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Crossman and psychological warfare

Crossman is introduced to Psychological Warfare

Richard Crossman was appointed to the Political Warfare Executive (as he himself reminded an audience for a lecture in the 1950s, ‘psychological warfare’ was a later Americanism)1 at its creation in 1941. The organisation was designed to unite the various organisations responsible for propaganda and propaganda-related intelligence under a single command structure in order to limit the breakdowns in communication and internal rivalries between the various departments which had exercised responsibility before the PWE’s inception. Crossman’s appointment was certainly helped by his knowledge of Germany’s language, society and culture, dating back to the start of the decade, as well as his former career as an academic; as did several of his publications on the possible role propaganda might play in war (which were published in the run-up to the conflict).

Crossman during the Second World WarIn 1938, he had co-edited (and contributed an essay to) a book analysing the role of psychology in understanding human aggression as a cause of violence and developing ways of mitigating it. He had also co-written – ‘in the month or two of interval I had before I started working full time in PWE’ 2 – a treatise entitled A Hundred Million Allies If You Choose. The central argument advanced by Crossman and his partner (the New Statesman’s then editor, Kingsley Martin) was that any subsequent war would be fought as much on a propaganda front as a military one; and that political/psychological warfare was necessary both to demoralise the enemy and maintain the morale of allies in occupied territory.

That a man who had started out in Classics and philosophy should have an interest in psychology is nothing particularly innovative. The 1920s and the 1930s had witnessed a resurgence and popularisation of Sigmund Freud’s writings, and psychology – the ‘philosophy of the mind’, as it were – fed into Crossman’s interest in human nature. He even argued, in one talk, that Nazi Germany’s political structures, and by implication fascism in general, were born out of man’s psychological desire for belonging:

Boys and girls all pass through the ‘gang stage’, and when they arm themselves with bows and arrows and pistols, they fight imaginary or real battles with rival gangs. I suppose nearly all human beings have a strain of brutality in them […] That really explains how National Socialism managed to get a hold on Germany. It fired the imagination of youth.3

In his post-war writings and lectures he coins the term ‘exdoctrination’ in an attempt to explain what psychological warfare’s main objective was: the process of undoing the heavy work of the German propaganda machine. Yet this was, according to Crossman, merely the transition stage between two broader objectives:4 ‘demoralisation’ (the psychological undermining of the enemy’s loyalties) and ‘indoctrination’ (the process of ‘putting back in’ or ‘reprogramming’ the enemy to be loyal to the Allied command).

The Psychological Warrior

The evolution of Crossman’s thoughts on psychological warfare can perhaps be most acutely observed in a series of lectures he gave to the Royal United Services Institute, the Royal Naval War College and the NATO Defence College in Paris between 1952 and 1957,5 as well as a typed manuscript held in the MRC collection (which appears to have served as a basis for the lectures)6 in which he candidly discusses the successes, failures and dangers of psychological warfare.

As an astute propagandist he demonstrates an awareness of how propaganda should always be relative to its audience: anti-German propaganda for the Home Front, morale-boosting propaganda for audiences in the occupied territories and more subtle – ‘exdoctrinating’ – propaganda for Germans. Yet even here he shows himself weary – especially in his talks to the home front – of attempts to heighten the rhetoric more than is required. In a speech about the threats facing organised labour in Germany made as part of the ‘Inside Nazi Germany’ series,7 Crossman appears to edit out words that appear too inflammatory: ‘The mob, driven desperate by the slump, was howling for blood and the victim selected was organised labour’ is crossed out by hand in his typescript, although precisely why remains unclear.8 It may even be the case that he still has some affinity for Germany – as he put it himself in one of his NATO lectures:

I would emphasise to you that effective propaganda cannot be undertaken except by people who are half in love with the enemy. […] He [the ideal propagandist] must not have merely sympathy with the enemy; he must have empathy into the enemy.9

The use of the preposition ‘into’ here is quite revealing about what Crossman understands by the term ‘psychological warfare’: for him, it is necessary to understand the process of human reasoning in the enemy’s mind before one can make any conceivable gesture to change it. For this reason, he emphasises the idea of ‘relative’ propaganda, arguing instead that home front opinion must always be irrelevant; the propaganda must sound convincing and objective to a hostile audience prepared to dismiss it outright, not to people naturally inclined to believe it true.10 Ironically, this approach ensured that the BBC German Service was probably the most objective news service operating during the war (even more so than the Home Service itself).11 One anecdote he is particularly fond of recounting to his NATO audience is how BBC German news reports would always try to over-estimate the number of British planes shot down during air-raids – part of a wider policy of making sure that the Allies announced their own defeats before Goebbels.12

