Airborne leaflets have been used for military propaganda purposes at least since the 19th century. One early example is from the Franco-Prussian War when in October 1870 during the Siege of Paris a French balloon coming from the city dropped government proclamations over Prussian troops that stated the following (in German):
"Paris defies the enemy. The whole of France rallies. Death to the invaders. Foolish people, shall we always throttle one another for the pleasure and proudness of Kings? Glory and conquest are crimes; defeat brings hate and desire for vengeance. Only one war is just and holy; that of independence.
Leaflet propaganda has been delivered by airplanes since the Italo-Turkish war 1911-12. Even though leaflet propaganda has been an effective “weapon”, its use has been on a decline. This decline is a result of the advance of satellite, television, and radio technology. Six billion leaflets were dropped in Western Europe alone during World War II. One billion were used during the Korean War while only thirty one million have been used in the war against Iraq. Other conflicts where leaflet propaganda has been used are Vietnam, Afghanistan (both during the Soviet and more recent NATO invasions), and the Gulf War. Leaflets encouraging Iraqi troops not to fight were dropped during the first Gulf War which contributed to eighty thousand Iraqi troops surrendering in 1991.
The first ideas to construct special bombs with which to disperse airborne leaflets was put forward by French and British air force officers during World War II but it was not implemented until 1943 by the American military in the form of the 'Monroe bomb' named after its inventor the USA Air Force Captain James Monroe of the 305th BG. It was developed from laminated paper containers that had been used to transport M-17 incendiary bombs
Later during the Korean war a modified version of the leaflet bomb - the 'feather bomb' - was developed by the American military to be used to disseminate biological warfare agents. It was also controversially claimed by the Chinese government - and supported by a United Nations commission led by the British biochemist and historian of science Joseph Needham - that US had actually used biological weapons during the Korean War. This claim has recently been the subject of a book by two historians . In 1998 evidence was found in Russian archives that has been used to make the claim this was fabricated by the Chinese and Soviet governments. The relevance of these documents to this question has been disputed.
Historian of terrorism David Rapoport have developed one of the most well used models of modern terrorism dividing it in four waves. The leaflet bombs has been used by terrorist groups mainly belonging to the second 'anti-colonial' and third 'new left' waves of rebel terrorism.
In the late 1960s the African National Congress (ANC) started to use a version of the leaflet bomb in South Africa. This bomb was developed in collaboration with the South African Communist Party (SACP) and South Africans living in exile in London. The first time this leaflet bomb, known to South African activists as the 'bucket bomb' and to the South African police forces as the 'ideological bomb', was used was in 1967. This was one of the most important propaganda weapons of the ANC as can be seen by the resources devoted to it and its frequent use during the 1960s and 1970s spreading tens of thousands of leaflets. ANC hailed it publicly as a central technology in their efforts as shown by this quote from ANC:s journal Sechaba in 1970 looking back at the uses of leaflets as propaganda in the 1960s:
"It was in this new period that underground propaganda, demonstrating the effectiveness of the ANC machinery and projecting its voice, became of incalculable value. Underground leaflets began to appear in the townships, factories and city streets. Passed on from hand to hand, these reminded the people that the spirit of resistance must never die. These were often complemented by slogans painted on walls proclaiming: "Free Mandela," "Free Sisulu" and "Long Live the ANC." as modest as these propaganda efforts were [...] they showed that the ANC could survive the most severe measures of the regime. [Emphasis added]
Furthermore, the South African press and security forces also saw it as a very important weapon of the ANC as can be evidenced by the threats from the police to take action against the South African press for publishing parts of ANC:s leaflets. The South African Minister of Police even acknowledged publicly that the importance of ANC:s leaflet bombs when he was quoted in a South African newspaper stating that "the explosions are an indication that subversive elements are still active" inside South Africa and warned the "public" that they "must not think the dangers are a thing of the past. It is something with which we will just have to live. As this statement makes clear the South African police saw this as a weapon causing and indicating a terror among the public. In that sense the leaflet bombs and its words were weapons of terrorism as its effects were seen as creating a widespread fear.
In the 1980s the FMLN in El Salvador used this technology under the name of 'propaganda bomb'. It was one of the "favorite tactics" of its urban militia groups and preferable used in public places like markets or public parks. The design of the bomb was adapted to the local environment in that it
"consisted of a cardboard box with a small, low-power explosive underneath a large number of propaganda leaflets. The explosive was set off by a homemade time igniter. The box was disguised to look like any ordinary package or box that might be carried by someone going or returning from a trip to the marketplace.
The use of leaflet bombs played a part in the FMLN:s recruitment process known to them as fogueo - which meant to experience fire or fire-harden something - which was the process by which the recruits "were toughened and the weak and fainthearted were weeded out". The fogueo process was
"a very carefully designed program of increasingly risky operations in support of the guerilla movement. As the candidates successfully completed each operation, it gave them confidence to carry out the next danger level of operation until they became full-fledged guerilla combatants.
This process began with low-level information-gathering and propagandan activities in support of FMLN where the culminating activity before being ready for "combat military activity" could be the making and exploding of a leaflet bomb.
The Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity URNG in Guatemala also used leaflet bombs. In 1996 the group occupied a radio station and set off a leaflet bomb.
In Ecuador several terrorist group have used leaflet bombs. The Revolutionary Armed Corps (CAR) was according to the Ecuadorian police "an extreme leftist group" which is only known for one attempted attack on February 20, 2001 when a leaflet bomb containing 150 pamphlets was discovered and successfully defused by the police. The communist Group of Popular Combatants (GCP) has on several occasions during 2001-2005 used leaflet bombs. In 2001 it was blamed by authorities for a pamphlet bomb and later the same year the group claimed responsibility for detonating a pamphlet bomb in downtown Quito that let out hundreds of pamphlets protesting against Plan Colombia. In 2002 The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Ecuador set off a leaflet bomb in a McDonald’s restaurant in Guayaquil that injured three people and caused severe damage to the property.