Fighting With Words: Psychological Warfare in the Pacific



THE capitulation of several thousand of Okinawa’s last-ditch defenders is an indication that Japanese troops can be reached by propaganda weapons as well as by bullets and flame-throwers. Until recently the general opinion has prevailed that nothing except cold steel could change the Japanese way of thinking.

But two facts should reduce to sober proportions any jubilation over the announcement that approximately eight thousand Japanese troops surrendered on Okinawa. First of all, the Japanese garrison forces held off superior numbers of American troops for more than eighty days, exacted a record toll of American lives, equipment, ships, and matériel, and did not give in until their lines were reduced to disorganized pockets of resistance. Their eventual surrender, following such a prolonged display of unbreaking fighting spirit, was not so much an evidence of weakened morale as a resigned gesture indicating that they had done everything possible to fulfill their sacred mission.

If the Japanese had surrendered on May 30, when it was obvious to everyone that further resistance was suicidal, they would have shortened the struggle to a significant degree. But during the crucial period from May 30 to June 16 only 327 Japanese prisoners were taken. The surrender, therefore, of a few thousand troops after the battle had been won should not encourage anyone to believe that the Japanese are any less determined to fight to the bitter end.

Even more sobering to the observer should be the realization that an analysis of types of Japanese prisoners in American custody purposely is omitted from all of Admiral Nimitz’s communiqués. Determined not to tell the Japanese military leaders anything they do not know already, Nimitz does not make public what percentage of his prisoners represent frontline troops. Japanese garrisons on Pacific islands always have included Korean units, members of which traditionally have had less suicidal devotion to the Emperor than the regular Japanese troops.

Furthermore, on Okinawa the Japanese drafted the bulk of the local civilian males for military service and put them to work behind the lines, digging defensive positions. Anyone familiar with the percentage of non-fighting service troops in a huge garrison force can assume, without endangering military security, that the roster of Japanese prisoners captured on Okinawa includes large numbers of service troops, medical personnel, cooks, bakers, wounded soldiers, and an even larger group of scared Okinawan males who were interested only in getting back to their homes and families. Until organized resistance was broken, fewer than two thousand Japanese surrendered, while one hundred thousand died fighting. Post-battle prisoners do not shorten a war.

Nevertheless, American leaders in the Pacific did make their first large-scale attempt with psychological weapons to induce the Japanese foot soldiers to surrender, and for the first time impressive numbers of the enemy did surrender. For observers in the forward area, the fact that adequate provisions for surrender finally had been inserted in Pacific warfare was quite as significant as the fact that a minority of the Japanese responded to the American appeals. Until the Okinawan campaign there were virtually no provisions on either side for capturing enemy soldiers alive. Seldom equaled in all history, the ruthless fury of the racial-religious Pacific warfare was shocking to anyone accustomed to the somewhat civilized fighting in Europe — and totally incomprehensible, I believe, to the average American at home.

Censorship regulations have made it impossible for correspondents to describe fully the true nature of the war in the Pacific, but it is sufficient to say that the particular hell of the island-to-island battles has been the unbridled bitterness and savagery of the contestants. There were many persons immediately after Pearl Harbor who felt that Americans were too softhearted to fight a completely uncivilized (or total) war, but the Marines and soldiers always have emerged from the fury of hand-to-hand combat as the unqualified victors. The niceties of human relationships were quickly lost in the battles fought beyond our western horizon.

Although post-war literature may reveal more profound psychological reasons for the inhumane aspects of the war in the Pacific, it was obvious after Bataan and Corregidor that the Japanese troops not only did not believe in surrender for themselves, but that they did not respect enemy soldiers who preferred prison camp life to no life at all. Therefore, throughout more than three years of violent warfare, most of the men on both sides considered surrender to be out of place in their war. Each island, from Guadalcanal to Iwo Jima, was a fight to the finish.

Now that we have destroyed Japan’s naval might, reduced its air force to suicide proportions, and fought to within bombardment distance of its home islands, we want the Japanese to surrender. Many people cannot understand why the Japanese continue to fight when the odds are so much against them. According to European standards, we have all but won the war in the Pacific. Japan is doomed, and the Japanese know it: the longer the Japanese continue to fight, the more thoroughly they bring about their own destruction. They have been told that an American invasion of their home islands is imminent; yet they apparently are as determined as ever to fight to the end of organized resistance.

