Subversive Psychological Warfare Tactics


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This CIA declassified document was recovered from the internet archive. It was declassified in 2004. This document is unsigned and undated, but is presumably part of the British SOE (Special Operations Executive) Mi5/Mi6 intelligence materials brought back by Major Garland H. Williams. See  Training: How to Run Intelligence Operations – License to Kill document page.


Full Text


(bolding of certain points added by me)


Random Notes for a Manual On Subversive Psychological Warfare Techniques



1.      Indirect Technique for a Clandestine Station.  New anxieities can be suggested to the audience by gratuitous reassurances on points of possible difficulty which have never yet occurred to the listener. Such a station would have to pretend to be a loyal station of the enemies.

2.      Conceivably, propagandists working for the enemy might be bribed through promises of later amnesty, etc, to sabotage or to make less effective their efforts in behalf of the enemy. Possible techniques for doing this indirectly are to place too much emphasis upon the improper segments of the dictated propaganda lines, to give too much attention to deny what the enemy or what rumor mongers are saying, especially if the actual contents are given, to commit the enemy beyond his ability to deal, to raise false hopes, etc. For examples of such techniques one should study “lower” American newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune or Washington Times-Herald.

3. Techniques for disguised propaganda, i.e. propaganda in which the listener cannot or does not guess the source of the propaganda material.
It is very important in subversive propaganda to be able to speak to the enemy as though you were one of his fellows. Indubitably effective propaganda can be carried even within the limitations set by this pose. Techniques include:

  • a. Supporting the enemy’s position in such an extreme form that the support makes that which is supported seem undesirable. Thus, Mein Kamp or more extremely nietchiean statements of Nazi principles, if widely circulated, would cause many Germans to distrust the Nazi party. Thus, the “workers” challenge station” pretending to be broadcast by Communists in England takes so rabid a line as to make anything it supports distrusted. In this manner the station has sought to alienate British feelings from Russia. Disguised propaganda can achieve the same effect by purposeful tactlessness
  • b. “Patriotic but pessimistic” material can be broadcast from a purportedly loyal station. As a matter of fact, the bulk of the material on most freedom stations is of this nature.
  • c. “Patriotic or constructively critical” material may be broadcast in which the great bulk of the time is given to exposing dangerous weaknesses, grafts, etc. which must be removed so the cause may be successful.
  • d. Ineffectual or ridiculously weak justifications for the acts of the government which the station purports to support can be effective.
  • e. Noncommittal information can be given on apparently innocent topics which in connection with current rumors or various internal conditions makes sense to the listener in an anti-regime manner. Thus, the Whermachtsender Norde gives reports of banquets and celebrations as sort of a society column featuer, while the actual effect is probably to emphasize to the Germans that certain of their leaders live in luxury while they undergo severe rations.

4.  A good channel for disguised propaganda is through patriotic and popular fiction.

5. Some basic ideas or propagandic principles which subversive propaganda can use rather than open propaganda are to tell people exactly what they want to hear, rationalize for them the line of  least resistance. Appeal to their emotional inertia and reluctance to make decisions. We should promise people what they want, tell them that we need not change their ways, justify their current habits and vices.

6. An important thing to remember: people hate best persons near at hand whom they can actively visualize. Second, some people hate best persons who will benefit them rather than persons who have power to punish them for such hate. In other words, there is a natural emotional drift towards compromise by collaboration.

7. The Germans seem to have either purposely (the theory of Colonel Lovell) or inadvertently, (the thesis of the BBC bi-monthly Survey of European Audiences, enemy countries, July 11, 1942) spoiled the emotional boost of their major victories by anticipating them too far in advance. According to BBC the fall of Tobruk in June was the first German victory which had created spontaneous demonstrations in the streets of Berlin – and this because the Propaganda Ministry had not anticipated it. According to Lovell the German Propaganda Ministry definitely seeks to keep German morale on even keel, avoiding just as much over-optimism and enthusiasm as defeatism and for this purpose takes the edge off victories by anticipating them.

This might leave us with the rule that for our purposes we should not wear out real events before they happen, the surprise of good news should be kept. On the other hand, it might be good precaution for our sympathetic propaganda to our Allies and others to anticipate bad news whenever it seems inevitable.

8. In the handling of guilt and anxiety in the audience there is one of the few possibilities of applying psychological therapy or psychoanalytic inishgts. While few are relatively limited problems, a discussion on how to handle them will probably be desirable.

9. Martyrs.

As a general rule, even in war time, all persons including our enemy populations and troops and our sympathizers in occupied countries follow the line of at least resistance and avoid exposing themselves to danger or pain.

