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During the Indochina War, guerre psychologique came to mean for the French army the development and use of methods capable of undermining the morale of the adversary; strengthening that of the French army and its allies against enemy propaganda; reversing the effects of enemy propaganda; and “detoxifying” and then indoctrinating DRV prisoners taken by French Union soldiers.

It is unclear when exactly the term “psychological warfare” came into use in French. It had certainly become commonplace in English during World War II even though Western democracies, and the French Third Republic in particular, had always found it harder than single-party states to use the word propaganda. World War II changed this for the French. Vichy officials developed propaganda as part of Philippe Pétain’s National Revoution and the alliance with the Nazis against the Allies, just as Free French forces collaborating with the Allies did so against the Axis. Indeed, Free French initiation to Allied methods of psychological warfare during World War II served the Fourth Republic well, as many of the officers trained in such matters deployed them in France’s two major wars of decolonization in the 20th century – the Indochinese and Algerian ones. In 1946, the cabinet of the French High Command in Indochina created a propaganda section while the Deuxième Bureau did the same in its territorial posts. The Deuxième Bureau apparently took the lead in developing psychological warfare sections during the course of the conflict.

However, as in the past, the French had a much harder time developing psychological warfare than their communist opponents and Anglo-American allies. The development of a full-blown psychological warfare section in the French army in Indochina was not officialized at the higher level until January 1953, when the Office of Psychological Warfare (Bureau de la guerre psychologique) was created within the General Staff of the French commander-in-chief in Indochina (Etat-Major interarmées des forces terrestres, EMIFT). It was soon expanded to the general staffs at the territorial level. Until the end of the Indochina War, American specialists in “psyops” worked with the French through this bureau and French officers studied psychological warfare at Fort Bragg in the United States.

The Allied experience in psychological warfare against the Chinese in the Korean War also served as a model to which the French looked when creating their bureau in 1953. In order to sap enemy morale or build up that of its allies, the French army dropped millions of tracts over the Democratic Republic of Vietnam zones, targeting both troops and civilians. The Office of Psychological Warfare published 47 papers and bulletins, churning out a total of some 700,000 copies. The budget allotted to psychological warfare amounted to 50 millions francs in 1952. In 1953, it increased to 200 million then 355 million in 1954, part of which was financed by the USA.

As Paul and Marie-Catherine Villatoux have demonstrated convincingly, French psychological warfare developed considerably during the Indochinese and Algerian Wars; but the roots of this policy are to be found in World War II and in a wider global context, one in which American, British, and Sino-Soviet models were highly influential on French thinking. See also CHARLES LACHEROY; EDWARD LANSDALE; GUERRILLA; PAUL MUS; REVOLUTIONARY WARFARE; ROGER TRINQUIER.