Being in a hopeless position is nothing new for the Japanese, because on every island we have captured so far, the Japanese have been outnumbered, cut off from their sources of supplies and reinforcements, and deprived of more than token assistance from the Japanese Navy and Air Force. Faced with eventual extermination, they have fought with the desperate fury of men pledged to make the enemy pay highly for each of their own lives. Once American forces gained the upper hand in the Pacific, the war of annihilation proved to be a boomerang, because surrender, the one thing which would have shortened the successive battles, had no place in the unchecked ferociousness of Pacific fighting.

The battles since Bataan have been bloody and usually one-sided, but American forces in nearly four years of war have killed scarcely more than half a million Japanese soldiers. Inasmuch as there are between seven and eight million Japanese soldiers still alive, at least half of whom are available for the defense of the Japanese home islands, it is obvious that the war in the Pacific could continue for more years than Americans like to think about if each of the remaining Japanese soldiers has to be killed by the slow process of extermination which has marked the war to date.


PSYCHOLOGICAL warfare is as much a part of modern war as rockets. It was perhaps our most effective munition in eliminating the Italians from the European war and it contributed heavily to the collapse of the German Army. Until the invasion of Okinawa, however, psychological warfare seldom was employed against the Japanese, who were regarded popularly as too inhuman to be propagandized. One American general was so firm in his conviction that the Japanese mind was responsive only to the bluntest of instruments that he earned the nickname of “Don’t-Tell’em-Let-the-Mule-Kick-’em.”

While learned authorities on Far Eastern matters were busy in Washington planning detailed propaganda programs for use against the Japanese, the commanders in the field disregarded paper weapons and stuck to their guns. Surrender leaflets were dropped on the Japanese troops from time to time, but no one fighting a war of extermination put any faith in such a bloodless method of getting the job done. Except for radio programs beamed for Japanese home consumption and for loud-speaker appeals to cavebound Japanese troops in rear areas, psychological warfare played an extremely minor role in American victories from Guadalcanal to Iwo Jima.

For veteran fighting men in the Pacific, June 17 on Okinawa was therefore a remarkable day. During the afternoon of that day an entire American front-line division stopped fighting. For sixty minutes not a shot was fired from any of the rifles, machine guns, artillery pieces, or ships’ guns under the control of the Army’s Seventh Division. Throughout the one-hour recess from slaughter, tanks equipped with loudspeakers, and similarly equipped landing craft patrolling the shore, broadcast again and again a message in Japanese which pointed out to the enemy soldiers that their position defensively was hopeless, that further resistance would not help Japan win the war, and that surrender under such conditions would not discredit their fighting spirit.

Never in the long course of the Pacific war had anything like this happened before. Fewer than a dozen Japanese surrendered during the brief armistice, but one can surmise that ideas implanted in the minds of listening Japanese during this period were influential in the eventual surrender of several thousand of them a week later. At least the experiment was indicative of a new trend in Pacific warfare and one that may hasten the day when the Japanese will be willing to accept unconditional surrender.

The late Lieutenant General Simon Bolivar Buckner, killed by a shellburst toward the close of the Okinawan campaign, strongly believed that psychological warfare could save American lives and hasten the defeat of the Japanese. As commanding general of American ground forces on Okinawa, he was the first of our military leaders in the Pacific to make more than token use of anti-morale weapons. Several months before the invasion of Okinawa took place, General Buckner requested that the Psychological Warfare Branch of the Joint Intelligence Command, Pacific Ocean Area, prepare a series of leaflets which would (1) discourage Okinawan civilians from hampering the progress of American troops, and (2) weaken the willingness of the Japanese troops to fight against inevitable defeat.

Instead of leaving the use of propaganda weapons to the judgment of individual unit commanders in the field, General Buckner attached representatives of the Psychological Warfare Branch to his Tenth Army headquarters staff, where they were in a position to plan an overall propaganda program. With their own staff of linguists and artists, the Psychological Warfare officers went ashore with the invasion forces and set up a propaganda shop which was equipped to turn out leaflets and recorded vocal appeals based on current Okinawan events.

The tanks equipped with loud-speakers were an innovation, and one that probably saved many American lives. As soon as one side in a battle starts to make a front-line propaganda appeal, the opposing forces usually turn every available gun in the direction from which the voice is coming. The Psychological Warfare Branch installed loud-speakers in small landing craft and in a medium bomber, both of which could stay beyond reach of Japanese guns, or at least could move rapidly away if they were fired on.

Leaflets were the principal psychological warfare weapons used during the Okinawan campaign and probably were the most successful, because the effectiveness of the written word can be heightened by pictorial illustrations and does not depend on having a relatively quiet battlefield. The Psychological Warfare Branch prepared nearly six million illustrated leaflets, based on twenty-five carefully developed themes, for aerial and artillery distribution both before and after the actual landing was made.

