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Propaganda for the World; Propaganda for the Enemy

North Korean prisoners of war exercise in a South Korean and U.S. prison. U.S. military and propaganda officials used images such as these to highlight the humane treatment of prisoners and show the advantages of democracy compared to communism. Photo courtesy of Department of Defense, Department of the Air Force, “A far cry from the brutal treatment given American prisoners of war by the Communist North Korean forces, is the humane consideration shown captured North Koreans by American and South Korean Armed Forces,” ca. August 10, 1950, Black and White Photographs of U.S. Air Force and Predecessors’ Activities, Facilities, and Personnel, Domestic and Foreign, 1930–1975, RG 342, National Archives and Records Administration, 542194.

This piece is a response to our Call for Submissions, Ending the Forgotten War: The Korean War Armistice at Seventy. For our submission guidelines, click here.

On July 27, 1953, delegates from the United Nations and North Korea signed the Korean War Armistice Agreement, ending the long war (or “police action”) and finalizing plans for the fates of prisoners of war.[1] In Operation Big Switch, the two sides completed their prisoner of war exchanges throughout the remainder of 1953, but the U.S. government hoped that the vast number of North Korean and Chinese prisoners who opted to remain in South Korea rather than be repatriated would be a propaganda coup in the larger Cold War.[2] The United States could then show the rest of the world that communism was so undesirable that soldiers preferred to remain in a foreign, possibly hostile, nation, rather than return to their communist country of origin. While this massive international propaganda campaign focused on convincing allies and neutral nations to support the United States in the Cold War against communism, U.S. forces on the ground waged a propaganda battle of their own, attempting to convince North Korean and Chinese soldiers to surrender to U.N. forces. This lesser-studied propaganda effort often revolved around prisoners of war and demonstrated the broader American goals in the Cold War: propaganda might win hearts and minds the world over, even on the battlefield, by telling the “truth” about American freedom and communist oppression. And it could use prisoners of war to do so.

During the Korean War, the U.S. Army combined propaganda and psychological warfare with traditional combat to entice enemy troops to surrender. Propaganda (the deliberate and systematic attempt to shape cognition and actions of others) and psychological warfare (the use of propaganda during war) were not new, but officials hoped they would be effective weapons in this war and in the larger Cold War.[3] Members of the First Leaflet and Loudspeaker Company (1st L&L), the First Radio Broadcasting and Leafleting Group (1st RB&L), and the Fourth Mobile Radio Broadcasting Company (4th MRB), all part of the Psychological Warfare Division, developed paper leaflets and radio or mobile broadcast material for North Korean Army and Chinese Communist Forces.[4]

Leaflet bombs were one common way to distribute psychological warfare messages to enemy troops. This bomb holds 22,500 leaflets. Photo courtesy of U.S. Army, “Korean War Psychological Warfare,” All Hands collection, Naval History and Heritage Command, NH 97050. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Many of the psywarriors, as they termed themselves, had limited training and knew nothing about their North Korean and Chinese audience. Instead, psywarriors relied on a sense of shared, universal needs, values, and ideals: motivations such as hunger, the need for safety, and the love of family. They also believed that they could simply tell the truth about the United States and the evils of communism to convince their audience to surrender.

Psywarriors believed that truth was essential to U.S. propaganda because of America’s publicly declared dedication to freedom. Many propaganda materials emphasized that the United States had a near monopoly on truth compared to communist regimes. “Truth” furthered the dichotomy that U.S. propagandists wanted to present between the “freedom” of the United States and the “control” of communism. Captain Herbert Avedon, a WWII psywar veteran who took command of the 1st L&L in April 1952, called truth a “weapon,” wielding its great power because it could not be duplicated by communists.[5] “Given enough time for its effects to be felt,” he wrote, “truth will outrange, outgun, outfight falsehood any and every time.”[6] Thus truth was not only part of the process of spreading American freedom, but also a useful tool in the international Cold War.

