Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
Opened May, 1983
Oral History Interview with
July 9, 1974
by Richard D. McKinzie
MCKINZIE: What brought you into Government service in 1942?
BARRETT: Well, I was working at Newsweek, where I was national affairs editor. I shall never forget Pearl Harbor Day. The day before I had put the whole National Affairs Department of Newsweek and the Periscope Department, for which I was responsible, together early. I got it in good shape so that I could go to a lollapalooza of a wedding anniversary party of an old friend. I got home from that party about 5:30 a.m. and wheeled into the office the next day with a terrible hangover, thinking I could just do a little updating patchwork on the department. I had been there a short while when the teletypes
started clanging, "Pearl Harbor!" We had to re-do the entire magazine, of course.
Anyhow, I got war fever and I offered my services to the Navy, and they did not exactly leap at the opportunity. Then they came after me, very mysterious and very hush-hush. There was a young lieutenant, whom I thought was excessively the cop-and-robber type. I thought they were going to try to put me in CIA-type things, but it turned out that they had in mind censorship, which was the last thing I wanted to do.
Somewhere in there FDR's old friend, Vincent Astor, suggested I go down and talk to the people in what was then the [William J.] Donovan Coordinator of Information operation.
I did so, was hired, tarried at Newsweek long enough to train in a successor, and then went down to Washington.
MCKINZIE: Did you have military status?
BARRETT: When I went abroad they would give me a simulated rank, but I didn't have a uniform. I was working as a civilian.
That's how I got into it, and then the COI went through a series of mergers and conversions typical of the Roosevelt administration. When something didn't work, he'd just reconstitute it under a new name, and put two agencies together and place some new guy in charge. I was in charge of setting up a cable news operation for missions around the world. I also handled relations with other national radios when I was still with Donovan. Then that part of Donovan's operation, non-hush-hush, was switched to the Office of War Information under Elmer Davis, and with it went a couple of other Government agencies like the Office of Facts and Figures. That's how I got into this.
MCKINZIE: By the end of the war you were the Director of Overseas Operations, at the time that the European countries were either being conquered
or liberated. Someone said that in World War I, the idea of wartime propaganda was to appeal not so much to that which was between the ears, but to appeal to the glands, and that World War II was more in the nature of selling a product. Elmer Davis made that distinction at some point in about 1943. Did you sense that there was this kind of difference? World War I was very sentimental.
BARRETT: I suppose. Of course, we have to distinguish between national and international. I think when you talk about the emotions and all, you are talking partly about the national aspect: domestic. Elmer increasingly construed it as his job to get information out of the Government and coordinate campaigns for conservation of this, that, and the other. I think that probably his toughest battles were forcing reluctant bureaucrats to put out information that the good public had every right to know.
MCKINZIE: This was a different kind of situation overseas, however.
BARRETT: Overseas we were really trying to tell our own story and to win friends. To win cooperation was the main thing; to get public support in the neutral areas.
MCKINZIE: In World War I, in getting the public support in a neutral area, the idea was to portray the Germans as "Huns" and that kind of thing. To what extent was that still a viable philosophy when you were working overseas in 1941?
BARRETT: Because of Elmer's beliefs, Bob [Robert E.] Sherwood's beliefs, and others' beliefs, we had a very high element of truth in this operation. Therefore, the old concocted type of horror stories were out of bounds. If we got a real one, as later in the war in the German concentration camps, where we could really get testimony and documentation, we played the hell out of it. We got out
booklets on them with grim pictures and all, because these were incredible stories. I didn't believe them myself when I first heard them.
MCKINZIE: What about the battlefield commanders? You made some reference to this in your book, Truth is Our Weapon. Do you think General [Dwight D.] Eisenhower understood the importance of the propaganda effort? I noticed some of the pamphlets you distributed had his signature on them, or facsimilies of his signature.
BARRETT: Yes, Ike understood better than most of them. I don't think [Omar] Bradley did. [Douglas] MacArthur, I suppose, did, but he wanted his own little cabal to run things, so we were not very much in there except to supply some competent staff members. These things were necessarily left up to the field commanders, who had a great deal of power. As the war moved along and we developed some expertise, we got pretty damn good cooperation from the Air Force, in the matter of dropping leaflets
behind the lines, et cetera. I remember we put some pretty good ones out of Okinawa with the full cooperation of Hoyt Vandenberg, "Tooey" [Carl] Spaatz, and a number of the Air Force people.
MCKINZIE: Is the term "psychological warfare" a good one? Warfare implies no holds barred; that there's a motive which is beyond the surface of everything.
BARRETT: I guess, from a purely philosophical standpoint, that I would question the term. I'm afraid it was adopted partly as a means of getting appropriations out of Congress. In those days we found that money for pure information operations, for libraries in neutral areas, for sending American performers abroad, was very hard to come by. If you dressed it up as warfare, money was very easy to come by.
