Psychological warfare

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Psychological Warfare


Modern doctrine and methods


Psychological warfare is a term that came into vogue in the United States during World War n to identify an activity as old as the history of conflict. Although the term gained wide currency in popular and scientific discussions in the United States and Europe within a decade after the end of World War Ii, meanings ascribed to it were not always clear, and there were several views concerning its nature and scope. Some have limited its meaning to that range of activity which clearly falls within the jurisdiction of the armed forces and which is centered on the dissemination of propaganda to specified target audiences for the purpose of supporting the attainment of a given military mission. This view of psychological warfare, however, is too limited in scope for most journalists, politicians, and scholars who discuss the subject.

As used in popular and scientific journals, a much wider variety of meanings has been attached to the term. First, there is the view that psychological warfare is the sum total of a nation’s efforts to influence the opinions and behavior of foreign peoples and governments in desired directions through means other than the employment of a nation’s political, economic, and military resources. Those who subscribe to this view generally agree that propaganda is the principal, but not the sole, ingredient of psychological warfare.

Second, there is the view that psychological warfare involves an even wider range of activity, including symbolic acts of violence and terror designed to intimidate or to persuade an adversary to adjust his behavior. Those who hold to this view of psychological warfare would include within its scope various undercover activities such as espionage and subversion, assassinations and other forms of terrorism, and censorship, when they are designed to mold the opinion or behavior of specific groups.

A third view holds that the term includes such activities as the premeditated twisting of personality through techniques popularly described as “brainwashing,“hypnosis, and the employment of psychopharmaceutical agents allegedly used by some communist states [seeBrainwashing.]

There is still a fourth view, which holds that psychological warfare includes the molding of public attitudes of one’s own people and extends across the spectrum of political-military action to hit-and-run guerrilla raids and other acts of a paramilitary character conducted in enemy rear areas. Thus, at times the term has been used as though it were synonymous with political indoctrination or orientation, political persuasion, indirect aggression, “protracted conflict,“or a “strategy of subversion.“In the twenty years that followed the end of World War n, doctrine concerning psychological warfare in the United States and western Europe —its nature, its uses, and its role in modern international relations—tended to coalesce to form a consensus. Thus, increasingly, those who discuss it accept the basic conclusion that unless a technique involves the premeditated manipulation of opinion through the use of one or more of the media of communications it does not involve psychological warfare.


The British military analyst and historian J. F. C. Fuller is believed to have been the first to employ the term “psychological warfare“—in 1920—although the activities it describes go back to ancient times. In discussing implications to be drawn from World War i advances in military technology, he suggested that traditional means of warfare may in time be “replaced by a purely psychological warfare, wherein weapons are not even used or battlefields sought …but [rather] …the corruption of the human reason, the dimming of the human intellect, and the disintegration of the moral and spiritual life of one nation by the influence of the will of another is accomplished“(1920, p. 320). Fuller’s use of the term at the time attracted no unusual attention in either British or American military and scholarly circles. Twenty years later, as the British were “tooling up“for a propaganda effort similar to the one that General Fuller had forecast, they adopted the expression “political warfare.“Only in January 1940 did the term come into American use, when an article was published entitled “Psychological Warfare and How to Wage It.“Over a year later the Committee for National Morale used the term in the title of a book (Farago & Gittler 1942) but ascribed to it a meaning far different from that in postwar usage.

During World War n “psychological warfare“was widely used to denote the organization and, more especially, the activity of propagandists who served with or supported the U.S. armed forces. But the term was not generally applied to broader, longer-range propaganda efforts. “Information,““strategic services,“and “political warfare“were preferred and were used in titles and names of agencies, e.g., Coordinator of Information (COI), Ministry of Information, Office of Strategic Services (OSS), etc. The major British agency for the overseas effort that was later described as psychological warfare was the Political Warfare Executive (PWE). In the United States the civilian-directed effort was entrusted to the Office of War Information (OWI).

