RSN Fundraising Banner
FB Share
Email This Page
add comment

writing for godot

Psychological Warfare

Friday, 02 December 2016 22:14

Psychological Warfare

By Sue Ann Martinson  December 5, 2016

The war culture that saturates American society provides the breeding ground for a new mode of authoritarianism that threatens to engulf the whole of American society. War is no longer simply an instrument to be used by political powers, but a form of rule, a general condition of the social order itself– a permanent social relation and coordinating principle that affects all aspects of society.[1]

—Henry A. Giroux, “Politics as Pathology in the Warfare State

How did psychological warfare evolve after World War II and why the ‘science’ of coercion?

Christopher Simpson‘s book, Science of Coercion: Communication Research and Psychological Warfare 1945-1960 [2] explores the interconnected development of mass communication research in the field of social science and its relationship to U.S. military programs and agencies. This liaison between the social sciences in academic institutions and U.S. foreign relations policy produced what Simpson calls the “science of coercion,” a massive psychological warfare program of domination-through-communication. As we have moved into the 21st century these technologies have become predominant, their use exacerbated within the United States, threatening and sometimes decimating democratic institutions and values.

The “Elites” and “white” and “black” propaganda

The direction that the social sciences were to take in the development of mass communication as psychological warfare originated with two social scientists, Walter Lippman and Harold Lasswell.  Active after World War I and during World War II in the fledgling field of communication research, their influence has lasted well into the 21st century. “Put most bluntly,” Simpson says, “they contended that communication’s essence was its utility as an instrument for imposing one’s will on others, and preferably on masses of others.” [3] To quote Lasswell, [A propagandist’s] regard for men rests on no democratic dogmatisms about men being the best judges of their own interests.”[4]

Lasswell and Lippman favored relatively tolerant, pluralistic societies in which elite rule protected democracies from their own weaknesses─a modern form of noblesse oblige so to speak. But the potential applications of the communication-as-domination zeitgeist extended far beyond the purposes that they would have personally approved.[5]

Simpson goes on to explain that:

“Lasswell extended Lippman’s idea of propaganda, giving it a Machiavellian twist. He emphasized employing persuasive media selectively using assassinations, violence, and other coercion as means of “communicating with and managing disenfranchised people. He advocated what he regarded as ‘scientific’ application of persuasion and precise violence, in contrast to bludgeon tactics.” According to Lasswell, “successful social and political management often depends on proper coordination of propaganda with coercion, violent or non-violent; economic inducement (including bribery); diplomatic negotiation; and other techniques.”[6] Thus establishing the use of violence as communication. Lippman and Lasswell thus established the concept of “communication as domination.”[7] While Lippman’s analysis took the direction of psychological warfare later known as “white” or overt propaganda, Lasswell’s darker interpretations resulted in the field of “black” or covert propaganda and operations.

The Critical Years

The years between 1945 at the end of World War II through the early 1950s were seminal in the development of mass communication in the social sciences and psychological warfare in U.S. government.

The seeds were planted early in 1942 during the war when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt appointed Wall Street lawyer William “Wild Bill” Donovan director of the CIA’s predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Donovan was “among the first in the United States to articulate a more or less unified theory of psychological warfare.” He called it the “engineering of consent” with the idea peacetime propaganda campaigns could effectively be adapted to open warfare.[8]

Simpson describes the term “psychological warfare” as being derived from a German word Weltanshauungkrieg (literally worldview warfare) created by the Nazis that meant a scientific application of propaganda, terror, and state pressure to secure ideological victory over enemies. Donovan understood Nazi psychological tactics as a vital source of ideas and use of the term spread throughout the U.S. intelligence community.[9]

Also in 1942 the White House redirected “white” (official) propaganda functions into a new agency, which became the Office of War Information (OWI); Donovan reorganized the intelligence, covert  action, and “black” propaganda functions under deeper secrecy as the OSS,[10] echoing the earlier divisions established by Lippman and Lasswell in the communication-as-domination paradigm.

