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War propaganda is a set of messages aimed at the morale of its target population. It can be aimed at one's own civil or military population for the purpose of increasing morale, or it can be aimed at the enemy's civil or military population for the purpose of destroying morale. In either case, it is a form of psychological warfare. Although propaganda is often untruthful, it is distinct from disinformation, which is aimed at an enemy's intelligence apparatus.

The Nature of Propaganda

Propaganda can be broadly classified as white, gray or black, and as defensive or offensive propaganda or as counterpropaganda. Propaganda can also be classified by the medium through which it is transmitted,by the nature of its target audience, and by the effect it is intended to produce.

White propaganda is propaganda officially released by a government or military command. No effort is made to disguise its source, and it is most effective when it is truthful. Paul M.A. Linebarger, a U.S. Army psychological warfare officer who wrote a classic textbook on psychological warfare, declared (Linebarger 1954):

Almost all good propaganda — no matter what kind — is true. It uses truth selectively....

The appeal of credible fact is universal; propaganda does not consist of doctoring the fact with moralistic blather, but of selecting that fact which is correct, interesting, and bad for the enemy to know....

Propaganda cannot function in a vacuum framed by moral generalities. The goal must be defined in the light of authentic news or intelligence. The operation can be sustained only if there is enough factual reality behind it to make the propaganda fit the case known or credited by the majority of the listeners counted one by one.

Cover of
                Collier's, 12 December 1942
United States Holocaust Memorial  Museum

WWII propaganda poster of threatening Japanese

Rhodes (1976)

Propaganda that looked like propaganda was almost completely ineffective either at building friendly morale or at destroying enemy morale. The Collier's cover depicting Japan as a fanged bat was probably much less effective than the realistic depiction of a Japanese rifleman taking aim at the viewer. It follows that it was difficult to produce propaganda that was effective at destroying the morale of a nation that knew it was winning or at building the morale of a nation that was watching its cities be destroyed from the air and its ships sunk at sea.

Greater effectiveness was not the only reason for basing white propaganda on the truth. Because white propaganda is an official communication from a government or military command, the exposure of untruths in white propaganda can be very damaging to national prestige. Furthermore, both friend and foe are likely to take seriously the policy implications of white propaganda pronouncements. British propagandists were highly conscious of this fact, and British propaganda was careful to reflect the settled war aims and policies of His Majesty's Government. By contrast, American propaganda too often made promises that could not all be kept, as when OSS propagandists promised support for the Viet Minh at the same time that the Office of War Information was trying to win over the Vichy French. This was less the result of deliberate duplicity than of the fragmented and decentralized nature of the American propaganda effort, which meant that propaganda came from a variety of agencies with different understandings of American policies and war aims.

White propaganda could be a significant source of intelligence for the enemy. If a propaganda campaign began emphasizing the importance of conserving fuel for the war effort, the enemy could infer that coal production was down. If a military command began a campaign aimed at reducing venereal disease, the enemy could infer that there were problems with discipline and morale within the command. If a drive was launched to recruit women for factory work, the enemy might infer that there was a shortage of manpower (though, since no belligerent government ever though it had enough manpower, the usefulness of this particular piece of intelligence is questionable.) Of course, a propaganda campaign might be deliberately tailored to spread disinformation, as when Allied troops scheduled for deployment to the Aleutians were subject to a well-publicized campaign on prevention of tropical diseases.

Reproduction of Japanese black
        propaganda leaflet

Linebarger (1954)

Black propaganda is propaganda whose true source is deliberately disguised. It can be enormously effective: The infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a Czarist Russian forgery created as anti-Semitic black propaganda, remains in circulation over a century after its original publication. During the Pacific War, black propaganda was usually passed off as coming from the enemy government or military commanders. For example, the leaflet shown above appears to be an extraordinarily tactless and insulting set of instructions  to U.S. troops in the Philippines on how to avoid contracting venereal disease from Filipino women. However, this leaflet was actually prepared and surreptitiously distributed by the Japanese Army in an attempt to drive a wedge between the Americans and their Filipinos allies. Other examples of black propaganda included forged instructions to medical officers on how troops might fake illness or injury, which were targeted at ordinary troops to encourage such malingering or create suspicion that others were malingering.