The psychological warfare support provided U.S. and allied combat forces during World War n, while significant, was largely the result of ad hoc improvisations. Neither the Americans nor the British had made plans before the war to employ combat propaganda. Civilian propagandists from the OWI and PWE were casually included among Eisenhower’s forces and organized into propaganda units and staff sections. Later on, experience gained in Africa induced General Eisenhower to create a special staff section for psychological warfare at his headquarters in Europe. The British and American personnel from both civilian and military agencies were selected, trained, and assigned to army group, field army, and army corps headquarters. Psychological warfare operations in the action against Japan were even more improvised: the OWI sent small civilian staffs to major reararea headquarters—Hawaii, Australia, China, and India. In every instance they first had to convince the theater commander that psychological warfare could make a contribution to victory; next they had to induce military commands to assign qualified personnel to ad hoc units; and then it was necessary to win the cooperation of combat commanders to enable these units to praciice their skills. Psychological warfare units were generally attached to intelligence sections. Propaganda operations were therefore seldom adequately integrated into operational plans and were generally employed in addition to, not as a part of, regular military operations. The War Department in Washington assigned headquarters personnel to monitor overseas operations only intermittently, and even then no operational or planning function was performed for the overseas commands. The impetus and planning for the use of psychological warfare in overseas areas came from those within each command; the pattern of organization, therefore, varied from one theater of operations to another.

After the war all psychological warfare units and special staff sections were disbanded. The Office of War Information was dissolved, and a greatly curtailed foreign information service was established in September 1945 by executive order as an interim operation under State Department auspices. In 1948 Congress first authorized its continuance. Thus the civilian-sponsored program remained under direct State Department jurisdiction until 1953, when the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) was established as a quasi-autonomous organization.

During the years that the foreign information program remained under State Department jurisdiction, it increasingly became the practice for the general public to describe its operations as psychological warfare. With the increased tensions growing out of the “cold war,“the outbreak of conflict in Korea, and the launching of a “great new campaign of truth,“by President Truman in 1950, there was recognition of a need for a new instrument to coordinate the overseas propaganda effort of the several departments and agencies involved. It was natural, in view of the growing acceptance of the term psychological warfare, for a term like psychological strategy to be adopted to label the agency given responsibility for the coordination of the over-all foreign information program. In August 1950 President Truman established a national Psychological Strategy Board (PSB) to coordinate “foreign information and psychological strategy“where more than one agency was involved. In 1953 the PSB was replaced by an Operations Coordinating Board, which in turn was abolished by President Kennedy in 1961.

Modern doctrine and methods

Relatively early in the Korean War the U.S. Army created, as a special staff section, the Office of the Chief of Psychological Warfare (OCPW) and a center and school in North Carolina for the codification of doctrine and the training of military personnel in what came to be called, in short, “psywar.“With the establishment of OCPW and a psywar center and school, interest in psychological warfare spread throughout the U.S. armed forces. With increased interest came new concepts, definitions, and a crystallization of doctrine. Psychological warfare, as previously defined, gave way to new terms—psychological operations (psyops) and psychological activities. Psyops were defined as political, military, economic, and ideological actions planned and conducted to create in enemy, hostile, neutral, or friendly foreign groups emotions, attitudes, or behavior favorable to the accomplishment of national objectives.

The American approach to psychological warfare that grew out of World War n and the cold war experience has had a significant impact on the thought and behavior of allied nations. The American term psychological warfare has largely displaced terms these nations previously used. More important than this, however, is the widespread recognition now given to the need for specially trained and equipped units to conduct psychological warfare operations in time of crisis. In preparing for this responsibility, many nations have sent officer personnel to the United States for specialized training in American military schools.

Modern psychological warfare on both the national level and within the armed services differs markedly from propaganda operations conducted in the past during times of national crisis in several ways. First, there is official recognition that the psychological warfare element, taken in its broadest sense, is one of four major forces employed during both peace and war to give maximum support to policies in order to increase the probabilities and favorable consequences of victory and lessen chances of defeat. Thus, in the highest councils of government the psychological factor in international relations is considered along with political, economic, and military factors in making major foreign policy decisions.

