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Origin of PSYOP Terminology by William E. Daugherty

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An Account of the Origin of the Terms PsyWar and PSYOP *

It has been amply demonstrated that American employment of propaganda, psychological warfare (PsyWar), psychological operations (PSYOP), or whatever one chooses to call the activity that these terms are intended to describe is neither revolutionary nor un-American. In this essay the origins of the terms "PsyWar" and "PSYOP" will be described.


The terms "psychological operations" and "psychological warfare" are often used interchangeably to identify an activity or function as old as human conflict or intercultural group relations. Both terms, however, are known to be of relatively recent origin. Psychological warfare was first used in 1920 and psychological operations in 1945.

The British military analyst and historian, J. F. C. Fuller, is believed to have been the one who coined the term "psychological warfare," when in 1920, in a scholarly analysis of lessons learned during World War I, especially as these related to the employment of such new weapons as armour, he allowed his mind to wander imaginatively about the character of the future battlefield. In his treatise on tanks he prophesied that traditional means of warfare, as then known and understood, might in time be

replaced by a purely psychological warfare, wherein weapons are not used or battlefields sought. . . but [rather] . . .the corruption of the human reason, the dimming of the human intellect, and the disintegration of the moral and spiritual life of one nation by the influence of the will of another is accomplished. 1

Although Fuller's employment of the term is believed to have been the earliest recorded use of the phrase, there is not thought to be any direct connection between his use and the widespread adoption of it by Americans on the eve of World War II. The British did not adopt the term to describe what both they and the Americans hesitated to describe as propaganda operations. Instead of employing the term "PsyWar", the British adopted the term "political warfare" to describe those activities that Americans came to identify in time as psychological warfare or PsyWar. Since World War II the British have followed American practice and now use the term "SYWAR" to describe the activities they previously identified as political warfare. The earliest recorded use of the term "psychological warfare" in an American publication occurred in January 1940 when an article entitled "Psychological Warfare and How to Wage It" appeared in a popular American journal. 2

The earliest recorded use of the term "psychological operations" occurred early in 1945 when Captain (later Real Admiral) Ellis M. Zacharias, U.S. Navy, employed the term in an operation plan designed to hasten the surrender of Japan. Without any description or explanation, the term was used in the context "All psychological operations will be coordinated both as to times and trends in order to avoid reduction of effectiveness of this main operation." 3 The next use of the term was in 1951, when the Truman Administration renamed an interagency strategy committee giving it the title Psychological Operations Coordinating Committee. Neither in 1945 nor in 1951 did the use of the term "psychological operations" create so much as a ripple of interest.

Although the Department of the Army made the change in 1951, it was not until the 1960s that psychological operations came to supplant psychological warfare as the all-inclusive term in common use. Any explanation of this development must take into account the fact that Americans have become increasingly concerned about the continued use of a term that includes the word "warfare" to describe an activity that is directed to friends and neutrals as much or more than to hostile or potentially hostile people. Examples are the Lebanon crisis of 1958 and the Dominican Republic intervention of 1965.

In the late 1960s, with the widespread use of psychological operations in Indochina, emphasis was placed upon the need to integrate PSYOP with other training and operations and upon the reinforcement which other missions could lend to psychological operations. The psychological objective of military assistance and civic action, for example, was more fully stressed.


1 J. F. C. Fuller, Tanks in the Great War, 1914-1918 (London: Murray, 1920), p. 320.

2. Anon., "Psychological Warfare and How To Wage It," Current History and Forum, LI (January 1940), pp. 52-53.

3. Ellis M. Zacharias, Capt. USN., Secret Missions: The Story of an Intelligence Officer (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1946), p. 345.

* This Essay was originally published in The Art and Science of Psychological Operations: Case Studies of Military Application, Volume One, US Department of the Army, April 1976



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