Hidden history: U.S. Congress exposes Soviet propaganda at Voice of America

BBG Watch Historical Documents & Quotes Series

 
 
BBG Watch begins today publishing historical documents, some of them recently declassified, which relate to U.S. international broadcasting and public diplomacy. We will not be posting them in a chronological order. We will select them for their relevance to the current debate over various proposals to reform the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the agency now in charge of U.S. international media outreach.

1975 | The Keogh Memorandum – Voice of America and U.S. Policy

U.S. taxpayer funded Voice of America (VOA) and its former parent agency, World War II-era U.S. government Office of War Information (OWI), had played a critical role in spreading Soviet propaganda lies about the Katyn massacre of thousands of Polish military officers who were executed by the NKVD secret police in the spring of 1940 on the orders of Joseph Stalin. One of the first Voice of America broadcasts with the Soviet Katyn lie may have been aired on May 3, 1943. May 3rd is Poland’s Constitution Day. The Soviet propaganda line about the Katyn massacre was also introduced a few days earlier in the United States through domestic broadcasts of OWI director Elmer Davis. At about the same time, many members of Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, were warning about the pro-Soviet content and propaganda in Voice of America programs and about communists and Soviet sympathizers being employed by the Office of War Information. Even the U.S. State Department was alarmed by the pro-Kremlin tilt at the Voice of America during World War II.

As these Voice of America broadcasts pushing Stalin’s lie about Katyn were being aired in April 1943, members of Congress were asking pointed questions and proposing reforms, as shown in these Congressional Record entries.

Congressional Record Volume 89 Part III 1943

Congressional Record, April 20, 1943

OFFICE OF WAR INFORMATION POLISH OVERSEAS UNIT

Mr. WOODRUFF of Michigan. Mr. Speaker, I ask unanimous consent to address the House for 1 minute and to revise and extend my remarks.

The SPEAKER. Is there objection?

There was no objection.

Mr. WOODRUFF of Michigan. Mr. Speaker, there is no people for whom the American Nation has a greater sympathy than those of Poland. They have been crushed, pilloried, and persecuted from both sides of their boundaries. And every American on the battle front or on the home front wants to see the day when Poland will again be an independent nation taking its place in a friendly community of nations.

For 3 years the Polish Government in exile has been working to keep morale within Poland alive against the time of liberation. But now reports are constantly reaching me and other Members of Congress that the propaganda activities of the Polish Unit of O. W. I.’s Overseas Division are destroying rather than building the morale of the helpless Polish people.

These reports tell us that much of this propaganda follows the American Communist Party line and is designed to prepare the minds of the Polish people to accept partition, obliteration, or suppression of their nation when the fighting ends. The same is true of Yugoslavia, where, I am told, the name of the great Mihailovitch is blocked out by O. W. I. radicals.

If it is true that Communists have infiltrated into the O. W. I.’s Overseas Division and are following the party line in their propaganda to Poland, as well as other countries, then it is an outrageous violation of the faith that is reposed in Elmer Davis and Robert Sherwood. If this is not true, then the Polish people in America are entitled to have allayed the rumors which may be enemy inspired.

The best way to find this out is to have all of this propaganda made available here in the United States. The enemy knows all about it, so Americans should not be in the dark.

The press and Congress also should know the names and backgrounds of the people who have the delicate task of interpreting American ideals to foreign lands. I am informed that the man in charge of the Polish Overseas Unit of O. W. I. has not lived in Poland for 15 years and has been active tin French Communist circles, coming recently to America.

The SPEAKER. The time of the gentleman has expired.

