The Germans entered World War II with a reputation for propaganda success, orchestrated by Joseph Goebbels, the Reich's minister of propaganda. German propaganda was aided immeasurably by the Third Reich's early military victories and throughout the war by technically excellent radio broadcasts and an impressive documentary film legacy going back to the 1930s. Of course, much German propaganda on the Eastern Front was quickly vitiated by the Germans' brutality toward their prisoners.
Undoubtedly Germany's best "psywar" was to be found in its English-language radio broadcasts, the producers of which had the good sense to use up-to-date American and British popular music and to go lightly on the overt propaganda message. In the field, though, German psychological warfare leaflets tended toward "We Will Crush You" themes or heavy-handed humor with out-of-date English slang that never came off.
Soviet propaganda used such common themes as "Save Your Lives" and "Why Die in a Lost War?" but such leaflets were effectively countered by German propaganda that proclaimed, realistically enough, "Sieg Oder Siberia" (victory or Siberia). One useful Soviet tool for undermining German troop morale was simply the broadcasting of a metronome's ticking and the lugubrious occasional voice-over: "Every 10 seconds, a German soldier dies in Russia."
U.S. and British psywar was by far the most effective of World War II. Allied psywarriors eschewed political themes ("Hitler Is the Ruin of Germany!") or making impossible demands on their enemies ("Refuse to Fight in This Impossible War"). The best leaflets instructed German or Japanese soldiers how to get out alive, literally, from a very bad situation. The most successful such leaflet, in this or any other previous war, was the well-known U.S. Army passierschein, an effort that resembled an international treaty, with a multilingual text and a display of the Allied flags. The leaflet was represented as an order to American soldiers to receive the bearer as an honorable prisoner of war; it concluded with the signature of General Dwight D. Eisenhower.
In the Pacific Theater, American "psywarriors" learned the hard way that Japanese soldiers do not "surrender," but that a few (as well as many more who were likely to be Taiwanese or Korean) might be persuaded to "cease resistance" or "take the honorable path." The most successful U.S. propaganda of the Pacific war was directed toward the civilian population—the justly famous "city leaflets" listing the Japanese cities to be bombed and the dates of the bombings. The fact that U.S. Army Air Forces B-29 bombers duly appeared on the dates given and that the "ever-victorious" Japanese air force could do little to prevent these publicly scheduled mass incendiary raids had a devastating effect on Japanese morale, judging by postwar interrogations, whose subjects included Emperor Hirohito himself.
Japanese radio propagandists, like their German allies, did garner a wide Allied listenership simply by playing popular music. But Japanese leaflets were an art form in themselves. They featured hard-core pornography (much appreciated by Allied troops) or hilariously mangled English, and sometimes both.
By the close of World War II, British and U.S. military propagandists arrived at several battle-tested psywar truths: (1) Know your enemy or target audience; know their language and culture as much as possible. (2) Tell no lies. (3) Never denigrate or caricature the enemy. (4) Steer clear of politics in favor of simple how-to-save-your-life suggestions. Germany and Japan, more often than not, and to their loss, violated every one of these maxims.
Andrews, T. G., et al. An Investigation of Individual Factors Relating to Effectiveness of Psychological Warfare. Chevy Chase, MD: Operations Research Office, 1952.; Boehm, Edward. Behind Enemy Lines: WWII Allied/Axis Propaganda. Secaucus, NJ: Wellfleet Press, 1989.; Daugherty, William E., ed. A Psychological Warfare Casebook. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1958.; Gilmore, Allison. You Can't Fight Tanks with Bayonets: Psychological Warfare against the Japanese Army in the Southwest Pacific. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998.; Lerner, Daniel, and Richard Crossman. Sykewar: Psychological Warfare against Germany, D-Day to V-E Day. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1971.; Sandler, Stanley. Cease Resistance: It's Good for You: A History of U.S. Army Combat Psychological Operations. 2d ed. Fort Bragg, NC: U.S. Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command, 1999.