In 1947 the National Security Act established two key organizations, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the National Security Council (NSC).[11] President Harry Truman authorized the National Security Agency (NSA) in a memo, which was formalized on November 4, 1952.[12] Since Truman's memo was a classified document, the existence of the NSA was not known to the public at that time and it was referred to as No Such Agency.[13]

During these critical years the NSC created documents that covered two areas: the first, NSA-4, included white propaganda such as Voice of America, scholarly exchange programs, cultural centers abroad, and similar overt programs put in place “to counteract effects of anti-U.S. propaganda.” White or overt propaganda was followed later by the creation of a “top secret” black area under NSA-4A and 10/2, that encompassed black or covert psychological operations, authorizing the CIA to conduct “officially nonexistent” programs.[14] Under the auspices of the CIA, the Office of Policy Coordination (OPC) was created; its tasks included:

…propaganda; economic warfare; preventative direct action, including sabotage, anti-sabotage, demolition and evacuation measures; subversion against hostile states, including assistance to underground movements, guerrillas and refugee liberations groups and support of indigenous anti-communist elements in threatened countries of the free world. OPC simultaneously created a specific branch for managing assassinations and kidnapping of “persons whose interests were inimical” to the United States, as well as for murdering double agents suspected of betraying U.S. intelligence agencies.[15]

Psychological Warfare Intelligence Projects Abroad

Intelligence projects created during WWII such as the “analysis of newspapers, magazines, radio broadcasts and postal censorship intercepts”[16] were a basis for the development of psychological warfare in mass communication. Albert Hadley Cantril, another “founding father” of mass communication, “specialized in international surveys intended to determine how factors such as class, nationalism, and ethnicity affected stereotypes present in a given population,” and how in turn they affected national behavior toward the U.S. These studies were considered white (overt) in the tradition of Lippman. If foreign audiences did not view U.S. goals as good for them, they had misunderstood U.S. intentions—not that Western behavior itself could possibly be flawed.[17]

Much of Cantril’s work during the 1950s was funded by the CIA. Cantril’s studies included France and Russia and later Cuba, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Egypt, India, Nigeria, Philippines, and Poland, a list that “could serve as a checklist of CIA interventions of the period.”[18]

Yet “Despite its claims U.S. psychological policy in the Philippines and throughout the developing world have generally increased the prevailing levels of violence and misery, not reduced them.”[19] Simpson notes studies and counterinsurgency in Russia, in Latin America, in Africa, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and worldwide and “that international communication studies are largely an  elaboration of methods for imposing one’s national will abroad.” [20] In other words, communication-as-domination. These techniques still inform US foreign policy.

Increasingly sophisticated tools of covert (black) and overt (white) psychological warfare are constantly being developed. With elements of both, some may fall in a category of gray. Both overt and covert weapons were outlined in a talk by WAMM member Mary Beaudoin and included drone warfare; special operations (CIA and military classified covert actions; targeted assassinations, random acts of disruptive violence by mercenaries and proxies, aerial bombing; cyberwarfare (e.g., computer viruses); sanctions and embargoes or sieges; psy-ops as psychological warfare; and the expansion of NATO. “Soft power” tactics might include propaganda, breaking international law by smart power such as the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) (e.g., “saving a people from an evil dictator” so the US can take over.) [21]

Prestige, Funding ($$) and Insulation and Denial

Didn’t the social scientists know how their research was being used? According to Simpson, there was some resistance, but very little, primarily due to money, that is, funding from the government, the armed forces, foundations with connections to the government, and the CIA. Another reason was that their careers, prestige and academic status were tied up in this research. According to Simpson, social science researchers offered very little resistance to the direction of mass communication as psychological warfare because funding came from government and connected foundations, the military, and the CIA. Those who criticized the prevailing paradigm of domination were ostracized and discredited.[22]

The NSC policy decisions, especially 10/2, also helped insulate the social scientists from the reality of the often violent end-results of their work. Simpson notes:

...the phrase “psychological warfare” enjoyed multi-layered, often contradictory meanings. … For the public, the terms seems to have implied basically overt, hard-hitting propaganda. ... For the national security cognoscenti and for psychological warfare contractors, the same phrase extended to selected use of violence─but defining exactly how much violence was often sidestepped, even in top-secret records.[23]

Plausible Deniability

Meanwhile, the U.S. government systematically denied responsibility for any specific act of violence, typically denouncing news reports of U.S.-sponsored clandestine operations as fabrications of communist propagandists.[24]

This denial of operations and the evasion of accountability, now termed “plausible deniability,” is still recognizable. For example, despite U.S. claims to the contrary “psychological policy in the Philippines and throughout the developing world have generally increased the prevailing levels of violence and misery.”[25]

