Airborne leaflet propaganda

Airborne leaflet propaganda

Airborne leaflet propaganda is a form of psychological warfare that militaries use in foreign conflict to alter the behavior of people in enemy-controlled territory. Airplanes have been instrumental in the deliverance of leaflets over enemy territories. In conjunction with air strikes, this method has been successful in influencing the enemy’s way of thinking. In particular, persuading them to surrender, abandon their positions, and to cease fighting. Humanitarian air missions, in cooperation with leaflet propaganda, are also successful in turning civilians against enemy leadership while preparing them for the arrival of enemy troops.

Functions of leaflet propaganda

There are six different functions of airborne leaflet propaganda that have been used over the past century:

# Threaten destruction
#* Warning enemy troops and civilians that their area will be targeted.
# Prompt the enemy to surrender
#* Leaflets explained to prospective prisoners how to surrender.
# Offer rewards
#* Rewards would be offered to the enemy for downed pilots in enemy territory.
# Counter misinformation
#* Neutralize enemy propaganda.
# Facilitative communication
#* Create a friendly atmosphere for the enemy by promoting ideologies such as freedom, capitalism, and "noble intentions".
# Humanitarian
#* Informed people where to find airdropped food, how to open and consume it, and why it comes.

Historical background and use

Airborne leaflets have been used for military propaganda purposes at least since the 19th century. One early example is from the Franco-Prussian War when in October 1870 during the Siege of Paris a French balloon coming from the city dropped government proclamations over Prussian troops that stated the following (in German):


"Paris defies the enemy. The whole of France rallies. Death to the invaders. Foolish people, shall we always throttle one another for the pleasure and proudness of Kings? Glory and conquest are crimes; defeat brings hate and desire for vengeance. Only one war is just and holy; that of independence." [ Quote from "Cassell's History of the Wars Between France and Germany (1870-1871)" at: ] "

Leaflet propaganda has been delivered by airplanes since the Italo-Turkish war 1911-12. [ “Aerial leaflet”, in "Encyclopedia of ephemera", 10-11. ] Even though leaflet propaganda has been an effective “weapon”, its use has been on a decline. This decline is a result of the advance of satellite, television, and radio technology. Six billion leaflets were dropped in Western Europe alone during World War II. One billion were used during the Korean War while only thirty one million have been used in the war against Iraq. Other conflicts where leaflet propaganda has been used are Vietnam, Afghanistan (both during the Soviet and more recent NATO invasions), and the Gulf War. Leaflets encouraging Iraqi troops not to fight were dropped during the first Gulf War which contributed to eighty thousand Iraqi troops surrendering in 1991.Fact|date=February 2007

Leaflet Bomb

The first ideas to construct special bombs with which to disperse airborne leaflets was put forward by French and British air force officers during World War II but it was not implemented until 1943 by the American military in the form of the 'Monroe bomb' named after its inventor the USA Air Force Captain James Monroe of the 305th BG. It was developed from laminated paper containers that had been used to transport M-17 incendiary bombs [Garnett 1947:189-190, Willey 2002:55]

Later during the Korean war a modified version of the leaflet bomb - the 'feather bomb' - was developed by the American military to be used to disseminate biological warfare agents. It was also controversially claimed by the Chinese government - and supported by a United Nations commission led by the British biochemist and historian of science Joseph Needham - that US had actually used biological weapons during the Korean War. This claim has recently been the subject of a book by two historians [ [ Ed Regis, "Wartime Lies? Two historians contend that the United States engaged in germ warfare nearly 50 years ago", "New York Times," (June 27, 1999)] ] [ [ The United States and Biological Warfare: Secrets from the Early Cold War and Korea (first chapter on line).] ] . In 1998 evidence was found in Russian archives that has been used to make the claim this was fabricated by the Chinese and Soviet governments. [Leitenberg 1998] The relevance of these documents to this question has been disputed [ [] Twelve Newly Released Soviet-era Documents and allegations of U. S. germ warfare during the Korean Warby Stephen Endicott and Edward Hagerman] .

Leaflet bombs and terrorism

Leaflet bombs have not only been used by states for purposes of military warfare but has since the 1940s also been used by radical political and ideological substate groups known for using anti-state terrorism. The meaning of terrorism used here follows what can be described as the new academic consensus definition i.e. that terrorism is ”a politically motivated tactic involving the threat or use of force or violence in which the pursuit of publicity plays a significant role”. [Weinberg et al. 2004:786]

Historian of terrorism David Rapoport have developed one of the most well used models of modern terrorism dividing it in four waves. [Rapoport 1994] The leaflet bombs has been used by terrorist groups mainly belonging to the second 'anti-colonial' and third 'new left' waves of rebel terrorism.

