A History of Modern-Day
Psychological Warfare and Operations


Southwest Minnesota State University



Over two thousand years ago, the great Chinese Military Strategist Sun-Tzu (1993) wrote the following: “It is best to keep one’s own army, battalion, company, or five-man squad intact; to crush the enemy’s army, battalion, company, or five-man squad is only a second best. So to win a hundred victories in a hundred battles is not the highest excellence; the highest excellence is to subdue the enemy’s army without fighting at all” (Sun-Tzu, 1993, p. 111). These writings from one of history’s greatest military strategists still ring true today. Modern-day warfare is still concerned with keeping their ranks intact a much as possible. In twentieth century and modern conflicts such as World War II, The Korean Conflict, the Vietnam War, the Persian Gulf War, Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and various peacekeeping missions throughout the world, psychological warfare and operations have played major factors in capturing enemy prisoners and winning over the hearts and minds of both enemy civilians and combatants.

The Army Dictionary and Desk Reference (1999) defines Psychological Operations (PSYOP) as “the full range of political, military, economic, and ideological activities designed to affect the emotions, attitudes, or behavior of friendly or enemy audiences in support of national objectives.” Psychological Warfare (PSYWAR) is defined as “the use of propaganda to negatively influence the enemy’s willingness to fight” (Zurick, 1999, p.187). These definitions are opposite in that PSYOP is more strategic with broad, long term aims in support of general military strategies whereas PSYWAR is more tactical, directed towards the enemy with more immediate, noticeable changes in the enemy’s behavior.   Psychological warfare is only a small element of the broad definition of Psychological Operations.  For the purpose of this writing, these two terms will be used interchangeably due to the fact the term “psychological operations” was not defined until a later date of some of the publications and some of the actions.

Learning by Trial and Error

During the Second World War, psychological warfare was regarded as operations regarding no planning, training or research (Speier, 1948, p. 5). Entrusting mainly men with experience in disseminating news, opinions, advertisements, and entertainment to home populations were used during initial psychological warfare campaigns in the first two world wars which ostensibly was adequate. There was no peacetime agency to plan and/or research psychological campaigns which led to several weaknesses in both organization and conduct of psychological warfare. Therefore, weaknesses in psychological warfare derived form poor coordination of improvised propaganda agencies. There was a lack of adequate standards in the recruitment of personnel and imperfect coordination of propaganda offices with authorities established that made political and military decisions (Speier, 1948). Psychological warfare conducted by the Allied Forces during the Second World War was not as great as it could have been. Deficiencies in coordination and recruitment allowed psychological warfare capabilities to not be fully exploited as they were simply not explored. A major shortcoming of American Propaganda during World War II was that there was a dearth of political planning beyond the news of the week. Civilian agencies were designated to disseminate “information and the truth,” (Speier, 1948, p. 7) and military propaganda units utilized the term “psychological warfare” in influencing the enemy to cease their resistances. Having civilian agencies and military units separated created a large gap between what was researched and what was disseminated on the battlefield.

One PSYWAR campaign that showed effectiveness during the Second World War occurred shortly after the D-Day invasion at Normandy in June of 1944 (Riley, Cottrell, 1957). Leaflet shells containing surrender leaflets fired from artillery positions brought forth six German Military personnel carrying the leaflets surrendering to the American forces. Warning leaflets, warning civilians and opposing forces of a coming attack, were dropped from aircraft before an attack but the messages were not always well heeded (Riley, Cottrell, 1957). French civilians, recovered from what used to be their village, were asked if they saw any leaflets dropped prior to the attack and the message was in the affirmative. Although the message on the leaflet was comprehendible, the villagers thought the message was not for them, they thought the wind carried the leaflets from another battle area. This example went to show PSYWAR units that printed material must be in a format familiar to the target audience (Department of the Army, 1994, p. J-1) meaning that to target specific villages or area, these areas had to be specifically addressed on the product.

When planning for psychological warfare campaigns, there were many different variables that entered into each operation (Doob, 1949). Committees were created to pretest products in order to gauge responses of target audiences, making psychological warfare less artistic and more scientific. However, these sample audiences would either well represent the target audience or not represent them at all. Pretesting helps make important decisions about PSYOP materials (Department of the Army, 1994, p. 10-24). A sample audience is selected through random selection process in order to get a good example of the population; the sample is large enough to well represent the population. With the sample selected, the PSYOP Task Force determines the effectiveness of the media produced. Tactical PSYOP Teams, spread throughout the campaign theater, go out on missions conducting surveys and showing sample products to the population, information is sent up the chain of command and a decision is made to whether or not utilize the product or products tested.