In one contemporary example of plausible deniability, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told a direct lie to Congress by denying that surveillance of US citizens was taking place.[26] Yet Chris Hedges states that “The cornerstone of control is the state’s system of surveillance, exposed by [Edward] Snowden.”[27]

Another example of denial in propaganda─one of many─in a different area is described by Rebecca Gordon this way in an article on Tom Dispatch:

So much for war and “war.” What about self-defense? At every stage of the “war on terror,” Washington has claimed self-defense. That was the explanation for rounding up hundreds of Muslims living in the U.S. immediately after the attacks of 9/11, torturing some of them, and holding them incommunicado for months in a Brooklyn, New York, jail. It was the excuse offered for beginning torture programs in CIA “black sites” and at Guantánamo.[28]

Social Linkages, Prestige, Funding, and Insulation and Denial

Influential social linkages and networks included foundations, academics, military personnel, Wall Street, and media.

U.S. centers of psychological warfare during World War II included the U.S. Army, the Department of Agriculture, Treasury Department, and Library of Congress, and were led by various social scientists, army personnel, and the OSS and OWI. Dozens of prominent social scientists participated in these organizations.[29] Participants later became the heads of foundations such as Carnegie, Russell Sage, Rockefeller and Ford, which then funded social science research in the 1950s and 1960s.[30]

Other OWI participants later became the publishers of Time, Look, Fortune, and editors of magazines like Holiday, Coronet, Parade, and Saturday Review, and included newspaper editors, partners in large advertising agencies, and noted social scientists.[31]

With their shared history during the war, these parties had “engaged in tacit alliances” and “shared several important conceptions about mass communication research. They regarded mass communication as a tool for social management and as a weapon in social conflict.”[32] Interlocking committees and commissions that linked mainstream academia with US military and intelligence communities enabled these former OWI leaders to exercise power as part of the ruling “elite” in America.[33] This type of networking has carried forward into the present, as Jay Dyer documents.

The Syria Campaign and the Use of Fake News

A recent example from October of 2016 of using mass communication as a weapon of psychological warfare is the work of the public relations company, Syria Campaign, which was created to garner support for U.S. involvement in Syria. Max Blumenthal describes the Campaign: “Posing as a non-political solidarity organization, the Syria Campaign leverages local partners and media contacts to push the U.S. into toppling another Middle Eastern government.”

As part of the campaign, the White Helmets were promoted as international heroes helping civilian victims, particularly in Aleppo. In this extremely slick campaign, they were featured in the mainstream corporate media, including TIME magazine and on the major TV and radio networks, and even on the alternative news program, Democracy Now! The idea was to win the “hearts and minds” of the American people who are drawn to “do-gooders” or “shining knights.” But as Max Blumenthal notes, this seemingly impartial group was funded by the U.S. to create sympathy for U.S. military intervention and regime change in Syria by over-vilifying Assad, just as Saddam Hussein was over-vilified in Iraq.[34]

Another current example is the controversy over Fake News exacerbated by an article in the Washington Post that lists 200 websites as pro-Russian and not to be trusted, in effect “blacklisting” a number of legitimate news sources, including The Anti-Media, Zero Hedge, and Ron Paul. Tyler Durden responds in an article on Zero Hedge republished by The Anti-Media:

While this latest spin on the so-called “narrative” will certainly backfire, and accelerate the demise of the mainstream media’s efforts to maintain credibility and control of the American mindset  – which it painfully lost with their lies during the presidential campaign – not to mention “eyeballs” and ad revenue, we remain fascinated by the so called “liberal left’s” relentless charges that Trump will unleash a massive censorship assault on the “free press” when the “free press” itself is doing everything in its power to squash dissenting voices. To which all we can add is that it is a good thing that said “power” is declining with every passing day.

Stephen Corbett’s Report is also included on the list; he responds in his defense with an analysis of the Washington Post’s article in a video, What I Learned From the “PropOrNot” Propaganda List.

Michel Chossudovsky of Global Research, also on the list, responds with an article, Who is Behind “Fake News?” Several other articles on the topic are also posted on Global Research.

In an earlier article from July of 2016 Robert Parry of Consortium News, also on the list, writes a succinct summary in regard to Putin, Russia, and NATO and the mainstream corporate media:

“It is not the aim of NATO to create a military barrier against broad-scale Russian aggression, because such aggression is not on the agenda and no intelligence assessment suggests such a thing,” [General Petr] Pavel, [chairman of the NATO Military Committee] told a news conference.

