Radio broadcasting is an arm of warfare just as are guns and bullets. These were the words of William S. Paley, the creator of CBS. Paley was responsible for building that company from a small collection of radio stations into the broadcasting juggernaut of the mid-20th century. He was also a key player in American radio propaganda operations during World War II. His words expressed what the governments of both the Allied and Axis powers understood: radio was a weapon of psychological warfare.
Tuning In With the Enemy
Wartime propaganda goes back in time about as far as war, but by the time World War II broke out, radio had become ubiquitous. It wormed its messages straight into the ears of its eager listeners, freeing them from the chore of reading, while delivering musical entertainment directly right to their homes. In wartime, governments used the lure of radio to drum up domestic support for the war and bolster the morale of troops. Broadcasts directed at the enemy aimed to undermine civilian support at home and psych out soldiers in the field.
In Europe and the Pacific, “Axis Sally” and “Tokyo Rose” angled to spook American soldiers with ominous battle predictions, convince them that they were destined to lose a futile and immoral fight, and haunt them with thoughts of their wives and sweethearts back home being whisked away by men who’d gotten out of going to the battlefield. Axis Sally and Tokyo Rose practiced “white” propaganda as seductive frenemies, who made no bones about whose side they were on. Allied powers needed a different strategy.
In Nazi-controlled Europe, listening to enemy stations was a misdemeanor punishable by death. To build a listener base, Allied governments had to employ a subterfuge tactic known as “black” propaganda. They operated clandestine radio stations that pretended to come from the enemy, while subtly undermining morale and encouraging resistance to the Nazi regime among those Germans who had a feeling that this Hitler guy might be kind of evil.
Radio 1212 is on the Air
In the European theater of World War II, the not-so-subtly named Psychological Warfare branch of the Office of War Information (OWI) ran two black propaganda operations. The first, Operation Annie, was the project of the United States 12th Army Group. It broadcast out of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg using the equipment of the former Radio Luxembourg. When the Germans turned tail and scampered away from the advancing Allied military in 1944, they failed to destroy the transmitter, the second-most powerful on the Continent. When the Allied recaptured it, they put it to use.
For most of the day, the transmitter was used for ordinary news and entertainment. But overnight, it became a clandestine station, known as Radio 1212. William S. Paley, the CBS magnate, was brought in to supervise production, which took a theatrical bent. Cloaking itself as a mobile German resistance station on the run from Nazis, Operation Annie faked equipment problems and close calls with its pursuers. At first, Annie broadcast accurate reports of damage to German forces by Allied bombings, information that actual German radio treated as none of their business.
As Allied forces closed in on the German heartland, Radio 1212, using its straight-talk cred, started laying on the bullshit. At first, they confused the military by downplaying the victories of Allied forces and falsely reporting their movements. As Allied victory neared, station announcers appealed to German citizens to mount a revolution against the Nazis, reporting on the progress of the bogus “New Germany” movement. In the end, Annie faked its own death in a dramatic scene of approaching voices and splintering wood, drowned out by the station’s theme music, and then silence.
They Like American Music Best
The second project, known as Operation Musac (short for “musical action”), provided bespoke musical entertainment for the Calais Soldiers Station. Operated by the British Secret Service, Soldiers Station was broadcast using a 600,000-watt transmitter known as Apidistra, or shield lilly, after a common landscaping plant and a popular American song, “The Biggest Apidistra in the World.” The station pretended to be run by Germans inside occupied France, but its signal actually originated in an English town called Milton Bryant.
The British worried that their slightly dishonest news broadcasts were too boring to attract German ears. British music being about as exciting as British food at the time, they asked the Americans to help spice things up with some Hollywood-style entertainment. The OWI recruited Lothal Metzl, an exiled Viennese cabaret composer living in New York. His job was to write catchy German lyrics, to be set to American music, including everything from Gershwin operas to Negro spirituals to cowboy songs.
Listen to an excerpt of Marlene Dietrich singing Lili Marlene
Operating under a cover corporation, Operation Musac partnered with the advertising agency J. Walter Thompson to bring in German-émigré vocal talent from Hollywood. Marlene Dietrich was among the performers they hired. None of the singers or musicians had any idea they were working for the OWI. Some of the songs Metzl composed were obvious propaganda, but most were comical and oblique in their anti-Nazi message. There were, for example, songs about the life of a German soldier that suggested the officers were lazy ass-hats. The lyrics became more explicitly anti-Nazi in February 1945, as German defeat seemed inevitable.
No one knows how effective these tactics actually were, but the Office of Strategic Services (OSS, forerunner to the CIA) concluded that they at least succeeded in building a fan base. By the end of World War II, the U.S. government had learned to harness the influence of the American entertainment industry in the war of ideas.
“Radio Wars.” Battles of Belief in World War II. American Radio Works. (http://americanradioworks.publicradio.org/features/wwii/b1.html)
Cull, Nichlas John, David Holbrook Culbert, and David Welch. Propaganda and Mass Persuasion: A Historical Encyclopedia, 1500 to the Present.
Jowett, Garth S. and Victoria O’Donnel. Propaganda and Persuasion.
Mauch, Christof. The Shadow War Against Hitler: The Covert Operations of America’s Wartime Secret Intelligence Service
Smith, Sally Bedell. In All His Glory: The Life of William S. Paley, the Legendary Tycoon and His Brilliant Circle.
Dizard, William P. Inventing Public Diplomacy: The Story of the U.S. Information Agency