previous sub-section
2 War on the Enemy Mind
next sub-section

What They Did and What They Learned

The wartime psychological work detailed in this chapter and the next is nonclinical. Many practitioners who worked in areas such as "human management" and enemy morale were social psychologists or other social scientists deeply influenced by psychological theory. Social interests notwithstanding, they considered themselves as firmly committed to rigorous scientific practices as colleagues located at the more physiological end of the professional spectrum. For the most part, experimentalists who were interested in such problems as sensation and perception were involved in "man-machine" engineering problems during the war. A visible example was the Harvard Sound Control Project, which significantly improved earplug technology with a huge staff of psychologists and a $2 million government contract. Psychological


scientists also conducted laboratory and field experiments designed to produce more user-friendly gunsights, improve night vision, and increase the efficiency of cargo handling, among other things. The young B. F. Skinner even spent the war years trying to prove the military value of behaviorist principles by demonstrating that living organisms—pigeons, to be precise—could be as dependable as machines when it came to guiding missiles to their targets.[23]

Clinically oriented professionals, whose activities are discussed in chapter 8, became the best known of all the wartime psychological experts for their efforts to identify and counter an epidemic of mental disturbance and incompetence. Although they entered the war years with far less professional clout than their experimentalist colleagues, the tables would turn dramatically in the postwar era, when clinical work soared to unprecedented heights of visibility, authority, and political importance.

Although the absolute numbers of experts involved in the areas of work described below were smaller than the numbers of clinicians who maintained the military's mental balance by screening recruits and administering classification tests, their work indicated more directly how psychological knowledge could be made useful to problems defined in explicitly political and military terms. How could enemy soldiers be most effectively reached with demoralizing messages? How could relocation centers for Japanese-Americans be run smoothly? How could U.S. public opinion be oriented toward supporting particular war aims and away from the powder keg of racial conflict? How could U.S. soldiers be convinced that harsh military policies were actually justified, fair, and deserving of compliance?

To these and other questions some psychological experts devoted the war years. If they felt they were advancing the causes of scientific knowledge and professional achievement (and most of them did), they also knew that their jobs existed not for these purposes, but to provide policy-makers with practical, timely, and applicable analysis and information. For each optimistic assessment that social scientists were "gradually creeping up the administrative ladder," and "see[ing] to it that many of our ideas get 'stolen' by government," there were others who glumly reported that "none of our memos were worth anything and they were the joke of Washington."[24] Dedicated throughout the war to enlarging their own sphere of influence, experts nonetheless quickly grasped that furthering a psychological science of social relations or theory of society was not the point. Winning the war was.

Although human relations advisors, specialists in psychological war-


fare (sometimes called "sykewarriors"), morale specialists, and opinion pollsters spent their time occupied with pressing policy matters, they drew on much the same body of psychological theory and behavioral experimentation available to clinicians. The primary wartime commitment of policy-oriented experts was to making psychology useful, but they also considered the military to be the best environment for large-scale research they had ever encountered. Figures including Eli Ginzberg, Daniel Lerner, Alexander Leighton, and Samuel Stouffer referred to the military as a "laboratory" and observed that war presented unmatched opportunities for scientific experimentation into the mysteries of human motivation, attitudes, and behavior.[25] They were usually careful, however, to keep such language to themselves, understandably nervous that their "subjects" would resist being cast as rats and guinea pigs .[26]

The work of policy-oriented experts grew out of the same intellectual roots as that of their clinical counterparts, a fact that would have profound importance to the political course and public consequences of psychological expertise in the postwar decades. Their professional training led them to adapt concepts developed initially to shed light on how individuals coped with unhealthy situations, or responded to psychopathology—frustration and aggression, for example—to analyzing social issues and designing public policy. One important result would be to blur the line between the individual and the collective, the personal and the social, and to create the potential for camouflaging clear political purposes as neutral methods of scientific discovery or therapeutic treatment. (The career of psychology during the Cold War, and its role in postwar race relations—the subjects of chapters 4 to 7—offer fascinating evidence of exactly how far this process could, and did, go.)

Psychological experts who aided in wartime administration, for example, drew on the language of health, illness, and therapeutic treatment that was the legacy of psychiatry's historic basis in medicine. Psychiatrist Alexander H. Leighton, head of the research team at the Poston Relocation Center for Japanese-Americans and later head of the Foreign Morale Analysis Division (FMAD) of the Office of War Information (OWI), encouraged those with whom he worked to adopt a "psychiatric approach in problems of community management."[27] Psychologists also tended to draw their inspiration from the biological and physical sciences. Samuel A. Stouffer, a psychologically oriented sociologist who directed the army's most ambitious in-house effort in attitude assessment, reflected constantly on the methods of scientific practice—especially controlled experimentation—that had unlocked the


wonders of biology and chemistry and that he hoped would do the same for behavioral scientists, finally allowing them "to take some hypotheses of a general character, express them in precise operational terms, and devise means for crucial tests.... so that inferences and applications can be made from them to broad classes of concrete behavior situations."[28]