What Pavel blurted out was what I have been told by intelligence sources over the past two-plus years – that the endless drumbeat of Western media reports about “Russian aggression” results from a clever demonization campaign against Putin and a classic Washington “group think” rather than from a careful intelligence analysis.

The legacy of the science of coercion continues into the present day, resulting in “media wars” waged with psychological warfare becoming more blatant with the article in the Washington Post, which is titled, “Russian propaganda effort helped spread ‘fake news’ during election, experts say.” Of note is the use of the word “experts,” who are not named. It’s a flash word, coded language used to impress. And while the Post article is tied to the election and Trump and continues the corporate mainstream media support of Hillary so predominant during the campaigns, the article by Robert Parry is not couched in election terms but rather is about US foreign policy, as is the response by Michel Chossudovsky on the Global Research website.

That this Fake News media war is really about psychological warfare and US foreign policy and also is encouraging indirect censorship of the media, and in the case of Facebook and Google, direct censorship, becomes obvious from the Washington Post article: “The sophistication of the Russian tactics may complicate efforts by Facebook and Google to crack down on ‘fake news,’ as they have vowed to do after widespread complaints about the problem.”

RT (Russia Today) was also targeted in the Post article and has responded with several articles over the past few days. Here is a quote from a video “Fake news” on RT’s Crosstalk that also ties the real purpose of the Post article to US foreign policy. “It is called fake news and we are told it is dangerous. Maybe we can agree on this. But let there be no mistake – it is governments and mainstream media that have peddled fake news for decades. And this is being challenged.”

The Intercept responded with an article by Ben Norton and Glenn Greenwald, Washington Post Disgracefully Promotes a McCarthyite Blacklist From a New, Hidden, and Very Shady Group:

In his article, the Post’s Timberg did not include a link to PropOrNot’s website. If readers had the opportunity to visit the site, it would have become instantly apparent that this group of ostensible experts far more resembles amateur peddlers of primitive, shallow propagandistic clichés than serious, substantive analysis and expertise; that it has a blatant, demonstrable bias in promoting NATO’s narrative about the world; and that it is engaging in extremely dubious McCarthyite tactics about a wide range of critics and dissenters.

One effect of the Post’s article is that it has brought what has been a more subtle campaign of psychological warfare─although recognized by many alternative media sources in several different variants during the recent presidential election campaign─into a blatantly obvious form that can be openly addressed. It is about US foreign policy and is intended to convince an American audience that the US/NATO biased campaign is legitimate in all its manifestations and ramifications, and as such is a form of psychological warfare.

David Swanson, in his article How I Produce Fake News for Russia, says he was actually approached about writing about Russia by Russia:

In all seriousness, there is very likely Russian propaganda to be found somewhere, since Russia tried to hire me a-year-and-a-half ago to produce it. I turned them down and blogged about their offer.

Swanson goes on to explain that his articles have appeared on eighteen of the online sites listed in the Post article; most did not even mention Russia. So he acknowledges that some sites may actually be paid by Russia to produce pro-Russian articles. But 200? Many are “collateral damage” in the media wars, either because they are listed because they critique US government/corporate neoliberal policies or because, like Swanson, they may be accused of guilt by association.

That the US promotes its own views worldwide though overt (white) means is generally known, especially through programs such as Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. However, the issue here is really propaganda within the United States.

An article on Global Research from Washingtons Blog (also on the Post list), U.S. Government Has Long Used Propaganda against the American People, describes how the US government wages psychological warfare within the US by communication-as-domination, with mass communication primarily through the CIA and discusses with examples the buying of reporters and the complicity of many primary mainstream corporate media into the 21st century. They note a little-known fact:

In 2013, the American Congress repealed the formal ban against the deployment of propaganda against U.S. citizens living on American soil.  So there’s even less to constrain propaganda than before.

It appears to be OK for the US to wage psychological warfare against its own citizens. What is evidently not fair play are Russia’s attempts to behave in the same manner as the US behaves in its psychological warfare by attempting to influence citizens within the US, although since World War II the US has attempted to promulgate its views inside the USSR/Russia through the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and undoubtedly by other means as well.

In this age of mass communication on the internet, where people can reach innumerable news websites instantly and use social media around the world, the media wars have become vastly more complex. The legacy of the science of coercion has evolved as the world has changed, but still rests on the dual concepts of white overt and black covert operations worldwide and in the US.

