The secrets of airborne propaganda distribution.

Answers to your questions about the news.
July 18 2006 6:38 PM

I'm Covered in Leaflets!

The secrets of airborne propaganda distribution.

Download the MP3 audio version of this story here, or sign up for The Explainer's free daily podcast on iTunes.

Israeli warplanes have dropped thousands of pink and yellow propaganda leaflets into Lebanon over the past week. Anyone who offers aid to Hezbollah, one of the flyers says, "is putting his life in danger." How do you drop leaflets from an airplane?

With a leaflet bomb. Capt. James Monroe invented the American propaganda bomb during World War II. Thousands of pieces of paper were stuffed into a laminated paper cylinder with a detonator and a delay, and then loaded into a B-17. The "Monroe bomb" exploded on the way down, sprinkling leaflets over enemy territory from a low altitude. The Air Force quickly developed more advanced versions of the same idea. For many years, their standard leaflet bomb was the M129, a fiberglass case that holds up to 80,000 flyers.

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

Advertisement

The leaflet bomb reduces the effects of wind, which can easily blow leaflets away from their intended target. This problem was more acute during World War I, when many pilots made their leaflet drops by hand. The barnstorming pilot aces of the early 20th century also used hand-drops to distribute advertisements for their air shows. Charles Lindbergh had his mother toss notices from the cockpit of his plane.

All those loose papers flying around the cockpit could get dangerous, though. By the 1940s, pilots had devised a safer system. First, they filled cardboard boxes with flyers, then attached the lids of the boxes to the plane with a cable. The boxes would fall from the airplane in one piece until the cable went taut. The lid would then pop off, releasing the leaflets at a safe distance from the plane.

The cardboard-box method continues to be both cheap and effective. In the past few years the United States has used tethered boxes to distribute millions of propaganda flyers from low-flying planes over Iraq and Afghanistan. (In the run-up to the war with Saddam, the U.S. also bombarded Iraqis with e-mails and cell phone calls.) In general, propaganda-droppers use leaflet bombs when they need to fly at a safe, high altitude. If they can fly low, they use the cardboard-box technique.

Military research on leaflet dispersion has focused on how to improve the M129 bomb, which tends to burn up some flyers when it bursts. Psychological warfare units have also experimented with remote-controlled parachutes and pneumatic systems that use pressurized gas to propel leaflets out of a plane.

According to the PsyWar Society—which publishes a quarterly magazine called The Falling Leaf—aerial leaflet propaganda goes back at least as far as 1806, when a British admiral used kites to drop messages on the French. The French used balloons to drop leaflets on the Prussians in 1870, and the practice continued at least until the Second World War. Twentieth-century armies also fired leaflets at each other in howitzer shells, grenades, and rockets.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Herb Friedman of Psychological Operations Veterans Association.

TODAY IN SLATE

War Stories

The Right Target

Why Obama’s airstrikes against ISIS may be more effective than people expect.

The One National Holiday Republicans Hope You Forget

It’s Legal for Obama to Bomb Syria Because He Says It Is

I Stand With Emma Watson on Women’s Rights

Even though I know I’m going to get flak for it.

Should You Recline Your Seat? Two Economists Weigh In.

Doublex

It Is Very, Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

Or, why it is very, very stupid to compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice.

Building a Better Workplace

In Defense of HR

Startups and small businesses shouldn’t skip over a human resources department.

Why Is This Mother in Prison for Helping Her Daughter Get an Abortion?

Use Facebook to Reconnect With Old Friends, Share Photos, and Serve People With Legal Papers

  News & Politics
Foreigners
Sept. 23 2014 6:40 PM Coalition of the Presentable Don’t believe the official version. Meet America’s real allies in the fight against ISIS.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 23 2014 2:08 PM Home Depot’s Former Lead Security Engineer Had a Legacy of Sabotage
  Life
Outward
Sept. 23 2014 1:57 PM Would a Second Sarkozy Presidency End Marriage Equality in France?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 23 2014 2:32 PM Politico Asks: Why Is Gabby Giffords So “Ruthless” on Gun Control?
  Slate Plus
Political Gabfest
Sept. 23 2014 3:04 PM Chicago Gabfest How to get your tickets before anyone else.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 23 2014 4:45 PM Why Is Autumn the Only Season With Two Names?
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 23 2014 5:36 PM This Climate Change Poem Moved World Leaders to Tears Today
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 23 2014 4:33 PM Who Deserves Those 4 Inches of Airplane Seat Space? An investigation into the economics of reclining.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 23 2014 7:27 PM You’re Fired, Roger Goodell If the commissioner gets the ax, the NFL would still need a better justice system. What would that look like?