18 year-olds leaving their mothers and college education to traverse jungles in South Asia in hopes of finding a town full of enemy soldiers and not ordinary citizens. Returning home to being spit on and protested by fellow Americans after sacrificing their life for their country. This was the life of many Americans in 1968. The Vietnam War was one of the most divisive, challenging efforts in American history. Over 58,000 Americans and 3 million people in total were killed (3).
Because of the controversy, Northern Vietnam’s army, the Viet Cong, created propaganda to influence America on exiting the war. Much of this propaganda was on posters and in cartoons. One type was leaflet propaganda. This technique was first used in the 19th century and gained popularity, “During the First World War, when air disseminated leaflets were used on a massive scale” (7). Both the United States and the Viet Cong used leaflets. One example of the Viet Cong’s can be found below.
1. Source: https://people.duke.edu/~ng46/collections/propaganda/vietnam-to-us/LEAFLET%20North%20Vietnam%20Why%201%20600h.jpg
These leaflets, created by supporters of the Viet Cong, “were usually left where… Americans would pass by; along trails, near base camps” (6) so that American soldiers would see them. Also, this propaganda was “printed in Hanoi and shipped to… the United States” to be distributed by protestors of the war (6). Because the communists knew that US citizens widely did not support the war effort, they wanted to discourage American soldiers from fighting in the war using the above leaflet propaganda. This particular leaflet is very effective in challenging the reasoning behind why American soldiers would leave a free land to fight abroad in a foreign country used to war. The use of the word “helluva” is extremely powerful because it mimics the language that Americans used during this time.
Pictured above is another example of Viet Cong propaganda which challenges how much America stands for its values when it is involved in a war and some soldiers are committing crimes against humanity. All of the propaganda was designed to make US soldiers and citizens question why they are fighting and turn against the government. The Viet Cong was trying to anger Americans and separate them because they knew many soldiers did not want to be fighting in the Vietnam War. These efforts were mobilized by liberal groups such as college campuses and Students for a Democratic Society (4).
These leaflets created great conflict in the United States. Supporters and protestors of the war argued for years on if the United States should be fighting in this war. For a country that is supposed to be “united”, this propaganda caused great disagreement. Much of the leaflets were designed and paid for by the Viet Cong and used by American citizens to protest the war. This represents Schudson’s concept of instrumentalization, or using the American ideals against their army as a rallying point.
Printing and distributing these leaflets represented a shift in power at the time. The younger, more progressive generation was able to express themselves and be heard. Instead of older members of the government making the decisions, students and young citizens expressed themselves and influenced many people’s opinions. This shift in power parallels the women’s rights and impoverished people’s movements, which can be read more about here and here.
Below is an example of an anti-war protest:
Leaflet propaganda is a type of psychological warfare, designed to attack the opponent’s morale. While the Viet Cong used leaflet propaganda heavily, the United States also utilized the effectiveness of psychological warfare. American efforts included printing counterfeit money and Operation Wandering Soul. Fake money was printed because it included currency on one side of the bill and propaganda about the war one the other (2). Operation Wandering Soul was used in Vietnam to capitalize the “Buddhist beliefs of the region… that the spirits of the dead are doomed to walk the earth in their own personal hell” (5). Therefore, the United States capitalized on this belief to scare the Viet Cong with recordings including phrases like “Don’t end up like me. Go home” (5).
Here is an example of an Operation Wandering Soul recording with audio beginning around 2:07, though it is in Vietnamese.
Though leaflet propaganda is not currently circulated in society, it has been used in recent wars. Zelizer’s view that memory is both usable and particular and universal applies to the use of this type of psychological warfare. Because the Vietnam war was so controversial, the memory of leaflet propaganda is often particular to that war, but its effectiveness was recognized and made applied to many different wars. For example, the United States dropped a “propaganda bomb” on Syria in 2015 as propaganda (1). This shows how the memory of the effectiveness of leaflet propaganda in the Vietnam War can be used and applied to different movements across the world in recent years.
As evidenced by a Google Search, leaflet propaganda is widely sold and often viewed as a collector’s item. Authentic and fabricated copies of propaganda are sold. This shows how the memory of this persuasion technique has been commercialized, through Schudson’s concept of instrumentalization. In the past, leaflet propaganda has been remembered as a persuasive way to be heard and influence a crowd. Because copies of leaflets are being sold, they are now remembered as visually stimulating cards and collectors items instead of a method to persuade during harsh wars.
This is evidenced by its effectiveness in mobilizing American protests against the Vietnam War and its involvement in Syria, The Korean War, and others.
Leaflet Propaganda in Syria:
- Brook, Tom Vanden. “U.S. Drops Propaganda Bomb on ISIL.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 26 Mar. 2015, www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2015/03/26/propaganda-syria-isis/70452880/
2. Campbell-Dollaghan, Kelsey. “4 Totally Fake Currencies That Changed the Course of Real Wars.” Gizmodo, Gizmodo.com, 5 May 2014, gizmodo.com/4-totally-fake-currencies-that-changed-the-course-of-re-1571722766.
3. History.com Staff. “Vietnam War.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 2009, www.history.com/topics/vietnam-war/vietnam-war-history.
4. History.com Staff. “Vietnam War Protests.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 2010, www.history.com/topics/vietnam-war/vietnam-war-protests.
5. Hoyt, Alia. “Ghost Tape No. 10: The Haunted Mixtape of the Vietnam War.” HowStuffWorks Science, HowStuffWorks, 16 May 2017, science.howstuffworks.com/ghost-tape-no-10-haunted-mixtape-the-vietnam-war.html.
6. Mosbaugh, Doc Ron. “EFECTIVENESS OF VIETNAM FLYERS AND PAMPHLETS.” Vietnam Veterans of 2nd Battalion 1st Marines, libertyyes.homestead.com/Doc-Ron-Mosbaugh-18.html.
7. “THE HISTORY OF AIR-DROPPED LEAFLET PROPAGANDA.” The PsyWar Society, www.psywarsoc.org/history.php.
- “NATIONAL LIBERATION FRONT (NLF) ANTI-AMERICAN LEAFLETS OF THE VIETNAM WAR.” PsyWarrior, www.psywarrior.com/VCLeafletsProp.html.
- Leaflet North Vietnam Why. Duke, people.duke.edu/~ng46/collections/propaganda/vietnam-to-us/LEAFLET%20North%20Vietnam%20Why%201%20600h.jpg.
- Lamothe, Dan. “How the U.S. Dropped These Gory Propaganda Leaflets over Syria.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 26 Mar. 2015, www.washingtonpost.com/news/checkpoint/wp/2015/03/26/how-the-u-s-dropped-these-gory-propaganda-leaflets-over-syria/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.18e0f17a3daa.