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“Shaping Mental and Moral Forces”: Memo on Propaganda

The U.S. government rarely used the word propaganda during World War II when referring to its extensive use of radio, film, newspapers, posters, and leaflets to bolster public support for the war effort. It preferred, instead, terms like “education and information,” “psychological warfare,” or “morale building.” Under whatever rubric, U.S. government media production during World War II was a massive and expensive undertaking. Politicians, public relations experts, and social scientists increasingly heralded film as the ideal medium for domestic propaganda, especially because of the increasing number of sixteen-millimeter projectors in schools, civic centers, and military training facilities. In a 1942 memo on film and propaganda, Eric Knight, a writer in the U.S. army’s Morale Branch, argued that “shaping the mental and moral forces on the home front” was as important as, if not more important than, influencing either enemy or neutral nations.

Propaganda is the inculcation of a desired mental attitude in people. Hence any method of communication is a potential carrier of propaganda, and no medium of communication known to the human race can be ignored by the propagandist.

The eye and the ear can be reached by pamphlet and book, drama and screen story, radio and lecture, painting, statue, conversation. These media, and every last variation or mutation of them, are avenues of propaganda; from the weightiest and most abstract truth written by a philosopher down to the off-color story told by the night club comedian, or passed on in the smoking compartment of trains.

The enemy will assuredly use everyone of these media in his attack against you. You will fail if you neglect to use every channel in your fight against him.

In combating the enemy, propaganda offers two channels. A positive assertion of your beliefs and aims, and a refutation of his assertions. The first has the power of attack. The second has the weakness of negative approach. To deny an enemy statement attacking you is to give it wider publicity. Many people feel subconsciously that where there’s smoke there’s fire. It is this factor that Hitler stresses constantly in his claims that a flagrant lie, if turned into a slogan and repeated often enough, is to be half believed.

Denial of a lie dignifies it and further publicizes it. Moreover it is a defensive strategy and has the weakness of defensive strategy. Positive attack on the enemy has strategical strengths akin to those of positive attack in military operations.

The offensive spirit must lie in the propagandist even before it imbues fighting armies, and fighting civil populaces.

Propaganda in wartime also divides itself again in three clear channels:

1. The shaping of mental attitudes in enemy populace.

2. The shaping of mental attitudes in neutral and friendly nations.

3. The shaping of mental and moral forces on the home front.

The first two are export problems; the third is an internal program. In total war, however, it seems probably that much more than fifty percent of propaganda is for internal consumption.

People in total war must have mental and moral sustenance no less than bodily sustenance. Without bodily sustenance, a nation must capitulate. But with sound moral and mental sustenance, a nation can and will continue with the will to win through even shortage of rations, housing and heating.

The longer a war goes on, the more power propaganda has. A well-sustained man will refute enemy propaganda in the early part of a war while his enthusiasms are high, his body well-sustained, and his family still living in comfort. As casualty lists grow, as his friends are killed, as he sees his family living on less and less food and clothing and life-comforts, as he himself feels the drain of war effort and shorter rations, he becomes psychologically more and more ready to half-believe his own defeatists and the enemy propagandists.

The propagandist therefore must not be disturbed if there seems to be no reaction to his efforts. As the war continues, and his mental offensives go in harmony with the military offensives, his weapons are becoming more deadly. His external propaganda will find growing acceptance in the enemy ranks; his internal propaganda must continue even more powerfully on the home front to solidify his own nation’s unbroken will-to-fight, and refutation of all war ends but complete victory.

In all Democracies, initial war unity through patriotism is not enough. Democracy, being built on individual free will, must have intellectual and moral unity. The populace must be convinced that its government made all possible efforts to solve the international problems by peaceful means; that its recourse to war was taken only when all such efforts were exhausted; that its fight is just and in keeping with national honor and attitudes of life; and that from victory in the war shall certainly come not only a period of sounder international stability, but also necessary advances in social, economic and cultural freedoms.

To achieve that victory the populace must be imbued with the will-to-fight and must also be taught how to conduct itself so that the war shall be won. And in total war this latter means education of every individual is almost every phase of his daily life. . . .

In total war, there comes also totality of life-conduct and hence totality of propaganda influencing that life.

To achieve this totality places demands upon almost all the nations' creative workers in any of the propagandistic media. In Britain the constant conditioning of the public mind is carried on through a free press in which censorship is nearly always self-imposed, through paid Government advertisements in the daily press, through radio programs, through re-broadcasting of important speeches made in Parliament, through incessant posters, through organizational classes, and through films both long and short which the Government sponsors wholly or in part.

Film In Propaganda

Film fails in wartime as propaganda in the enemy country. Although films have been dropped in this war by airplanes over enemy and occupied territory, film cannot compete with radio in reaching and influencing minds in the enemy populace.