###

Congressional Record, April 19, 1943

Soviets Hold Poles Captive and Polish Officials Urge Inquiry

EXTENSION OF REMARKS
OF
HON. JOHN LESINSKI
OF MICHIGAN
IN THE HOUSE Of REPRESENTATIVES

Monday, April 19, 1943

Mr. LESINSKI. Mr. Speaker, under leave to extend my remarks in the RECORD, I include the following articles from the Times-Herald, of Washington, D. C, entitled “Soviets Hold Poles Captive, Catholics Told,” and “Probe Red ‘Atrocity’ Urged”:

[From the Washington Times-Heraid of April, 17,1943]

SOVIETS HOLD POLES CAPTIVE CATHOLICS TOLD

The National Catholic Welfare Conference charged yesterday that Russia is holding some 1,500,000 Polish refugees as virtual hostages to coerce the Polish Government into recognizing Soviet claims on territory taken from Poland in the 1939 partition.

The charge was based on a report by the conference’s news service received from Lisbon. Source of the information was not revealed.

It said that 2,000,000 Poles originally were deported from Poland to remote provinces of Russia after Soviet occupation of eastern Poland and that of these an estimated 450,000 have succumbed to hardship and mistreatment and 140,000 have been permitted to leave for the Middle East.

“By a recent Soviet decree,” the report said, “all Poles deported into Russia henceforth are to be considered citizens of Russia, and, simultaneously, the Soviets have resorted to the disruption of Polish relief activities and to the confiscation of relief supplies sent to the unfortunate Polish people in Russia from the United States.”

[From the Washington Times-Herald of April 18, 1943]

PROBE OF RED “ATROCITY” URGED—POLISH OFFICIALS HERE CALL FOR INQUIRY

(By Adele Allerhand)

Official Washington was seriously agitated yesterday by reports emanating from reliable London sources that mass murders of Polish war prisoners are being perpetrated by the Soviets.

Deeply concerned, Polish Government officials here joined with the National Catholic Welfare Conference in demanding that Russia reverse its attitude toward Polish hostages, and redeem its pledge, given in July 1941, that Polish war prisoners and deportees would be released. Addressing the International Red Cross, Polish officials have requested that a duly appointed commission conduct an immediate impartial investigation of the outrages.

Charging the Soviets with an attempt to blackmail the Poles into agreeing to Soviet claims on prewar Polish territory, and with maltreatment of Polish prisoners refusing to adopt Red citizenship, the National Catholic Welfare Conference accused the Reds of holding 2,000,000 Poles as “virtual hostages.”

These Polish refugees, driven into Russia in the fall of 1939, were promised their released 2 years ago. To date, say informed persons, only 145,000 of them have been permitted to leave the country.

Several days ago the German press and radio reported the shocking discovery of the corpses of 10,000 Polish officers, originally imprisoned at Kozielsk, prison camp in the vicinity of Smolensk, and massacred by the Russians in 1940. Repeated Soviet denials led Polish officials to demand proof of the continued existence of the officers in question.

POLES SEEK ANSWER

Declaring themselves eager to be convinced, members of the Polish circle here insist that Russia can give the lie to the Nazi accusations only by producing the prisoners alive. Amplifying their request that the International Red Cross take the matter in hand, prominent Poles have advanced the alternative suggestions that:

1. A neutral Swiss-Swedish-Turkish mission be sent to Germany to ascertain the facts. 2. That the “reds” permit designated American Army officers of high rank to meet the prisoners. 3. That members of the Polish embassy in Kuibyshev be allowed to see them.

The situation had its inception on September 17, 1939, when the Russians, on their invasion of Poland took 190,000 prisoners of war, representing both active and reserve army. Among the reservists were university professors, doctors, lawyers and teachers, noncommissioned officers for the most part. Also included were between 8,000 and 11,000 commissioned officers.

THREE SEPARATE CAMPS

Prisoners were interned in three separate camps, the largest being Kozielsk, to which 4,500 officers were assigned; the second, Starobielsk, near Kharkoff, where 3,800 men were imprisoned; the third, Ostaszkowo, near Kalinin with 380 officers.

Early in 1940 the prisoners were told by Soviet authorities that they might rejoin their families in Poland. Between 60 and 300 men were daily permitted to head west toward Smolensk. From April of that year on the camps were gradually depopulated as small detachments of men were released day by day. In June, a group of 400 men was sent to Griazoviec, somewhere in central Russia.

