Psychological Operations/Warfare Leaflets

The information on this page was obtained from the "Psychological Operations Field Manual No.33-1" published in August 1979 by Department of the Army Headquarters in Washington DC; and "Psychological Operations (PSYOP) Media Subcourse PO-0816" by The Army Institute for Professional Development, published in 1983.

Note: this article was reprinted with permission as a reference text in the Military Psychology course taught at the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa.

A leaflet is a written or pictorial message on a single sheet of paper. It has no standard size, shape, or format. In selecting the size, shape, and weight of the paper, the primary consideration is that the paper accommodate the message and be easy to distribute. The recommended size, provided the message can be accommodated, is a 15.24 centimeters by 7.72 centimeters (6 by 3 inches)on 7.25- or 9.06- kilogram paper (16- or 20-pound). Leaflets of this size and weight have very favorable aerial dissemination characteristics.

Why Use Printed Leaflets

Printed material, which includes leaflets, newspapers, posters, handbills, books, magazines, and such items as novelties, trinkets, and gifts with messages printed on them, is major means of conveying propaganda.

A propaganda message printed on substantial material is a relatively permanent document. Once printed and delivered, it can be retained and readily passed from person to person without distortion.

A properly developed and designed message (shape, color, format, texture, and other physical characteristics have been duly considered) can have a deep and lasting effect on the target audience.


The printed word has a high degree of acceptance, credibility, and prestige. Printed matter is unique in that it can be passed from person to person without distortion. It allows for the reinforcing use of photographs and graphic illustrations which can be understood by illiterates. It is permanent and the message will not change unless it is physically altered. It can be disseminated and read or viewed by a larger, widespread target audience. It can be reread for reinforcement. Complex and lengthy material can be explained in detail. It can be hidden and read in private. Messages can be printed on almost any surface, including useful items. Printed material can gain prestige by acknowledging authoritative and expert authors. This is particularly important in those societies where the printed word is authoritative.


A high illiteracy rate reduces the effectiveness and usefulness of the printed message. Printing operations require special, extensive, continuing logistical support. Dissemination is time-consuming and costly, requiring the use of special facilities and complex coordination. As printed material must be physically delivered to the target audience, the enemy can prevent or interfere with its dissemination. It is less timely than other means of communication. It can be collected and destroyed by the enemy. It can be altered by overprinting. Where prohibited, it can readily be uncovered by search and stringent penalties imposed for possession. Development and design of effective printed material requires trained and knowledgeable personnel.


Leaflets may be categorized as persuasive, informative, and directive.

The persuasive leaflet attains its objective through use of reason. Facts are presented so that the audience is convinced that the conclusions reached by the propagandist are valid. The informative leaflet is factual. In presenting facts previously unknown to the audience, it attracts a reading public by satisfying curiosity. The directive leaflet directs action when intelligence indicates the target is receptive. It is used to direct and control activities of underground forces. It may be used to disrupt enemy production by giving advance warning of bombing attacks and suggesting that workers in enemy production facilities protect themselves by staying away from work. During consolidation and foreign internal defense operations, directive leaflets assist in maintaining law and order and in publicizing government programs.


Leaflets are developed for specific uses, such as standard, special situation, safe conduct, and news.

Standard leaflets contain general propaganda messages intended for repeated use in all types of psychological operations. They are particularly valuable in fast-moving tactical situations when PSYOP units are unable to prepare leaflets to fit rapidly changing situations. The content of standard leaflets used in support of foreign internal defense, unconventional warfare, and consolidation operations varies widely.

