In part one, we reviewed the basic definition of Psychological Operations and its relations to standard propaganda. Psychological Operations is actually a relatively modern concept but had roots long before the advent of the 20th century.
The United States government and military, with a few exceptions, did not effectively utilize propaganda or public relations during the early wars of the country’s history. Even when the U.S. inherited a pseudo-empire after the Spanish- and Philippine-American War, conventional military tactics were considered sufficient enough. But the start of a new war, unprecedented in technology and scale, would forever change that notion.
Modern war, modern propaganda
“Wake up America! Civilization calls every Man, Woman, and Child!”
-American WWI Propaganda Poster Slogan
The Great War was the first of many things: The first to see large scale industrialized warfare. The first to see the use of the armored tank. The first in which aircraft were used in combat. And the first war in which chemical weapons were employed on such a large and terrible scale.
With new methods of dissemination being available (airplanes, airships, radio, telephone, etc.) this was the perfect environment for countries to start using wide-scale propaganda. This is arguably the first time the Great Powers, including the United States, developed what we would understand as the modern form of Psychological Operations or Psychological Warfare.
At the outbreak of the War, both Entente and Central Powers rushed to capitalize on influencing their domestic and foreign audiences. Great Britain, with a long history of imperial rule, control over the seas, a better grasp of mass communication, and more robust “information” departments (Ministry of Information, National War Aims Committee, and the War Propaganda Bureau, later the Department of Information), could utilize Psychological Operations more successfully and mitigate Germany’s international efforts. Having control over 24 percent of the Earth’s surface since 1815 was an advantage that Great Britain capitalized on to maximum effect. (“The Great War,” a YouTube series that chronicles WWI as it unfolded, does a good job of summarizing propaganda war efforts by the leading powers.)
Great Britain and Germany worked hard to try to respectively convince the American public to join or stay out of the war. Britain was more successful, given close historical ties, a common language, shared culture, and established trade links. Britain also leveraged her considerable clout with mass media, which was further helped when Britain cut the transatlantic cable to continental Europe shortly after the breakout of war. Entente propaganda to the U.S. overwhelmed any Central Power’s ability to reciprocate. The British highlighted each German mistake with great aplomb (the Zimmerman telegram and Sinking of the Lusitania are the most notable examples), to the American public.
With U.S.’s entry into the war in 1917, America quickly picked up the craft and learned the art of modern dissemination. Like the British, the United States set up different agencies to produce propaganda: the civilian Committee on Public Information (CPI) chaired by George Creel, and the U.S. Army Propaganda Section G-2D, General Headquarters, American Expeditionary Forces, commanded by CPT Heber Blankenhorn.
The U.S. Military at the entry of the war was quite small: 200,000 soldiers in the U.S. Army, and 80,000 in the National Guard. The U.S. Navy was in better shape, being the world’s third-largest naval power at the time. Although the U.S. had been furnishing weapons and supplies to the Entente powers for years, the country’s economy and production capabilities had not expanded enough to be sufficient for her own wartime needs. As a result, the CPI pressed forward to rally a somewhat divided American public, creating countless posters with the aim to boost production, grow more food, save on needed war material, and enlist in the services. The agency used a variety of methods to reach the public, most famously a branch of volunteers called the Four Minute Men. Their job was to deliver a concise, approved message to public gatherings within four minutes. In print media, the most iconic imagery of the time is a poster of Uncle Sam pointing to the viewer, created by James Montgomery Flagg.
On the front, the Allied (Entente) forces developed a vast number of different leaflets to disseminate to the enemy. Leaflets were the best medium: they could be delivered by a multitude of different methods, were simple and to the point. The Allied forces used a variety of different means for delivery: balloons, artillery shells that contained leaflets instead of explosives, and airplanes. The airplane was the generally preferred method of delivery. Some American pilots were known to have a reckless streak and tried to see how close they could drop leaflets on enemy lines without getting shot down.
Most Allied leaflets were morale-related in nature, such as urging the enemy soldiers to surrender in order to have better medical treatment, food, and safety. Others were political cartoons that showed monarchs, leaders and rich pampered elites lounging while the average soldier toiled in misery.
American leaflets, perhaps naively, refrained from showing injured or dead bodies. The British and French had long foregone these reservations in their propaganda leaflets. The U.S. military took great lengths to showcase the growing numbers and capabilities of the U.S. Forces, depicting continued resistance to be seemingly pointless in the later stages of the war. One of the more interesting pamphlets was created by the so-called “Friends of German Democracy” Americans of German descent, which urged that the true enemy was the German Imperial Government and urged German soldiers to overthrow it. Although still behind in numbers compared to their French and British counterparts, U.S. Forces dropped three million leaflets over German lines by the time of Armistice.
How effective were American psychological and propaganda efforts in WWI? It’s hard to make a direct correlation, but CPT Blankenhorn claimed that at the end of the Argonne campaign the bulk of the prisoners had U.S. leaflets on them. Some surrendering German soldiers quickly asked for the promised rations on the leaflets, to their vexed American captors who themselves may not have eaten for 24 hours. General Erich Ludendorff of the German High Command, writing about the broader Allied effort said. “…with such cleverness, and on such a large scale that many people could no longer distinguish between enemy propaganda and their own sentiment.”
With the signing of the Armistice on November 11, 1918, both the C.P.I. Agency and the U.S. Army propaganda section were effectively disbanded. With the war over, the U.S. largely turned back to her pre-war isolationist policies and saw little need to keep these programs in place. It would take another, bigger, world conflict for the U.S. to rethink these measures.
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