Project Troy: How Scientists Helped Refine Cold War Psychological Warfare

By working for the CIA, a crack team of researchers honed the United States’ first formal peacetime campaign of propaganda and manipulation.

A black-and-white photo of a man reading and speaking into a radio microphone labeled in Russian
A Russian announcer in Washington, D.C., translates a Voice of America broadcast to the Soviet Union in 1954. (Bill Allen / AP)

The phrase Cold War didn’t always refer to a time period. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the very years that the battle lines between the United States and the Soviet Union were being drawn, U.S. foreign-policy strategists used the phrase to invoke a specific kind of conflict, one carried out by “means short of war.” If, as NSC-68, a key document of U.S. strategy, asserted in 1950, the United States and the Soviet Union were locked in an ideological clash of civilizations, a battle between “slavery” and “freedom,” a victory by force would be hollow. If the United States wanted to defeat communism, it needed to do so “by the strategy of cold war,” combining political, economic, and psychological techniques. “The cold war,” NSC-68 warned, “is in fact a real war in which the survival of the free world is at stake.”

This was a new kind of conflict requiring new kinds of weapons: psychological weapons. The question of psychological warfare preoccupied a small but influential group of foreign-policy officials during President Harry S. Truman’s second term. By the time that Truman left office in January 1953, the United States had laid the legal and institutional foundations for overt propaganda campaigns as well as covert action. During that period of experimentation leading up to the Eisenhower presidency, almost anything U.S. strategists could dream up, short of overthrowing foreign governments (that would come later), was up for discussion. Among other things, the Marshall Plan allotted $13 billion to rebuild Western Europe, Voice of America transmitted jazz and news to listeners in 46 languages in more than a hundred countries, and the CIA sent tens of thousands of balloons filled with anti-Communist pamphlets into China.

This post is adapted from Wolfe’s new book.

Even as State Department, CIA, and Army officials spent countless hours working through the administrative challenges of launching a psychological-warfare program more or less from scratch, they spent remarkably little time discussing what kinds of messages might best promote the cause of “freedom.” Ideas about science rarely, if ever, explicitly appeared on lists of psychological-warfare objectives. Science entered U.S. psychological-warfare programs as a stowaway, tucked into the pockets of some of the private individuals to whom the State Department and the CIA turned to wage the United States’ battle against communism. More subtext than text, ideas about science subtly undergirded policy makers’ emerging plans for waging and winning this new kind of war.

Prior to the Cold War, the United States had never formally mounted psychological-warfare campaigns during peacetime. The country had, of course, engaged in practices that we might consider psychological warfare, using world’s fairs, missionaries, economic policies, and educational exchanges to promote U.S. values. But what changed in the years immediately following World War II was a sense that the United States was engaged in a prolonged battle of civilizations that could not be won through force alone. And, as was so typical throughout the Cold War, U.S. policy makers blamed the Soviet Union for forcing their hand.

On March 12, 1947, President Truman appeared before a joint session of Congress to request $400 million in economic and military aid to Turkey and Greece. In what came to be known as the Truman Doctrine, the president pledged to give such assistance as needed to help “free and independent nations to maintain their freedom” in the face of Communist threats. Three months later, the Marshall Plan was announced. Leaders in the United States didn’t consider the Marshall Plan an act of psychological warfare per se, but the Soviet Union’s leaders did and barred its satellite countries from participating.

This turned out to be the opening salvo in a high-stakes game of propaganda. In fall 1947, Communist Party officials revived the party’s prewar international propaganda network under a new name, the Communist Information Bureau, or Cominform. In mid-1948, the Soviet Union launched a campaign against the United States, targeted at audiences both within its own territories and in the world at large. In Moscow, the authorities celebrated writers, musicians, and scientists who promoted seemingly “Russian” values; abroad, the Cominform’s agents attacked U.S. aggression and promoted the Communist commitment to peace. Soviet authorities meanwhile cracked down on Soviet citizens’ ability to communicate with foreigners and foreign institutions. A dispatch from the U.S. ambassador to Moscow in January 1949 warned of the “near-impregnable barrier between Soviet citizens and foreigners in the U.S.S.R.” and specifically noted that the new restrictions eliminated exceptions for “scientific and educational institutions.”

