War of Words

It was a hard book to find.

First published in 1948, Psychological Warfare by Paul Myron Linebarger is still the standard regarding the use of propaganda in warfare. Long out of print (the last edition was published in Psywar[1] 1972), the few copies that are still on the market typically fetch prices running into hundreds of U.S. dollars. The copy that I finally managed to find on a university library shelf certainly looked ordinary enough: a relatively thin, battered book with no dust cover.Wedged in between much thicker books, it seemed hard to believe that it would be worth the effort.

While technical at times, the book represents an insider's view of the beginnings of modern psychological warfare in the 20th century as well as a history of propaganda use from ancient times right through to the Korean War. According to Linebarger, psychological warfare (psywar for short) is about seeking "military gains without military force" through the use of propaganda techniques to destabilize military troops and the infrastructure that supports them. The book provides an overview of the principles of successful propaganda and how they may be successfully applied.  It was a book that only Paul Myron Linebarger could write.

Born in 1911 to a highly unconventional family, his training in foreign cultures certainly began early (he was a godson to Sun Yat Sen and could speak six languages before he was college age). After earning his doctorate in political science at the age of 23, he quickly became well-known as an expert in Far Eastern affairs. With the start of World War II, Linebarger entered the U.S. Army as an officer and helped launch their first psychological warfare section.

In his book, Linebarger discussed the difficulty in getting the U.S. military to accept the legitimacy of psychological warfare. Prior to World War II, the formal study of propaganda and its effects was almost unknown to U.S. soldiers. As the war progressed, Linebarger expanded the role of his section along with other social scientists, including Leonard Doob, Hadley Cantril, and George Gallup. By the end of the war, he had attained the rank of major (he would eventually become a colonel in the reserves).  In describing the role that psywar had played in World War II, Linebarger would later state: "What made the psychological warfare of World War II peculiar was the fact that our enemies fought one kind of war (“warfare psychologically waged, ” or total war) and we fought them back with another. Theoretically, it is possible to argue that we had no business succeeding.  But we did succeed."

His quiet academic career was interrupted in 1947 when he was recalled to active duty to serve in numerous military conflicts including the Korean War. While he was known to have been actively involved in the newly formed Central Intelligence Agency, much of his work during the years when he was active is still classified.   As a "visitor to small wars", Paul Linebarger was actively involved in numerous counterinsurgency campaigns and acted as an advisor to different client states of the time including the Philippines, Guatemala, and Malaysia.  According to one source, Paul Linebarger successfully arranged the surrender of thousands of Chinese troops who would have otherwise fought to the death (surrender was considered shameful) through the leaflets that he had dropped onto enemy territory. He would later declare this to be the "single most worthwhile thing (he) had done in (his) life".

While less well-documented, Paul Linebarger also spent years in psychoanalysis for undisclosed psychological problems. There is a recurring rumour that he was the basis for the delusional "Kirk Allen" patient described in Robert Linder's book, "The Fifty Minute Hour" published in 1955. Whatever the truth, Paul Linebarger definitely had a life-long fascination in psychoanalysis which he incorporated into his own writing.

Although Linebarger refused to become involved in the Vietnam War (he considered American involvement in the war to be a grave mistake), he served as an advisor to Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy.By the time of his premature death from a heart attack in 1966, he had helped train a generation of intelligence agents and political analysts. His books on psychological warfare and foreign policy are still considered required reading. Paul Linebarger is buried in Arlington Cemetery.

Strangely enough, his greatest claim to fame lay in another direction...

Beginning with his first science fiction story, "Scanners Live in Vain", which was published in 1949, the writer known as "Cordwainer Smith" quickly attracted a loyal following.  While not a prolific author, the novel and numerous short stories that Cordwainer Smith produced were tremendously popular.  Mostly set in a dystopian society thousands of years in the future, Smith's writing often dealt with complex social topics including religion, psychology, and political turmoil.  Although there was fervent speculation about his true identity by fans and fellow writers alike, the fact that Cordwainer Smith was actually Paul Linebarger didn't become widely known until after his death.

Paul Linebarger had a fondness for pseudonyms. In additional to his Cordwainer Smith stories, he also wrote several novels and poems under other names including "Carmichael Smith", "Anthony Bearden" and "Felix Forrest".  While admirers of Paul Linebarger/Cordwainer Smith have attempted to analyze his writing (both fiction and non-fiction) to reconcile the different faces that he presented to the world into one complex world-view, it seems almost impossible.   Few science fiction writers have been able to match Cordwainer Smith and his strange futuristic society populated by eccentric characters (human and post-human). That he still has a loyal following long after his death (myself included) is a fitting testimony to the power of his writing.

As for his other legacy, psychological warfare/psyops/psywar/sykewar remains a critical component of every modern military operation. Although the use of propaganda techniques remains controversial (and telling the difference between "propaganda" and "education" just about impossible), psywar is definitely here to stay.


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