The "Tanaka Memorandum" was a prominent work of black propaganda of uncertain origin. It purported to be a document drafted in 1927 for the Japanese Cabinet outlining a program for conquering the world, beginning with China. It was first published in China in 1929, an English translation was circulated by Chinese organizations in the United States, and the memorandum was mentioned in Capra's Why We Fight series. By 1941, it was widely believed to be genuine, because subsequent Japanese actions in Asia conformed surprisingly closely to the plan outlined in the memorandum. However, no trace of a Japanese original could be found by the occupation authorities in Japan, and most scholars have since concluded that that it was a brilliant forgery. Just who was responsible for it remains uncertain; the most likely candidates are the Chinese or the Russians, though there is a very slight chance it was produced by the British. Whatever its actual origin, it is still presented as authentic in the schools of 21st century mainland China.

Grey propaganda falls somewhere between the extremes of white and black propaganda. In most cases the source of the propaganda is simply left unspecified. Gray propaganda included information fed to news organizations of neutral nations that was broadcast without any indications that it came from one of the belligerent governments.

Offensive propaganda was propaganda aimed at destroying the morale of its target audience, which was usually enemy troops or civilians. It could be white, black, or gray. Defensive propaganda was propaganda aimed at sustaining the morale of its target audience, which was usually friendly troops or civilians, and it was almost always white propaganda. Defensive propaganda used some of the same methods as peacetime advertising, including branding and sloganeering. Examples of memoravble propaganda slogans included "V for Victory", "Loose Lips Sink Ships", and "Ships for Victory", the latter the slogan of Maritime Commission propaganda aimed at increasing worker productivity.

Reproduction of Japanese POW propaganda leaflet

Late in the war, the Japanese attempted to counter Allied reports of atrocities with leaflets like the one shown above. While the chauvinism of the text cannot have contributed to its effectiveness, even skillfully produced counterpropaganda was usually a wasted effort. "Really good propaganda does not worry about counterpropaganda. It never assumes that the enemy propagandist is a gentleman: he is by definition a liar. Your listeners and you are the only gentlemen left on earth" (Linebarger 1954).

In fact, the Allies exercised some restraint in using reports of atrocities in their propaganda. "Atrocity propaganda begets atrocity.... Atrocity propaganda reacts against war in general; meanwhile it goads the enemy into committing more atrocities.... Atrocity propaganda heats up the imagination of troops, makes them more liable to nervous or psychoneurotic strain. It increases the chances of one's own side committing atrocities in revenge for the ones alleged or reported" (Linebarger 1954).

Another failing of the leaflet shown above is that the Japanese propagandist who wrote it could not resist the temptation to insult his American audience. As emotionally satisfying as it is to take rhetorical shots at the enemy, it makes for very poor propaganda. The successful propagandist generally aims to build trust through expressions of empathy and magnanimity.

Reproduction of Japanese propaganda leaflet

Reproduction of Japanese "surrender

Propaganda aimed at the enemy generally played to his natural fear of the dangers of combat while downplaying the considerable risks of attempting to surrender. Both Japan and the Allies dropped leaflets over enemy positions encouraging surrender. Those distributed by the Japanese often took the form of a "surrender card" with instructions on how to offer surrender on one side and a pornographic picture of a Western woman on the other. Allied propagandists, in turn, learned to avoid using the word "surrender", which was unthinkable to the Japanese soldier, and substituted "cease resistance" instead on their surrender leaflets. These and other leaflets distributed to combat troops were often crude and seem to have rarely been effective for their intended purpose, but they made a nice source of toilet paper. 

The Allies learned by trial and error that criticisms of the Japanese leadership or war aims were rarely if ever successful at inducing surrender. Leaflets or broadcasts that emphasized the hopelessness of the Japanese position and the pointlessness of further resistance, and which promised good treatment to those that surrendered, were more effective, especially when euphemisms such as "accept U.S. protection" in place of "surrender" were used.