Second, technological advances in the science of communications have made available to the modern propagandist a variety of means for reaching audiences that previously could only have been reached after great effort and much uncertainty. Short-wave radio transmitters and receivers, films, the growing distribution of television outlets, and the availability of high-speed printing presses combine to increase the likelihood that any given audience a propagandist desires to reach can be exposed to the message he wants it to receive.

Third, modern developments in public opinion polling, audience sampling, panel interviewing, intelligence analysis, and the new techniques for assessing cultural traits of foreign groups enable one to make more accurate predictions of group and mass behavior. Thus it is possible for modern psychological warfare operations to be more nearly manageable and predictable than were the hit-or-miss operations of the past.

Communications media

The choice of communications media for psychological warfare operations depends on the target audience to be addressed and the time one has to prepare and deliver the message. In combat situations, printed leaflets and newssheets disseminated by airdrops and voice broadcasts amplified by electronic loudspeakers are the most commonly employed media. Operations conducted from areas farther to the rear or to audiences far removed from combat zones utilize mobile and fixed long-wave and medium-wave radio transmitters.

Media employed in strategic or national-level operations are commonly classified as either slow or fast. Slow media include news magazines, books, pamphlets, motion picture films, and lectures. They are so described because there is a considerable time lag between the sending and the receiving of the message. Fast media are those that rely largely on electronic communications. In addition to short-wave radio broadcasts, fast media include carefully timed statements by statesmen deemed to be of sufficient interest to be picked up and transmitted as news and a daily news file transmitted by wireless to overseas outlets for local dissemina-ation.

Intelligence requirements

Intelligence requirements for effective psychological warfare operations are both enormous and varied. There are three major types of intelligence required. The first is background data, in great detail, concerning the predispositions and vulnerabilities of the target or targets to be addressed. This type of intelligence is described as target analysis. A second type of intelligence needed is that employed in propaganda output. The writings, press releases, and speeches of leading adversaries are thus combed for material that can be usefully employed against the target. Finally, it is necessary to provide a means for checking the results of one’s work. Is the message getting through? Is it clearly understood? In what ways can a more favorable response be elicited? Answers to these and other questions are sought by such means as are appropriate to the situation. In time of conflict, and with respect to closed societies, it is sometimes necessary to employ clandestine means for gathering data to assess effectiveness. With respect to societies more or less open to direct approach, variations of techniques employed in domestic public opinion polling and market surveys may be employed.

In both World War n and the Korean War, carefully selected panels of prisoners of war were found to be useful in pretesting and post-testing messages and in making critiques of the format of presentation or the media of communications. Where such panels were used, extreme care had to be taken to insure that they were as nearly representative as possible of target groups yet to be addressed. Furthermore, the fact that prisoners had either defected or had been captured set them apart from those still within enemy ranks, and great care had to be taken in extrapolating findings based on such groups [seeIntelligence, political and military.]


Recognition of the need for psychological warfare target intelligence in both depth and breadth has had a great impact on American social science scholarship in the period since the outbreak of the Korean War. Social scientists in the United States, since 1950, have devoted considerably more attention to studies of elites, would-be elites, and communications and other behavioral patterns in foreign societies than in any previous period. Great attention has been given to the identification of research criteria of significance in the study of alien cultures. Likewise, great effort has been devoted to the systematic development of more sophisticated tools for the effective identification and assessment of such material as is useful to psychological warfare practitioners. [SeeCommunication, mass.]

Since 1950 the national government, through the facilities of the State Department, the Agency for International Development (AID), and its predecessors, the USIA and the three service branches of the Defense Department, has subsidized university groups, individuals, and nonprofit organizations to undertake specific research projects that might not otherwise have been undertaken, or tailored them to meet the needs of the so-called “psychological warfare community.”

From the findings of this government-sponsored and other research there has emerged a clearer understanding of the requirements for an effective psychological warfare effort in times of peace and of crisis. Whatever media of communications are employed, psychological warfare can contribute to the attainment of a nation’s objectives only if the messages transmitted are credible, clearly understood, and seek to elicit a response within the capability of the target audience.

