Modern Asian Studies

Part I: Experiencing China's War with Japan: World War II, 1937–1945

Propaganda and Sovereignty in Wartime China: Morale Operations and Psychological Warfare under the Office of War Information*


a1 Grinnell College, History Department, Mears Cottage 1216, 6th Avenue, Grinnell, Iowa 50112–1670, USA, Email:


During the later years of the War of Resistance to Japan (1937–1945), United States (US) propaganda activities intensified in both Japanese military-occupied and ‘free’ regions of China. One of the most important organizations behind these activities was the Office of War Information (OWI). This paper examines the OWI, and particularly its Overseas Office, as key institutional actors within a broader US total war effort which touched the lives of civilian populations in East Asia as well as combatants, arguing that:

  • • US propaganda institutions and propagandists played demonstrable roles in representing and shaping the experience of war in China;
  • • these institutions, which included Asians and individuals of Asian descent, simultaneously acted to advance US goals in the wartime ‘Far East’;
  • • while cooperation between US and Chinese governments was sporadic in the area of psychological warfare, conflicts over control often undermined or limited operations;
  • • despite these shortcomings, US propaganda institutions (which included both the OWI and offices within the Department of State) had developed comparatively wide-ranging capabilities by the end of the war, and continued operations into the Civil War of 1945–1949.

By 1945 propaganda had become an activity which regularly targeted allied populations as well as enemies. This process was facilitated by the early twentieth-century communications revolution, but was planned and controlled by the new engineers of the post-war order.

(Online publication February 14 2011)


* Research for this paper was primarily conducted in the National Archives at College Park, Maryland, and was first presented at the international workshop on Europe, Italy, and the Sino-Japanese War held at the Università Ca’ Foscari di Venezia in April, 2009. My gratitude to the tireless archivists of Archives II, to Guido Samarani for his kind hospitality in Venice, and to the University of Oxford China's War with Japan Programme (Leverhulme Trust) for research and travel support. Special thanks are due also to Robert Bickers and Steve Smith for key comments during the conference proceedings, to Joseph W. Esherick and Stephen MacKinnon for reading the draft in its entirety and providing invaluable advice, to Lily Chang for editorial oversight, and to Rana Mitter for his invitation to participate in this special issue of Modern Asian Studies. The conference where this paper was presented was organized by the China's War with Japan programme at Oxford University, funded by the Leverhulme Trust ( [accessed 20 December, 2010]).