Anti-Colonial Terrorism in Asia and Africa

The use of leaflet bombs by non-state terrorist groups began in 1945 when the Irgun group developed a bomb that was not dropped from planes but "deposited in the street, ticked away until detonation, then scattered news sheet over a wide and smoky area". In September 1945 three of Irguns leaflet bombs exploded in Jerusalem and injured nine people. [Bell 1985:144]

In the late 1960s the African National Congress (ANC) started to use a version of the leaflet bomb in South Africa. This bomb was developed in collaboration with the South African Communist Party (SACP) and South Africans living in exile in London. The first time this leaflet bomb, known to South African activists as the 'bucket bomb' and to the South African police forces as the 'ideological bomb', was used was in 1967. [Houston 2004:635-637] This was one of the most important propaganda weapons of the ANC as can be seen by the resources devoted to it and its frequent use during the 1960s and 1970s spreading tens of thousands of leaflets. ANC hailed it publicly as a central technology in their efforts as shown by this quote from ANC:s journal "Sechaba" in 1970 looking back at the uses of leaflets as propaganda in the 1960s:

"It was in this new period that underground propaganda, demonstrating the effectiveness of the ANC machinery and projecting its voice, "became of incalculable value". Underground leaflets began to appear in the townships, factories and city streets. Passed on from hand to hand, these reminded the people that the spirit of resistance must never die. These were often complemented by slogans painted on walls proclaiming: "Free Mandela," "Free Sisulu" and "Long Live the ANC." as modest as these propaganda efforts were [...] "they showed that the ANC could survive the most severe measures of the regime"." [Ngani 1976:39] [Emphasis added]

Furthermore, the South African press and security forces also saw it as a very important weapon of the ANC as can be evidenced by the threats from the police to take action against the South African press for publishing parts of ANC:s leaflets. The South African Minister of Police even acknowledged publicly that the importance of ANC:s leaflet bombs when he was quoted in a South African newspaper stating that "the explosions are an indication that subversive elements are still active" inside South Africa and warned the "public" that they "must not think the dangers are a thing of the past. It is something with which we will just have to live." [Quoted in Ngami 1976:44] As this statement makes clear the South African police saw this as a weapon causing and indicating a terror among the public. In that sense the leaflet bombs and its words were weapons of terrorism as its effects were seen as creating a widespread fear.

New Left Terrorism in Latin America

The leaflet bomb has been relatively popular in Latin America with several recorded uses of various groups advocating political violence and using terrorist tactics.

In the 1980s the FMLN in El Salvador used this technology under the name of 'propaganda bomb'. It was one of the "favorite tactics" of its urban militia groups and preferable used in public places like markets or public parks. [Bracamonte & Spencer, 1995:68] The design of the bomb was adapted to the local environment in that it

"consisted of a cardboard box with a small, low-power explosive underneath a large number of propaganda leaflets. The explosive was set off by a homemade time igniter. The box was disguised to look like any ordinary package or box that might be carried by someone going or returning from a trip to the marketplace." [Bracamonte & Spencer, 1995:68-69]

The use of leaflet bombs played a part in the FMLN:s recruitment process known to them as "fogueo" - which meant to experience fire or fire-harden something - which was the process by which the recruits "were toughened and the weak and fainthearted were weeded out". The fogueo process was

"a very carefully designed program of increasingly risky operations in support of the guerilla movement. As the candidates successfully completed each operation, it gave them confidence to carry out the next danger level of operation until they became full-fledged guerilla combatants." [Bracamonte & Spencer, 1995:70]

This process began with low-level information-gathering and propagandan activities in support of FMLN where the culminating activity before being ready for "combat military activity" could be the making and exploding of a leaflet bomb. [Bracamonte & Spencer, 1995:70]

In Honduras the Popular Movement for Liberation (MPL) and Morazanist Patriotic Front (FPM) have also used propaganda bombs during the 1990s. [Weinberg & Pedahzur, 2004:135-136; MIPT knowledge base,]

The Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity URNG in Guatemala also used leaflet bombs. In 1996 the group occupied a radio station and set off a leaflet bomb. ["U.S. Department of State Guatemala Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 1996",Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, January 30, 1997, ]

In Ecuador several terrorist group have used leaflet bombs. The Revolutionary Armed Corps (CAR) was according to the Ecuadorian police "an extreme leftist group" which is only known for one attempted attack on February 20, 2001 when a leaflet bomb containing 150 pamphlets was discovered and successfully defused by the police. [ [ MIPT Terrorism Knowledge Base ] ] The communist Group of Popular Combatants (GCP) has on several occasions during 2001-2005 used leaflet bombs. In 2001 it was blamed by authorities for a pamphlet bomb and later the same year the group claimed responsibility for detonating a pamphlet bomb in downtown Quito that let out hundreds of pamphlets protesting against Plan Colombia. [United States Department of State Office of the Coordinator for Counter-terrorism, "Country Reports on Terrorism 2005" (2006), 165.] In 2002 The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Ecuador set off a leaflet bomb in a McDonald’s restaurant in Guayaquil that injured three people and caused severe damage to the property.

oviet/Russian AGITAB bombs

*AGITAB-500-300 - used during the First Chechen War.