Advantages of Standard Leaflets. Use of standard leaflets: Permits rapid dissemination of a variety of propaganda messages. Leaflets are prepared in advance, stockpiled in bulk, or oaded in disseminating devices for storage or immediate delivery. This provides flexibility for the use of PSYOP at all levels of command. Permits standardization of selected propaganda themes or messages, insuring consistency of propaganda content. Allows cataloging. Standard leaflets are easily cataloged. The availability of catalogs of standard leaflets simplifies the task of integrating selected leaflets into tactical operations. Permits the most efficient use of large, high-speed presses at theater Army level and maximum use of commercial facilities. Permits a joint production agency to better control printed propaganda materials. Allows pretesting well in advance of dissemination. Insures continuation of the PSYOP effort even though reproduction equipment may be destroyed or temporarily disabled.

Disadvantages of Standard Leaflets: Standard leaflets are usually less effective than leaflets tailored for a specific action or situation. They are subject to deterioration. Circumstances and conditions make them obsolete. Stockpiles of leaflets become a logistical burden and can be overprinted by the enemy. They endanger enemy soldiers and civilians seen reading them. They are instantly identifiable as a PSYOP device; therefore, the leaflet's credibility is suspect. Contingency leaflets are prepared for an anticipated event. Special situation leaflets are requested when the standard leaflet message is inadequate to exploit a particular propaganda opportunity, situation, or objective. They are developed when intelligence indicates the existence of a specifically exploitable, but transient and presumably non recurring psychological opportunity. They are intended for use only once because the circumstances which govern their preparation are seldom duplicated. Use in tactical operations. Tactical PSYOP achieve maximum results when leaflets have specific relevance at the moment of receipt, when psychological pressures are greatest, and when a reasonable course of action is presented. For example, surrender becomes a reasonable course of action only when under current conditions no other alternative action seems plausible.

Use in strategic operations. Strategic PSYOP are made more effective by the use of special situation leaflets that deal with specific problems and discuss them in terms of current facts. The impact is usually cumulative, rather then immediate, extending over weeks, months, or years. These leaflets are used primarily to communicate with special targets, such as foreign workers in enemy or occupied countries, ethnic or religious groups, members of a particular industrial facility or industry, and friendly resistance groups.

Operational considerations. The following operational considerations should determine the use of special situation leaflets:
Serve as a means for timely exploitation of psychological opportunities. Serve as a means to communicate more intimately with the target audience and permit the message to be more precisely slanted to the immediate and particular needs of the audience.


Leaflet production is affected by the physical characteristics of paper, such as shape, texture, quality, size, and weight. Legibility and color reproduction are noticeably affected by paper quality and texture. A high grade of paper is needed for correct color reproduction. Quality also affects durability. Safe conduct passes should always be printed on durable, high quality paper. The major factors involved in selection of paper weights and leaflet sizes are:

  • Message length.
  • Artwork required.
  • Delivery system to be used.
  • Press capabilities.
  • Purpose of the leaflet.


A single, local national leaflet writer with all the qualifications listed below is rarely obtainable. Yet every effort must be made to obtain a writer with these qualities:

  • A good, practical knowledge of the target audience language, including current idioms and slang, to enable him to effectively translate the ideas to     be incorporated into the leaflet.
  • Recent residence in the target location and familiarity with current happenings in that area (politics, cultural patterns, and even language vernacular often change rapidly and the skillful leaflet writer must be abreast of all these changes).
  • Familiarity with the organization of the enemy's forces--leadership, equipment, and arms--should enable him to know the average enemy soldier's emotional and sociological background, including his ambitions, prejudices, likes, and dislikes.
  • Familiarity with the civilian population and the political, sociological, economic, and psychological environment within which it functions.
  • Experience in one or more of the following fields: advertising copywriter, journalism, political or social sciences, public relations, and any other field allied to persuasive or interpretative writing.

Writing for Maximum Effectiveness:

Because the text of the message is limited by space and other considerations, the writer must persuade the enemy with the reasonableness or emotional content of his message so that the reader will be motivated either to pass it on to others or to relay the message by word of mouth.