There is, in addition, the fact that this had become the accepted term by those who were a little more experienced than we, like the
British. They had a Psychological Warfare Executive who ran this kind of leaflet, loudspeaker, broadcast operation, directed to enemy areas. Really, we were supposed to be using that term mainly for the enemy areas.
MCKINZIE: To what extent was there cooperation between your people, the British, and the other Allies?
BARRETT: Cooperation with the British was superb; we worked with them very closely. With the other Allies it was rather nominal. After all, we and the British were the main participants after the collapse of France. Cooperation with de Gaulle and his aides was very difficult.
MCKINZIE: Did you ever hear of any contact with the Soviets on this matter?
BARRETT: Yes. I told a couple of little stories in my book, I believe. We had the wonderful experience of setting up the so-called psychological warfare
operation and an information operation at Ike's command in Algiers. The information operation was directed at the North African-Algerian audience to help justify our being there and to try to keep them from being too annoyed at these damned Americans.
Our psychological warfare work consisted, in large part, of broadcasts. We took the old WABC out of New York over there, and we set up a few short-wave transmitters. There were also leaflet operations, a great deal of interviewing of prisoners to get information to broadcast back, and news services to the newly liberated areas like Southern Italy, where we really got the newspapers started again. We did the same thing in France, later.
On the broadcast side (these were United Nations forces, if you remember) we decided to label this thing "United Nations Radio." The British concurred, and we just jockeyed around until we got a Russian "concurrence," which was
really just a Russian failure to object.
After that we'd have to go through the motions of getting a Soviet representative there to "approve" when there was a new departure. We quickly learned a technique which was built on the fact that they do have a pretty rigid system. The technique was just that of saying, "Unless you object, we are beginning the day after tomorrow to do such and such." They didn't dare object without going back to Moscow through their whole bureaucracy. If we had asked their approval we could have waited months, because this was pretty low priority stuff on the Russian side.
We had a great American-British civilian and military setup in North Africa. We took a few civilians over who knew the business, including a lot of linguists; individuals who had been newspapermen in Poland, Germany (particularly), Austria, Italy, and some very skilled British. Then we combed the military and we would find,
working in G-4, a superb Italian newspaperman who was being used to dole out uniforms. We managed to get a number of such individuals away from the military and put them to useful work. We had an utterly whacky organization; we'd assign individuals in terms of their ability. For example, I remember one day coming into the newsroom and finding Sergeant Schoenbrun, David Schoenbrun, giving Captain Burkell hell for the story he had turned in.
MCKINZIE: In your book you quoted someone's statement that good public relations is just "acting right and letting people know about it." Of course, that right depends upon one's perspective of it. How sophisticated did you aim and to what audience? Did you appeal to a man who needed his news in terms of right and wrong, or to a more elite group who could perhaps see all of the perspectives on a problem and hopefully, logically, lead them to the proper conclusions?
BARRETT: Well, we found ourselves trying to appeal to both, really to quite a number of strata. Sure, that "acting right" line is a kind of a vast oversimplification attributed to an old shirt-sleeve type public relations guy, but the fact is that if you are not "acting right," at least by your own standards, you'll play hell having an effective public relations campaign. After all, there are a number of areas where, damn it, intelligent men's concepts of right and wrong should agree regardless of which side they are on, such as making agreements and breaking them or keeping them, treating prisoners decently in wartime, abiding by the Geneva Convention, living up to your commitment to your own Allies, and so on.
I'd be the first to say that we really tried to stick to the truth and to tell nothing but the truth, but we didn't always tell the whole truth.
MCKINZIE: At that time, in 1943 through '45, to what extent did you think that your work was going to serve future political purposes? Or, did you see it much more as something which was designed to serve the immediate military purpose of reducing the will of the enemy to resist?
BARRETT: Well, we tried certainly to reduce the enemies' will to resist in so-called tactical, psychological warfare -- the over-the-line stuff, the artillery and plane-borne leaflets directed at enemy troops. That was primarily tactical. Partly because we had a few decent historians and social scientists who had pretty clear recollections of World War I and its aftermath, we tried to keep from getting our necks out where anyone could say we hadn't lived up to our commitments. I think a majority of us, therefore, probably agreed with FDR and Mr. Truman on the unconditional surrender line, even though it would prolong the war a bit. That's a subject that has been debated and can be debated now. It's probably
better than having made commitments and promises that you've found, for one reason or another, you can't live up to.
MCKINZIE: You talked briefly in your book about what you call "psyche-war." The group concerned with this had the responsibility of going in after the occupying forces to the radio stations, the movies, the magazines, and the newspapers and (to use your words) "to clean them out," start them up again, and gradually turn them over to trustworthy personnel. Do you recall the criteria for turning them over to other personnel?
BARRETT: We had, by that time, recruited in our own ranks a fair number of emigré journalists and broadcasters from the countries concerned. We also had rounded up all of the Americans we could find who had had experience in Germany, Italy, or Austria, and we had a fair batch of them. We tried to put one of t