The example of World War I loomed large for these nonclinical experts. Propaganda efforts and shocking evidence of mental deficiency in the military during the Great War had done much to expose the ugly truth of public gullibility, mass emotionalism, and widespread distortions in the popular perception of important public issues. The experience turned even such democratic idealists as Walter Lippmann toward a despairing, and sometimes cynical, belief that only rational experts were in a position to understand "the world outside" and should therefore have the power to engineer public opinion, or what he called "the pictures in our heads."[29] World War I taught that representative democracy was far too emotionally unstable to safely determine the future course of U.S. society and that only those whose educations shielded them from ordinary irrationality should wield the power to make and shape public policy. Thus did science and liberal democracy diverge.[30]

No science poked more holes in democratic ideals than psychology. Many psychological experts were converted by World War I to the principles of crowd psychology, a theoretical tradition first articulated in the late nineteenth century by the aristocratic and antidemocratic French sociologist Gustave Le Bon.[31] Le Bon pointed to the unreason and intolerance of collective behavior and mass attitudes as the hallmark of contemporary society and as alarming threats to civilization. He called upon rulers to exert strict social controls over the emotionally explosive masses, protect the eroding powers of intellectual and governing elites, and champion the noble but rapidly evaporating ideal of the individual. During the Progressive Era, pioneers in social psychology like William McDougall (whose career had begun in Britain) and Everett Dean Martin popularized Le Bon's theories.[32] The tradition of crowd psychology also reached U.S. audiences through Freudian social theory and concepts like that of the primal horde.[33] While the elitist attacks of European intellectuals on liberal democracy were often dulled or deleted in U.S. social psychology, the analysis of crowd behavior was destined to remain a centerpiece of U.S. political criticism for a long time to come. The usefulness of crowd psychology derived from its quality of translating contentious questions of political ideology into objective axioms of social science.[34]


By the end of World War I, politicians too had embraced psychopolitical perspectives from the Le Bon lexicon. Herbert Hoover, for example, who had provided heroic relief to the hungry masses in German-occupied Belgium before going on to manage the wartime production and marketing of food at home, spoke up for the precious American individualism he believed to be under attack by the psychology of the mob. "Acts and ideas that lead to progress are born out of the womb of the individual mind," he commented, "not out of the mind of the crowd. The crowd only feels: it has no mind of its own which can plan. The crowd is credulous, it destroys, it consumes, it hates, and it dreams—but it never builds.... Popular desires are no criteria to the real need; they can be determined only by deliberative consideration, by education, by constructive leadership."[35]

Political scientist Harold Lasswell, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on the subject of World War I propaganda, also helped to disseminate crowd psychology. During the interwar period, Lasswell was instrumental in promoting the application of psychological theories and methods—especially psychoanalysis—to political problems from his post at the University of Chicago.[36] His theoretical and practical work on the margins between psychology and politics helped to cement a notion that would become an unquestionable axiom for the World War II generation: that widespread social conflicts like war and revolution were simply examples, on a large scale to be sure, of the problems that plagued individual personalities and inharmonious interpersonal relationships. Since society was nothing more than an agglomeration of many individuals, the quest for systematic laws of social and political misbehavior should be directed toward the very issues—unconscious motivation and irrational behavior—that the psychopathological approach had uncovered in mentally disturbed individuals. The many disasters of World War I, according to Lasswell, had "led the political scientist to the door of the psychiatrist."[37]

World War II, he hoped, would lead policy-makers to the same place in time to pioneer a new "politics of prevention" before too many mistakes occurred. Lasswell's advocacy of "prevention" came earlier than most, but before the end of World War II this code word reflected both widespread agreement and extreme optimism among psychological experts about therapeutic outcomes as well as policy-oriented work. Prevention was a useful vehicle for the professions' ambitions because it allowed their authority to expand in new directions, offering an open invitation to psychologists, psychiatrists, and allied professionals to in-


volve themselves in areas as distant from their traditional turf as unemployment, housing shortages, occupational health and safety, political corruption, and international relations.[38]

The mantra of prevention was, in a sense, a continuation of experts' Progressive Era love affair with efficiency and reform and it followed closely on the heels of the twin campaigns for scientific management and mental hygiene early in the century.[39] But prevention had also absorbed new justifications. No longer was it animated mainly by visions of uplift in a society coming to grips with urban culture, mass institutions, and, at least for native-born whites, an unsettling new ethnic diversity. Before the end of World War II, experts would champion prevention not primarily because it made expert talents indispensable to reform activities, but rather because conventional distinctions between positive mental health and social welfare, or proper adjustment and wise public policy, had almost entirely collapsed.

Lasswell was in the vanguard of this new, integrated understanding of psychology and politics. For him, "prevention" meant treating the issue of power as an issue of psychological management on a social level—releasing uncomfortable tensions here, adjusting sources of strain there—and transforming the exercise of power into something resembling enlightened psychiatric treatment. Straightforward conflicts of interest, consequently, need never disturb the collective peace of mind. "The politics of prevention does not depend upon a series of changes in the organization of government," he argued. "It depends upon a reorientation in the minds of those who think about society around the central problems: What are the principal factors which modify the tension level of the community? What is the specific relevance of a proposed line of action to the temporary and permanent modification of the tension level?"[40]

previous sub-section
2 War on the Enemy Mind
next sub-section