Following the German attack on Russia in July 1941, simultaneously with the signing of the Polish-Soviet pact, Russia pledged herself to release all Polish captives, both prisoners of war and refugees.

That pledge, say the Poles, has been only partially fulfilled up to the present. As far back as the early fall of 1941, the Polish Government requested the release of the imprisoned commissioned officers for the Polish Army, raised in Russian territory. By the end of August a small aggregation of officers made their appearance from Griazoviec. But the 8,300 officers, 7,000 noncommissioned officers and privates had vanished.

From time to time Polish Ambassador Stanislav Kot and Premier Wladyslaw Sikorski renewed their representations to the Soviet, only to be met with silence or the empty assurances that the request eventually would be granted. A document listing the names of 4,000 officers was presented to the Russians, but none of the officers listed was ever heard from.

STATE DEPARTMENT SILENT

Calling to mind the line taken by British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden during his recent visit here when he was reported to have impressed on American leaders the necessity for abstaining from interference with Russian expansion aims officials of the United States State Department maintain an ominous silence.

Called upon for an opinion regarding the alleged massacres and the mishandling of Polish hostages, the answer is simply “Nothing to say.”

The attitude of Soviet representatives here lends itself easily to interpretation. A Russian spokesman, passed for a reply, confided reluctantly that he “didn’t know much about the story. It’s just another one of those German lies, You’d better talk to somebody else about it.”

###

Congressional Record, April 19, 1943

DISCLOSURE OF GOVERNMENT PROPAGANDA MATERIAL

Mr. TAFT. Mr. President, I am submitting today in the Senate two resolutions requiring the Office of War Information and the Coordinator of Inter American Affairs to file with the Secretary of the Senate all propaganda material which this country is distributing to the people of foreign nations and to its own armed forces.

Under present conditions, propaganda is undoubtedly a valuable weapon in the war, although I think its importance is overemphasized by many. Faced by propaganda directed against us, it is undoubtedly necessary to resort to counter propaganda and to psychological attacks upon the morale of the enemy.

Our Government is, therefore, spending millions of dollars today on short-wave propaganda to foreign countries in every conceivable language and for the distribution of printed matter throughout the world.

It is obvious to me that the people of the United States want to know what is being said on in their behalf. What promises are being made? What statements of national policy are being disseminated throughout the world? Ugly rumors are abroad that much of this short-wave broadcasting is futile and idiotic, and very inferior to that of other nations. It is said that some of it is communistic and some of it is fascistic, and that much of it tries to play European politics, about which we know nothing, instead of presenting the American point of view.

We certainly do not wish to be accused later of double-crossing foreign people because we do not carry out the statements made secretly in our behalf and without our knowledge by irresponsible of Government employees, many of whom are not even Americans.

There can be no claim that this material must be kept secret, for in its very nature it is being broadcast to all the world. It is already in the hands of all enemy governments and United Nations governments. Only in America it seems to be impossible to obtain copies, and the American people are the only people in the world who do not have access to it.

Finally, it is important that there be a complete historical record of all features of this propaganda organization. Unless an official record is required, much of the material is likely to be destroyed. Perhaps some of it is already destroyed.

I am also submitting a resolution to require the filing of O. W. I. material distributed to the armed forces. Conceivably some of this may require secrecy, and I have therefore provided that upon request of the general staffs secrecy will be ordered, but I doubt whether the heads of the armed forces are transmitting any secret orders or instructions to their soldiers and sailors through the 0.W.I.

Samples of O.W.I. propaganda which we have already seen lead me to doubt seriously whether the soldiers are receiving an impartial account of the facts dealt with by the propaganda they receive. Propaganda by any government is basically dangerous. We have seen the effects of its misuse in foreign lands. Surely in the United States of America there is no reason why it should be conducted in secret.

The ACTING PRESIDENT pro tempore. The two resolutions submitted by the Senator from Ohio will be received and appropriately referred.