What is credible is not to be equated necessarily with truth. What is credible to any given audience is what it believes to be true, not what is in fact true. Credibility is a complex goal and not easily achieved. What is credible is determined by the audience, not the content of a message. The development of credibility thus must be constantly and persistently pursued in every psychological warfare campaign. Without this important element much of a propagandist’s effort will go for nought.

William E. Daugherty

[See alsoCommunication, political; Propaganda; War.]


Barghoorn, Frederick C. 1964 Soviet Foreign Propaganda. Princeton Univ. Press.

Barrett, Edward W. 1953 Truth Is Our Weapon. New York: Funk & Wagnalls.

Bureau Of Social Science Research, Washington, D.C. 1956 International Communication and Political Opinion: A Guide to the Literature, by Bruce L. Smith and Chitra M. Smith. Princeton Univ. Press.

Clews, John C. 1964 Communist Propaganda Techniques. New York: Praeger.

Daugherty, William E. (compiler) 1958 A Psychological Warfare Casebook. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press. -” A compilation of articles and case studies covering various problems, techniques, and requirements of psychological warfare. Contains an extensive list of references.

Davidson, Philip 1941 Propaganda and the American Revolution: 1763-1783. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press.

Dyer, Murray 1959 The Weapon on the Wall: Rethinking Psychological Warfare. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.

Farago, Ladislas; and Gittler, Lewis F. (editors) 1942 German Psychological Warfare. New York: Putnam. -“Contains an extensive list of references to German language material published before 1939.

Fuller, J. F. C. 1920 Tanks in the Great War, 1914-1918. London: Murray.

Holt, Robert T.; and Van De Velde, Robert W. 1960 Strategic Psychological Operations and American Foreign Policy. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Hunter, Edward 1956 Brainwashing: The Story of Men Who Defied It. New York: Farrar.

Lasswell, Harold D. (1927) 1938 Propaganda Technique in the World War. New York: Smith.

Lerner, Daniel 1949 Sykewar: Psychological Warfare Against Germany, D-Day to VE-Day. New York: Stewart.

Lerner, Daniel (editor) 1951 Propaganda in War and Crisis: Materials for American Policy. New York: Stewart.

Lineearger, Paul M. A. (1948) 1954 Psychological Warfare. 2d ed. Washington: Combat Forces Press.

Mock, James R.; and Larson, Cedric 1939 Words That Won the War: The Story of the Committee on Public Information, 1917-1919. Princeton Univ. Press.

Psychological Warfare and How to Wage It. 1940 Current History and Forum 51, no. 5:52-53.

Smith, Bruce L.; Lasswell, Harold D.; and Casey, Ralph D. 1946 Propaganda, Communication and Public Opinion: A Comprehensive Reference Guide. Princeton Univ. Press.

Thomson, Charles A. H. 1948 Overseas Information Service of the United States Government. Washington: Brookings Institution.

Yu, Te-chi 1964 Mass Persuasion in Communist China. New York: Praeger.

Zeman, Z. A. B. 1964 Nazi Propaganda. Oxford Univ. Press.

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Psychological Warfare is war propaganda directed at enemy audiences to induce surrender, insurrection, or disruption. It is most effective when based on military realities or likelihoods. It is intertwined with twentieth‐century mass media, which allows the dissemination and reception of information behind enemy lines through leaflets, radio, and television. Traditionally, one distinguishes among three kinds of psychological warfare: white, gray, and black. White propaganda openly admits origin, and is disseminated openly by clearly identifiable sources; gray indicates no source; black disguises its source or purports to come from somewhere other than its true source. Black propaganda trades in disinformation, that is, misinformation or untrue statements deliberately spread to sow confusion. Today, disinformation has eclipsed black propaganda as a technique of psychological warfare; it works because it plays on recipients' darkest suspicions: it trades in prejudice and bias.