To ensure their truthful propaganda made its mark, psywarriors turned to prisoners of war to review leaflets and broadcasts to provide feedback. Beginning in March 1951, psywarriors relied on prisoner boards to test propaganda throughout the war.[7] Questionnaires asked prisoners how many leaflets they had seen, how many broadcasts they had heard, and their reactions to these messages.[8] Usually the interrogators had at least a small collection of leaflets and asked the prisoners to review them and comment on them.[9] Leaflet reviews were meant to expose problems with propaganda, such as items that violated Korean or Chinese culture and custom. In addition to asking prisoners to review older leaflets, psywarriors pre-tested leaflets on POWs in a move reminiscent of a focus group. An artist would accompany the interrogator and make changes on the spot based on POW feedback. Psywarriors were not the only group interrogating prisoners, and psywar interrogators often spoke with their subjects after military intelligence had completed rigorous interrogations.[10] Psywarriors greatly stressed the voluntary nature of their POW interviews, but all exchanges between prisoners and their captors were inherently coercive.[11]

Prisoner panels were often critical because they revealed that U.S.-created psywar materials did not match the life experience of their target audience. Official U.S. Army reports indicated that Korean and Chinese prisoners criticized “our color scheme and our ideas of enemy weapons, uniforms, life and customs.”[12] Though propaganda became increasingly colorful over time, the list of critiques that POW reviewers provided meant that psywarriors covered almost no topic successfully. Prisoners regularly reported they did not understand American illustrations that attempted to depict the nationality of Chinese and North Korean figures.[13] Interrogators also learned that common western symbols, such as the hammer and sickle for communism or the United Nations symbol, were not recognizable to Chinese and Korean soldiers.[14] Writing in 1953, one Korean War psywarrior made some alarming comments on U.S. psywar efforts: “I estimate that about 70% of all leaflets prepared in Korea exhibited to some degree this same kind of weakness. In other words they did not speak the language of the enemy either in picture or language.”[15] If Chinese and Korean soldiers did not believe or understand the psywar, how could the United States fulfill its ambitious plans for winning the hearts and minds of the enemy? With all these missteps, how could their messages be credible?

One way that psywarriors tried to prove this credibility again relied on prisoners, but not as testers. Rather, U.S. psywarriors used messages from other POWs and images of prisoners to convince enemy soldiers of the truth and appeal of U.S. propaganda. The 1st RB&L, for example, focused on topics such as POW camp life, how to surrender, prisoner reactions to current war-time events, POW experiences during winter, and “their comparison of life under Communism to life under the freedom of the United Nations.”[16] Though discussing the freedom of the U.N. seems an unlikely topic for prisoners, psywarriors often focused on contrasting governing systems. Prisoners receiving good treatment and preferring imprisonment by an enemy over returning to their own home might convince other enemy soldiers to surrender. It might also convince the world that the United States, the United Nations, and South Korea were on the side of good and democracy. The irony of using imprisoned people to show the value of freedom did not deter psywarriors, who used prisoner of war negotiations to frame the United States as a leading light of freedom compared to communism.

Prisoners were only one part of U.S. psywar efforts during the war, but they highlight the important role of U.S. ideas about truth and its own position in the broader Cold War during Korean War operations. The U.S. psywar program focused on divisions between communism and capitalism while also using emotional appeals for food, safety, and security in their messages to convince enemies to surrender. Despite constant feedback from prisoner of war panels that their messages were not convincing, psywarriors worked at maximum capacity and dropped more than 1.4 billion leaflets over the course of the war.[17] The U.S. psywar effort thus was an extension of the U.S. emphasis on the larger Cold War—but it often came at the expense of understanding the nuances of the people they were trying to persuade, and considering the circumstances that might motivate those people to support the United States.

Katy Doll is an assistant professor of history in the Department of Humanities and Politics at Nova Southeastern University. Her manuscript project examines U.S. overt propaganda and psychological warfare from the 1950s through the 1970s with an emphasis on the Korean War and the Vietnam War.

[1] Korean War Armistice Agreement, July 27, 1953, Treaties and Other International Agreements Series #2782, General Records of the United States Government, RG 11 (National Archives, Washington).