Photograph of women preparing leaflet

Linebarger (1954)

Propaganda could be, and was, transmitted through almost every conceivable medium. Leaflets and posters, such as those reproduced here, were a very common medium used for almost every kind of propaganda in almost every theater. Defensive propaganda leaflets and posters were straightforward to distribute, but offensive propaganda leaflets required a delivery mechanism that could reach behind the enemy lines. Although guerrillas in the Philippines were active in distributing propaganda leaflets, these were more typically dispersed from aircraft or artillery. Leaflet bombs and shells became quite sophisticated, with release mechanisms that ensured that the leaflets were distributed uniformly over the maximum possible area. A B-25 could carry seventeen leaflet bombs, each packed with 40,000 leaflets prepared for wide dispersal.

Leaflets intended for some of the less developed areas of southeast Asia and China suffered from the disadvantage that much of the population was unable to read any language. A significant number of leaflets were produced that used cartoon images in place of words to state their message.

Another important medium was radio. This was effective only when the target audience had radios capable of receiving the broadcast, which put the Allies at a serious disadvantage: Private ownership of shortwave receivers, capable of receiving broadcasts from abroad, had been banned in Japan since 1932. It was not until the Allies captured islands close enough to Japan for medium wave broadcasts that a serious radio propaganda effort could be undertaken. By contrast, the Japanese made extensive use of propaganda broadcasts. 

Motion pictures were an important form of defensive propaganda. Some were produced by the government itself, while others were nominally private productions that received various forms of government subsidies and reflected government policies. The American armed services produced a large number of training films for their soldiers and sailors that often had propaganda value.

Other media included cigarettes, match books, or almost anything else that could have a propaganda message printed on it. These were essentially leaflets whose trinket value added to their attractiveness to their target audience. For example,  Organization 136 ran Operation Lucifer, in which thousands of match boxes were dropped over Thailand. The Japanese countered with their own propaganda claiming the match boxes were boobytrapped.

Allied Propaganda

The English word propaganda was originally a neutral term for messages advocating a position or policy. However, following the First World War, there was a backlash against wartime government propaganda, and the word became a pejorative for untruthful or unbalanced advocacy by government or political parties. This was particularly true in the United States, where Allied propaganda was blamed for allegedly drawing the country into an unnecessary war and where the Wilson administration was criticized for having imposed unprecedented wartime restrictions on speech and the press to ensure public support for the government.

The totalitarian governments of the Axis and of communist Russia established ministries of propaganda to manipulate public opinion in their own countries. This reinforced the pejorative connotations of the word in England and the United States, which  may have helped prevent a repeat of the restrictive policies of the Wilson administration during the Second World War. Instead, the majority of the press engaged in voluntary self-censorship of information that could be helpful to the enemy, and criticisms of the Roosevelt administration continued even after U.S. entry into the war. Though the attack on Pearl Harbor guaranteed that there would be little criticism of the decision to go to war, criticisms of its conduct were occasionally quite sharp, particularly in the Republican press.

Another factor in the relatively free operation of the American press during the Pacific War was the attitude of Attorney General Francis Biddle, who held libertarian views on freedom of expression. Biddle ordered federal attorneys not to bring charges against individuals who demonstrated against the war, such as a young man in Chicago who was fined $200 for disorderly conduct by a local judge when he booed a newsreel of Roosevelt. Biddle's reluctance to pursue sedition charges against outspoken opponents of Roosevelt did not please the president, but it helped preserve a free press during the war years.

The British propaganda effort was well-organized and skillful, and it likely made a significant contribution to winning the war in Europe. The Political Warfare Executive (PWE) coordinated all external propaganda and included representatives of the the armed services, the Ministry of Information, an the Foreign Office. Actual propaganda operations were left to the Ministry of Information and the British Broadcasting Corporation. The British propaganda effort was thus backed by clear policies and worked towards coherent propaganda objectives. However, the British were largely focused on the European war, and only limited resources were available for the war in the Far East.