Modern Day PSYOP

From a psychological operations viewpoint, the Korean Conflict was the most significant war fought between Western Democracy and Communism (Kim, 2003, p. 29). It was the first war completely fought on the Asian continent and therefore differences in language, customs, climate, and terrain created risks for soldiers both physically and psychologically. Once again, the United States suffered many humiliating propaganda defeats; up to twenty-one American prisoners of war refused to be repatriated allegedly due to the Communist’s indoctrination programs, estimates between 33% to 70% of American prisoners of war either cooperated or collaborated with their captors, one United States infantry officer—over a Communist-controlled radio station in Seoul—denounced his government (Kim, 2003).

The United States, at the beginning of the Cold War, had many anti-Communist fears. Fears such as Communism as an ideology may have intrinsic superiority to Western democracy (Kim, 2003), that the United States was fighting from a handicapped position due to historical ties with colonialism, fear of the ubiquitous Communist propaganda apparatus was expressed by top political, military, and communication leaders of the United States, and fear of an enemy civilian population that may not be able to distinguish between lies and truth. This final fear was strong due to the number of illiterate people in third world nations that receive their information through oral propaganda of local agitators and people influenced by them. Only a few key communicators faithful to the cause would get the word out and they would spread their propaganda to a larger audience.

Tactics were utilized by United States and United Nations forces during the Korean Conflict based on what President Truman referred to as “the campaign of truth” (Kim, 2003, p. 37). Tactical use of loudspeakers and radio broadcasts were utilized to disseminate information to the masses, but leaflets became the primary means of winning the hearts and minds of enemy troops and civilians (Kim, 2003, p. 37). Leaflets were dropped by means of leaflet bombs, containing approximately 30,000 leaflets apiece (Department of the Army, 1994, p. G-15), from B-29 bomber planes over Communist-held territories and C-47 cargo planes over United Nations-held territories, 105-mm mortar shells containing 738 leaflets apiece were utilized to shell the enemy with truth and information, and ground patrols disseminated leaflets by hand to the local populaces. These techniques, especially air-dropping leaflets, had a great advantage over Communist forces as they were not able to control the airspace.

To determine if the use of psychological operations during the Korean Conflict was effective, research experts were recruited by the Operations Research Office to develop and carry out PSYOP relevant research evaluations of several aspects of psychological warfare utilized in Korea on captured prisoners of war (Andrews, Smith, Kahn, 1954). Nine factors were chosen for the research; a. the degree to which the individual was in accord with the ideology and aims of the People’s Government before the war, b. degree and frequency which the individual had experienced fear during battle, c. degree to which the individual felt poorly treated and physically cared for by his own forces during the war, d. the amount and intensity of direct battle in which the individual was involved, e. the amount of U.N. propaganda of any kind received by the individual, f. the total amount of propaganda per medium during the war: 1. leaflets 2. loudspeaker 3. radio, g. relative proximity of the propaganda received to action in front line battle, h. degree of defection or change in accord in the individual, and i. degree to which the individual was willing to or sought to surrender peacefully as opposed to forceful capture at the time taken prisoner (Andrews, Smith, Kahn, 1954). These Surveys were translated to Korean by recruited college students from Korea and Japan (Andrews, Smith, Kahn, 1954) and then the results were translated back into English. Scales were designed to measure the stance of the individual on each factor and then each factor was cross referenced with the other factors to achieve results. Results showed that psychological warfare did offer some effective influences on enemy [Asian] troops independent of the lowered morale of the Communist forces (Andrews, Smith, Kahn, 1954).

With the knowledge gleaned from the Korean Conflict, the United States, when involved in the Vietnam War, created and disseminated PSYOP products similar in a way to that in Korea. However, the use of loudspeakers was more prominent. Aircraft were not only used to drop leaflets as they were in Korea, they were also used as loudspeaker platforms. The United States Air Force’s 14th Special Operations Wing utilized an O-2B twin engine Cessna aircraft (Rouse) specifically designed for PSYOP related activity. Equipped with loudspeakers and leaflet dispensers, the O-2B aircraft was used to fly just above the treetops carrying a pilot and observer to disseminate PSYOP products, no ordnance other than the truth was dispensed from this aircraft. UH-1H “Huey” helicopters were also equipped with loudspeakers to broadcast messages to the enemy, as dramatized in a famous scene from the motion picture Apocalypse Now (1979) where Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore utilized loudspeakers to play music from helicopters in order to intimidate the enemy before an attack. However, aircraft mounted loudspeakers are limited to their range due to difficulties overcoming the sound of the aircraft itself (Department of the Army, 1994, p. I-10). Loudspeakers have a wonderful advantage over leaflets. Leaflets can be discarded and ignored on the battlefield; an audio message broadcasted over a loudspeaker cannot be avoided. During a broadcast, the opponent becomes a captive audience, unable to escape the message (Department of the Army, 1994, p. I-7).

