Propaganda plays an important role in strengthening morale at home during wartime. It also aims to weaken the morale of the enemy. Governments create and distribute messages that stress internal unity and strength on the home front. Propaganda may also seek to increase racial, political, or class tensions within an enemy country's population. One method of encouraging such discord—as illustrated in the featured poster—is spreading rumors through a word-of-mouth propaganda campaign—sometimes called a "whisper campaign."
Although using rumors for political purposes stretches back centuries, a more systematic approach to this kind of messaging only began during World War II. One American scholar commented in 1944 that "the rumor must be likened to a torpedo; for once launched, it travels of its own power."1 Propaganda through rumor has another advantage—it is often not immediately recognizable as propaganda. Once a rumor begins to spread widely, it is difficult to confirm its source.
The rapid defeat of France in a matter of weeks in the spring and early summer of 1940 shocked many Americans. One booklet claimed that a so-called whisper campaign had contributed to the defeat of the French forces. Produced by the US propaganda organ known as the "Office of Facts and Figures," it charged that "professional weepers, clothed in deep mourning and wailing loudly" had spread false stories of enormous French casualties at the start of the campaign. "Palm readers and crystal gazers in the pay of Hitler gloomily predicted to their clients" France's downfall.2 Such rumors spread throughout all the invaded nations, weakening resistance and speeding defeat.
Other rumors divided populations by playing on racial divisions, class tensions, and religious prejudices. These whisper campaigns became a source of great concern to US propaganda agencies. In September 1942, the Massachusetts Committee on Public Safety documented more than 1,000 rumors then in circulation. Hundreds of them contained anti-government, anti-British, or anti-Jewish themes.3
Some scholars challenged the government's view that Nazi propagandists had planted these seeds of conflict in American society. In a scholarly study of propaganda commissioned by the US government, one member of the Institute of Propaganda Analysis commented:
In any nation there is already, by the nature of things, disunity. The smart propagandist plays upon this disunity, seeks to increase it. Thus, wartime efforts by the Axis to increase disunity among minority groups in the United States and the United Nations conform to a propaganda pattern which brought the Axis into a position of great power before World War II began. For its success, this pattern has depended upon group differences and groups antagonisms which antedate the Axis.4
Drawing on scholarly studies of propaganda, the poster featured here attempts to combat rumors spread by Nazi propaganda. The artist—Daniel Fitzpatrick, a cartoonist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch—listed a number of Nazi-sponsored falsehoods designed to incite race hatred: "Jews cause everybody's troubles, everywhere"; "This is a 'white man's war'"; the threat of a "Yellow Peril." Were these prejudices inspired only by Nazi propaganda? To what extent did they reflect American attitudes preceding the war?