By contrast, the American propaganda effort was clumsy and fragmented until 1943, and while it improved greatly thereafter, there was never a single coordinating agency comparable to the PWE. The U.S. Army was almost completely unprepared to wage psychological warfare in early 1941. There was not a single full-time psychological warfare officer in the Army from 1925 to 1935, and from 1919 to 1929 there were only two War College papers on the subject. However, on 11 July 1941 Roosevelt named William Donovan as Coordinator of Information, and his office became known as COI. COI was primarily a strategic intelligence organization, but Donovan had become convinced of the importance of psychological warfare while in Belgrade on a mission from Roosevelt to encourage the Serbs to resist the Germans. Acting without clear authorization, Donovan set up the Foreign Information Service (FIS), which began to feed propaganda to the American press. At about the same time, the Army organized its own secret propaganda unit, the Special Study Group (SSG).

FIS and SSG had a rather wary relationship until 13 June 1942, when Roosevelt set up the Office of War Information. OWI had authority over all domestic propaganda and all white propaganda outside the Western Hemisphere, and it took over FIS from COI. COI itself was replaced by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which retained the intelligence gathering functions of COI, continued to carry out black propaganda operations, and carried out subversive operations in cooperation with the military. The War Department renamed SSG the Psychological Warfare Branch, but this was first split between OWI and the Army and then abolished completely, leaving Army psychological warfare operations in the hands of regular staff officers in the Operations Division of the Army General Staff.

By 1945 this hodgepodge of agencies had somehow been transformed into a propaganda apparatus capable of pursuing coherent objectives. The Army revived its psychological warfare effort as the Propaganda Branch, which worked closely with OWI and OSS, and the major theater commanders had each worked out their own relationships with local OWI and OSS representatives. The latter arrangements reflected the growing realization that "Psychological warfare is a function of command" (Linebarger 1954).

Wartime propaganda poster

World War II propaganda poster

Wikimedia Commons

Poster for Thirteenth Naval
                District, United States Navy, showing a rat representing
                Japan, approaching a mousetrap labeled "Army Navy
                Civilian," on a background map of the state of

Wikimedia Commons

Allied propaganda aimed at the Allied public typically sought to vilify the enemy, to amplify the sense of threat posed by his armed forces, and to appeal to the population's patriotism. It varied from benign admonitions to work harder "to help bring the boys home" to blatantly racist depictions of the enemy. The latter played on ugly stereotypes of the Japanese, emphasizing their Oriental features and often depicting them as rats, snakes, or other disgusting animals. It is difficult to accurately assess the effectiveness of such propaganda, but the success of ordinary advertising suggests that such propaganda could have a significant effect. Unfortunately, this effect may not always have been helpful: Japanese propagandists saw to it that the more virulent American propaganda was passed on to America's Chinese allies, who did not much care for such depictions of Asians.

White propaganda from the Office of War Information was rarely blatantly false, but it was selected to promote morale and sometimes stretched the truth. For instance, the deaths of the five Sullivan brothers in the sinking of Juneau was used for propaganda purposes, but the fact that some of the brothers probably died because their task force dared not linger to search for survivors was omitted. While the decision to sail on may have been the correct military decision, it was not the kind of decision that it was thought would play well with the public. On the other hand, Yamamoto expressed astonishment that the American government had released accurate information on the casualties at Pearl Harbor within a few months of the attack. By contrast, the Japanese Navy routinely exaggerated enemy casualties while concealing its own, sometimes even from the Japanese Army and government.

Ironically, a unique challenge faced by American propagandists was bringing the war home to the American public. The fighting took place at great distances from the home front and the war seemed unreal to many Americans. This may have contributed to the willingness to be candid about setbacks and to permit photographs of casualties to be passed by censors. The Army and Navy reported their total casualties at the end of 1943 to be 115,201, including 21,900 dead, and bluntly announced that much higher casualties were expected in the coming year.

American propaganda was also directed towards the people of the Philippines, where much of the population remained deeply sympathetic to the Allied cause. This propaganda was based on the figure of Douglas MacArthur and took such forms as "Victory Packages" (Bauer 2002):

Items scarce in the Philippines, such as cigarettes, matches, chewing gum, and candy bars, sewing kits and pencils, would be individually packaged with the American and Philippine flags on one side and the phrase "I shall return" over General MacArthur's facsimile signature on the other side. These "victory packages" would be slipped into the Philippines via submarine and distributed throughout the islands.