One of the most influential leaflets utilized by the Americans during the Vietnam War was a modification of a leaflet used in previous conflicts such as World War II and Korea: the “Safe Conduct Pass” (Whittaker, 1997, p. 175).   This specific leaflet guaranteed safe passage of defectors through American and South Vietnamese force’s lines.

Wordless leaflets were also created to combat the illiteracy of some rural Vietnamese communities. However, these wordless leaflets were subject to many misinterpretations. One specific leaflet designed by the Americans showed a “Good South Vietnamese” trying to help kill harmful insects on one side and the other side showed the same “Good South Vietnamese” individual being shot down by the “Bad Viet Cong” (Whittaker, 1997). But, an interview with a defector on the effectiveness of this leaflet displayed a massive misinterpretation; “On Side 1, they are showing him how to spray poison on the crops; on Side 2 the VC are killing this man” (Whittaker, 1997, p. 177).

The next major conflict in United States History, the War in the Persian Gulf to remove Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, played another major role in the development and dissemination of PSYOP products. Loudspeaker operations on the air, on the ground and on dismounted patrols and leaflets were utilized during this operation.

Army Reserve Units from Minnesota, Missouri, Texas, and Arkansas were deployed to provide tactical PSYOP support for the campaign (Rouse).Loudspeaker operations conducted from UH-1H aircraft and HMMWV “Humvee” vehicles provided support and turned the Iraqi forces into a captive audiences.Dismounted ground patrols (soldiers on foot) had a small PSYOP element carrying a LSS-40C “manpack” loudspeaker on missions to increase their effective range of their weapons as well.The M16-A2 rifle, the standard issue weapon of a United States soldier, has a maximum effective range of 800 meters whereas a patrol equipped with a loudspeaker, which has a maximum effective range of 1,000 to 1,300 meters (Department of the Army, 1994, p. 10-4), is at an advantage because the loudspeaker message reaches out farther than the patrol’s bullets.

Leaflets were also utilized in the way they have been utilized in previous conflicts. Warning leaflets of coming attacks, surrender leaflets, even leaflets that looked like Iraqi currency were handed out by soldiers or dropped from the air. One new way leaflets were put on the battlefield was by waterborne operations. Approximately twelve thousand leaflets in sealed bottles depicting a knife-wielding, war ready United States Marine as a tidal wave overcoming the Iraqi forces were dumped off the Kuwaiti Coast by a smuggler from the United Arab Emirates (Rouse).

Psychological Warfare in the United States Military changes with technology. Arial radio broadcasting is a technique employed since after the Persian Gulf War (Rouse). This technique is employed through an air-mobile broadcasting platform known as “Commando Solo” (Rouse). A modified EC-130 from the 193rd Special Operations Wing of the Pennsylvania Air National Guard is able to broadcast radio messages over AM, FM and Shortwave frequencies and television programs over medium, high, very high and ultrahigh frequencies (Rouse). The 4th Psychological Operations Group, the only active-duty component of the United States Army’s Psychological Operations Regiment, produces radio messages to be approved by the State Department then, upon approval; the messages are broadcast to target audiences throughout the campaign.These radio broadcasts are only effective though if the target audience knows when and where to hear the messages. Therefore, leaflets are dropped after broadcasting commences with times and stations for the listener to tune in. Before Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, The Department of Defense deployed Commando Solo to Iraq to broadcast anti-Saddam messages to the Iraqi population (Rouse). Four days after broadcasting began, approximately half a million leaflets were dropped with times and radio stations for the Iraqis to tune in.


Modern-day psychological operations and warfare techniques and procedures may not be well known outside of researchers and personnel directly involved in the production or dissemination of products, but on the battlefield during combat operations, it is difficult not to find a civilian or combatant who hasn’t heard a radio broadcast or seen a leaflet falling from the sky. Some psychological operations are infamous, such as PSYOP involved in the surrender of General Manuel Noriega by blasting rock music and United States PSYOP products over loudspeakers (King, 2004). Psychological operations units have honed their skills through trial and error and the use of modern technology into a fine science of knowing what to say and how to employ operations. What Sun-Tzu wrote over two thousand years ago still rings true today; subduing the enemy’s army without fighting at all is the greatest victory.


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