Advantages of leafleting

* The printed words on the leaflets were more authoritative before the advances in technology.
* One leaflet has the potential to reach many civilians.
* Leaflets can be hidden and easily destroyed in case of emergency.


* Due to illiteracy not all civilians are capable of reading the leaflets.
* In order to have accurate deliverance, airplanes need to fly at low altitudes and low speeds making them easy targets for the enemy.
* Leaflets are capable of being destroyed or altered by the enemy.
* Messages must cater to the cultural norm of society.
* Weather conditions can alter the message being delivered to civilians



*Brockmann, R.J., & Sinatra, S. (1995). How the iterative process helped the Allies win the Persian Gulf War. STC Intercom , 42 (9), 1, 44.
*Clark, Andrew M. and Christie, Thomas B. "Ready...Ready...Drop". Gazette: The International Journal For Communication Studies. 2005, London. Sage Publications.
*Friedman, Herbert A. "Falling Leaves". Print: Krause Publications, 2003.
*Haulman, Dr. Daniel L. "USAF Psychological Operations, 1990-2003". Air Force Historical Research Agency, 2003.
*Oyen, Orjar and De Fleur, Melvin L. "The spatial Diffusion of an Airborne Leaflet Message". The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 59, No 2. Sep., 1953, 144-149.
*Richards, Lee. [ PsyWar.Org]
*Schmulowitz, Nat and Luckmann, Lloyd D. "Foreign Policy by Propaganda Leaflets". The Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol. 9, No. 4. 1945-1946.
* Citation
last =Bell
first =J. Bowyer
authorlink = J. Bowyer Bell
year =1977
title=Terror Out of Zion: The Fight for Israeli Independence 1929-1949: Irgun Zvai Leumi, Lehi and the Palestine Underground
publisher=The Academy Press Dublin
* cite web
url =
title = Psychological Warfare of the Malayan Emergency 1948-1960
accessdate = 2007-01-22
last = Friedman
first = Herbert A.
date = 2006
work =
publisher =
* Garnett, David A. (1947), "The Secret History of PWE: The Political Warfare Executive 1939-1945", St Ermins Press. 2002.
* Houston, Gregory (2004), "The Post-Rivonia ANC/SACP Underground", in "The Road to Democracy in South Africa. Vol 1. (1960-1970)" South African Democracy Education Trust. Zebra Press.
* Citation
title=New Russian Evidence on the Korean War Biological Warfare Allegations: background and analysis
periodical=Cold War International History Project Bulletin
* Citation
last =Moroni Bracamonte
first =José Angel
last2 =Spencer
first2 =David
year =1995
title=Strategy and Tactics of the Salvadoran FMLN Guerillas: Last Battle of the Cold War, Blueprint for Future Conflicts
publisher=Praeger Publishers
* Citation
title=Voice of Freedom
* Citation
title=Paper Bullets: An Interview with Herbert A. Friedman
periodical=Cabinet: A Quarterly Magazine of Art & Culture
* Citation
first=Scott A
title=Secret Squadrons of the Eighth
periodical=Air Power History
* United States Department of State (2006)"Country Reports on Terrorism 2005". United States Department of State: Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism.
* Weinberg, Leonard, Ami Pedahzur & Sivan Hirsch-Hoefler (2004) ”The Challenges of Conceptualizing Terrorism”, "Terrorism and Political Violence", 16(4), 777-794.
* Citation
last =Weinberg
first =Leonard B.
last2 =Pedahzur
first2 =Ami
year =2004
title=Political Parties and Terrorist Groups
publisher=Taylor & Francis Group
* cite web
url =
title = Revolutionary Armed Corps (CAR)
accessdate = 2007-02-22
work = MIPT Terrorism Knowledge Base
publisher = Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism (MIPT)

External links

* [ PsyWar.Org - The history of psychological warfare with a large collection of aerial propaganda leaflets]
* [ WW2 propaganda - Allied and Axis leaflets] : A website about airdropped, shelled or rocket fired propaganda leaflets in World War 2.
* [ - leaflets in Iraq in 2003]

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