As we discussed in Part 3, the domestic home front became a battle for ideas and slogans as the Roosevelt administration pushed the nation to get ready for war. FDR established the Office of Coordinator of Information (COI), based on the directions of Colonel William Donovan. Col Donovan spent considerable time with British officials, and after meeting with the head of British Secret Intelligence Service, Stewart Menzies, Donovan was convinced the U.S. needed a similar system of centralized intelligence. This would not happen to the extent Donovan initially wanted–he was concerned about creating new agencies that would risk “encroaching on the FBI, Army and Navy Intelligence, or other departments of Government.” Regardless, the decision was made to split the COI into OWI and OSS. Donovan would continue to be the director of the OSS, an instrument in wartime espionage, covert action, propaganda and counterintelligence. Additionally, the OWI still retained the Psychological Warfare Branch (PWB), which also worked to create propaganda against foreign audiences.
Despite being drawn into the war because of the attack by the Japanese Empire, Roosevelt chose to win the war in Europe first, and thus concentrated much of the resources to that theater in the war’s onset. Although America cultivated many ideas from their British counterparts, the British themselves gained much of their military experience from their enemies. It was no surprise that Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy were especially adept at military and civilian propaganda.
Organizations and Agencies
Despite breaking up the COI into OWI and OSS respectively, the OSS was still capable of a multitude of different overseas operations. Propaganda (black) came out of the Morale Operations Branch of the Strategic Services Operations Branch. Created in January 1943, its primary function was to attack “the morale and the political unity of the enemy through… psychological means operating or purporting to operate within the enemy or occupied territories.”
In general, cooperation between missions and their respective theater officers was scant, hindered in some part by jealously guarding their home turf. But this cooperation was probably better compared to coordination with the military, who had an initial unenthusiastic response to PSYOPs and Psychological Warfare. This was particularly evident in the Pacific among senior Naval Commanders who, at best, supported minimal ad-hoc efforts. However, by the start of the European Theater, the Army was serious enough to create a Psychological Warfare Division/Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (PWD/SHAEF), using the experiences of the earlier Joint Psychological Warfare Unit attached to Allied Forces HQ during the North Africa campaign. Various other units would be mobilized or reorganized during the entire course of the war, and by no means subject specifically to the organizations mentioned in this article. The situation is best described as “fluid” where Psychological Operations and Psychological Warfare was continually shifted, changed, and formed to better respond to dynamic situations and relative ad-hoc nature of the Allied personnel involved.
Plenty of Extras, so Read All About it
Like the prior world war, leaflets remained one of the most effective and wide scale means of dissemination. Some specialty leaflets were passed off covertly, but most were delivered by conventional military means. The U.S. had a specialty leaflet squadron of the Eighth Air Force based in England that supported both European and Mediterranean theaters, while the Royal Air Force had a similar squadron of bomber aircraft. The Allies first commenced air dropped leaflet operations over Kiel, a Northern German port city, in September 1939. Different methods of leaflet dissemination were used, all with varying strengths and weaknesses: straight leaflet packages, time fuse packages, leaflet drop belly tank, the 300 lb cylindrical Monroe Bomb, etc. By 1944, the M-26 Leaflet Bomb, a frangible propaganda bomb, was developed that could disperse leaflets in a more acceptable and predictable pattern. It also had the advantage of being similar in size and appearance to regular bombs, making for more enthusiastic aircrews when loading. It could also be dropped at any altitude and dispersed with more flexibility compared to earlier methods. There was also a number of specialty leaflet dispersion methods developed specifically for the jungle conditions of Burma and the Pacific theater.
The British and French military (and later American) forces continued with strategies from the previous world war and sought to deliver leaflets by mortar or artillery shells. These shells were set to explode in mid-air, showering the enemy troops with leaflets instead of shrapnel. There were some attempts to adapt these to rifle grenades, similar to German efforts, but this method limited the number of leaflets that could be effectively dispersed and did not see any widespread use.
The OSS MO branch clandestinely established printing missions in various localities around the world, often to better create material more conducive to their audiences. This included offices in London, Paris, Stockholm and Bern. Other missions expanded to Cairo, Algiers, Rome, Naples and a litany of other Italian locations. The primary source of activities was anti-Axis propaganda pamphlets and other print material. Some missions also handled forgeries and even printed newspapers for consumption by civilians or enemy troops. One such mission, Operation Cornflakes, dispersed mailbags of fake newspapers and letters into Germany, misdirected to look like they were created by Nazi resistant members.