Writing Objectively:

Objectivity is the keynote of effective leaflet writing. Although it is difficult to do, the efficient leaflet writer puts aside all personal prejudices and biases when writing for enemy consumption. The leaflet writer depends upon intelligence agencies for information upon which to base his leaflet appeals. This information must not be adapted to fit the writer's own personal views. Rather, it must fit the emotional and thought process of the audience, and be pertinent to the primary interests of its members.

Writing Positively:

Assertion, not negotiation, is the stock in trade of the leaflet writer. The PSYOP writer has, without doubt, the toughest selling job in the world. Every facility at the disposal of the enemy, from domestic propaganda to military strength, is aimed at discrediting or refuting the writer's statements. A negative attitude, therefore, is interpreted by the enemy as a sign of weakness. Only positive appeals can wear down the psychological barrier the enemy has erected against the PSYOP writer. Furthermore, enemy propaganda may be designed to influence the opponent to deny something; and if the propagandist retaliates by categorically denying enemy accusations, he may be supplying data for which the enemy has been probing.


Typography: Although leaflets generally are small, they should contain comparatively large print, particularly when directed toward the enemy. However, a small leaflet with large print makes it necessary to use a text that is brief, to the point, and immediately attractive. Since enemy personnel and civilians in areas under enemy control are prohibited from picking up or reading leaflets from external sources, the large print enables them to read the message without touching the leaflet. In case the reader wishes to hide the leaflet and read it surreptitiously at a later time, a small leaflet is more easily concealed. The type must be large enough to be perfectly legible and familiar to the audience. While the heading and subheading may vary in size, body type should be 8 points or larger. If the Roman alphabet is not used in the target area, provision must be made to obtain the proper type reproduction capability. In covert operations, type and paper must be that which is available within, and common to, the target area in order to maintain the facade required in black or gray propaganda operations.


A judicious use of color is important in the appearance of the leaflet. The number of colors available will be limited by the type of printing equipment available. When two or more colors can be used, the following factors should be considered:

Color in a leaflet should usually contrast sharply with the predominant color of the terrain over which it is to disseminated in order to attract attention. On occasions, however, color in a leaflet may be planned to blend with the terrain in areas where punitive or other sanctions have been imposed to limit the reading (and therefore the impact) of enemy leaflets. Blended colors give an individual greater opportunity to pick up, handle, or retain a leaflet.

Favorite colors of the enemy target may be used frequently. For example, canary yellow is favored in the Orient, and green in Ireland. Colors included in the national flags of the several countries are usually "safe" colors to use.

Colors must be appropriate to the culture of the audience so as to signify the idea or emotion the propagandist wishes to convey. Colors may be used to harmonize with the moods of the illustrations or message within the frame of reference of the target audience. In some countries red may be used to suggest violence, blue or green for peaceful scenes, and black or white for death.


Photographs often are used as documentary proof of particular incidents or events.

Pictures of bombed enemy cities showing well-known landmarks are proof to enemy soldiers that their homeland is in fact being subjected to devastating air raids.

Pictures of healthy prisoners eating hearty meals tend to reduce the enemy's fears that he will be maltreated if he becomes a prisoner. To insure sharp pictures, only clear photographic plates should be used. Since photographs and illustrations carry a message, they must be arranged and numbered in a culturally logical sequence. For example, in some cultures the sequence of reading is from right to left, in others from top to bottom and right to left. Placing a number in front of the caption which accompanies a photograph or illustration makes it easier for the reader to follow the sequence. Caption all photographs and illustrations. If this is not done, the reader may not understand the point the message is trying to make.

Cartoons and Drawings:

Cartoons and drawings, when done in a manner appealing to the target audience, are invaluable assets in supporting the theme of a leaflet, may attract the eye; they help to present a more attractive format; they tend to leave lasting impressions; they may interpret the message for illiterates who cannot read the accompanying message; and they may be used with a slogan or without printed messages.