The resolution (S. Res. 140) was referred to the Committee on the Judiciary, as follows:

Whereas the Government of the United States during the war period has found it necessary to embark upon a campaign of transmitting news, information, and propaganda to the peoples of foreign lands by radio, written literature, and motion pictures; and

Whereas it is highly desirable that the Congress and the people of the United States have full information regarding the matter which is thus being distributed, including particularly the policies declared, and promises made in their behalf; and

Whereas, although this matter is being widely disseminated to enemy nations and
is necessarily fully available to the people of enemy nations and of the United Nations, but is not available to the American people, the Congress of the United States, and the American press and radio: Now, therefore, be it

Resolved, That the Director of the Office of War Information and the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs are hereby directed to file with the Secretary of the Senate of the United States within 2 weeks after the passage of this resolution:

(1) Authoritative transcripts of all material since January 1, 1943 by short
wave or otherwise, to countries other than the United States of America, including the nations of the Western Hemisphere, this ma to be deposited both in the language in which it was broadcast and in direct English translation thereof, together with actual recordings of such broadcasts where such recordings are available;

(2) Copies of all written literature distributed in any manner among the people of such foreign countries since September 1, 1942, this material to be deposited in the form and language in which it was distributed, and in a direct English translation thereof;

(3) Copies or prints of all motion pictures, or other visual material circulated among the people of such foreign countries since September 1, 1942; be it further

Resolved, That after the adoption of this resolution the Director of the Office of War Information and the Coordinator of Inter- American Affairs shall deposit daily with the Secretary of the Senate of the United States the material described in paragraphs (1), (2), and (3) above within 72 hours afte any such material reaches the foreign people to whom it is directed; be it further

Resolved, That the material so deposited shall, upon its deposit with the Secretary of the Senate, be available for inspection, study, and publication by authorized representatives of Members of Congress and by authorized representatives of the press, radio, and magazines of the United States.

The resolution (S. Res. 141) was referred to the Committee on the Judiciary, as follows:

Whereas the Office of War Information is producing sound-recorded material, printed material, motion pictures, and other visual material, and distributing the same to the armed forces of the United States; and

Whereas the men in such armed forces do not have available all the information and material distributed through ordinary press, radio, and motion-picture channels, and particularly when they are overseas their information is largely dependent on the material supplied by the Office of War Information; and

Whereas the citizens of the United States, and particularly the relatives of members of the armed forces, have a direct and vital interest in knowing what material is supplied to the armed forces: Now, therefore, be it

Resolved, That the Director of the Office of War Information is hereby directed to deposit with the Secretary of the Senate all such material, whether sound recorded, printed, written, or filmed, within 1 week after such material is distributed to the armed forces of the United States; and be it further

Resolved, That such material shall upon deposit with the Secretary of the Senate, be available for inspection, study, and publication by by authorized representatives of Congress and authorized representatives of the press, radio, and magazines of the United States; unless in any case it is accompanied by a certificate of the General Staff of the Army or the General Staff of the Navy that such material is a military secret, in which case such material shall be deposited in the Congressional Library and preserved for public use whenever the General Staff giving the certificate shall certify that secrecy is no longer necessary.

###

These congressional interventions to reform U.S. international broadcasting and questioning of Soviet propaganda in Voice of America broadcasts would only intensify later until the Office of War Information was abolished and VOA placed in the State Department in 1945 after the war ended.

Elmer Davis, Director, Office of War Information (OWI). Photo fromLibrary of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.  Alfred T. Palmer, photographer.

Elmer Davis, Director, Office of War Information (OWI). Photo fromLibrary of Congress Prints & Photographs Division. Alfred T. Palmer, photographer.

A recording of the broadcast on Katyn by OWI director Elmer Davis dated April 30, 1943 is now available online.

The same or a similar broadcast by Elmer Davis may have been aired even earlier by the Voice of America, within a few days of the German announcement on April 11, 1943 of the discovery of the Katyn graves. We also know that Elmer Davis’ Katyn radio broadcast on the Voice of America may have been recorded in Europe on May 3, 1943, Poland’s Constitution Day, or about that time.