The texts of the leaflets were reworked and reworded scores of times until the ideas and the language itself were intelligible to the average Japanese soldier. The illustrations, usually in several colors, were designed to appeal to the Oriental sense of artistic values, and the leaflets were printed on water-resistant paper. A special bomb for aerial distribution released the leaflets at a predetermined height over the target area and enabled pilots to do their “thought bombing” with a high degree of accuracy.


PSYCHOLOGICAL warfare weapons serve as long-range munitions, designed to promote disquieting thoughts in the minds of enemy soldiers and to weaken their faith in the cause for which they are fighting. Used effectively, they stimulate a spirit of revolt which lessens the enemy’s military discipline and makes the common soldier less willing to accept unpleasant commands. At its subtle best, psychological warfare implants ideas in men’s minds which they later use unknowingly in arguments among themselves. Psychological warfare weapons are those that hit without hurting, yet cut the deepest. They work in the minds of the enemy and they take time, a lot of time.

The leaflets dropped on Okinawa were double-edged in that they were directed both toward the Okinawan civilians and the Japanese garrison forces. The necessity for the twin appeals naturally lessened the effectiveness of the propaganda, because it is an axiom of psychological warfare—as it is of advertising, its peacetime equivalent — that the continual repetition of a few ideas obtains the best results.

Before the invasion of Okinawa began, colorful leaflets were dropped on prospective beachheads to warn the civilians that they should leave those areas at once, because “American strategy calls for days of merciless bombardment, aerial bombing, paratroopers, and shelling.” The leaflets, illustrated in a manner that should have struck fear in the stoutest heart, assured the Okinawans that “we wish to spare civilians from the death that awaits the Japanese troops.”

Subsequent leaflets, also designed to scare the Okinawans into the hills, warned that “now that American forces are invading your island, your lives are in danger. American forces are bombing the beaches, but bombs and shells may land anywhere. Civilians who remain in coastal areas will be destroyed along with the Japanese.” The Okinawans were instructed by leaflets not to hide near their homes and not to join Japanese troops in caves or buildings. They were told to wear light-colored clothing for identification and to stay clear of American troops until instructed to approach, and were promised that those who obeyed would get food, water, and clothing.

To make the civilian refugees a burden on the Japanese Army, rather than upon the American forces, leaflets addressed to the civilians and depicting Japanese soldiers drinking deeply from canteens were scattered far and wide. The text pointed out to the civilians that “the Japanese Army has plenty of food and water. Demand that they take care of you. They are responsible for the fact that you cannot provide for yourselves. Make the Japanese give you food and water!”

Perhaps the most clever leaflet in this same vein was one made up to look like a letter from the Commander-in-Chief, American Forces, to the Commanderin-Chief, Japanese Forces. The letter was written in formal Japanese correspondence style, except that at the top of the page there was a special note addressed to the person who picked up the leaflet. A translation of the note reads: “To the Finder of This Letter: A large number of copies of this letter have been dropped in order to insure its reaching the Japanese Commander-in-Chief. Please send or deliver this to the Commander-in-Chief immediately!”

The letter itself reminded the General that he was going to be defeated and knew it. The letter pointed out that the ensuing struggle would be another defeat, similar to those suffered by Japanese forces in the Gilberts, Marshalls, Marianas, New Guinea, and at Leyte. The General was told that he should “avoid needless death and suffering among the civilians on Okinawa by relocating all civilians to safe cover and providing them with food, water, and clothing.”

Most of the Okinawans, being sensible people, needed no leaflets to tell them that it was wise to take cover. They already were in their caves by the time the first planes were overhead, and consequently had little opportunity to pick up the leaflets dropped on towns and along the roads. Few of the Okinawans, it was discovered later, could have read the Japanese texts anyway. They treated the Americans and Japanese with like disregard, resisted neither, obeyed both, and asked for nothing for themselves except to be left alone.

Although Okinawa offered no indication of what could be accomplished by propaganda directed at civilians, it did serve as a proving ground for psychological warfare tactics to be utilized in conjunction with future landings on the Japanese mainland. The Japanese, having propagandized the Okinawans into believing that Americans intended to torture and kill them, maintained that the Okinawans would fight side by side with the Japanese soldiers. They have made the same claims about the civilians in the homeland. When the Okinawan civilians discovered that the Japanese statements in regard to American brutality were largely untrue, they offered no resistance to the American invasion.