Format Symmetry:

Headlines, subheadings, photographs, cartoons, drawings, captions, and text should be so arranged as to present an attractive and symmetrical appearance. Variety in format is important in a leaflet campaign except in the use of surrender or safe conduct passes which are standardized throughout the theater of operations for recognition purposes.



The leaflet heading is normally the most important part of the leaflet because it is the part that first catches the eye. In composing the heading, the propaganda writer must be brief, summarizing the theme by using short, forceful words.


Leaflet subheadings are used when it is impossible to summarize the text in the main heading and further explanation is needed to point out the significance of the message. They may also be used to introduce separate paragraphs in the body of the text and to bridge gaps between headline and text.


To gain the interest of a target audience within the first few words, the first sentence or two of the text should contain the substance of the message, with the facts and details following.

Credible and verifiable facts whether favorable or not, are the backbone of the leaflet message because they demand attention. The target audience often risks death or severe punishment for reading leaflets; thus, the information must be of vital importance for the audience to continue to read leaflets. Because of space limitations, the text should be simple and to the point, presenting the message to the target audience without confusing him. The leaflet normally presents only one theme. A leaflet which presents two or more unrelated or vaguely related themes confuses the target audience and detracts from the relative persuasive strength of each theme. If more than one theme is used, they should be closely related.


When pictures, preferably photographs, are used, the picture and the text must complement each other-convey the same idea to the target audience, each expanding the ideas of the other.


Printed material is the one medium that must be physically delivered to a target audience. This presents problems when attempting to disseminate printed propaganda in enemy held territory. In denied areas, printed propaganda is generally disseminated by air delivery, line-crossers, military patrols, or international mail.

The method of delivery depends upon a variety of factors, such as:

Political conditions Military situation Target density and population patterns Number and size of leaflets to be delivered Enemy countermeasures Availability of ordnance and delivery devices Weather Allocation of air sorties for leaflet missions


Paper quality affects the drift of airdropped leaflets. If a leaflet, which offers little or no wind resistance, is dropped from a flying aircraft, it will be blown at about the same speed and direction as the wind.

If there are updrafts or down drafts, the leaflet will still follow the general direction of the wind. In areas of no turbulence the constant pull of gravity acting upon the leaflet will cause it to fall at a fairly constant rate. The basic objective of leaflet drops is to place sufficient leaflets on the ground to insure that every member of the target audience will see (not necessarily possess) a leaflet.

To insure that members of the target audience chance upon leaflets, their location and activities must be considered. Target mobility has a great bearing on the number and density of leaflets dropped and on the area that must be covered. A basic difference between falling leaflets is the type of motion they assume during descent. This can be one of two forms: -an autorotating motion, or -a nonautorotating motion.

An autorotating leaflet is one which exhibits a rotating motion about its longest axis. The other types of fall (flip-flop, spiraling, etc.)can be grouped together for purposes of analysis. In general these have somewhat more rapid and less stable type of descent than the autorotators.

Aerial distribution of leaflets: Leaflets printed or distributed in areas of high humidity tend to stick together. Ruffling one or both ends of the leaflet stack insures complete dispersion.

Airdrop by hand (low altitude). Leaflets dropped by hand through aircraft doors, ports, or specially fabricated chutes in areas where low-level delivery is feasible. Leaflets should be dropped in small quantities at very close intervals. This results in an almost continuous release of leaflets evenly distributed downwind and parallel to the flight of the aircraft. Two men can dispense thousands of leaflets per minute using this efficient, inexpensive technique.

High altitude free-fall. Leaflets dispensed from aircraft flying at altitudes up to 50,000 feet (15,000 meters). This technique is well suited for leaflet drops directed at large general target areas. It requires long-range planning and preparation to insure prompt reaction to favorable wind conditions. The characteristics of different size leaflets must be known to insure that the proper "mix" of leaflets is used to obtain dissemination throughout the target area.

