In part two, we discussed America’s entry in 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 as Psychological Operations in a 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, an 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 the Allies in Treaty of Versailles, as well as lingering social and national tensions, all but guaranteed that the embers of war would flare up 20 years later.

Reinventing Psychological Warfare

When a militarized Germany invaded Poland on 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, 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, parts of which had been, ironically, developed from its experiences fighting 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.

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 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. As in the first world war, the U.S. chose to establish 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).

OWI was created 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.

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) was coordinated through the Overseas Operations and Psychological Warfare Branch (PWB). But this didn’t include the litany of other psychological and propaganda agencies that the various military, allied, and government agencies created in their respective areas. This would result in 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).

Inevitably, questions arose regarding how and in what manner should psychological warfare be used. Should propaganda efforts be restricted to directly support military operations on the ground? Who will control propaganda efforts aimed for partisans and civilians 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 messages it wanted to instill to the public: reasons why the U.S. had to enter the war; how to contribute to the war effort; the need to limit information lest it be exploited by the enemy; promoting morale while containing fear; building a spirit of cooperation between hostile workers and managers, etc. All this required a single agency to direct and even control the broad swath of communications in the U.S.

Some of the methods used harkened back to WWI, such as the use of posters and advertisements to promote various messages. But even the adoption of such a simple method faced issues, with the agency split over between using 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 of 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.

Most of these posters tend to be informative or down-to-earth in nature, but others were more salacious and ominous. Whether it was an 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.

The History of US Psychological Operations: World War One

Read Next: The History of US Psychological Operations: World War One

Since WWI, films had become more relevant and accepted for mass consumption, which in turn provided fertile ground for propaganda. 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 Soldier.” Viewed through the context of history, many of these films conveyed an idealized version of the subject.

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 broadcasting to its own people, to neutrals, and to enemies. To most Americans, however, better known were radio addresses from the front, as well as Roosevelt’s “fireside” chats 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 domestic propaganda. The OWI continually faced varying levels of scrutiny. 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 — Davis admitted that he had to fire some such employees 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 its activity mostly being shifted to foreign operations in 1944.

Despite these misgivings, the American people seemed to accept domestic propaganda as a necessary evil. But still, 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 in WWII was not as high as in WWI. An unprovoked Japanese attack did much more to inflame the American patriotic spirit than the 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.