BBG Watch Commentary
Voice of America (VOA) journalists who have learned about the history of their organization from such popular books as Alan L. Heil, Jr.’s Voice of America: A History (Columbia University Press, 2003) may be shocked to learn that Hollywood actor John Houseman, the person often presented as the first Voice of America director, was suspected by the State Department and the Army Intelligence in 1943 of being a communist sympathizer who hired communists to fill Voice of America positions. The State Department and U.S. military authorities secretly declared him as untrustworthy to be given a U.S. passport for official government travel abroad. VOA journalists may also be astounded to learn that John Houseman was initially hired by William J. Donovan, the head of what was then the U.S. intelligence agency which later split from its overt propaganda arm. Propaganda and psychological warfare operations remained under the direction of FDR’s speech writer and Houseman’s patron, Robert E. Sherwood, who was also strongly pro-Soviet. Also shocking to many VOA journalists who may have read descriptions of Houseman as a defender and symbol of accurate and objective journalism may be his own statements referring to VOA as a propaganda and psychological operations outlet.
Very few people may know that when Houseman was hired during World War II to be the head of what later became the Voice of America, his legal name was not John Houseman but Jacques Haussmann. He was not yet a U.S. citizen and had lived and worked in the United States for a few years as an illegal immigrant. A declassified formerly secret State Department memorandum, recently rediscovered and reported for the first time on the Cold War Radio Museum website, shows that Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles, a major foreign policy advisor to FDR and the president’s personal friend, informed the White House in early April 1943 that the State Department and the U.S. military authorities will not permit Houseman to travel abroad on official government business for the duration of the war. The White House did not try to reverse the decision.
What got Houseman in trouble with the liberal Roosevelt administration was his hiring of communist and Soviet sympathizers to work on the preparation of the Voice of America broadcasts. Houseman resigned a few weeks after the secret memorandum reached the White House.
Pro-Soviet propaganda, including spreading of some of the most blatant Russian disinformation lies, as well as censoring anyone who tried to criticize Stalin or the Soviet Union, continued in the Voice of America broadcasts through the end of the war. Some of the pro-Soviet propaganda and censorship initiated by Houseman continued on a more limited scale even a few years after the war thanks in part to some of the staffers he had hired.
May 4, 2018
The Cold War Radio Museum has presented for the first time to a wider online audience a secret 1943 memorandum sent to the Roosevelt White House by the U.S. State Department which raised suspicions about John Houseman, considered to be the first director of the Voice of America (VOA) 1 as being a communist sympathizer and too pro-Soviet to be trusted in a high-level sensitive government position in charge of U.S. radio broadcasts overseas. The memorandum informed the White House that the State Department refused him permission to travel abroad as a U.S. government representative. At the height of World War II, U.S. diplomatic service and military authorities secretly declared Houseman to be untrustworthy because of his pro-Soviet and communist sympathies even though the Soviet Union was at the time regarded by President Roosevelt as America’s indispensable military ally against Nazi Germany and hopefully later in the war also against Japan. There were no direct accusations in the memo or details of any ongoing subversive activities. The most serious charge was that Houseman was hiring communists to fill Voice of America positions. The charge was true. Whether he did it on instructions from the Communist Party or whether he had received and followed such instructions while working for the Voice of America is not mentioned in the memorandum and has not been documented, but that is how actual Soviet agents would have routinely used their influence with individuals such as Houseman even if the target of their activity were not Communist Party members subject to party discipline but participated in or were sympathetic to the Kremlin-controlled communist “front” organizations. Within a few weeks, John Houseman resigned from his position as the head of the Radio Program Bureau in the Overseas Branch of the Office of War Information (OWI), the current day Voice of America. 2
The memorandum about Soviet and communist influence within the wartime Voice of America, signed off with a cover memo by Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles, a distinguished career diplomat and a major foreign policy advisor to President Roosevelt and his personal friend, was forwarded to the White House with the date, April 6, 1943. The attached memorandum with the addendum listing names of individuals who had been denied U.S. passports for government travel abroad was dated April 5, 1943. The documents were declassified in the mid-1970s and have been accessible online for some time from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum Website 3 and the National Archives 4. It appears, however, that they have never been widely disclosed and analyzed before now. They are presented for the first time with a historical analysis on the Cold War Radio Museum website.
READ MORE: First VOA Director was a pro-Soviet Communist sympathizer, State Dept. warned FDR White House, Cold War Radio Museum, May 4, 2018
- See: Alan L. Heil, Jr., Voice of America: A History (New York: Columbia University Press: 2003). “Hollywood and Broadway producer, author and director John Houseman, another VOA pioneer and its first director…” (36). ↩
- New York Times, “Radio Row: One Thing and Another,” September 12, 1943, Page 7. ↩
- Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles April 6, 1943 memorandum to Marvin H. McIntyre, Secretary to the President with enclosures, Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum Website, Box 77, State – Welles, Sumner, 1943-1944; version date 2013 ↩
- State – Welles, Sumner, 1943-1944, From Collection: FDR-FDRPSF Departmental Correspondence, Series: Departmental Correspondence, 1933 – 1945 Collection: President’s Secretary’s File (Franklin D. Roosevelt Administration), 1933 – 1945, National Archives Identifier: 16619284. ↩