One of the few symbols which leads people to act otherwise is the martyr symbol. Where we want to inspire resistance among accupied peoples we should create plausible, emotional, melodramatic martyrs and martyr stories. These should of course be heroic martyrs who died fighting.

Similarly, we should avoid doing the enemy a favor by creating any martyrs for his use. And if we find the enemy to be successfully using the martyr role (as currently in the myth of the heroic martyrs of Stalingrad) we should spare no pains debunking and making seem useless and pathological martyrdom behavior in our propaganda to the enemy troops.

10. Add to our note above on the use of rationalization, wish-full-filling propaganda, the necessity for providing the clear-cut scape-goat upon which the dupe of our propaganda can project hate or guilt feelings which he might feel for an unpatriotic act in his own self-interest, such as desertion.

11. What makes a good atrocity story. I am convinced that a large portion of the atrocity stories being used by the Allies, e.g. in BBC’s broadcast in Arabic, are ineffective even though probably true. It may be that the confirmed liar can tell a more convincing atrocity story than an honest man. Atrocities are probably more readily believed when attributed to a group unambivalent hatred. Atrocities with precedent are probably also better. Effective atrocities should be poignantly presented, full of human interest stuff, of pathos or real horror. At the same time, there probably are psychological factors making a civilized person reject or fail to assimilate the full impact of the atrocity stories, no matter how true.

12. Effective denial in propaganda. The propagandist should know how to effectively deny the false claims or the true claims spread by the enemy. Some in use are effective, others pathetically inadequate. One hunch is to study the diversions that creep into the denial of an outright false-hood and the denial of something without a grain of truth in it. The Propagandist should strive to make the denial of a semi-truth follow the pattern of a confident denial of a clear-cut falsehood. One should not overdo the characteristics of the latter, however, at the same time one may want to purposely use ineffective denials in order to spread rumors and the like, thus, if we are trying to get a given rumor spread, an official statement that persons in power have no comment to make would probably lend popular credence to the rumor.


1.      We have need of a joke rumor and pornography factory which would write pamphlets and supply freedom stations. Professional script writers for radio programs might be very good and have the whole-hearted opportunistic imagination necessary for such work.

2.      Psychological factors in controlling occupied regions.

It is obvious that a conquered people will never love their foreign rulers and that those who actually do the policing and administrating will be the most easily hated. In policing Germany or any similar country our job will be to properly channelize and deflect the normal resentment which will be present and which will, if left uncontended, provide the adequate basis for future wars.

One suggestion is that the troops who do the actual policing also be given the jobs of distributing food and also be put to work on reconstruction projects during a certain portion of their time.

This latter notion would also enable much more larger forces to be kept in the occupied region than would otherwise be justified.

The soldiers could work two or three days a week on building public buildings, etc. Polling techniques to find the principle sources of friction are also invaluable.

3.      A clandestine station purporting to be the German Propaganda Ministry’s instructions to Gauleiters or to administrators occupied areas might be set up. The station would aim to discredit Nazi intentions and to spread disheartening news. German instructions to the press as quoted by Lochner or available in G2 could be used as models. They often gave inside information as well as notes on what stories to play up and what stories to stop, etc. The plausibility of the use of radio for this purpose is heightened by the facts described in the following quotation:

Page 258. “The Goebbel’s ministry issues a set of secret instructions to the press every day. These are given out in a press conference attended only by picked men, sworn to secrecy, and are also read over an inside radio set-up to the ministry’s representatives in the forty-odd districts into which the Reich is at present divided for purposes of Nazi party administration.”


Sub Psychological Warfare and the news.

We should make our most aggressive psychological warfare of informative kind in battle lulls; at other times the news speaks for itself – (as relayed by white). During lulls, rumor, black radio, pamphlets should carry out aggressive divertive pseudo-news campaigns dealing with personalities, etc. The cream of such materials should be reserved to lull periods.

On the other hand, major military news events should be immediately followed by black psychological warfare campaigns designed to exploit them, e.g. when Axis out of Tunis spread local rumors of landings at neighboring points in Italy – rumors that Mussolini asked for peace but was immediately placed under custody, etc.

Note: In our plans, must get the time dimension

(write a paper on Time – news relations to planning)




Document details

DATE: no date – circa 1942

CIA #3335

NAMES mentioned: None



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Subversive Psychological Warfare Techniques


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Join the conversation! 2 Comments

  1. Fascinating read, thank you. It is unfortunate that it is unsigned and undated thereby making it difficult to cite in any scholarly work. However, it is certainly thought provoking.


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