An Introduction to Psychological Warfare

leaflet in German
Wikimedia Commons

Psychological warfare is the planned tactical use of propaganda, threats, and other non-combat techniques during wars, threats of war, or periods of geopolitical unrest to mislead, intimidate, demoralize, or otherwise influence the thinking or behavior of an enemy.

While all nations employ it, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) lists the tactical goals of psychological warfare (PSYWAR) or psychological operations (PSYOP) as:

  • Assisting in overcoming an enemy’s will to fight
  • Sustaining the morale and winning the alliance of friendly groups in countries occupied by the enemy
  • Influencing the morale and attitudes of people in friendly and neutral countries toward the United States

To achieve their objectives, the planners of psychological warfare campaigns first attempt to gain total knowledge of the beliefs, likes, dislikes, strengths, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities of the target population. According to the CIA, knowing what motivates the target is the key to a successful PSYOP. 

A War of the Mind

As a non-lethal effort to capture "hearts and minds," psychological warfare typically employs propaganda to influence the values, beliefs, emotions, reasoning, motives, or behavior of its targets. The targets of such propaganda campaigns can include governments, political organizations, advocacy groups, military personnel, and civilian individuals.

Simply a form of cleverly “weaponized” information, PSYOP propaganda may be disseminated in any or all of several ways:

  • Face-to-face verbal communication
  • Audiovisual media, like television and movies
  • Audio-only media including shortwave radio broadcasts like those of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty or Radio Havana
  • Purely visual media, like leaflets, newspapers, books, magazines, or posters

More important than how these weapons of propaganda are delivered is the message they carry and how well they influence or persuade the target audience. 

Three Shades of Propaganda

In his 1949 book, Psychological Warfare Against Nazi Germany, former OSS (now the CIA) operative Daniel Lerner details the U.S. military's WWII Skyewar campaign. Lerner separates psychological warfare propaganda into three categories: 

  • White propaganda: The information is truthful and only moderately biased. The source of the information is cited.
  • Grey propaganda: The information is mostly truthful and contains no information that can be disproven. However, no sources are cited.
  • Black propaganda: Literally “fake news,” the information is false or deceitful and is attributed to sources not responsible for its creation.

While grey and black propaganda campaigns often have the most immediate impact, they also carry the greatest risk. Sooner or later, the target population identifies the information as being false, thus discrediting the source. As Lerner wrote, "Credibility is a condition of persuasion. Before you can make a man do as you say, you must make him believe what you say.”

PSYOP in Battle 

On the actual battlefield, psychological warfare is used to obtain confessions, information, surrender, or defection by breaking the morale of enemy fighters. 

Some typical tactics of battlefield PSYOP include: 

  • Distribution of pamphlets or flyers encouraging the enemy to surrender and giving instructions on how to surrender safely
  • The visual “shock and awe” of a massive attack employing vast numbers of troops or technologically advanced weapons
  • Sleep deprivation through the continual projection of loud, annoying music or sounds toward enemy troops
  • The threat, whether real or imaginary, of the use of chemical or biological weapons
  • Radio stations created to broadcast propaganda
  • Random use of snipers, booby traps, and improvised explosive devices (IEDs)
  • “False flag” events: attacks or operations designed to convince the enemy that they were carried out by other nations or groups

In all cases, the objective of battlefield psychological warfare is to destroy the morale of the enemy leading them to surrender or defect. 

Early Psychological Warfare

While it might sound like a modern invention, psychological warfare is as old as war itself. When soldiers the mighty Roman Legions rhythmically beat their swords against their shields they were employing a tactic of shock and awe designed to induce terror in their opponents. 

In the 525 B.C. Battle of Peluseium, Persian forces held cats as hostages in order to gain a psychological advantage over the Egyptians, who due to their religious beliefs, refused to harm cats. 

To make the number of his troops seem larger than they actually were, 13th century A.D. leader of the Mongolian Empire Genghis Khan ordered each soldier to carry three lit torches at night. The Mighty Khan also designed arrows notched to whistle as they flew through the air, terrifying his enemies. And in perhaps the most extreme shock and awe tactic, Mongol armies would catapult severed human heads over the walls of enemy villages to frighten the residents.

During the American Revolution, British troops wore brightly colored uniforms in an attempt to intimidate the more plainly dressed troops of George Washington’s Continental Army. This, however, proved to be a fatal mistake as the bright red uniforms made easy targets for Washington’s even more demoralizing American snipers.

Modern Psychological Warfare

Modern psychological warfare tactics were first used during World War I. Technological advances in electronic and print media made it easier for governments to distribute propaganda through mass-circulation newspapers. On the battlefield, advances in aviation made it possible to drop leaflets behind enemy lines and special non-lethal artillery rounds were designed to deliver propaganda. Postcards dropped over German trenches by British pilots bore notes supposedly handwritten by German prisoners extolling their humane treatment by their British captors.

During World War II, both Axis and Allied powers regularly used PSYOPS. Adolf Hitler's rise to power in Germany was driven largely by propaganda designed to discredit his political opponents. His furious speeches mustered national pride while convincing the people to blame others for Germany’s self-inflicted economic problems.

Use of radio broadcast PSYOP reached a peak in World War II. Japan's famous "Tokyo Rose" broadcast music with false information of Japanese military victories to discourage allied forces. Germany employed similar tactics through the radio broadcasts of "Axis Sally." 

However, in perhaps the most impactful PSYOP in WWII, American commanders orchestrating the "leaking" of false orders leading the German high command to believe the allied D-Day invasion would be launched on the beaches of Calais, rather than Normandy, France.

The Cold War was all but ended when U.S. President Ronald Reagan publicly released detailed plans for a highly sophisticated “Star Wars” Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) anti-ballistic missile system capable of destroying Soviet nuclear missiles before they re-entered the atmosphere. Whether any of Reagan’s “Star Wars” systems could have really been built or not, Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev believed they could. Faced with the realization that the costs of countering U.S. advances in nuclear weapons systems could bankrupt his government, Gorbachev agreed to reopen détente-era negotiations resulting in lasting nuclear arms control treaties

More recently, the United States responded to the September 11, 2001 terror attacks by launching the Iraq War with a massive “shock and awe” campaign intended to break the Iraqi army’s will to fight and to protect the country’s dictatorial leader Saddam Hussein. The U.S. invasion began on March 19, 2003, with two days of non-stop bombing of Iraq’s capital city of Baghdad. On April 5, U.S. and allied Coalition forces, facing only token opposition from Iraqi troops, took control of Baghdad. On April 14, less than a month after the shock and awe invasion began, the U.S. declared victory in the Iraq War. 

In today's ongoing War on Terror, the Jihadist terrorist organization ISIS uses social media websites and other online sources to conduct psychological campaigns designed to recruit followers and fighters from around the world.  

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Your Citation
Longley, Robert. "An Introduction to Psychological Warfare." ThoughtCo, Dec. 6, 2021, Longley, Robert. (2021, December 6). An Introduction to Psychological Warfare. Retrieved from Longley, Robert. "An Introduction to Psychological Warfare." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 28, 2023).