Yet Crossman’s attitude could vary between this ‘humanity’ for the enemy and a spirit of ruthlessness and determination. His aim as a propagandist, he argued, was to ‘destroy morale’. In a PWE directive produced for the build-up to D-Day in 1944, he stated bluntly that the objective was not to pander to ‘German militarism and the attitudes of mind behind it, both of which we are pledged to destroy … The use of psychological warfare must be strictly subordinated to the long-term policy of our governments.’13 Of course, Crossman wrote these under specific pressures and in a specific political context. In private documents as well as in his lectures (specifically those given after 1956), he remained highly critical of over-interference, by governments and by the military, in the PWE’s activities; especially since these were often driven by short-term goals which clashed with psychological warfare’s longer-term aim: to build the trust of the enemy listener.14

Thus, while Crossman’s rhetoric on Germany for consumption by a British audience became increasingly more judgemental and bellicose, his own attitude to Germany – a place ‘I myself formerly loved’ 15– was perhaps more complex and hidden beneath a web of conflicting loyalties.

Psychological Warfare and the Cold War

Crossman’s views on the role that psychological warfare might play – if any – in a ‘Cold War’ situation were altered and overtaken by events. Before 1956, the year of the Suez crisis and the Hungarian Rising, he repeatedly told his audience at the NATO Defence College that psychological warfare was useless unless it was accompanied by a military campaign. He asserted that it could only work when it acts as a force for demoralisation (as a precursor to ‘indoctrination’ by the victorious side) rather than on its own.

Tanks in Budapest, 1956Yet, by 1957, Crossman had done a complete volte-face:

I used, when I first came here to say to you: There is no propaganda, no psychological warfare in cold war, because there cannot be a common policy between the nations of the West in a cold war, and without a common policy you cannot have psychological warfare. I do not dare to say that to you any more. […] I used to be able to say that because I did not think it mattered very much and we could afford to go on like that. I frankly now think that, unless we can find some way of getting a sufficient common policy, to have a psychological warfare attitude in common, there is very little chance of surviving.16

Just as in the 1940s, Crossman was unimpressed by the American propaganda broadcast over the Iron Curtain. He believed that propaganda must not sound like explicit propaganda, nor should it put the lives of its listeners (many of whom may well be sympathetic to its cause by virtue of the fact that they are risking heavy penalties to tune in) at unnecessary risk. He was appalled by the disunity of message between three unambiguously ‘American’ broadcasters such as the Voice of America, Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe. He was alarmed that stations such as Radio Free Europe (specifically after the death of Stalin and the East Berlin revolt in 1953) had openly encouraged resistance against the state despite being fully aware that no concrete help from the West would be forthcoming and that any such revolt would be suppressed. Crossman argued that it was morally wrong to create such a climate of false hope, when it was clear that the American government was not prepared to grant military aid (once again echoing his initial, and soon to be changed, assertion that psychological warfare could only reinforce tanks and troops, not replace them).17

He also warned that too many organisations – and too many divergent opinions – can have the opposite effect of that to which they are intended: as opposed to proving the merits of democracy and its tolerance of political dissent, they create the impression of a ‘Western voice’ which is self-contradicting, insincere and even prone to outright lying (even though he also argues that individuals in positions of power in the Soviet Union are intrigued by these differences and they can make the party command more open to dissent within its ranks).18 For Crossman, achieving this ‘unity’ of message was vital if the West was to succeed and make its message attractive and endearing to audiences in Eastern Europe. The difference, however, is that before 1956 he felt that such unity was unachievable, and that psychological warfare should be left; after, however, he regarded it as imperative to create the unity necessary to engage in effective psychological warfare.

Crossman’s attitude remained in this mode throughout the late-1950s and early-1960s (before a ministerial role and collective responsibility required such activities and opinions to be scaled down). Even as late as 1963, he suggested creating a British Council-backed magazine for Eastern Europe which was intended to promote British culture and (political) institutions abroad.19 He produced a small paper on the subject although the idea was not put into practice.

