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© The Boston Globe 2001.  Used by permission.
The Secret History of World War II

by Mark Fritz / Globe Staff / December 3, 2001

Page 1 of 7

What does a fighting man fear most at the front: Air raids? An all-out assault by an overwhelming ground force? The sudden debut of some scary new weapon?

All of the above, obviously. He's also agonizing over his family back home, the wife and kids facing shortages, terror attacks, the unthinkable consequences of an enemy occupation.

And consider this conscript's deepest dread. "Maybe my wife is messing around with other men."

The soldier was a German prisoner of war. Allied sentries had fished him out of the prisoner pen at the behest of Barbara Podoski, a US propagandist based in southern Italy during World War II. She routinely interrogated the enemy, seeking soft spots in the other side's psychological armor.

She had one here. This prisoner's cold fear of cuckoldry was the creative spark for just one of the ploys that won Podoski a Bronze Star for the art of artifice. Through various letter drops and leaflet distributions, her 10-member unit spread bogus word of a Third Reich program in which German soldiers on liberty had only to wear a pin -- two hearts, intertwined -- and they could have any woman. Even those with a wedding band.

"Don't be shy," cooed one circular. "Your wife, mother, sister or sweetheart is one of us. We think of you and we think of the future of Germany."

The point was to demoralize soldiers who were stuck at the front. One added benefit: Americans believed it was part of the enemy's amorality. "It looked so authentic that The Washington Post ran it as a real story," chortles Podoski, now 87 and a resident of Washington.

It's a cliche to say that truth is the first casualty of war, but it's the truth. Whether the enemy is named Adolf or Aidid, Saddam or Osama, propaganda is as much a part of military doctrine as the pincher movement. Every shred of information released by the US government in wartime -- whether on the battlefield or in press briefings -- serves a strategic purpose.

One only needs to surf some of the 3 million pages of World War II intelligence files released under the Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act of 1998 to see how all the combatants deployed propaganda as a critical weapon in a worldwide war of words.

"It can be a greater weapon than artillery, more powerful than bullets," said Edwin J. Putzel Jr., former executive officer to General William Donovan, founder of the Office of Strategic Services, created during World War II and precursor to the CIA.

"I think a lot of the material coming out of the Muslim environment [today] is propaganda and frankly, stuff coming out of the American and British side probably is, too," he said.

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