Like WWI, most leaflets were geared toward enemy troops, urging them to surrender. They were initially rebuffed, but as the war progressed and Axis advances were reversed, Allied leaflets became more susceptible to the war-fatigued audiences. A few leaflets also went to great lengths to criminalize and de-legitimize the Nazi Government or ruling Japanese Military Junta, lambasting the rulers and separating the blame from the ordinary citizens and soldiers. Other leaflets told the growing might of the Allied forces, such as highlighting the differences in bombing conducted on both sides with Allies increasing and Germany dropping precipitously. Still, others showed images of death and destruction while urging the recipient Axis soldier to avoid the same fate. Some leaflets were especially timely, when images of bombed-out German cities was used on Japanese leaflets with the accompanying warning: “Don’t make the same mistake as your allied did.”
Some specific leaflets, both Allied and Axis, were quite salacious and openly pornographic, using sex and female nudity to make the enemy think about their “lonely and cheating girlfriends or wives” back home. It was no surprise that these particular leaflets were most popular with the soldiers on the ground.
The Japanese were dropping propaganda leaflets… and for the friendliest of friendly persuasion, pictures of a beautiful blonde stripper, private parts and all: ‘You too can enjoy this if you surrender.’ The propaganda bombers came droning over every day. It was like having the paper delivered. Some of the troops started trading the leaflets like baseball cards.” – Gavan Daws, William Morrow & Co., New York, 1994
Each agency and military branch had their own mission parameters to what their leaflets and messages would entail, so there is no all-encompassing record of material or leaflets stored in one location. However, both theaters also had cultural differences and directives that the Allies crafted, sometimes for surprisingly humanitarian reasons. For example, Pacific Command ordered that leaflets be dropped (along with broadcast messages conveyed) ahead of actual bombing missions warning civilians to flee. This is in contrast to post-war accusations of using racially de-humanizing propaganda efforts against Japan, coupled with the need to carpet bomb larger areas of Japan to counteract their decentralized wartime workshops. This was started in late 1944 and continued until the end of the war, when Japanese air defenses became virtually nonexistent and the civilian population centers became highly vulnerable to the increasingly effective allied bombing raids.
Controlling the Airwaves
WWI saw widespread use of technology and communication capabilities, but was still fundamentally crude and often incapable of standing up to the rigors of combat. For example, candles were more likely used for lighting than electricity on the front lines. In contrast, WWII marked the premiere of innovative technologies and new means of electronic dissemination. As mentioned before, America was one of the few prominent nations that lacked any dedicated government broadcast operations, especially operations geared for foreign audiences. But faced with continued Axis-sponsored radio propaganda, various agencies were instructed to counteract these efforts, particularly as the U.S. entered the fight. The most prominent example of this effort would later be known as Voice of America (VOA). The Foreign Information Service (FIS), which was initially founded under the initial COI and now placed under OWI, began producing broadcast material to Europe, using partnerships with various private and allied government entities including the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Similar broadcast to Asia was already underway since December 1941. The name “Voice of America” was derived from the opening of the first German language program:
We bring you Voices from America. Today, and daily from now on, we shall speak to you about America and the war. The news may be good for us. The news may be bad. But we shall tell you the truth.”
VOA is perhaps one of the few legacy programs from WWII that still operates to this day.
SHAEF also took the opportunity to broadcast messages to European audiences under the “Voice of SHAEF” moniker, but with slightly different mission parameters. Their goal was to explain to sympathetic citizens and resistance members in occupied countries the expectations of SHAEF upon entering their areas. Upon liberation, the PWD would then reach out to various national governments to rehabilitate their war-ravaged broadcast capabilities, most notably Belgium, who received help from Anglo-American radio technicians. This had both military and civilian applications since post-conflict humanitarian efforts could be easily coordinated with re-established communications.
By the end of the European campaign, Allied forces used a variety of “intruder missions” to hijack German Broadcasts and intersperse German false news and operational announcements to sow confusion and discontent. False information of encroaching allied forces or evacuation orders wreaked havoc on the targeted transportation system. These were especially effective in the run-up to the invasion of Germany, where confusion among the German defenders would all but help the intruding Allied armies.