Over the next year, the United States intensified its commitment to psychological warfare and, increasingly, did so publicly. On April 20, 1950, President Truman kicked off a national “Campaign of Truth” with an address before the American Society of Newspaper Editors. In a lunchtime address at the Statler Hotel in Washington, D.C., Truman implored the country’s leading editors to join the government in meeting “false propaganda with truth all around the globe.” “Everywhere that the propaganda of Communist totalitarianism is spread,” the president warned, “we must meet it and overcome it with honest information about freedom and democracy.”

Truman’s public speech coincided with a new statement of U.S. strategy issued behind closed doors. NSC-68, a top-secret document drafted by a committee chaired by Paul Nitze, the new head of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, confirmed the U.S. view of the conflict with the Soviet Union as total and ideological. It is not hyperbole to refer to the 66-page document as “apocalyptic,” as historians so frequently do, because the document responded directly to a potentially world-ending threat: the Soviet Union’s explosion of an atomic weapon in August 1949. The end of the U.S. atomic monopoly, along with Truman’s subsequent decision to endorse a hydrogen-bomb program in January 1950, dramatically raised the stakes of a potential hot war. Over and over again, NSC-68 called for overt and covert psychological strategies to both strengthen the resolve of allies and foment unrest in the Soviet Union’s vulnerable satellites.

This new, explicit focus on psychological warfare, combined with the outbreak of the Korean War in June, had an immediate effect on both overt and covert propaganda programs. Truman requested nearly $90 million from Congress to step up the State Department’s information campaigns; Congress agreed to two-thirds of this, $63.9 million, in September 1950. On the covert side, the CIA’s Office of Policy Coordination (OPC), the agency’s covert-operations wing, immediately submitted budget estimates to dramatically expand the OPC’s operations through 1957. The request included funds for staff, Washington facilities and overseas supply bases, organizational resources, paramilitary training, and a worldwide communications network.

The CIA also asked for something more difficult to supply than money: expertise. As matters currently stood, the OPC lacked “a significant body of knowledge, personnel reserves, techniques, and philosophy of operations” regarding psychological warfare. For this, the architects of U.S. psychological-warfare strategy turned to the scientific community. Undersecretary of State James Webb asked the noted physicist and veteran adviser Lloyd Berkner’s help in assembling a crack team of scientists to tackle the problem of psychological warfare. The resulting Project Troy brought together a group of social scientists and physical scientists from MIT and Harvard that either already had or would soon play leading roles in the Cold War. In addition to Berkner himself, the group included the electrical engineer (and future adviser to President Kennedy) Jerome Wiesner, the physicist and future Nobel laureate Edward Purcell, and the economist Max Millikan, all at MIT; the anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn and the psychologist Jerome Bruner, both Office of War Information veterans now at Harvard; and a select few others from outside the universities, including RAND’s Hans Speier and Bell Labs’ John Pierce.

Webb had specifically asked Project Troy’s members to investigate technical obstacles to U.S. information campaigns, especially ways to circumvent the Soviet Union’s jamming of Voice of America broadcasts. This ambitious group, however, interpreted its mandate much more broadly, producing an 81-page report (plus appendixes) on all imaginable aspects of political warfare. In addition to the expected chapters on radio transmissions and the use of long-distance balloons, the study group’s February 1951 report covered such wide-ranging topics as preparing for Stalin’s death and strategies for debriefing Soviet defectors. The State Department was unimpressed, and Nitze pointed out that the group “went vastly beyond its original terms of reference and explored a field for which it had no special competence and about which it had little information.”

Project Troy’s biggest impact ultimately turned out to be long-lasting relationships between government officials at the State Department and the CIA and social scientists at MIT and Harvard. In the more immediate future, however, Project Troy’s endorsement of some sort of central agency to coordinate the various overt and covert psychological-warfare programs already in place sent ripples through the foreign-policy establishment.

