The advent of electronic media has apparently done little to diminish the use of propaganda leaflets during wartime. Over the first six weeks of the Iraq War, for example, the United States Air Force dropped 31.8 million leaflets, primarily geared toward encouraging conscripts to surrender and oil workers to resist scorched-earth orders. This June 2003 report claims the Iraqi leafleting was a worth the investment, though its evidence is strictly anecdotal. And that got us wondering as to whether anyone’s ever conducted an in-depth study of this particular brand of psyops, or if it’s just something that’s been done on faith since the advent of the airplane.
Our curiosity led us to a fascinating artifact of military scholarship: “Some Psychological Lessons from Leaflet Propaganda in World War II,” published 60 years ago in The Public Opinion Quarterly. The author was the lead writer for all of the American military’s World War II leaflets, and so thus could be expected to know a thing or two about the practice. And after debriefing scores of German civilians after the conflict ended, he drew some rather pointed conclusions about the limits of leafleting:
By far the most important category of targets, however-in point of numbers, at least-is the civilian population that can do nothing to end the war, consisting as it does of persons who cannot even remove themselves from the impact of bombing attacks. To threaten them-however gratifying
it may be to the enemy-hating propagandist-is psychologically unsound. Rather, the propagandist must seek, by continuous analysis of the patterns of life in the enemy country, to discover those actions which the enemy civilian can reasonably take in his own interest, and where his own interest coincides with ours. To find such actions may afford the key to propaganda to enemy civilians. In the absence of that key, most propaganda directed to enemy civilians will have little concrete effect on the course of a war. In fact, when it is considered that military defeats in any event constitute psychological blows of the first magnitude against the enemy civilian, it would seem that, prior to the time when mutual-interest situations begin to obtain, little can be gained from propaganda directed toward enemy civilians in wartime, except by way of building up credibility. Thus our enormous leaflet output which was dropped on Germany during the war, on which so little evidence of effectiveness has been obtained, can really be judged only in terms of whether it built up belief in our essential honesty. This confidence was needed in the final months of the war when we were in a position to exploit mutual-interest situations.
In other words, the only leaflets that have demonstrably positive results are those which a) clearly explain to civilians what they should do to better their lot, and b) list the reasons why such risks are worth taking. The blood and guts stuff, by contrast, is simply self-defeating.
(Image via the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association)