Part 1, 2

Tokyo Rose (Iva Ikuko Toguri d'Aquino) was an American citizen of Japanese parentage who broadcast Japanese propaganda messages to the American troops.
Courtesy National Archives

Radio 1212 was just one of America's covert programs. There were other stations and other formats. An OSS training record bragged about one black operation broadcast from a secret studio in the English countryside. It featured a woman named Vicki, supposedly broadcasting from an anti-Nazi station in Germany. Vicki spoke in German but played American music that the German soldiers liked. And she would talk to the soldiers in a sultry voice that sounded like a pin-up girl.

The OSS recording said that one night Vicki blew a kiss to a German U-boat captain, saying his fiancée had married another man. The story was a lie, the record claimed, but the captain was so upset he surrendered.

Hollywood filmmaker Abraham Polanski wrote scripts and directed programs for the OSS clandestine stations. He says the German soldiers tuned in for the jazz, and heard the information the Americans wanted them to hear as well: that the Nazis they were losing. "When a German sub went down the Germans never admitted it" Polanski remembers. "But we knew who was on the sub, who went down, his name, address, and all the rest. We broadcast all that to their families as they listened to the jazz. A lot of people listened."

Clandestine outfits were like any other radio station. They had to compete for listeners--especially when their signals were weak, or they were marooned on an obscure frequency. To boost the audience, OSS producers arranged for Marlene Dietrich and other stars to record popular American tunes in German. Though Dietrich was anti-Nazi, many Germans still adored her.

Listen to an audio clip of Tokyo Rose, known on-air as "Orphan Anne."

Over in the other theater of war, the Pacific, the OSS prepared to cast its electronic net at the Japanese. But the Japanese islands were too far from Allied-controlled territory. A conventional radio signal couldn't reach. So in the meantime, OSS propaganda teams targeted Japanese troops and their collaborators in occupied China. But only rich or official people owned radios there. For one operation, scriptwriter Gordon Auchincloss cast his Chinese actors as Yangtse riverboat captains chattering on their ship-to-shore sets.

"We were really corny," he said with a laugh. "We used to start the riverboat business with a sound that simulated the sound of the whistles on the riverboats which was achieved by blowing on canteens that were partially filled with water. A sort of 'wooooo' sound."

The station was set up in an American-occupied villa near Kunming, in Southern China. Programs were pre-recorded and beamed from a mobile transmitter to elude Japanese bombers. Another deception created by the same outfit had a cover story about as far-fetched as the river captains. Sy Nadler wrote the scripts. Gordon Auchincloss and Betty Macintosh contributed ideas. The code-name was "Hermit".

"The speaker purported to be someone known as the hermit, who based various predictions on a combination of the Chinese calendar, the Japanese calendar, the Zodiac ... you name it" Nadler remembers. The Hermit would predict things that had already happened, a technique used by Walter Winchell, the famous New York newspaper man. But the team was under pressure to make a prediction that would scare the population.

Betty Macintosh remembers, "Seymore Nadler was stalking up and down screaming 'We gotta do something to get to Japan.'" So Macintosh suggested a big earthquake, but that wouldn't do. It had to be something bigger.

This time, the propaganda was ominously right. Sy Nadler recalls, "For some reason we predicted to them that on a certain day, in August, Japan was going to suffer a catastrophic event. Without saying what it was. Of course it turned out to be the day the atom bomb was dropped but we knew nothing about it."

Allied broadcasters boasted that they were the best at covert radio. But the Nazis actually pioneered the tactic. Germany used radio to create the illusion of an underground Fascist movement spreading across Europe--a so-called "fifth column." Much of the rhetoric was anti-Jewish. British intelligence agents took notice and started their own clandestine stations. Later, the Americans copied the British. Former OSS agent John Creedy says the Nazi propaganda was incredibly effective early on in the war.

"They were credited with the collapse of the French resistance early on. Everybody said well we'd better have something like that ourselves," remembers Creedy.

Some of the clandestine Nazi broadcasts were well-acted and believable. The bogus New British Broadcasting Station was probably the most credible.

A voice asks in British English, "Have you ever given any thought to the fate of your children? You realize that the government's evacuation plan, or should one say, their complete collapse, may have a profound effect on your boys and girls in years to come."

Historian Martin Dogherty says other Nazi stations were almost comically bad: terrible cockney accents, inappropriate language, dull tirades.

Dogherty says part of it was a labor problem. "They could not really find any half decent broadcasters to work for them. They were forced to rely on renegades, prisoners of war, former school teachers who happened to be living in Germany at the time who were more-or-less coerced into working for them…so they had a great problems in finding anyone who could put a credible story together for them."

The Third Reich apparently cooked up just one black propaganda station aimed at America's home front. Little seems to be known about the shadowy operation. Radio Debunk, as it called itself, broadcast from Berlin over short wave. It claimed to come from Iowa.

Communications Professor Lawrence Soley of Marquette University says the Nazi broadcasts provoked scant interest. "You usually find clandestine radio stations broadcasting in situations where you have a repressive regime that prohibits dissent." The German stations broadcasting to Great Britain or the United States were broadcasting to free countries with a competition of ideas. "Opponents could speak out against the war, both in Great Britain and in the United States," Soley notes.

The effectiveness of Allied stations that targeted Axis countries is also open to doubt. The OSS claimed that some Nazi troops did surrender and that German morale was weakened as a result of Allied broadcasts. But there's no independent evidence--no Nielson ratings for disinformation. When former OSS scriptwriter Abraham Polonsky looks back on the effort he sneers. "If you add up all that war-time radio intelligence then, and compare it to the effect of one armed soldier going into battle, [they] cancel out," he says.

After the war, Polonsky worked in Hollywood. Clandestine broadcaster Sy Nadler went on to a career in counter intelligence. Gordon Auchincloss produced radio and television shows. Nadler and Auchincloss look back on the work they did six decades ago with some fondness and pride.

"We always said if we'd shortened the war by thirty seconds, we'd have paid for ourselves. We didn't have very high budgets, God knows," says Auchincloss. Nadler adds, "Sometimes if you reach just one important person...important in the sense of having the authority and the ability to make decisions, and if you can affect that decision, what's the difference if you haven't reached five or ten thousand others?"

A few black propagandists worried about the morality of what they were doing, especially the journalists. Was it right for the government to do so much lying? Betty Macintosh went into World War II a reporter. She came out to a career in the CIA. "I cringe at some of the things I've written for morale operations that were just beautiful, they were so untrue," remembers Macintosh.

Clandestine radio stations closed down after the World War II. But soon fired up again in other countries, with other voices. The CIA made extensive use of black radio propaganda during the Cold War. So did the Soviet KGB. U.S. government reports show that covert radio stations are still being used around the world. As one study put it: "wherever authoritarian regimes, political conflict or civil wars exist...there is black radio."

Back to Battles of Belief

©2018 American Public Media