Superstitions as weapons, 1950

Over at Mark Pilkington's Mirage Men blog, named after his excellent book, he reads through this delightfully named 1950 report from the RAND Corporation: "The Exploitation of Superstitions for Purposes of Psychological Warfare." From the Mirage Men blog:
 2010 11 Randmagic1 ‘It seems likely that superstitions flourish in an atmosphere of tension and insecurity’, writes its author, Jean Hungerford, and her timing couldn’t have been more perfect. The paper was published for the US Air Force on 14 April 1950, just as Cold War tensions were first reaching levels of serious discomfort. In the previous six months, the Soviets had detonated their first atom bomb, China and the USSR had signed a pact of allegiance and Los Alamos physicist Klaus Fuchs had confessed to passing atom bomb secrets to the Soviets...

The paper discusses PSYOPS missions that successfully exploited local superstitions; for example in the 1920s on Afghanistan’s Northwest Frontier, the British planted loudspeakers in planes warning tribal peoples that God was angry with them for breaking the peace with India, while in World War II the Germans projected imagery (though it doesn’t say what) onto ‘drifting clouds’. Hungerford goes into some detail on the use of chain letters to clog up enemy communications networks... and the use of bogus fortune-tellers and false astrological data to dampen morale amongst both civilians and their leaders, a technique used extensively by both Allied and Axis powers during WWII.

Hungerford also references the activities of Captain Neville Maskelyne, the wartime illusionist most famous for his inflatable tanks and making the port of Alexandria ‘invisible’ to German bombers. In his 1949 book Magic Top Secret, Maskelyne gleefully describes other devilish antics that he and his team got up to:

“Our men…were able to use illusions of an amusing nature in the Italian mountains, especially when operating in small groups as advance patrols scouting out the way for our general moves forward. In one area, in particular, they used a device which was little more than a gigantic scarecrow, about twelve feet high, and able to stagger forward under its own power and emit frightful flashes and bangs. This thing scared several Italian Sicilian villages appearing in the dawn thumping its deafening way down their streets with great electric blue sparks jumping from it; and the inhabitants, who were mostly illiterate peasants, simply took to their heels for the next village, swearing that the Devil was marching ahead of the invading English. Like all tales spread among uneducated folk (and helped, no doubt, by our agents), this story assumed almost unimaginable proportions.”

"RAND, Superstition and Psychological Warfare" (Mirage Men)

"The Exploitation of Superstitions for Purposes of Psychological Warfare" (PDF at rand.org)

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  1. “…and the use of bogus fortune-tellers and false astrological data to dampen morale amongst both civilians and their leaders”

    be sure to wake us the moment non-bogus fortune-tellers and true astrological data are discovered.

  2. Nice! – This sort of superstition exploitation has also been accomplished in small time court cases and divorce proceedings – and of course, parents pull this kind of thing with their children all the time.

  3. “…while in World War II the Germans projected imagery (though it doesn’t say what) onto ‘drifting clouds’.”

    That must be what Blackwolf projects on the battlefields in Ralph Bakshi’s WIZARDS, 1977.

  4. “a gigantic scarecrow, about twelve feet high, and able to stagger forward under its own power and emit frightful flashes and bangs”

    The mental image this summons up is of Fezzik (Andre the Giant) in “The Princess Bride”, frightening the guards at the gate of Prince Humperdink’s castle.

    “I am the Dwead Piwate Woberts! … My men are here! I am here! But soon you will not be here!”

  5. If someone wanted to do this to the US today, I suppose that underground lotteries or ponzi schemes would be a suitable vector, particularly if they were framed in ways that played on distrust of mainstream financial infrastructure.

    1. Ha! I *knew* it looked very familiar and I couldn’t figure out where I’d seen it before. Thanks again!!

  6. In USA v. Iraq part 1, we (US infantry)somehow got the reputation that we literally ate babies.
    I was never sure who started the idea.

  7. Thomas Perry wrote a kickass thriller in 1983 called “Metzger’s Dog” that uses as its central conceit the existence of a CIA study on just this topic: psyops based on rumors and culturally-tailored superstitions and fears.

    It’s still in print with an intro by Carl Hiaasen. It remains one of the best thrillers ever written, and it’s been ripped off by dozens of other books and movies, but remains superbly unique as a frequently comedic caper novel, In short: read it.

    Note: I am not Thomas Perry.

  8. Wikipedia has the author of Top Secret Magic and manipulator of the German’s minds during WWII as Jasper Maskelyne. Nevil Maskelyne was Jasper’s father.

  9. We got this far and no one made an “Orange Catholic Bible” comparison? What kind of geeks are you?

  10. Entertaining subject and comments. For some reason (perhaps the use of superstition), the Rand suggested shenanigans remind me of the New World Order Conspiracy Theory article I have been reading on Wikipedia.

  11. Poor Jasper Maskelyne. All he wanted was praise and credit and by 1950 they’d already confused him with his dad.

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