The Pentagon Dropped Billions of Leaflets … That No One Read
Korean War propaganda campaign was inept
This story originally appeared on March 20, 2015.
The United States and its allies dropped some 2.5 billion propaganda leaflets during the Korean War. But after the 1953 armistice which halted the fighting, the Pentagon discovered that few enemy troops ever read the messages, let alone understood them.
One reason was that pilots rarely dropped the leaflets in the right places. There were also too many types of leaflets with contradictory and confusing messages. And the Army, more used to fighting and killing, simply wasn’t familiar with how to wage propaganda war.
At least on paper, the leaflet campaign was impressive. Beginning in 1951, U.S. troops created dozens of different types of leaflet artwork. Translators converted the messages into Korean and Chinese — as Beijing had intervened in the war in October 1950.
After American commanders finalized the designs, they passed them off to military intelligence troops. The Army spooks then took the notes to prisoner-of-war camps to get feedback from actual enemy soldiers.
If the artwork was convincing enough, printers in Japan and South Korea started churning them out by the thousands in leaflet form. Eventually, Army units put their own printing presses into action.
Most of the time, the leaflets urged enemy troops to surrender and noted that they would receive humane treatment. Other leaflets declared that North Korean and other communist leaders were sending their troops on a fool’s errand. The designers often added photographs, comic book style art and gruesome imagery.
“Many soldiers are glad to surrender. The U.N. armies sure must treat them well,” reads the translation of one typical notice, showing a cartoon of North Korean troops with leaflets in hand surrendering to a Western soldier. “Yep! U.N. armies guarantee the life of surrender [sic] soldiers.”
“Why must I be led to my death in the next attack?” another leaflet asks, with a grim reaper-like figure leading a blindfolded soldier away from a crying child. “Why should I not live to return to those who love me?”
Initially, U.S. Air Force pilots in F-51 fighter-bombers and T-6 spotters simply dropped the leaflets in crude bundles from their cockpits. Later, American and South Korean crews kicked the twine-bound stacks out of C-47 transports.
In June 1951, the flying branch started dropping M-105 leaflet “bombs.” Each M-105 could carry more than 35,000 notes and split open in the air like a cluster bomb. Unlike the earlier packages, pilots in F-51s and B-26 bombers had an easier time aiming these devices at the right targets.
In addition, troops on the ground could lob leaflets with special artillery shells. Like the bombs, the rounds would burst open in the air and scatter the leaflets.
Between January and June 1951, the Army printed more than 27 million leaflets. Over the next six months, production doubled. The following year, the numbers peaked with an average of 12.5 million leaflets per month coming off the presses. In August 1952, the ground combat branch churned out nearly 20 million leaflets alone.
But in talking with prisoners of war, Army officers discovered that many had never even seen any of the leaflets. Part of the problem was the American psychological warfare troops’ lack of experience.
“Psywar, as old as it is in human warfare, is still comparatively new to the United States Army,” U.S. Army psywar officers complained in a report completed nearly four months after the armistice.
“Somewhat like the few cavalrymen who still look askance at the tank, the Army is filled with individuals who think psywar is something for college professors with which the Army should not be cluttered up.”
Though the Army used deception and propaganda during World War II, it continued to see killing enemy troops as its most important job. Writing and talking to the opponent just wasn’t a priority.
At the same time, the Army was under enormous pressure to produce as many leaflets as possible.
With the Army ambivalent to the whole strategy, the branch had few resources for language and other vital training. In turn, Chinese and Korean translators often had trouble converting the spirit of the messages using more culturally appropriate words and phrases.
When left to craft leaflets on their own, the Army complained their South Korean allies were too focused on their own political agendas — such as decrying the Soviet occupation of the region after World War II — more than the current conflict.
“The total number of themes made for a bewildering diversity of stimuli which, had the enemy been bent on reacting to them, would have had him spinning in circles,” the 1953 report noted.
In Korea, “performance has ranged from the unplanned … the unorthodox and all the way to the inept,” the officers lamented. “Units reported to be under self-induced pressure to produce propaganda under any and all considerations.”
Even more problematic, the language on leaflets and in radio broadcasts was often too complicated for the North Korean and Chinese troops, many whom were illiterate. The wording was considered “too ‘high flown’ [and] ‘over audience’s heads,'” the review added.
Of course, none of these factors even came into play if the enemy never saw the messages. The Pentagon didn’t research the best places to drop the leaflets, and its method of “blanketing dissemination” over wide areas was completely ineffective. When dropped from high altitudes to avoid enemy fire, crews had little control over where the bundles might fall — and the specially-made bombs weren’t much better.
Either “the enemy is walking about in piles of leaflets up to his ankles … [or] the billions of leaflets are being wasted on untenanted terrain,” the report stated.
The Army officers said they did succeed in cutting down the number of different themes and curtailing the overall production of leaflets by the end of the war. This made the effort more focused on both fronts. In the first six months of 1953, units produced less than 20 million leaflets.
The report also argued for more and better training for future conflicts, especially when it came to various cultural sensitives. After blindly littering the leaflets all over Korea, the technical side of things would have to improve.
In 1961, the Army’s 7th Psychological Warfare Group published a manual on how to drop leaflets from the air. The handbook contained suggestions on what routes to fly and detailed charts for how far the notices might drift in the wind at certain altitudes.
Unfortunately, the Army suffered many of the same problems during the Vietnam War. Often hampered by a lack of cultural understanding and historical context, and still seen as secondary to the traditional business of fighting, the Pentagon’s efforts to win “hearts and minds” during the conflict quickly became a punchline.
Still, leaflets remain a tool in Army and Air Force arsenals. On Nov. 15, 2015, the flying branch dropped notices in Arabic near Abu Kamal in Syria as part of the air war against the Islamic State’s petroleum industry. The messages warned civilian oil truckers to abandon their vehicles or die.
Hopefully, the Pentagon’s flyers were more effective in Iraq than they were in Korea and Vietnam.