Despite their top-secret clearances, the Project Troy members lacked access to information on, or even confirmation of the existence of, some of the OPC’s clandestine programs. But even lacking those details, they gleaned the obvious point that having so many government agencies involved in propaganda raised the risk of duplication, crossed purposes, and blown covers. The State Department had its overt information programs, of course, but so did the Economic Cooperation Administration (the agency in charge of implementing the Marshall Plan), the Army, and NATO. The CIA, the Economic Cooperation Administration, and the Army also maintained covert information programs. In Korea, the theater commander controlled psychological-warfare operations. None of these programs were being coordinated with the others.

Project Troy recommended a sort of “superboard” that would “plan general strategy for virtually all unconventional warfare measures,” including overt propaganda campaigns, covert actions, and economic warfare. In response, on April 4, 1951, Truman created a Psychological Strategy Board (PSB) responsible for “the coordination and evaluation of the national psychological effort.” Like Truman’s speech announcing a “Campaign of Truth,” the creation of the PSB was a public act: In late June, the White House and the State Department issued simultaneous press releases describing the PSB’s purpose, membership, and powers. The press releases of course omitted any reference to covert activities, but the U.S. government’s broader embrace of psychological strategies was not remotely secret at this point in the Cold War.

As a coordinating body, the PSB proved a disappointment. The wording of the board’s mandate suggested that it would oversee psychological programs but not actively participate in them, leaving operational control in the hands of the originating agency. Once again, the State Department, the CIA, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff began sniping over turf. Mired in scheduling conflicts, the board rarely met during its first six months and spent most of the time that it did meet on procedural details. The first meeting confirmed its astonishingly broad mission, covering “every kind of activity in support of U.S. policies except overt shooting and overt economic warfare.” In an impressive bit of understatement, Gordon Gray, the PSB’s first director, later recalled, “I don’t consider this one of the conspicuous successes of my life.”

The PSB’s eventual compromise on how it would evaluate projects—a negotiation that lasted until February 1952, nearly a year after the board’s creation—created a screening board that kept all but the most controversial projects off the PSB’s agenda. The State Department, for its part, was by now ready to relinquish control over covert operations. A State Department circular issued in December 1951 carefully distinguished among white, gray, and black propaganda, reminding foreign-service officers that neither the State Department nor the Economic Cooperation Administration was authorized to participate in black propaganda. As examples of permitted activities, the circular suggested contracts with publishers and other media producers, with or without attribution to the U.S. government, provided that attribution of material to the United States could be done “without serious embarrassment.” Inappropriate activities included direct assistance to foreign newspapers, financial assistance to labor or youth groups, and propaganda campaigns designed to influence foreign elections—all activities notable for being pursued at that very moment by the CIA’s Office of Policy Coordination.

The word science is strikingly absent from the key documents that established the parameters for early U.S. psychological operations. Even NSC-68, a notably thorough document, primarily discusses science in terms of weapons technology. Despite the dearth of explicit references to science in declassified reports on psychological operations during the Truman era, substantial evidence suggests that U.S. policy makers wanted science to play a larger role, even at this early date. We know that Marshall Plan administrators directed funds toward rebuilding European scientific research activities, most notably in the form of CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. Approximately 15 percent of the articles published in the State Department’s glossy Russian-language publication Amerika from 1945 to 1952 covered advances in science, medicine, or technology. In 1950, 20 percent of Fulbright grants to university faculty and teachers went to natural scientists, with an additional 25 percent going to social scientists.

All this suggests that scientific programming had a place, if not necessarily a prominent one, in both overt and covert psychological-warfare programs in the early 1950s. Over time, the CIA and the State Department would find ways to incorporate messages about scientific progress more directly into their work. They did so particularly with programming aimed at a particular class of elite technocrats in developing nations—the very people that NS-68 proposed to win over in the first place.

This post is adapted from Wolfe’s new book, Freedom’s Laboratory: The Cold War Struggle for the Soul of Science.