But of all the media of expression film in many ways qualifies as the best means of spreading ideas and mental attitudes on the home front. The film is positive in approach and almost instantaneous in impact.

Film reaches the broadest of audiences. A man who cannot read or write can understand a film.

Silent film was the only true international language. John Bunny and Charlie Chaplin were as comprehensible to the Chinese and Hindus as to Americans and British. The birth of the talkie ruined the growing technique of the film as the one readily comprehensible international medium, and made it nationalistic in scope again. But it still remains as a medium capable of delivering impacts to all peoples. Foreign language sound tracks can easily be added.

Film carries more conviction than any other expressive medium because the onlooker believes—quite falsely—that the camera cannot lie.

The technician knows the camera can lie, fluently, by its angles, its own peculiar emphasis, and in cutting through its relation of the actual and the staged, and through its omissions.

As example, a full piece of film of Hitler shows him making the Nazi salute. In “The Lambeth Walk” part of the salute is cut. Hitler’s salute becomes now a ludicrous dance gesture to the “Hoy” of the music.

The film is peculiarly adept at expressing most glibly one of the subtlest tricks of the propagandists: to state a well-known truth, and bracket it with a new truth or a half-truth or a patent lie. Examples:

1. Because the various States of America stick together, the United States is strong; if the democratic nations stick together, the democratic front will be strong. (truth plus truth.)

2. In war games last year American soldiers used wooden facsimiles of rifles and machine-guns; men so trained would have no chance against Panzer Divisions. (Truth plus implied lie.)

3. America has more gold than any other nation, much of it buried in Kentucky; therefore this war is really being fought to further American capitalistic strangulation of all other nations. (Truth plus falsehood.)

Each of these three statements, made positively and quickly, induces the hearer to assume that because he knows the first half of each statement is true, the second, equally, must be true. Only the keener mind is deft enough to disassociate the two halves as perhaps not truly related.

Film is particularly adept at this, for one half of the statement may be made in the sight impact, and the other half made in the sound track. It becomes even harder to disassociate impacts on two senses at the same time. Only the keenest of onlookers is intellectually able to say that the eye may see truth and the ear hear untruth at the same time.

Film also lies fluently through its double-impact ability to confuse causes and effect. A good example is the German terror film showing destruction in countries that oppose the Reich.

These films said, in substance: “This town was destroyed because its people resisted German aggression. Therefore resistance is the resort of immoral fools, for it brings destruction of fine cities and proud monuments.”

The true statement is rather: “These people resisted German aggression, and so their town was destroyed. Therefore Nazi aggression is immoral for it destroys fine cities and proud monuments; and the fools are not those who resist, but those who have failed to make their country’s resistance fully effective.”

However, most of the minds of most of the people most of the time are not given to unraveling of such complexities. When films lie most people merely “feel” that something not quite right was up on the screen. But this dies quickly and the subject resorts to the easiest conclusion: “Well, it was on the screen and I guess it must be true. The camera can’t lie.”

But the suspicion that “something wasn’t clean” in the reasoning lurks in the mind. The mental attitude induced is not fortified with clear conviction and thus is impermanent. The subject is still open to counter-propaganda. His will-to-win is not protected against accompanying impacts against morale which will be produced by news of military set-backs, lessening of comforts of life, strain of steady production at work, blackouts, and war-weariness.

Therefore the able propagandist will refrain from slick or glib or false film reasonings to prove his points; but will confine himself to indestructible truths which counter-propaganda will be unable to destroy or disarm.

A conviction of the unassailable truth of its national assertions and claims sustains a nation through the hardships of total war—in fact, if the moral conviction is there the hardships may heighten morale instead of lowering it. The psychologists have yet to explain fully the reason why the morale in Britain was always highest during a blitz—or why during military set-backs the Britisher is often likely to say: “What we really need is another bloody good blitz. That’d make us wake up again.”

Possible explanation is that blitz bombings allow “participation” in the war, give release for the natural desire for action, and allow each person some self-dramatization of his part in the war.

Documentary Film

The so-called Documentary Film method is the most fluent phase of film’s ability to propagandize. It is accepted by the subject as “true” because it turns its camera to reality instead of on actors giving a portrayal of reality.

It is speedier in production, because most of the necessary footage, recordings of actuality, are already existing, and need only to be clipped together and united by dissolves and mixes and by sound track.

The skill is documentary lies clearly in the director’s ability to visualize his task, to rid his mind of “acted-out” scenes, to understand the drama of often poor-photographed reality, to unite unrelated pieces of film together to make fluent meanings and draw conclusions he desires, and to unite them by sound into a coherent whole.

