‘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..."RAND, Superstition and Psychological Warfare" (Mirage Men)
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.”
"The Exploitation of Superstitions for Purposes of Psychological Warfare" (PDF at rand.org)
David Pescovitz is Boing Boing's co-editor/managing partner. He's also a research director at Institute for the Future. On Instagram, he's @pesco.