American propaganda aimed at the Japanese included a Japanese-language newspaper, Jisei, which was dropped by aircraft throughout the operating area of 14 Air Force in southeast Asia. A similar paper, Rakkasan (Parachute News) was distributed in the Southwest Pacific

With the realization that the handful of prisoners of war taken during the early Pacific campaigns included a disproportionate number of Koreans, the Americans began producing propaganda leaflets playing on Korean grievances, attempting to drive a wedge between the Koreans and the Japanese, and encouraging the Koreans to murder their officers or desert to the Americans. These were used in the Marianas in June 1944, along with leaflets targeting Japanese civilians on the islands.

The capture of the Marianas put the Americans within range of medium wave receivers in Japan, and the Americans began a serious effort to broadcast offensive propaganda. Ironically, the mere fact of the loss of Saipan was as psychologically devastating to the Japanese public as the contents of any Allied broadcast.

Iwo Jima stamp
Rhodes (1976)

As the Allied counteroffensive rolled forward, American domestic propaganda became more triumphalist in tone, as illustrated by this postage stamp reproducing a famous photograph of the flag raising on Iwo Jima. The photograph itself had been seen by almost every American and was one of the great iconic images of the war. 

Reproduction of leaflet dropped over Japan

Propaganda Leaflets of World War 2

Allied aircraft began dropping leaflets on Japanese-controlled cities towards the end of the war. On 22 February 1945, the British dropped leaflets on Meiktila warning that it would be raided the next day. This had little effect, particularly as the raid was by only three aircraft and did little damage. Much more successful was the leaflet reproduced above, which named several cities the Americans intended to bomb and urged civilians to evacuate these cities. The translation is:

A Warning to the Japanese People

Would you consider saving the lives of your parents, siblings, friends, and yourselves? If you want to save your lives, read this leaflet thoroughly.

In a few days the U.S. Air Force will bomb military targets in all or some of the cities listed on the reverse side of this leaflet.

In these cities there are military targets or munitions production facilities. The weapons used by the Japanese military authorities in order to extend this hopeless war will be completely destroyed by the U.S. Air Force. However, bombs cannot see, so we do not know where they will land. As you know, we Americans are a humanitarian people and we do not want to injure innocent people. Therefore, please evacuate these cities.

You are not America's enemy. The Japanese military authorities who have gotten you involved in the war are the enemy. The peace that the U.S. is considering is to liberate you from the oppression of the Japanese military authorities. If we liberate you, we will be able to establish a new and better nation for you.

It would be better for you to select new leaders who will end the war and restore peace.

The cities not listed on the reverse side of this leaflet may be attacked, but some or all of the cities that are listed will be attacked.

This is a warning. Therefore, evacuate the cities listed on the reverse side of this leaflet.

This leaflet was not dropped solely for humanitarian reasons. It also was a form of psychological warfare, attempting to induce civilian workers to flee their factories. According to some Japanese civilians interviewed after the war, these leaflets made a profound impression, since they suggested the Japanese military could not protect their own cities even when given advance notice which cities were going to be attacked. The credibility of the leaflets was greatly enhanced by the fact that the Americans were able to make good on the threat.

In the final days of the war, leaflets with the text of the Potsdam Declaration were dropped over Japanese cities, along with copies of the Japanese government's reply seeking more moderate terms. This evidence that the Japanese government was negotiating for peace was political dynamite, and likely increased the political pressure on the Emperor to intervene to end the war. The chief of the Japanese Police Bureau wrote that "The leaflets grew in influence until they were widely believed in June and July 1945 and, coupled with the bombing, were very effective, particularly those announcing forthcoming specific bombings" (Wolk 2010). Linebarger (1954) considers these leaflets the single most successful propaganda operation of the entire war. However, Craig (1967) suggests that the leaflets could have backfired, creating support for a coup d'état among hardliners in the Army.