Although no one can anticipate exactly how the Japanese civilian mind will react, the possibility exists that the homeland civilians may be no more troublesome than the Okinawans. If for several months prior to a landing on Japan the civilians are assured by American broadcasts and leaflets that they will not be harmed if they keep out of the way, there is a fiftyfifty chance that the civilians, thoroughly frightened by the preliminary bombardments, will not take part in the lighting until they have definite proof that the Americans intend to kill them anyway. Consequently, if American troops are cautioned by their leaders not to incite civilian wrath by needless destruction, the Japanese Army will have to fight without the active support of the civilians. One thing is certain: psychological warfare is the only method of combating civilian resistance in advance.


THE Psychological Warfare Branch in its initial effort was faced with two overwhelming missions in regard to its propagandizing of enemy troops. First of all, it had to induce’ the Japanese soldiers to place their own lives ahead of duty — an idea thoroughly foreign to disciplined Japanese thinking; and secondly, it had to convince the opposing forces that American troops now were prepared and eager to receive prisoners of war.

The Japanese soldier is susceptible to most of the propaganda lines commonly used in weakening the morale of troops of all nationalities, but there are some exceptions. He is unresponsive to the unfaithfulsweetheart theme. Nearly all other fighting men are disturbed by suggestions that they are sacrificing their lives in the front lines while their wives or sweethearts are being seduced by slick-haired, draft-exempt war workers who are getting rich at their expense. The Japanese soldier, however, has complete confidence in the faithful nature of his wife or sweetheart. Nor can Japanese morale be undermined by propaganda which points out that his friends and neighbors at home are growing rich in war plants while he does all the dirty work. The Japanese soldier knows he is as well off in the Army as anywhere else.

To induce a Japanese soldier to surrender, one must make him realize that his Yamato spirit alone is no match for superior military strength, that his leaders consistently have betrayed him, that suicide is taking the easy way out, that there is no hope for an eventual Japanese victory, and that he does not discredit the Emperor or disgrace his own family by saving his life when further resistance is useless. The Japanese soldier has been taught that surrender is dishonorable, and we Americans, in order to shorten the war, must educate him to the contrary. The process of reindoctrination is tedious and often discouraging, but the surrenders on Okinawa are evidence that the Japanese mind is not impervious to propaganda.

The texts of leaflets dropped on Japanese troops defending Okinawa are worthy of examination, although correspondents are allowed to comment only on those leaflets actually known to be in the hands of the enemy. As soon as the aerial and naval bombardment of Okinawa began, a week before the actual landing, leaflets were dropped for military consumption which depicted an armada of ships and planes streaming toward Okinawa. The messages in part read: “You have felt our planes, but that is only the beginning. More ships, troops, supplies, and planes are on their way. Your Air Force and Navy cannot help you. Lay down your arms and cease to resist!” These leaflets were followed, after the landing, by copies of another, graphically illustrated, which informed the Japanese troops that since December 8, 1941, the United States had built more than 33,000,000 tons of shipping and more than 171,000 planes. The leaflet concluded with the question: “Where are your ships and planes?”

The feeling of helpless isolation was suggested repeatedly to the Japanese troops, who always have faith that their air force and warships are coming to their rescue. Leaflets were dropped which showed Okinawa hemmed in on all sides by American ships. The fact was stressed in a number of ways that the Japanese were cut off from all outside help, and that “no matter how hard you fight, you cannot win; to resist is to die.”

Another leaflet stated: “Your officers, who cannot hold this island, are now debating when to evacuate the island by plane and submarine.”

Other American leaflets that were aimed at destroying the confidence of the Japanese soldier in his leaders called his attention to the fact that he repeatedly had been told flagrant lies and always had been treated as expendable. One leaflet asked how so many American planes, ships, supplies, and men could be at Okinawa if all Radio Tokyo’s claims about American losses were true. The hopelessness of continued struggle was emphasized further in leaflets which inquired whether the Japanese had a single plane as good as the Superfortress.

Since the Japanese mind had been found to be most easily reached through statements which stimulated thinking, several of the American propaganda leaflets were written in the form of rhetorical questions. One such leaflet asked if it were not true that American production was the greatest in the world, that the United States led the world in science, that Americans had superior health and strength. The questions concluded with “Have you forgotten past American victories? If so, the American forces will bring the facts to you!”

This line of propaganda, long ago anticipated and dreaded by the Japanese military leaders, challenged the traditional Japanese theory that the Yamato spirit could defeat the most powerful enemy. American propagandists, intent upon disclaiming the spiritual superiority of the Japanese, have counterattacked with a number of leaflets which have pointed out the fallacies in arguments pretending to prove that “spirit” alone could win.

