the battlefield. The next part will explore what those efforts specifically entailed.


  1. Armistice – The End of World War I, 1918
  2. U.S. Special Warfare Its Origins: Psychological and Unconventional Warfare, 1941-1952
  4. World War II American Propaganda Leaflets, Psychological Warfare Manuals, and Documents |
  5. War Aims Through Art: The U.S. Office of War Information |
  6. United States History |
  7. America’s Story |
  8. The OSS Spearhead Insignia |
  9. Hollywood goes to War |
  10. The Beginning: An American Voice Greets the World |
  11. War, Propaganda and Public Opinion by Lowell H. Schwartz |
  12. Last of VOA’s Wartime Transmitting Stations Goes Dark by James E. O’Neal |
  13. VOA History |
  14. Foreign Broadcast Intelligence Service by By Oliver Read, W9ETI |
  15. Golden Age of Radio in the US Radio on the homefront in WII |