Crossman and American Psychological Warfare

Crossman was definitely unimpressed by American attempts at psychological warfare when he visited the United States in October 1942. The Office of War Information (OWI) had been created by President Roosevelt in 1941, just after America had entered the war, to administer the country’s propaganda operations. Yet, as was the situation in Britain, the initial organisations were diverse and distrustful of each other. Frequently during his visit, Crossman would refer to those running them as being hopelessly out of their depth and incompetent, as well as beset by internal rivalries and intrigues:

I found the [OWI German] Section extremely willing and eager, but am more and more doubtful about its competence.20

In the afternoon I had another long session with the German Section of OWI, which only confirmed my previous impression of its good will and incompetence.21

I attended … an inter-Governmental Information Policy Committee and took part in a desultory conversation22

I was irresistibly reminded of the palmy days of the Planning Committee at B. H. [Broadcasting House]. There was the same atmosphere of club chat and unconscious incompetence.23

‘They didn’t even know that there was jamming’ he wrote incredulously to one of his superiors and, as a result, they were trying to put gratuitous ‘production tricks’ into their programmes which may well have been dangerous to those attempting to tune in.24 Even as late as 1945, when he visited Germany with the Psychological Warfare Division of the Allied Supreme Headquarters, he complained about a newspaper, under American direction, which had wanted to inform the German people that they had been ‘crushed’ in a ‘Gigantic defeat’. This, he concluded, was ‘typical of the kind of “hard-hitting propaganda” which will boomerang’.25

The other problem – as had been the case in Britain – was that the two main organisations responsible for political intelligence and psychological warfare, the Office of War Information and the Office of Strategic Services, were ‘at loggerheads’ with each other and lacked coherence.26 As he was to argue repeatedly in his lectures, a unity of message was vital. The one silver lining for him was the news that plans were already afoot in Washington and New York to relieve some of the ‘incompetent’ propagandists of their jobs and to rationalise the functions of the two organisations.

Politicised Warfare – ‘White’ and ‘Black’ propaganda

By the end of the war, the main target of Crossman’s ire appears to have been – somewhat ironically – politicians and their apparent lack of commitment. The psychological warfare unit, he argued, frequently had to work around political directives and stubbornness. Yet, even if his views on American OWI propaganda had not changed, his views on American propagandists had done so, however slightly. Working under the command of an American general, and in a joint Anglo-American team, he praised his colleagues, insisting that their policy was more unified than that of their respective governments.27

When looking back, Crossman seems weary of what he did. In the immediate aftermath of the war, it can almost feel as though he is trying to justify his actions. He freely admitted that they were using ‘techniques of persuasion under conditions which do not normally prevail in Western democracies’, but also tried to shy away from expressions of hubris: ‘truth is the best propaganda. Those who lose their integrity destroy themselves, if for no other reason than because they come to believe their own inventions’.28 He even regarded those who wanted to win the war with ‘a single propaganda stunt’ as people who had ‘succumbed to Satan’:29

[This] infantile Machiavellianism was proposed by a politician, who treated psychological warfare as a “war game”, and not as what it really was – the imposition of the Allied will on the German mind.30

However, as the last part of that quote demonstrates, his own attitude could seem just as Machiavellian. The Political Warfare Executive’s aim, he once stated, was to ‘demoralise the enemy, so that the Allied statesmen could pastoralise him at leisure’.31

Officially, the Political Warfare Executive had no direct editorial control over the BBC, even in Radio Cherbourg, c1944relation to the corporation's German Service, but it was responsible for writing the frameworks and directives within which the BBC European Services were obliged to work, and close relations with the PWE commanding officers effectively ensured that programme-makers were often working to PWE suggestions.

This division was maintained in the two types of propaganda PWE produced. ‘White’ propaganda – as it was known – made no attempt to disguise itself (the BBC German Service was quite clearly a British radio station, originating outside of Germany) whereas ‘black’ propaganda tried to imitate material from inside the Nazi state (purporting to be genuine, it attempted to subvert from within). Crossman once argued that there was no such thing as true ‘black’ propaganda – since its targets invariably had their suspicions – rather, it was a vehicle to attract an audience otherwise weary of 'white' propaganda and who wanted an excuse ('But how was I to know? It sounded genuine!') if they were caught listening to it.32

Enemy soldiers were fed a diet of dance music, seedy entertainment and soft pornography (interspersed with advice on malingering) through one such ‘black’ station known as the ‘Soldatensender Calais’. Crossman even claimed that there was an ‘Astrological Programme’ whose audience inside Germany probably consisted of about forty individuals at most, but which it was believed was popular with senior members of the Nazi Party.33 Its aim was to play on the fact that many senior Nazis were known to have an interest in astrology, feeding them gloomy astrological predictions about their military campaigns.

