My Ph.D. dissertation on the concepts of psychological warfare in the United States during the Second World War originated in the need to investigate the period corresponding to the first years of my life (I was born in 1938) but also to an extremely painful part of world history. I was teaching North American History at the University of Orléans, and I was expected to write a dissertation revealing unknown parts of American history in the early 1940’s.
The reading of The Strategy of Subversion (1) by Paul Blackstock, that deals with psychological warfare in the world after World War II was the first incentive to my work: since American psychological warfare developed in the 1950’s, maybe its roots could be found in the Second World War.
The question was relevant. A look at “new words” listed by the Encyclopedia, Ten Eventful Years for this period revealed that the word “psychological warfare” was born in the United States in 1939. (2). On the other hand, I realized that American psychological warfare agencies had been created in the early 1940s in a context of ideological justification. I suspected that psychological warfare was not something new in the United States at this time, but this was the beginning of its official justification.
This side of the war had been neglected as yet by American historians in its relations to the “inner front”, the front of civilian fighters called “homefront.” Besides, a study of American reactions to the French defeat of 1940 showed me that the word “psychological warfare” had played a determining role in the birth of the word in the United States and in the phrasing of the concept that went with this birth. (3) I saw that here was a real topic.
Looking for a hidden side of history
Feeling that one has found a worthwhile topic is fascinating: one is going to enable little known actors of history to express themselves. This became my conviction when I progressively reconstituted the progress of several American specialists of psychological warfare at the beginning of World War II. Paradoxically, speech specialists had been forgotten by most historians, or rather they had been eclipsed by a great speech specialist, President Franklin Roosevelt, whose radio talks, “fireside chats”, among others, had been very influential, both on the homefront and abroad.
Anyway, although Franklin Roosevelt was a great specialist of psychological warfare, or precisely because he was one, he did not wish his talks to be associated with its concept. The psychological warfare he practiced had to remain absolutely invisible, and not be identified as such: this was great art. So, one had to turn towards recognized specialists of psychological warfare in order to find a definition and a phrasing of the concept.
But one key to the oblivion of specialists of psychological warfare was the confidential side of their work, the more forgotten as the archives from this period were just beginning to be opened to researchers when I started this work in 1972. Neglected public documents and archives that had remained secret for 30 years were going to constitute for me the hidden side of history, and I started this research with the following questions: when the word “psychological warfare” and the phrasing of its concept appeared (in the 1940’s), what was the meaning of this in the ideological history of the United States? Since the official practice of an American psychological warfare was born in the context of a just war, why was there uneasiness about American psychological warfare during the following wars (Korean and Vietnam wars)? I hoped to solve this puzzle by delving into the deep motivations of the ideologues of psychological warfare at the time when agencies of psychological warfare were set up. I was in for a lot of difficulties and surprises.
The First Working Tools
I saw the word and the concept of psychological warfare appear in the midst of the tensions that opposed American isolationists and interventionists at the beginning of World War II. The interventionists’ speeches made up the beginning of my corpus. I went through the popular press, together with the Vital Speeches of the Day for this period. Since the Office of Facts and Figures was created in the summer of 1941, I found in the archives of this agency, documents that revealed the interest of this agency for psychological warfare. For the period following the attack on Pearl Harbor, I worked simultaneously on media and on archive documents in order to find out if the vulgarization of the concept of psychological warfare caused it to be altered.
I also worked on what was available among the documents of the Office of Strategic Services, founded in 1942, dismantled in 1945 and replaced by the CIA in 1947.
I found that the concept itself was not much vulgarized except in political circles. It was the interventionists’ concern to support the creation of psychological warfare agencies while opponents said that this was an un-American concept and practice because of its shadowy side.
In the course of my research, I came across the existence of Fort Bragg in North Carolina, and tried to obtain permission to visit it. [Ed. Note: Fort Bragg was then, and remains, the headquarters of psychological warfare for the US army.] This looked to me as an important part of my research. For some reason the trip never took place. I do not remember if I was refused permission or if I found too much discomfort about getting there. Only later did I understand why this visit was just not meant for me.
The First Conclusions
As I followed the path of the first specialists of psychological warfare at the beginning of the year 1940, I was struck by the similarity of their experiences: they were all disappointed, caught in an endless system of contradictions that kept them prisoners whereas they expected redemption from it. I then realized that for many years I had adopted their motivations and unconsciously suffered with them.I had been progressively drawn into a labyrinth where I nearly lost the leading thread.
It was only at the end of my research that I had to realize that the conditions of objectivity of research had not been fulfilled. In the text I had written, I could not stay away from the actors I put in the forefront.I had admired them for a long time, and I felt that somehow I must withdraw in order to let them speak or write. I had not dared criticize them for this would have caused a personal questioning. As a good French citizen, I was resolutely “interventionist” when I started this work, not realizing that as such, I was not a neutral researcher. I took my approach for granted and did not consider changing it.
I had ended writing with a lot of weariness, and the impression that I had invested a lot of energy for a thin result. Was the assessment of half failure of psychological warfare specialists also mine?
I then remembered that I had always carefully avoided reading texts written by pacifists and conscientious objectors, which are quite different from those written by isolationists. I had no problem with isolationists: their speeches were easy to criticize. But I dared not face the nonviolent viewpoint. I had decided that the nonviolent attitude was just not acceptable under such circumstances. So, I could not afford to waste time or energy in this field.
By the way, what did I know about nonviolence? I only had a few intellectual notions about it, and as yet I had not developed interest for nonviolence.
However I was left with a feeling of dissatisfaction after spending so many years trying to delimit the concepts of psychological warfare. I found it impossible to define them. They constantly escaped me, and this elusiveness, in itself, did not look like a very interesting conclusion. Was not American psy-chological warfare necessary? it must be valuable, somehow. But since I could not find its value, I came to conclude that it was only valuable in that it was considered necessary, like war itself.