Psychological warfare may be synonymous with the twentieth century, but it is hardly new to the conduct of warfare. The Chinese military specialist Sun Tzu noted in his fourth‐century B.C. Art of War that “to subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.” In 1400 B.C., Joshua used the techniques of psychological warfare when he marched around the city of Jericho seven times sounding his trumpet to intimidate the enemy. The role of deception in siege warfare is famously part of the Siege of Troy. Thanks to the wooden horse in which Greek soldiers were hidden, we consider the Trojan Horse synonymous with “Greeks bearing gifts.” In short, intelligent military commanders have frequently resorted to strategem, particularly in siege warfare, and this is part of what today we consider psychological warfare.

World War I saw the first use of modern propaganda techniques on a large scale. Woodrow Wilson used the tactics of white propaganda in promoting his Fourteen Points (1918) as a basis for ending the war. The enemy was depicted through atrocities propaganda, as the “Brutish Hun,” destroyer of civilization, an enemy who did not scruple to kill innocent women and children in the sinking of the Lusitania (1915). Civilians at home, and doughboys in the trenches, knew it was Germans who bombed the cathedral at Reims. Adolf Hitler paid careful attention to Allied propaganda successes in some of the shrewdest parts of his autobiography, Mein Kampf (1925–26).

World War II led to the advent of “psyops” as a distinct part of military operations and planning. Correctly understood, psychological warfare does not treat home morale or concern itself with public relations involving friendly countries. It is, rather, concerned with the enemy and enemy‐controlled countries. Military force (the alternative to psychological warfare) concerns itself with threats, promises, subversion, and destruction; psychological warfare trades in warnings, alternatives, compassion, and the presumptive surcease of strategic rather than terrorist bombings.

Arguments as to the effectiveness of psychological warfare in World War II turn on what role, if any, these techniques had in persuading the German soldier to surrender before 8 May 1945. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower stressed the significance of psyops to modern warfare in an oft‐quoted statement in the spring of 1945: “Without doubt, psychological warfare has proved its right to a place of dignity in our military arsenal.” Most military historians recognize the import of this statement but feel that the doctrine of “Unconditional Surrender” fatally undermined the possibility of effective psyops in World War II by precluding the effective utilization of alternatives and compassion. One must conclude that we know an enormous amount about tricks and ruses (often concocted by brilliant practitioners) but very little about demonstrable impact.

The Korean War introduced a new sort of psyops, the concept of brainwashing, first mentioned in 1950, a translation of the Chinese term for “thought reform.” To brainwash is to change drastically someone's outlook. It involves convincing someone thoroughly, usually through nefarious means. Twenty‐one American prisoners of war refused repatriation in 1953; Cold War hysteria in America led many to believe that they were the victims of totalitarian practitioners with superhuman skills in indoctrination. Though the word brainwashing is part of everyday speech, today it is used to describe the techniques of those who create religious cults; the American military, after exhaustive analysis, concluded that in terms of troop morale, there was no such thing as brainwashing; instead, the problem had to do with a captured soldier's inner psychological strength or emotional vulnerability.

The Vietnam War made substantial—and notorious—use of psyops. Persons trained in civil and political affairs joined Special Operations Forces to bring about so‐called pacification, and to aid in the defection of the Viet Cong to the South Vietnamese side, all part of Civil Operations and Rural Development Support (CORDS). Certainly, psyops operations were mistrusted by conventional soldiers and their commanders, but Vietnam systematized the phrase coined by Gen. Sir Gerald Templer as the goal of British efforts to undermine guerrilla activity in Malaya in the 1950s, “the battle for hearts and minds”—surely the central concern of psychological warfare in all of its guises.

More recently, the Persian Gulf War (1991) made stunning use of disinformation as a tool of military policy, suggesting that future psyops will make the control of information a central concern. Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf was happy to let television commentators and newspaper correspondents repeat endlessly the inevitability of an assault on Kuwait City from the sea. Saddam Hussein and his advisers assumed this must be official doctrine and arranged their forces for such an eventuality. When this proved not the case, “the mother of all battles” came to a quick conclusion. Further, the advent of satellite television broadcasting, allowing CNN correspondent Peter Arnett to broadcast from the enemy's capital while the war progressed, suggests that psyops and information policy are more than ever subjects no modern military commander can ignore. Successes in deception may make fascinating reading, but the real success of psyops entails techniques more white than black in an effort “to subdue the enemy without fighting.”
[See also Bombing of Civilians; News Media, War, and the Military; Propaganda and Public Relations, Government.]


