The use of airborne leaflet propaganda during times of conflict was first seen in the 1870 Franco-Prussian War, when the defenders of Paris dropped leaflets over the besieging German troops from a hot air balloon, proclaiming their defiance. However, hot air balloons and the like were slow and unwieldy, and it wasn’t until the First World War that the potential of airborne leaflet propaganda could be properly realised, by dropping leaflets from aeroplanes. Methods of distribution became more sophisticated in the Second World War, with new types of bomb invented specifically to drop thousands of leaflets over enemy territory.
Leaflet propaganda was chiefly designed to break enemy morale, and was used against both civilians and soldiers, though the latter remained the chief target. Writers of propaganda hoped to appeal to the most basic human instincts: fear, self-preservation, love of family, and romantic/sexual jealousy. Both the Germans and the Japanese designed leaflets to appeal to the romantic nostalgia and sexual jealousy of Allied troops far from home, who were missing their sweethearts and quite possibly worried about what they might be getting up to in their absence.
The most basic of these leaflets were designed along the lines of two lovers in a passionate kiss. In the image, typically, the soldier passionately kisses his sweetheart before heading off for Europe or the Pacific. The accompanying text aims to induce nostalgia for peacetime, thus awakening (or encouraging) a desire to have the war end and get back home.
A number of German-produced leaflets resorted to even more desperate tactics to make Allied soldiers wish that the war was at an end so they could go home. They played on the jealous fears of the average British and American soldier that ‘their’ woman might be unfaithful back home while they were out fighting. Obviously the women in these sorts of pictures were especially glamorous, merely serving as a ‘type’ onto which British and American soldiers could project their own wives and girlfriends.
“When pretty Joan Hopkins was still standing behind the ribbon counter of a 5 & 10 cts. store on 3rd Avenue in New York City, she never dreamed of ever seeing the interior of a duplex Park Avenue apartment. Neither did young Bob Harrison, the man she loves. Bob was drafted and sent to the battlefields in Europe thousands of miles away from her. Through Lazare’s Employment Agency, Joan got a job as private secretary with wily Sam Levy. Sam is piling up big money on war contracts. Should the slaughter end very soon, he would suffer an apoplectic stroke.
Now Joan knows what Bob and his pals are fighting for.
Joan always used to look up to Bob as the guiding star of her life, and she was still a good girl when she started working for Sam Levy. But she often got the blues thinking of Bob, whom she hadn’t seen for over two years. Her boss had an understanding heart and was always very kind to her, so kind indeed, that he often invited her up to his place. He had always wanted to show her his “etchings”. Besides, Sam wasn’t stingy and each time Joan came to see him, he gave her the nicest presents. Now, all women like beautiful and expensive things. But Sam wasn’t the man you could play for a sucker. He wanted something, wanted it very definitely…
Poor little Joan! She is still thinking of Bob, yet she is almost hoping that he’ll never return.
Notwithstanding its lack of subtlety, the leaflet above actually has several interesting features. Firstly, we can see Nazi anti-Semitism creeping in in the form of the corrupt and obviously Jewish ‘Sam Levy’ character. Disturbingly interwoven with the basic appeal to sexual jealousy is a narrative of a Jewish capitalist conspiracy to keep the war going because of profitable arms contracts, regardless of how many young and wholesome ‘Bob Harrison’ types die on the battlefield.
Secondly, the leaflet is surprisingly well-written and well-researched. The author went to the trouble of researching topics like ‘5 & 10 cents stores’, where the most desirable property in New York was to be had, and so on. As far as I can tell, the writer has captured the colloquial American English of the time rather well. The colloquial language on the leaflets aimed at British troops is also pretty good – only the odd whiff of German sentence structure gives away that fact that it was probably written by a German.
The British were also subject to this sort of propaganda, aimed at arousing romantic and sexual jealousy, and thus a desire for the war to end. The leaflets play on a familiar complaint among British troops: that American soldiers with lots of disposable income were coming over to Britain and seducing British women with their money and easygoing charm. Unlike the ridiculous anti-Semitic caricature of the Wall Street Jew seducing his secretary, the leaflets aimed at making British soldiers jealous of their American comrades actually contained an element of truth.
GIs flooded into Britain in their thousands in the latter part of the war, and many British women (both single and married) responded positively to their advances, whether out of affection, loneliness, or the desire for a few cigarettes and a pair of real silk stockings. However, these leaflets alone were hardly enough to make the British army rise up in a rage against their American allies. We can never say just how effective leaflet propaganda was, but it does seem likely that it would have played at least some part in dampening enemy morale, especially if it was already low.