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The Office of Strategic Services: Morale Operations Branch

With the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the United States entered  World War II. In June 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt created the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) – the forerunner of today’s CIA — to collect and analyze strategic information and to conduct espionage and special operations. For the first time in U.S.  history, the nation had in the OSS a single intelligence service engaged in all basic secret activities: espionage, covert action, propaganda, and counterintelligence.

The following article is the third in a series that will explore the different branches of the Office of Strategic Services. This article focuses on the Morale Operations Branch.

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The Morale Operations Branch

As tensions rose in Europe during the early 1940s, President Roosevelt sent William J. Donovan to England to meet with British officials and learn about their intelligence organizations. Upon seeing the success of the first fact-finding mission, President Roosevelt sent Donovan to the Mediterranean and Middle East.

When Donovan returned, he was convinced that the Nazis were more advanced than the Allies in their ability to wage psychological warfare. He even wrote a publication arguing that the United States needed an organization to identify and counter Axis propaganda. Donovan implored President Roosevelt to establish an American organization similar to the British intelligence agencies.

At Donovan’s urging, in 1941 President Roosevelt established the Coordinator of Information, which included a propaganda organization — the Foreign Information Service (FIS). However, Donovan and FIS Director Robert Sherwood disagreed over propaganda messages and little was accomplished. When the OSS was created in 1942, FIS separated and became the Office of War Information.

Free from arguments over propaganda content, Donovan formed the Morale Operations (MO) Branch on March 3, 1943.

Psychological warfare involves the use of different kinds of propaganda: white, black, and sometimes, grey. White propaganda openly identifies the source and uses gentle persuasion and public relation techniques. Black propaganda is misinformation that identifies itself with one side of a conflict, but is truly produced by another opposing side. Grey propaganda is the most mysterious of all because the source of the propaganda is never identified.

The purpose of the MO Branch was to produce and distribute “black” or undercover propaganda campaigns against the Axis Powers.

The Morale Operations Branch was divided into five sections, including:

  • Special Communications Detachments
  • Radio Division
  • Special Contacts
  • Publications and Campaigns Division
  • Foreign Division

When the OSS was established in 1942, people from all experiences and backgrounds were recruited from military personnel to civilians. By 1944, the MO employed about 400 people around the world.

Morale Operations officers were trained in propaganda basics, including:

  • Leaflet writing
  • Radio propaganda
  • Rumor creating
  • Poison-pen letters


Rumor Campaigns

One of the MO Branch’s first significant efforts consisted of rumor campaigns. Rumors were often short, memorable stories concerning famous people and events that would appeal to the emotions. They were meant to cause fear, confusion, and distrust. For example, some of the rumors stated that high-level Nazi leaders had been captured or had surrendered to the Allies.

OSS and the Political Warfare Executive — the British MO equivalent — created and approved about 20 rumors per week; these rumors were then distributed by word of mouth, radio, or leaflet. The MO measured their success by keeping track of “comebacks,” or mentions of these rumors in foreign, neutral, or Allied press. According to OSS tallies of “comebacks,” rumors were especially effective.


Poison-Pen Letters

Operation HEMLOCK was one the most successful and interesting OSS poison-pen letter campaigns. Anonymous letters were sent to the Gestapo implicating alleged Allied sympathizers or threatening to assassinate traitors. Additional letters were sent to the families of German servicemen in the form of death notices. These letters implied that their deceased family member had been killed by a lack of medical treatment or malpractice. The purpose of these letters was to intimidate collaborators, terrorize civilians, and harass the Gestapo.


How Much Longer?

MO agents in Italy developed a campaign called Wie Lange Noch? (How much longer?). The propaganda — identifiable by a red circle and three fingers forming a “W” — was distributed throughout Italy, southern France, and the Balkans.

The leaflets contained anti-German propaganda meant to make Europeans in Axis-controlled territory resentful of the Nazis.

This was one of the larger operations, with more than 130,000 leaflets printed and dispersed in June 1944 alone.



Another example of a successful MO project was SKORPION WEST — named after the German propaganda team in France.

After the defeats in Normandy, German morale took a dive. In order to raise spirits, the German propaganda team began writing optimistic leaflets, which were airdropped over their own lines.

The MO Branch produced “black” versions of these leaflets, which were such good forgeries that SKORPION WEST gave up and denounced all their previous publications as fakes.


The MO Branch found that the radio was another successful way to distribute their propaganda and reach a large audience. In June 1943, the first MO program was broadcast to Italy from Tunisia.

After this initial success, more and more “black” radio stations began popping up. In 1944, Soldatensender was created as a “grey” propaganda station, meaning its source was never identified. The program was transmitted from England and delivered news, music and entertainment to civilians. Mixed in with the entertainment were propaganda messages denouncing the Nazis. It quickly became the most popular MO station of WWII.

Several celebrities volunteered to participate in these “black” radio programs. In particular, Bing Crosby and Marlene Dietrich performed “black” lyrics written for German and American songs.

In addition to providing great entertainment, Soldatensender broadcast the names of Germans involved with the July 20, 1944, coup attempt against Hitler. The MO Branch’s intentions were to cast suspicion on as many people as possible and in the process, eliminate capable high-ranking Germans. The Gestapo took these accusations very seriously and arrested and eventually executed some 2,500 Germans.

While the operations the MO Branch had to remain secret and in the shadows, they made an impact on the war and succeeded in demoralizing Germany and its allies.

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Posted: Jul 29, 2010 11:59 AM
Last Updated: Apr 30, 2013 12:39 PM