Film’s Role in Wartime America

In all internal propaganda, effectiveness lies through clear understanding of purpose. In propaganda films, virtuosity of technique, or “artistic” credit are not sufficient, if the primary objective is not attained (to implant in the subject mind the desired mental attitude).

This can be attained only by unmuddled understanding of the goals to be reached, of film methods which must carry the message, and use of mass mental attitudes and the processes of the human mind in which the message must be planted.

The purposes of such films in America will not differ greatly from those in Britain in broad aspects. American film can work for national moral unity by stating with conviction that:


The Government sought all possible means to solve international problems without recourse to war.


That war came because all such efforts were exhausted.


That the war is just and in keeping with national honor and systems of life.


That from victory shall come not only the needed era of sounder international stability; but also the desired advances in social, economic and cultural freedoms on the home front.

Of those four points, film can have much to say. The first—American peace efforts—can be readily dramatized. To state, however, that we sunk our warships, attended disarmament conferences, is not enough. It is the “defense” strategy—a mere justification of our attitude.

The positive attack comes through education films not merely showing our desire for peace, but rather stating clearly the full intention of the aggressor nations to solve world problems by brutal, undeclared attack and by ruthless force.

The second, that war came when all efforts for peace were exhausted, is easier of explanation here than in Britain. Britain declared war because another land was invaded. America came into the war because of a direct, bloody and savage attack upon American lives and forces. Pearl Harbor leaves the American mind needing little further statement of America’s desire to stay at peace.

Pearl Harbor, however, can be destroyed as a symbol by meaningless repetition of the words. Overuse dulls words as well as razor-blades. Film can never over-emphasize the bloody deceit of Japan’s attack, but it must seek continually new and powerful ways of saying it.

The third point, that the war is just and in keeping with national honor and our system of life, can again be best stated not by “defensive films” justifying our beliefs, but by savage and pitiless attack upon the aggressor nations' system of life.

Educational films must be made which shall go beyond slogans or repetitions of abstract words. The words democracy, freedom, and liberty are hard enough to understand at any time. Constant use of them leaves the subject mind unmoved by the glories they represent. We are so used to the glories that they themselves do not seem dramatic.

The child who has had three meals a day all its life will never understand the blessing of food until it understands what lack of food means.

Liberty in America becomes pregnant anew with meaning when we show what life is like without it in the aggressor nations.

People will not truly believe this is just war, however, if it is for one moment admitted that the aggressor nations are peopled by unfortunate and kindly inhabitants bossed by evil leaders who have led them astray.

The true moral crime of this century lies with the people of Japan, Germany and Italy, who prostituted and surrendered the rights and liberties that centuries of heroes and martyrs died to attain and preserve for them. That betrayal of the trust of progressive civilization is a crime no less black than that of Hitler, who merely was the panderer who took advantage of the people’s lack of moral character.

These people debauched their own manhood—and a lot of American youths who will die to preserve our own heritage, are also indirectly dying to restore democracy and freedom to these peoples.

The theory of “let’s hate Hitler” will not sustain the necessary will-to-fight. Film must clarify the enemy not as a funny man with a moustache, but as thugs who beat and purged political and religious minorities, and as people who stood around in those lands watching, too craven to live like men or to risk death like men while eradicating the evil from their own national lives. The people who by acquiescence let loose Hitlerism and Fascism and Japanese imperialism upon the world, are even greater cowards and criminals than the men who trampled on their cowardice.

Film cannot state this too clearly in this present war. The cutting together of newsreel material of the earliest days of brutality in the aggressor nations, together with clear, truthful explanation of the progressive growth of world events, will reach to the desired effect.

The fourth aim—to state with conviction that victory will bring desired advances in life and freedom on the home front—is compatible with the democratic idea of a steadily advancing state of civilization. It is not enough to imply, even subconsciously, to the soldier and citizen that we are fighting to see that Germany behaves herself in this world (that is, that we die to restore for her the democratic freedoms she didn’t have guts to retain for herself). The natural question in every mind is: “Yes, we want a better world, but we’re part of this world and we want some share of the betterment, too.” Either you say: “Be content with the share you’ve got,” a static deadly answer; or we agree to even greater richness of life for the individual under democracy, and start to shape the still hazy forms which those improvements will take.

The broad aims, however, are clear: for one can turn to the Atlantic Charter of the President, as an official declaration of aims encompassing democratic progress. As these are officially extended and clarified and enlarged, one can define more exactly the “better world” which every fighting man desires as reward for his fighting.

Source: Memo, Lyman Munson to Col. Watrous (with Enclosure on Propaganda by Eric Knight), May 26, 1942, Munson Papers in David Culbert, ed., Film and Propaganda in America. A Documentary History. Vol. III, World War II, Part 2 (New York: Greenwood Press, 1990), 107–111, 114–117.