However, in response to a question from a researcher a few years after the war, Crossman stated that he felt the results of the operation had been mixed: ‘I am very dubious whether black propaganda, despite its brilliance in radio work, had any marked effect on the course of the war. It had to be so entertaining that it probably maintained morale’.34 Instead, he retained the conviction which he was to repeat continuously over the course of his lecture series: that the best tactic was simply to tell the truth. ‘Truth paid in the last war’, he once said, ‘and the art of propaganda depended on selection of the truth, with frequent tactical omissions, but not on perverting it’. 35

Psychological warfare and the domestic audience

Crossman once asserted that it was wrong for governments to interfere too much in psychological warfare, arguing that it had been necessary to prevent parliamentary scrutiny of the PWE’s activities on the basis that politicians would have failed to understand the subtleties and complexities of what was going on.36 A similar thing may well have been said with regard to domestic audiences. He felt that both would prefer to bully and hector the enemy – which would really serve to isolate them further – whereas the Political Warfare Executive (or PWE) wanted to win their trust gradually in order to make them more accommodating and supportive when D-Day came.37 The message was clear: the consumption of psychological warfare propaganda was definitely for overseas audiences, and German audiences specifically, as opposed to domestic ones.

However, on 13thJuly 1941, Crossman did provide a talk for the BBC Home Service’s ‘War Commentary’ strand dealing with the topic of Allied propaganda to Germany. This gave him a perfect opportunity to explain to a domestic audience what was involved. There was, evidently, a substantial amount of information that he could not reveal, but he does attempt to justify the ‘softly, softly’ approach which might have appeared too gentle and pro-Nazi to the uninitiated. ‘Propaganda by itself has never won a war’, he asserts, and the main aim of the propaganda to Germany is to provide German citizens with ‘really reliable news’ rather than to torment them.38

Similarly, in a 1942 edition of ‘Answering You’ (a programme produced for the North American Service of the BBC, in which British guests would respond to questions from American audiences), Crossman argued that propaganda could not simply be ‘anti-Hitler’ since many Germans still believed in the ‘Hitler Myth’ (the carefully constructed image of Hitler as a benevolent and wise leader). Instead, it must first play on ‘anti-Nazi’ sympathies; attacking the government, rather than the figurehead and leader of that government.39 Hitler, he felt, was the perfect weapon against himself. The BBC kept an archive of his speeches, catalogued by topic, which allowed them to demonstrate Nazi contradictions and hypocrisies on air. A German civilian or soldier can disbelieve British claims that Hitler is a liar, Crossman argued, but ‘he cannot disbelieve his master’s voice’.40

Andrew Burchell, August 2012


1. MSS.154/3/LIT/7/49.

2. MSS.154/3/RES/1/94.

4. MSS.154/3/LIT/7/56.

5. MSS.154/3/LIT/7/49-247.

6. MSS.154/3/LIT/7/11-39.

8. MSS.154/4/BR/1/97.

9. MSS.154/3/LIT/7/233.

10. MSS.154/3/LIT/7/92.

11. MSS.154/3/LIT/7/108.

12. MSS.154/3/LIT/7/92.

13. MSS.154/3/LIT/7/40.

14. MSS.154/3/LIT/7/14-15.

16. MSS.154/3/LIT/7/190.

17. MSS.154/3/LIT/7/65-66.

18. MSS.154/3/LIT/7/58-59.

19. MSS.154/3/POL/471a-471b.

20. MSS.154/3/LIT/7/9.

21. MSS.154/3/LIT/7/10.

22. MSS.154/3/LIT/7/4.

23. MSS.154/3/LIT/7/3.

24. MSS.154/3/LIT/7/1.

25. MSS.154/3/AU/1/111.

26. MSS.154/3/LIT/7/27.

27. MSS.154/3/LIT/7/113.

28. MSS.154/3/LIT/7/11.

29. MSS.154/3/LIT/7/13.

30. MSS.154/3/LIT/7/15.

31. MSS.154/3/LIT/7/13.

32. MSS.154/3/LIT/7/106, MSS.154/3/LIT/7/120.

33. MSS.154/3/LIT/7/209-210.

34. MSS.154/3/AU/1/196.

35. MSS.154/3/AU/1/196.

36. MSS.154/3/LIT/7/138.

37. MSS.154/3/LIT/7/109.

39. MSS.154/4/BR/1/151.

40. MSS.154/4/BR/1/151.


Photograph of Crossman with unidentified army officer, undated [MSS.154/12/1/3]
Soviet tanks enter Budapest, 1956 [Archives of the International Transport Workers' Federation, MSS.159/12/24]
Photograph of Radio Cherbourg, run by the Psychological Warfare Division, Allied Expeditionary Force, c1944 [MSS.154/3/PW/2]