Allied propaganda sometimes suffered from faulty translation and a lack of understanding of Japanese culture and character. American propaganda efforts suffered from gaffes such as placing chopsticks alongside plates the way Americans place their silverware: The Japanese set both chopsticks at the bottom of the plate. The language of early Allied translations was described by one Japanese scholar as resembling a dialect "as archaic as Chaucer." As Linebarger (1954) explains it:

In China, the author sat in with an expert on medieval and modern Japanese art, who was writing leaflets which were to be dropped on the Japanese garrisons of the Yangtze cities. The expert wrote pure, dignified Japanese, but the Chinese-Japanese language experts brought up the point, "Would the Japanese common soldier understand this kind of talk?" For a while, we had no plain-spoken Japanese at hand, and we had to send our Japanese leaflets form Chungking up to Yenan, where the Japanese Communists read the leaflets and wrote back long detailed criticisms.

Astonishingly, the leaflets dropped during LeMay's strategic bombing campaign were drafted by carefully selected Japanese prisoners of war who, "because of their very recent participation in the Japanese mentality, are best able to appeal to their compatriots" (Frank 1999.) U.S. Navy interrogator Lieutenant Otis Cary, who had been born on Hokkaido to missionary parents and attended Japanese schools through fourth grade, took a leading role in recruiting Japanese POWs to assist in drafting surrender leaflets. He acted out of his own sincere desire to see a new democratic Japan arise from the ashes of war, as did his charges, who told him that "We are doing this for ourselves. It's not for your side and we are not going to become your pawns. Don't misunderstand us" (quoted in Straus 2003). Cary organized a group of POWs at Iroquois Point, Oahu, who adopted a constitution stating in part (Straus 2003):

We have decided to manifest our unceasing patriotism in a small way by helping the American military campaigns and propaganda war. When the war ends and Japan resumes its path toward a bright future, we will be in our homeland, and we swear to do our utmost for its reconstruction.

The Iroquois Point group was deeply disturbed by the nuclear bombings, but were impressed that a number of American religious leaders spoke against the attacks and that their protests were reported in the press.

Hollywood. An important source of unofficial American propaganda was Hollywood, which produced dozens of war-themed movies of various quality. The best, such as Casablanca, were genuinely great films where the propaganda was relatively unobtrusive. Others, including many of the films that sought to build sympathy for the Russians or Chinese, were heavy handed and unconvincing. This is another illustration of truthfulness making for more effective propaganda: Neither Russia nor China was anything like a modern liberal democracy, so attempts to depict them as partners in a free world were certain to be unconvincing. France, by contrast, had a long history of liberal democracy and was widely regarded as the United States' oldest ally, making the depiction of Vichy North Africa in Casablanca much more palatable.

While Hollywood combat films were often marred by inaccuracy and cheap heroics, there were notable exceptions. Wake Island and Guadalcanal Diary made reasonable efforts to accurately depict combat within the limitations of 1940s Hollywood movie making. In addition, Hollywood produced a number of documentaries, some of which (such as Fighting Lady) incorporated considerable combat footage and otherwise strove for accuracy. The most unrealistic part of these films was probably the lack of realistic depictions of American casualties: It was not until 1943 that military censors began to pass photographs of dead American soldiers, and even then these were carefully composed to avoid showing mutilated corpses or dead men's faces.

American troops were largely uninterested in war films per se, preferring sheer escapism, preferably with abundant pretty actresses. However, one cannot leave the subject of American propaganda films without mentioning the Why We Fight series, produced by famed Hollywood director Frank Capra for the U.S. War Department. Originally produced to be shown to American soldiers deploying overseas, the films were later shown in theaters to the general public. The films were largely montages of newsreels, including a considerable amount of Axis propaganda footage turned against its original producers. The newsreel footage was interspersed with animations (produced by Walt Disney) and some reenactments, interviews, and lectures. The first three films of the seven-film series, Prelude to War, The Nazis Strike, and Divide And Conquer, are surprisingly good history and illustrate yet again that truth makes for better propaganda. The films on China and Russia were the weakest of the series, for the same reasons that most other wartime films on China and Russia were unconvincing.