[2] The United Nations sent more than 75,000 prisoners to North Korea and China while the UN received 12,000 prisoners by September 6, 1953, but additional prisoner exchanges occurred as each side had a chance to speak with those prisoners who chose not to repatriate and a few changed their minds. Walter G. Hermes, Truce Tent and Fighting Front (1992), 495–96.

[3] Almost every group has its own definition of propaganda and psychological warfare, so I rely on Garth Jowett’s and Victoria O’Donnell’s overall definition, as well as the definition of Paul M. A. Linebarger, who served as an adviser to the military and had served in WWII propaganda. Garth S. Jowett and Victoria O’Donnell, Propaganda & Persuasion (2012); Paul M. A. Linebarger, Psychological Warfare (1948).

[4] U.S. Armed Forces, Far East and Eighth United States Army, Report on the Psychological Warfare Conducted by the Eighth Army Units in Korea: 25 June 1950 thru 27 July 1953, Feb. 1954; Kenneth Finlayson, “From a Standing Start: U.S. Army Psychological Warfare and Civil Affairs in the Korean War,” Veritas, Journal of Army Special Operations History, 7 (2011), 1–4.

[5] Capt. Herbert Avedon, “War for Men’s Minds,” Military Review, 33 (March 1954), 53–60, esp. 54; Troy J. Sacquety, “Captain Herbert Avedon: Making Psywar a Career,” Veritas, Journal of Army Special Operations History, 8 (2012), 95–101.

[6] Avedon, “War for Men’s Minds,” 55.

[7] U.S. Armed Forces, Far East and Eighth United States Army, Report on the Psychological Warfare Conducted by the Eighth Army Unites in Korea, 12–13.

[8] Ibid., 8 and Annex 4, Section II, 1–2.

[9] Ideally, they had prisoners look at the past 4 months of leaflets. Ibid., 8 and Annex 5, Section II, 1.

[10] U.S. Armed Forces, Far East and Eighth United States Army, Report on the Psychological Warfare Conducted by the Eighth Army Units in Korea, 7.

[11] For more on the realities of prisoner of war experiences, see Monica Kim, The Interrogation Rooms of the Korean War: The Untold History (2019); and Charles S. Young, Name, Rank and Serial Number: Exploiting Korean War POWs at Home and Abroad (2014).

[12] U.S. Armed Forces, Far East and Eighth United States Army, Report on the Psychological Warfare Conducted by the Eighth Army Units in Korea, 17.

[13] Ross F. Collins and Andrew D. Pritchard, “Pictures from the Sky: Propaganda Leaflet Psyop During the Korean War,” Visual Communication Quarterly, 23 (Oct.–Dec. 2016), 210–22, esp. 216.

[14] U.S. Armed Forces, Far East and Eighth United States Army, Report on the Psychological Warfare Conducted by the Eighth Army Units in Korea, 18; Carl Berger, An Introduction to Wartime Leaflets, Special Operations Research Office, The American University operating under contract with the Department of the Army (1959), 132.

[15] Maj. Albert C. Brauer, “Psychological Warfare Korea 1951” (1953), 7.

[16] 1st Radio Broadcasting and Leaflet Group, Command Report Number 15, Nov. 8, 1952, p. 7, folder 2, box 5796, Records of U.S. Army Operational, Tactical, and Support Organizations (World War II and Thereafter), RG 338, ID 37042, (National Archives, College Park, Md.).

[17] U.S. Armed Forces, Far East and Eighth United States Army, Report on the Psychological Warfare Conducted by the Eighth Army Units in Korea, 31. The total number is somewhat debated, with other estimates higher than 2 billion. Capt. Herbert Avedon estimated 14 million leaflets weekly, which results in well more than 2 billion leaflets over the war. Carl Berger estimated more than 2 billion in his study, too. Capt. Herbert Avedon, PsyWar Operational Deficiencies Noted in Korea—A Study, Korea: Office, Chief Psychological Warfare Division, G-3, Headquarters, Eighth U.S. Army, 1953, p. 104,; Berger, Introduction to Wartime Leaflets, 5.

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