The crackdowns on nonviolent protest in our own country, first the Occupy movement and then Ferguson and now Standing Rock, show the increasing use of violence to control those challenging the corporate elite’s domination and “appetite for destruction”─whether destruction of the planet or drone warfare and international domination or lack of gun control within the US and in many other ways, as Henry Giroux discusses in his recent book, America at War with Itself. The attempts to control what we think, that is, psychological warfare, communication-as-domination, are a major component of what Giroux describes at the beginning of this article as an all-encompassing culture of war.

An excerpted version of this article was published in the WAMM Newsletter, 2016 Year-End Edition.

Sue Ann Martinson is the editor of


[1] Henry A. Giroux, “Politics as Pathology in the Warfare State,” Web. Tikkun, September 23, 2016

[2] Christopher Simpson, Science of Coercion: Communication Research and Psychological Warfare, 1945-1960 (New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press 1994). A digital edition with a preface by Christopher Simpson and an introduction by Robert McChesney is available on the web: New York: Open Road Integrated Media, 2014 . A later edition available in print: Oxford University Press; Reprint edition (March 14, 1996).

[3] Simpson, Science of Coercion, 17-19

[4] Simpson, Science of Coercion, 21

[5] Ibid.

[6] Simpson, Science of Coercion, 17

[7] Simpson, Science of Coercion, 18-19

[8] Simpson, Science of Coercion, 24

[9] Ibid.

[10] Simpson, Science of Coercion, 24-25

[11] Simpson, Science of Coercion, 37. Also “Truman signs the National Security Act,” Web. History

[12] Andrew Glass, ‘The National Security Agency is established, Nov. 4, 1952,’ Web. Politico, November 4, 2010

[13] Anne Gearan,“‘No Such Agency’ spies on the communications of the world,” Web. The Washington Post, June 6, 2013

[14] In December of 1947 the NSC created two important documents: NSC 4 covered “white” propaganda such as Voice of America, scholarly exchange programs, cultural centers abroad, and similar overt programs put in place “to counteract effects of anti-U.S. propaganda.” NSC 4-A, followed six months later by NSC 10/2, was “top secret” and described covert psychological operations. It authorized the CIA to conduct “officially nonexistent” programs. NSC 10/2 created the Office of Policy Coordination (OPC) under the auspices of the CIA. “It was translated to mean that a declaration of war had been issued with equal if not more force than if the Congress had so decided.” Simpson, Science of Coercion, 37-41

[15] Simpson, Science of Coercion, 40

[16] Simpson, Science of Coercion, 25

[17] Simpson, Science of Coercion, 80

[18] Simpson, Science of Coercion, 81

[19] Simpson, Science of Coercion, 75

[20] Simpson, Science of Coercion, 72

[21] Mary Beaudoin, “On the 12th Anniversary of the U.S. War on Afghanistan,” Web. Rise Up Times, October 9, 2013 . In an article in the WAMM Newsletter, Beaudoin also discusses the new technological developments in weapons: “Warfare of the 21st Century: Cyber Attacks, Super Soldiers, Ghost Ships, and Laser Beams” <>

[22] Simpson, Science of Coercion, 97-98

[23] Simpson, Science of Coercion, 41

[24] Ibid.

[25] Simpson, Science of Coercion, 75

[26] Glenn Greenwald, No Place to Hide (New York: Henry Holt 2014), 30.

[27] Chris Hedges, Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt (New York: Nation Books 2015), 53.

[28] Rebecca Gordon, “Tomgram: Rebecca Gordon, How Extrajudicial Executions Became ‘War’ Policy in Washington”; “The Trojan Drone: An Illegal Military Strategy Disguised as Technological Advance,” Web. Tom Dispatch, July 17, 2016 .

[29] Simpson, Science of Coercion, 26

[30] Simpson, Science of Coercion, 28

[31] Simpson, Science of Coercion, 28-29

[32] Ibid.

[33] Simpson, Science of Coercion, 61

[34] Max Blumenthal, “How the White Helmets became international heroes while pushing US military intervention and regime change in Syria,” Web. Alternet, October 2, 2016 and “Inside the Shadowy PR Firm That’s Lobbying for Regime Change in Syria,” Alternet, October 3, 2016 your social media marketing partner
Email This Page


THE NEW STREAMLINED RSN LOGIN PROCESS: Register once, then login and you are ready to comment. All you need is a Username and a Password of your choosing and you are free to comment whenever you like! Welcome to the Reader Supported News community.