The Real Hidden Side of History
The providential reading of a few texts on nonviolence made me suddenly feel that I was nearing important conclusions I had unconsciously sought for so long; I was greatly relieved to read in Joseph Pyronnet’s book Une nouvelle force de frappe: l’action non-violente (4), (a new strike force: nonviolent action)the chapter called “Psychological action and active non-violence” which compares psychological warfare and nonviolence, and clearly shows the difference between them.
A lot of things became clear henceforward. My study of psychological warfare had kept me prisoner in the one-dimensional world of violence. My research had not revealed the hidden face of history, but only one little known side of violence. None of the American texts defining violence had alluded to nonviolence, were it only to criticize it: in this world, it just did not exist. For my study of American psychological warfare, I had looked up to specialists of this field. I could not act differently at a time when I was completely ignorant of my topic.
Now I understood that these studies were loaded from an ideological viewpoint, and that I had been unwittingly drawn into a vicious circle by not being objective towards my field of study. The discovery of the world of nonviolence considerably enlightened my previous research, by contrast. I still had to explore the world of nonviolence and rewrite my dissertation.
The exploration was only a beginning, and still goes on nearly 30 years later, but the rewriting of the dissertation could not wait for so long. The rewriting of the dissertation took me two years. I kept the same material, but I changed my comments on it, introducing the nonviolent approach. A good surprise awaited me too. The world of nonviolence was less alien to me than I expected. I was already involved in a reflexion on Ecology, which is a nonviolent approach to the problems of environment, but before this time I had not seen a possible connection between this field of activity and my academic research for I had not seen the link (in opposition) between psychological warfare and nonviolence in politics, nor the link (in similarity) between politics and ecology. I had not yet understood Jacques Ellul’s books. [Ed. Note: Jacques Ellul, 1912-1994, was a noted French scholar, among whose books are Propaganda, the Formation of Men’s Attitudes (New York: Vintage 1973); and Violence: Reflections from a Christian Perspective (New York: Seabury, 1969).] From this time I was equipped with interesting tools, and I felt more comfortable than previously. I started finding out and revealing the genuine hidden face of history, and found this rewarding.
The New Working Tools
I had not changed my topic, but my topic had changed me, or rather it had enabled me to reach a level on which I felt in agreement with myself, although I might disagree with people around me. I had freed myself from the “lie to oneself” studied by Guy Durandin in Les fondements du mensonge (the basis of lies)(5) . I could then use a tool that enabled me to deal with the corpus with a critical eye.
The strength of the yeast was such that it went beyond the limits of the corpus. A new approach, a new way of dealing with the history of psychological warfare imposed themselves. The matter, enlivened by the tool, was becoming the tool by itself, and I watched as spectator and actor the phenomenon of “intricate hierarchy” already known at this time. This confirmed my thesis (very different from the hypothesis at the beginning): between the end and the means, there is a phenomenon of osmosis. In a creative act there is a confusion between tool and matter. The dissertation itself was becoming the privileged field of application of the ideas developed. According to Marshall McLuhan’s well-known assertion, the canal (or medium) became the message (6).
The Quakers’ Irruption
Discreet and patient, Quakers awaited me at the end of this hectic journey. This was a complete surprise, but it was a good surprise. I then understood that genuine surprises can only be good. When we see the world that surrounds us and what was mainly related by History for centuries, it is saddening, but not surprising that violence endlessly repeats itself.
By eclipsing the history of nonviolence, does not History deprive it of a future as well as a past? But admitting that History only feeds itself with violence, it often unconsciously makes selections in the violences it narrates: that of other people. The persecutions endured by Quakers in the 17th century, without affecting their inner serenity, were often forgotten by American official history. In the United States, Puritans wrote History as they had made it: with prejudice.
The New Conclusions
This intellectual and spiritual journey led me to study the subtle relations that connect two opposed trends: psychological warfare and nonviolence. The research is still going on thirty years later. I joined the Religious Society of Friends in 1984, and I realized that I had also idealized Friends. But I am very fond of their philosophy, and although the practice is sometimes disappointing, I still stay there for I can find no better philosophy, and the difficulties of the path are a good incentive to inner life. Besides, the exploration of Quaker history in the colonial period of the United States is fascinating, and I shall be ready to write about this in another article.
As I put the finishing hand to my article I learn that the archives of OSS are being declassified in Washington, D.C.: the American national archives have just published on August 14th, 2008, 35,000 documents and personal files, revealing the names of 24,000 spies and employees of OSS . This will no doubt unleash a lot of publications. But the other side of the story, the discreet but not shadowy nonviolent practices during the Second World war might well be omitted as elements for comparisons. Dommage! (too bad!).
1. Paul Blackstock, The Strategy of Subversion. Manipulating the Politics of other Nations. Chicago, Quadrangle, 1964.
2. Walter Yust, ed. Ten Eventful years. A record of Events of the years Preceding, Including, and Following World War 11, 1937-through 1946. Londres, Encyclopedia Britannica, 4 vol., 1947, t.4, .634.
3. J. Henriette Louis, «Réactions américaines la défaite française de 1940: Témoignages et documents». Revue d’histoire de la deuxi me Guerre mondiale n°119, juillet 1980, 1-16.
4. Joseph Pyronnet, Une nouvelle force de frappe: l’action non-violente, (Témoignage chrétien), 1965, 147-157.
5. Guy Durandin, Les fondements du mensonge. (Paris, Flammarion), 1972
6. Marshall Mc Luhan, Understanding media, (New York, New American Library), 1964.