China. Perhaps it should not come as a surprise that the Chinese mounted a highly sophisticated and effective propaganda effort against Japan. This was true both of the Communists and of the Kuomintang government. Chinese propaganda was highly successful at portraying the Japanese actions in Manchuria in 1931 as violations of "international public justice." As Iriye (1987) put it:

A country which, throughout most of the 1920s, had been divided, unstable, and revolutionary, challenging the existing order of international affairs, was almost overnight transforming itself into a champion of peace and order, pitting itself against another which hitherto had been solidly incorporated into the established system but which could now be accused of having defied it.

Again, much of the reason this propaganda was so successful was that there was a fair amount of truth to it.

The Kuomintang vice-minister of propaganda, Hollington K. Tong (Dong Xianguang), had trained at the Missouri School of Journalism and Columbia University and had worked with several major American newspapers. He worked skillfully and effectively with foreign journalists, whom he encouraged to report from the front line to build sympathy for the Chinese resistance to Japan. His efforts may have boomeranged after the Americans entered the war and large numbers of American advisors and diplomats encountered the grim realities of wartime China.

The Communists sometimes gave Japanese prisoners excellent food, women, and gifts, then took them to the front lines to talk other Japanese into desertion. Japanese phone lines were tapped and the Communists took the trouble to learn the names of the Japanese operators before breaking into the conversations. The Kuomintang sent a number of bombers over Nagasaki in 1937, which dropped leaflets denouncing the bombing of cities rather than dropping bombs. Chiang kept a number of Japanese on his political staff, called for the Japanese to be permitted to retain their Emperor after the war if they wished, and saw to it that regular broadcasts in Japanese were made from Chungking. How much of this was psychological warfare, and how much was simply keeping Chiang's negotiating options open, is difficult to say.

Communist propaganda was not directed only at the Japanese. Some of the most effective Chinese Communist propaganda was directed at the western Allies for the purpose of shifting their support from Chiang and the Kuomintang to the Mao and the Communists. Mao was able to manipulate naive Western journalists, such as Edgar Snow, to portray the Communists as moderate agrarian reformers waging a highly successful guerrilla campaign against the Japanese, and Mao himself as "a moderating influence in the Communist movement where life and death were concerned" (quoted by Boot 2013), none of which was remotely true. Nevertheless, Snow's Red Star over China did nearly as much as Pearl Buck's The Good Earth to shape American views of China and, ultimately, the outcome of the Chinese Civil War.

Japanese Propaganda

The Japanese were contemptuous of propaganda or "thought war" as late as 1937. However, the war in China engendered an interest in propaganda among the military leadership, which began to enthusiastically duplicate the methods of the Nazi regime in Germany. When an Army general, Araki Sadao, became Minister of Education in 1935, military indoctrination of youth became widespread.  Domei was established as the government press agency in 1936 and given a monopoly on foreign news. By 1939 university professors were appointed by the Ministry of Education rather than the faculty. Western ideas were condemned as "dangerous thoughts" and the Japanese were told that Hollywood gangster movies portrayed everyday life in America. The Japanese civilian propaganda effort was heavily centralized under the Joho Kyoku or Japanese Board of Information.

The Army ran its own propaganda program under the auspices of Eighth Section, Second Bureau of the Army General Staff, which was in charge of covert operations. The effort was directed principally by Major Fujiwara Iwaichi, who had helped set up the collaborationist Wang Ching-wei government and had studied the writings of pan-Asian academic theorist Okawa Shumei. Fujjiwara traveled extensively through southeast Asia in the spring of 1941 and was responsible for the pan-Asian theme of much Japanese propaganda.

Reproduction of Japanese propaganda poster

Japanese propaganda aimed at its own civil population had both similarities to and differences from Allied propaganda. Well before war broke out with the West, Japanese propagandists began speaking of an ABCD (American-British-Dutch-Chinese) encirclement of Japan, thus shifting popular resentment of wartime shortages from the government to a sinister foreign conspiracy. The Pacific War was depicted as a glorious struggle to liberate Asia from Western colonialism and racist themes played a part. However, much Japanese propaganda celebrated the accomplishments of Japanese fighting forces, often employing blatant falsehoods, as previously noted. The Japanese public were fed stories of aviators whose unconquerable spirits continued to fly and fight even after their bodies were dead. After Japanese fortunes turned for the worse, Japanese propaganda filmmakers began depicting soldiers fighting hopeless struggles in isolated island outposts. Such films would likely come across as antiwar to a Westerner, but to the Japanese they invoked the spirit of self-sacrifice found in such Japanese classics as The Forty-Seven Ronin. Curiously,  Japanese propaganda sought to depict Japanese soldiers as civilized and merciful to Allied prisoners of war, in very sharp contrast with reality.