The most notable example in the Pacific occurred after securing the Island of Saipan from Japanese forces in July of 1944. The island became available not only to round-trip bombing runs to the Japanese homeland, but also as a means of bombarding them with radio messages through a 50,000-watt standard wave station. Ran by the OWI, it conveyed news, anti-military propaganda, and even messages from Japanese POWs on the island, who highlighted the fair treatment of their Allied captors.
But news and disinformation wasn’t the only thing broadcast to enemy and occupied nations. Projection of high morale among U.S. and allied troops were considered paramount, even to the enemy. The OWI enlisted musicians to record highly popular swing music to play over the airwaves. These were to give the impression that despite the continual war effort, Allied nations were still capable of enjoying lively entertainment. Another tactic was to broadcast popular music played by the Army Air Forces Training Command Band, laced with anti-Nazi commentaries between the pieces. And not all efforts were restricted to the enemy. Armed Forces Networks used propaganda to buoy morale with overseas troops and dramatized “The Four Freedoms” and the American way of life. Anyone that has spent a day in the military today has experienced a form of this when they turn on Armed Forces Network TV or radio. All commercials between programs are replaced with service announcements, which differ greatly in quality and messaging. After a year downrange with these, you’ll be begging to see or hear real honest-to-god commercials.
Although loudspeakers were used in prior conflicts (the Spanish Civil War is the most recent example), WWII marked the United States’ first large-scale use of loudspeakers for propaganda and psychological warfare. The best example is the most obvious one: PSYOP units with loudspeakers installed on trucks, half-tracks and even tanks were used in European and Pacific theaters to blast surrender instructions to entrenched enemy troops. Other units delivered propaganda messages that would demoralize troops with messaging like the ones found on leaflets. But the most interesting and devious use of loudspeakers was perhaps with the 3132 Signal Company, dubbed “The Sonic Deceivers” or “Sonic Company.” Using cutting-edge wire recorders (the predecessor to tape recorders), the unit recorded sounds of infantry and armor units. These recordings were mixed according to different environmental requirements, and subsequently blasted into combat zones to project an approaching “ghost army” to enemy units. Similar fake messages and transmissions were created and widely broadcasted to enemy positions to emulate large-scale Allied military chatter where none existed. This was crucial prior to the invasion of Normandy, when Allies successfully spoofed German intelligence with a “Ghost Army” that seemed to point toward Pas de Calais, France, as the eventual D-Day invasion.
Odds and Ends
OWI took the opportunity to use unconventional means in dissemination messages, which were dubbed “specialty items”. They could be little things like packets of seeds and matchbooks for civilians, all with a print of American flag and an inscription of the “Four Freedoms”. Soap paper had the message etched in: “From your friends the United Nations. Dip in water – use like soap. WASH OFF THE NAZI DIRT.” Sewing kits had little pincushions shaped like a human buttock with a reverse face featuring Adolf Hitler or Hideki Tojo. With the after-mentioned Operation Cornflakes, the fake mail was stamped with a Skelator-like Hitler.
Unfortunately not all ideas were so well thought out. For whatever reason, whether it was due to cultural differences, ignorance, or plain confusion, I found the litany of crackpot schemes geared more toward the Japanese. For example, a self-proclaimed expert sent a letter to FDR claiming Japan had a cultural phobia to bats. There was a serious proposal to demoralize and frighten the populace by dropping large quantities of bats over Japan. Donovan went along–until the live bats froze to death at high altitudes during a test flight. Another adviser told FDR about the idea of dropping bombs into any number of Japan’s active volcanoes. Not only could this cause them to erupt, but it could also psychologically convince the Japanese people their gods were angry with them. When the President pressed on the issue, Army Air Force Chief Lieutenant General Arnold tactfully responded that the idea could not be dismissed without serious consideration, but could not take precedence over current “critical military objectives.” Luckily for him, it was never brought up again.