The text of Elmer Davis’ broadcast was first published in 1952 by the United States House Select Committee to Conduct an Investigation and Study of the Facts, Evidence, and Circumstances on the Katyn Forest Massacre. It was known as the Madden Committee after its chairman, Indiana Democrat, Rep. Ray Madden. The Madden Committee requested Elmer Davis to read part of his broadcast when he testified before it in 1952. Davis claimed that at the time he recorded his Katyn broadcast he was convinced the Germans were responsible for the massacre. There is no doubt, however, that he had information pointing strongly to the Soviet guilt. He had received it from the Polish ambassador in Washington Jan Ciechanowski and could read about it in U.S. newspapers. He was also warned by the State Department of the possibility that the Soviet Union was behind the killings of the Polish officers.

A recording of Elmer Davis’ Katyn broadcast was only recently discovered in the WNYC New York public radio station’s online audio archives.
 
 

 
 

State Department Note on Katyn April 22 1943 BerleWhile OWI and VOA under its own director, Hollywood actor John Houseman, eagerly embraced Soviet propaganda claims about Katyn, some U.S. State Department officials, including Assistant Secretary of State Adolf A. Berle, were against the U.S. government taking a stand on the Katyn massacre in VOA radio broadcasts. They strongly suspected, based on the information reaching them, that the Soviets were in fact responsible for this horrific mass murder. Top U.S. diplomats did not necessarily want evidence pointing to Russia’s role in the execution of Polish officers to be publicized, fearing it might upset America’s wartime alliance with the Soviet Union, but looking into the future they also did not want the U.S. government and the Voice of America to be spreading lies or to be overly enthusiastic in presenting Stalin as a liberal leader, which VOA did.

The State Department’s advice to stay away from the Katyn story was ignored by OWI and VOA. This may explain Assistant Secretary Berle’s decision to deny John Houseman’s request for a U.S. passport which he wanted for official VOA travel abroad in 1943. Houseman resigned from VOA in July of that year. Elmer Davis admitted under questioning by the Madden Committee in 1952 that during World War II he had fired about a dozen communists who had worked for the Office of War Information. Davis said, however, that he did not know Polish desk employee Stefan Arski who later joined the communist regime in Poland where he promoted Moscow’s false claims about Katyn and published virulent anti-American propaganda.

While VOA deceived and disappointed foreign audiences with pro-Soviet propaganda, the Office of War Information even tried to censor accurate U.S. media reporting on the Katyn story in the United States, particularly by the Polish American and other ethnic press. OWI official Alan Cranston, who later became a U.S. senator from California, was heavily involved in that effort. The OWI’s interference with U.S. domestic media and its overseas Voice of America radio broadcasts became highly controversial in Congress and throughout the United States even while the war with Nazi Germany was still continuing.

After the war, when the extent of VOA’s propaganda activities become even more widely known, the Office of War Information was abolished, the Voice of America was put within the State Department in 1945, Soviet sympathizers were fired or left, and recruiting standards for VOA personnel were significantly tightened. The earlier abuses also led to the passage of the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 which attempted to prevent the executive branch from hiring foreign agents and from propagandizing in the United States.

Unfortunately, this early VOA history has been largely hidden. Voice of America officials and former officials promoted a false narrative of VOA always telling the truth and reporting all news, whether good or bad for the United States. This became VOA’s official story for decades to come. Important history lessons were forgotten. The Katyn massacre coverup continued on and off at VOA in one form or another for many years until it ended under President Reagan. There were times when VOA reported objectively on the story, while at other times it reverted to silence for this unprecedented crime of Soviet wartime genocide against military officers and leaders of the Polish intellectual elites. When the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) was created as a parent agency for the Voice of America in 1999, it was and remains organizationally almost the exact copy of the dysfunctional and unaccountable Office of War Information during World War II.
 

ALSO SEE: The Triumph of Propaganda – Voice of America and Katyn, BBG Watch, April 13, 2016

 
 
 

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