Harold D. Lasswell , Propaganda Technique in World War I, 1927; repr. 1971.
Daniel Lerner , Psychological Warfare Against Nazi Germany: The Sykewar Campaign, D‐Day to VE‐Day, 1949; repr. 1971.
Terrence H. Qualter , Propaganda and Psychological Warfare, 1962.
Philip M. Taylor , War and the Media: Propaganda and Persuasion in the Gulf War, 1992.
Philip M. Taylor , Munitions of the Mind: A History of Propaganda from the Ancient World to the Present Day, 1995.
Robert Cole , Propaganda in Twentieth Century War and Politics: An Annotated Bibliography, 1996.

David Culbert

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PSYCHOLOGICAL WARFARE. Joshua's trumpets at the battle of Jericho suggest that psychological warfare, also called psywar, is probably as old as warfare itself. Nonetheless, only during World War I did the major powers designate official agencies to oversee this effort, the first example of organized psychological warfare. The U.S. Committee on Public Information, otherwise known as the Creel Committee, marked the United States's foray into formal propaganda activities. In quite a different application, the propaganda section of the American Expeditionary Forces staff headquarters represented the first official U.S. experiment in the military use of psychological warfare.

Psychological warfare aims to complement, not supplant, military operations. It breaks down into two broad categories. First, strategic psychological warfare usually targets the enemy in its entirety: troops, civilians, and enemy-occupied areas. Second, tactical psychological warfare most commonly supports localized combat operations by fostering uncertainty and dissension, and sometimes causing the enemy to surrender.

American World War I psychological warfare techniques appear primitive by later standards. Following the lead of the British and French, the United States used the leaflet as the primary vehicle for the delivery of messages intended to demoralize the enemy and to encourage surrender. Hedgehoppers, balloons, and, to a lesser degree, modified mortar shells delivered these messages to the target audience. The goal was to alienate the German troops from their "militarist" and "antidemocratic" regimes. Later, the Nazis suggested that the World War I German army had not lost that conflict but instead that Allied propaganda had victimized it.

Psychological warfare activities fell into abeyance during the interwar period and did not resume until World War II. At that time the American government set up hastily improvised propaganda agencies, which jealously fought over spheres of interest and mission assignments. This infighting continued until the creation of the Office of War Information (OWI) and the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). On 9 March 1943, Executive Order 9312 redefined their respective functions.

On the theater level psychological warfare operations differed widely from one command to another because Executive Order 9312 required commander approval for all plans and projects. Under Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower a joint British and American military staff, in cooperation with such propaganda agencies as the OWI and the OSS, managed all Allied psychological warfare activities. In the Pacific commands and subcommands, there were varying degrees of official acceptance for psychological warfare. Adm. William F. Halsey's command stood as the sole exception to this rule because he would have nothing to do with psychological warfare and would not allow OWI and OSS civilians to have clearances for this area. As the war progressed, this unconventional weapon of war slowly won grudging official approval and a place on the staffs of Pacific commands. Leaflets were by far the most prevalent means of delivery, but propaganda agencies also employed loudspeaker and radio broadcasts. The American military has continued to use increasingly sophisticated psychological warfare in more recent conflicts, such as the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Persian Gulf War.


Katz, Barry M. Foreign Intelligence: Research and Analysis in the Office of Strategic Services, 1942–1945. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989.

Simpson, Christopher. Science of Coercion: Communication Research and Psychological Warfare, 1945–1960. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Vaughn, Stephen. Holding Fast the Inner Lines: Democracy, Nationalism, and the Committee on Public Information. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980.

Winkler, Allan M. The Politics of Propaganda: The Office of War Information, 1942–1945. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1978.

Don E.McLeod/a. e.

See alsoCommittee on Public Information ; Federal Agencies ; Intelligence, Military and Strategic .

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psy·cho·log·i·cal war·fare • n. actions intended to reduce an opponent's morale.