Like World War I, propaganda effectiveness is highly subjective and cannot be measured by body count or buildings destroyed. We also cannot evaluate these programs and agencies based purely upon on which side emerged victoriously. It is safe to say, however, that the effectiveness of the messages depended largely on the morale of the target audiences. The Allies printed and dropped anywhere from 180 million to as many as 600 million leaflets in Japan, and an unprecedented combined number of over 6 billion leaflets in Europe (figures would differ greatly depending on sources, although there is probably no comprehensive record). But the invasions of Normandy and Germany would not have been as successful without the heavy use of counter-intelligence and psychological warfare, all of which saved thousands of Allied soldiers’ lives and helped shorten the duration of the war. In the Pacific, after the battle of Okinawa, many weary civilians peacefully surrendered to American troops after reading about fair treatment by propaganda leaflets. This is in direct contrast to the Japanese military authorities claiming that brutal rape and executions would await them if they surrendered. The OWI in Saipan produced and dropped millions of leaflets on August 12, 1945, to educate civilians about the terms of surrender. This convinced the Emperor of Japan that the Allies had seriously accepted their unconditional surrender, prompting the civilian authorities to defy a nascent military coup and end the war three days later. It would be Emperor Hirohito’s shaking and unfamiliar voice, speaking to his people and announcing the acceptance of the surrender, that showcased the power of broadcast media.
It is an honor and privilege to have served with the Office of War Information, which agency deserves more credit than public opinion may ever realize. Operating abroad in secrecy, it is undoubtedly so that the Axis know more about the OWI operations than our own citizens.” – OWI Chief of the Forward Area, Richard Hubert
The end of World War II brought joyous relief throughout the victorious Allied nations (although San Francisco was not so peaceful). It also meant the utter destruction to the German and Japanese homelands. Millions of people lay dead or dying under rubble that were once functioning cities and towns. Systematic genocide of various people and other atrocities had occurred during the conflict. Survivors faced starvation, ruin and uncertainty. Two evil Axis empires were crushed, while the old French and British colonial empires were on the verge of collapse. The two biggest victors of the war, the United States and Soviet Union, were ideological rivals that only briefly put aside their differences to defeat their common foe. The stage was set for a new type of conflict where words and ideas would be fired as often as actual salvos across the growing East and West divide. Psychological Operations would find a new lease on life in what would later be called the Cold War.
- A Look Back … Gen. William J. Donovan Heads Office of Strategic Services | https://www.cia.gov/news-information/featured-story-archive/gen.-william-j.-donovan-heads-oss.html
- Historical Dictionary of American Propaganda by Martin J. Manning, Herbert Romerstein | https://books.google.com/books?id=1-JjwDPcOLQC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false
- Second World War Leaflets, Psywar Archives | https://www.psywar.org/leaflets
- Air Dissemination Devices by Captain John C Lyons, AUS | https://www.psywar.org/content/airdisseminationdevices
- Looking Back: Sex in psychological warfare, Herbert A. Friedman, the British Psychological Society | https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-22/edition-1/looking-back-sex-psychological-warfare
- The United States PSYOP Organization in Europe During World War II by Herbert A. Friedman & Franklin Prosser | http://www.psywarrior.com/PSYOPOrgWW2.html
- VOA History | https://www.insidevoa.com/p/5829.html
- Psychological Warfare and Propaganda in World War II: Air Dropped and Shelled Leaflets and Periodicals | http://gdc.gale.com/archivesunbound/archives-unbound-psychological-warfare-and-propaganda-in-world-war-ii-air-dropped-and-shelled-leaflets-and-periodicals/
- Air Dissemination Device, psywar.org | https://www.psywar.org/content/airdisseminationdevices
- Inside America’s Shocking WWII Propaganda Machine, National Geographic | http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/12/world-war-2-propaganda-history-books/
- Foreign Broadcast Intelligence Service by By Oliver Read, W9ETI | http://www.rfcafe.com/references/radio-news/foreign-broadcast-intelligence-service-january-1945-radio-news.htm
- Ghost Army: The Inflatable Tanks That Fooled Hitler, The Atlantic | https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/05/ghost-army-the-inflatable-tanks-that-fooled-hitler/276137/
- PBS History Detectives, World War II leaflets | http://www.pbs.org/opb/historydetectives/investigation/world-war-ii-leaflets/
- The Politics of Propaganda: The Office of War Information, 1942-1945 by Alan M Winkler, 1978 Yale University Press
- Roosevelt’s Secret War: FDR and World War II Espionage by Joseph E. Persico, 2001 Random House
- The Information War in the Pacific, 1945, Paths to Peace by Josette H. Williams, CIA.gov | https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-publications/csi-studies/studies/vol46no3/article07.html
Title graphic compiled by author.