Static line technique. At high altitudes the use of leaflet bundles or boxes opened by static line has proven effective. Through use ofrollers on the deck of the aircraft, boxes weighing up to 50 kilograms (110 pounds) can be ejected with minimum exertion. The box is rolled out of the aircraft, and as the container comes to the end of the static line, the sides of the box split. In effect, it is turned inside out and the leaflets fall away followed by the empty box.

Balloon Operations, useful for penetrating denied areas, can be conducted up to a range of 2,400 kilometers (1,500 miles). Balloons are made of paper, rubber, or polyethylene. Flight patterns are determined by the weather, wind, air currents, and gas pressure.

Although the maximum payload is 9 kilograms (about 20 pounds), balloons are an inexpensive means of disseminating leaflets.

Remotely Piloted Vehicles (RPVs) are capable of conducting a variety of combat missions including leaflet delivery, surveillance, reconnaissance, electronic warfare, and strike. The remote pilot is able to detect and identify targets, change the course of the RPV, and make decisions to initiate and terminate operations in the target area. Pinpoint accuracy is possible.

RPVs can be flown into enemy territories where the gun and missile antiaircraft defenses are very intense and the losses of manned aircraft might be unacceptable. RPVs can be fitted with modified wing pods providing a large leaflet capacity per mission.

Leaflet Bomb. The M129E1 leaflet bomb is an Air Force item, obtained through Air Force ordnance channels. Its empty weight is about 52 kilograms (115 pounds) and when loaded with leaflets, approximately 100 kilograms (225 pounds). It can carry approximately 30,000 13 x 20-centimeter (51/4 x 8-inch), 16-pound, machine-rolled leaflets. Before the leaflets are placed in the bomb, the detonating cord is placed in the seam between the two halves. When the bomb is released, the fuse functions at a predetermined time, detonating the primer cord separating the two body sections, detaching the fins, and releasing the leaflets.


The ground patrol is a useful element for disseminating small amounts of printed material behind enemy lines.

Posters, leaflets,pamphlets, kits, and novelties may be placed or scattered by patrols and reconnaissance elements, usually while on regular missions. Leaflets, posters, and propaganda items can be left behind during retrograde movements. Infiltrators, line-crossers, and sympathizers can be used to distribute printed propaganda behind enemy lines. They frequently distribute gray or black propaganda. Propaganda may be mailed to selected individuals or organizations through enemy or neutral postal systems. In FID (Foreign Internal Defense) situations all agencies of the supported government and civilian public service organizations (to include the religious community) should be used as outlets and distribution points. Seaworthy containers are easy and inexpensive to use as sea floats. Propaganda is placed in a waterproof container and dropped at predetermined locations at sea, in rivers, or streams. However, access to reliable hydrographic data (prevailing winds, tide, and currents) is needed in order to plot projected courses accurately. Containers may be made of wood, bamboo, glass (jars, bottles), plastic, rubber, or similar material. Inexpensive plastic or cellophane envelopes can be profitably used for large-scale float operations. Large-volume dissemination is necessary because a great number of the containers will never reach the designated target audience.


Perhaps the question should be, “Do leaflets have a future?” In a time of instant electronic communication, leaflets might be passť. They are not always timely, are not always accurately disseminated, and often are found by an illiterate target audience. There currently is a search for “Air droppable, scatterable electronic media.”

There has been discussion of placing a tiny computer chip in the aerial propaganda leaflet so that it could speak directly to the reader. This has already been done to some extent in greeting cards and is an interesting concept. It solves the problems of illiteracy, but there is the additional cost to be considered and accuracy and language would still be a problem. Some third-world nations speak a dozen different languages and the message would probably have to be in all of them. On the positive side, the “talking” leaflet would generate more attention and possibly remain in circulation longer than a static piece of paper.

Other possible replacements for the leaflets are cheap disposable cellular phones that could be used to communicate directly with the finders or the greater dissemination of cheap portable battery, sun or crank-powered radios that would allow a target audience to listen to a propaganda message.