One of the most easily understood of the American anti-"spirit” leaflets had as its title “Kumo no Kakohashi,” meaning “Do Not Rest Your Ladder Against a Cloud.” The leaflet made it clear that the Japanese had an exaggerated idea of their own fighting spirit and that it was American fighting spirit plus superior power which won at Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Kwajalein, New Guinea, Leyte, and so on. Other leaflets pointed out that the Japanese were not the only ones who had “spirit.” One of the latter type had pictures of American factories and fleets on one side, contrasted with illustrations of burning Japanese cities on the other. The text read in part: “If American forces are as weak as Japan tells you, the South Pacific would still be in Japanese hands.”


THE anti-“spirit” campaign was carried still further by a leaflet dropped several days after the landing on Okinawa. The leaflet bluntly stated: “If spirit alone can win, why were you pushed back from the coast? Japanese faith in the superiority of spirit is only silly Japanese propaganda to bolster your courage.”

The Psychological Warfare Branch utilized Japanese history for examples of the exploitation of Japanese youth. Facing a grim picture of a Japanese crippled soldier begging on a street corner was a text which in translation read: “Japan won a decisive victory in the Russo-Japanese War. You all know what kind of life the heroes who lost their arms and legs for their country led. Host of the crippled soldiers became medicine peddlers. The first year, they were ‘heroes’; the second year, they were just ‘peddlers’; and in the third year, they were ‘peddlers who force their wares on you.’ In the end they were chased away as ‘fakes.’ The Government did nothing, and the people laughed at the crippled soldiers, who died after a lonely and miserable life. It is useless for you to die or become disabled for momentary glory.”

The most difficult problem American propagandists confronted was the creation of weapons to erase the stigma of surrender. Even if the Japanese soldier’s morale had been weakened to the point where he wanted to stop fighting, he continued to feel that surrender was a dishonorable way out. American propagandists therefore had to find “face-savers” which the Japanese soldier could use to convince himself that his desire to save his life was justifiable.

Several good “face-savers” have been presented in leaflets to the Japanese, including an argument which played on the traditional Japanese admiration for the German military in an attempt to prove that surrender could be met without loss of honor. One leaflet, for example, compared the accomplishments of Hennecke, a German admiral who surrendered in World War I and lived to serve his country well in a second war, with Admiral Negumo, a Japanese naval officer who committed seppuku (literally, “slit belly”) oil Saipan. The leaflet asked: “What good is seppuku when it leaves a man without sons to bear his name and carry on his family line? Do you want to be the last of your line, or do you want a family too?”

The face-saving suggestion that a truly patriotic Japanese soldier would save his life, so that he could help rebuild Japan after the war, was put forward constantly by Psychological Warfare men. Possibly the most effective example of this type of leaflet, its message heightened by pictures of American bombers blackening the sky over Japan, explained that “the courageous soldier will fight until the battle is won or as long as there is hope of victory. ... It is foolish and cowardly to throw away your life in a futile fight when you can serve your country and carry out your obligations to your family by saving your life and helping to rebuild Japan when the war is ended.”

The necessity for convincing the Japanese of the wisdom of surrender, regardless of how emotionally unconcerned Americans may be about sparing their lives, was proved at Iwo Jima, the last of the Pacific islands taken without full benefit of psychological warfare. The number of American casualties on that island unquestionably would have been reduced by 50 per cent if the beleaguered Japanese soldiers had not been convinced that they had no alternative except to continue fighting until they were dead. After a bitter struggle the Marines on Iwo Jima entered one cave over the dead bodies of the Japanese defenders and found a note signed by four Japanese soldiers. A translation of the note, addressed to “The Enemy,” read:—

“We have fortified this island for a year, but we cannot win this war with just the Yamato spirit. We cannot match your quantity. There is no other road for us to follow but to die.”

The four Japanese soldiers in that cave died, but not before they had taken their toll of American lives and continued their resistance until, as they put it, there was no other road for them but to die. To shorten the war, American propagandists must show the Japanese soldiers that there is “another road”; that when they are surrounded, cut off from all outside help, and beaten to the point where further resistance is useless, they may surrender without disgrace. Unsympathetic as we may be toward the Japanese, we must either furnish them with a substitute for their desire to “die in honor” (Gyoku Sai), or be prepared to continue the Pacific war until the majority of the vast numbers of remaining Japanese troops have been killed.