Japanese psychological warfare aimed at Chinese troops allegedly included the use of Chinese-speaking Japanese in civilian dress, who advanced ahead of Japanese forces to spread rumors of the terror of the approaching Japanese Army and thereby sow panic among the retreating Chinese forces. Linebarger (1954) alleges that entire regiments of Chinese militia were panicked out of existence in this manner, which is not implausible given their poor training and morale. Propaganda efforts in China took a new direction with the Ichi-go offensive, during which the Japanese dropped large numbers of leaflets declaring that their enemies were Britain and the United States, not China, and that surrendering Chinese would be treated well. An effort was made to impose strict discipline on the Japanese forces, who were forbidden to engage in the looting, rape, and destruction that had marked their campaigns earlier in China.

Japanese propaganda poster

Japan Focus (2008-3-10). Fair use may apply.

A considerable amount of Japanese propaganda was aimed at subject peoples in the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, itself a propaganda creation. The Japanese sought to replace the use of English in conquered territories with Japanese. In the Netherlands East Indies, they created "The Virgin's Association" in order "to rally all Indonesian girls to cooperate with the Japanese Army" (Rhodes 1976). One cannot help but wonder what form this cooperation was supposed to take.

The Japanese made extensive use of propaganda broadcasts, of which the most famous were those by "Tokyo Rose," actually several Japanese-American women, who broadcast often surprisingly shrewd guesses of Allied dispositions and intentions as a way to break the morale of Allied troops. However, these broadcasts rarely had much effect on Allied morale, particularly since "Tokyo Rose" occasionally was wildly wrong. Nor did it help that "Tokyo Rose" was widely perceived to be a traitor: Allied psychological warfare experts concluded that "It is easier to build up the image of a trustworthy enemy that it is to create trust in a traitor" (Linebarger 1954), and they preferred speakers who either spoke the enemy language flawlessly or who made no effort to conceal their foreign accent.

In 1949, Iva Toguri was convicted of one count of treason for broadcasting as Tokyo Rose. She was imprisoned for six years and fined $10,000.  An American citizen who had been awarded a degree in geology by the University of California, she was visiting in Japan without a valid U.S. passport at the outbreak of war. She refused to renounce her U.S. citizenship but was subsequently pressured into making (fairly innocuous) broadcasts for the Japanese. In the 1970s, investigative journalists uncovered serious irregularities in her treason trial, and she received a presidential pardon.

The Japanese Domei news service continued broadcasting its English-language Morse wireless news service during the war. The stories were ready-edited for newspapers, complete with bylines, and sometimes even with instructions to the American press when the stories should be released. The Americans were so hungry for information about the enemy that Linebarger (1954) claims more Domei stories were published in the United States during the war than had been the case in peacetime. This is not at all implausible: There is nothing like being at war to spur interest in an enemy country.

Like the Allies, the Japanese struggled to produce effective propaganda that would be effective against foreign targets. Early Japanese propaganda sometimes suffered from memorably clumsy phrasing, such as "The remaining British planes took to their heels." Japanese propagandists never really understood how infuriated the Americans were by the "sneak attack" on Pearl Harbor, nor could they understand how even bitter political opponents of Roosevelt could nevertheless support the national war effort.

Overall, Allied propaganda was considerably more effective than Japanese propaganda, for the reasons given by Japanese writer Kato Masuo (Rhodes 1976):

Japan was hopelessly beaten in psychological warfare, not because of any particular adroitness on the part of the Allies, but because the Allies based their propaganda on truth — whereas Japan was unwilling to deal in truth, almost from the outset.


Allen (1984)

Boot (2013)

Craig (1967)

Deacon (1983)

Drea (2009)

Edgerton (1997)

Fleming (2001)

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