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PAPER BULLETS - A brief story of psychological warfare in World War II

Leo J. Margolin

Field representative of the Overseas Branch, United States Office of War Information, attached to the Psychological Warfare Branch, Allied Force Headquarters, as news editor, 1943-1945.


Margolin writes:

Psychological warfare is a fancy word for propaganda. Both mean the same thing: use of words and ideas as a weapon of warfare against the enemy.
Until we got into the shooting phase of World War II, we had held the short end of the straw in world psychological warfare, principally because Americans are as allergic to the word "propaganda" as is a fish to a pile of dry sand. We were raised on cold milk, ice cream sodas and baseball. Propaganda was never consciously part of our diet.

To Americans, propaganda has always meant a horrible, nasty word like "spit." It always had a foreign meaning and we considered it good only for foreigners. Yet we Americans have been exposed to propaganda under a different name in our everyday life. We call it advertising.

Propaganda, or advertising, or psychological warfare, has been one of the most effective weapons of this war on our side. Directly and indirectly it has saved thousands of American and Allied lives. At the same time, Propaganda almost defeated us before we hit back.

Although advertising generally is not connected with Propaganda, advertising is nothing more than a respectable name and form for propaganda. Selling an idea to chew only a certain brand of gum, or drive only a certain make of car, is propaganda, not too far removed from selling an enemy soldier or people the idea of surrender because their cause is hopeless.
Because advertising is decorated in four beautiful colors and comes on slick paper with slick-sounding words, doesn't purge it of what it is: Propaganda to sell you a product or an idea.

Uncoded Nazi leaflet used against allied soldiers in Holland
Picture. Uncoded tactical Nazi leaflet used against allied soldiers
in Holland and Belgium around Christmas 1944.
A perfect example of the potency of advertising as propaganda is the phenomenal success of the electric refrigerator called "Frigidaire." So effective has been Frigidaire's advertising that nine out of ten people owning a mechanical refrigerator will refer to their refrigerating unit as a "Frigidaire," although it may be an Electrolux, which runs by gas; a Philco, a GE, a Hotpoint, or a Cold Spot. Frigidaire's advertising geniuses have adroitly, although indirectly, sold the consumer public the idea that an electric refrigerator can be only a "Frigidaire."
And via the same propaganda route we refer to chilled gelatin dessert as "Jello," which is a smartly advertised trade name, and in discussing slide fasteners we invariably call them "Zippers" although that too is an advertised brand name.

A good test of the effectiveness of propaganda as reflected in advertising is to ask any American what products he connects with the slogans "The Pause That Refreshes," "99 and 44/100 per cent pure," and "Not a Cough In a Carload."
You would think there was something wrong with anyone who couldn't give you the answers "Coca Cola," "Ivory Soap" and "Old Gold Cigarettes" in quick succession.

Because we failed to connect propaganda with advertising, we made our first mistake in World War II by either ignoring it or brushing it off as good only for use by the British, the French or the Russians. Sometime after the shooting started we caught on fast because Americans, when they must, get very realistic and very mad.

It never occurred even to advertising - conscious Americans that pieces of paper imprinted with ideas in words and pictures could be used for anything except selling refrigerators, Coca Cola, chewing gum or for making spitballs.

We know now - with the spared lives of thousands of American soldiers as indisputable proofthat these same words, properly put together and delivered to the right people at the right time, have helped us immeasurably to win the military part of the global war.
The war of words and ideas as part of total warand not as a weapon of warfare exclusivelyremains to be won. Like advertising all psychological warfare is cumulative. And like mustard gas, which clings to the ground for months after battle, psychological warfare and its poison of hate and distrust linger on for years.

Today, that poison, spread by words and ideas, hangs like so much mustard gas not only over Germany and Japan from whence it emanated, but over the entire world. The poison is ready at all times and is sufficiently potent to destroy the unwary. The best defense against this weapon is a complete knowledge of what it is, how it works, what are its objectives, and what and where have been its successes.

If you are unable to read some of these sources, you can copy and paste the texts in a free online translator. The resulting translations are sometimes not perfect, but will still give you a good understanding of what is written.

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