By Ted Lipien
Voice of America (VOA) director Amanda Bennett left out some critical information when she wrote in a co-authored Washington Post op-ed posted online May 12, 2018:
BENNETT & LEE: “It was only after World War II ended that we learned how Europeans under Nazi occupation eagerly tuned in to VOA broadcasts; only after the Berlin Wall came down did we realize the role outside news and information had played in that event.”
READ MORE: Let’s give North Koreans the outside information they crave. OPINION. By Amanda Bennett and Dong Hyuk Lee. The Washington Post, May 12, 2018.
Throughout the Cold War it was more than obvious to all Voice of America broadcasters who were refugees from communism in East Central Europe and to those who like me had lived under communism before emigrating what tremendously important role Voice of America news and information programs had behind the Iron Curtain well before the Berlin Wall fell. There would have been no positive impact, however, if VOA broadcasts continued past the first years of the Cold War in their old ideological and propaganda mold of the World War II period and the people who had been responsible for those early VOA programs had not quit, with some going to work for communist regimes, or were not eased out after the war and replaced by a new group of anti-communist editors and broadcasters from Eastern Europe.
That is my one observation based on personal knowledge and research. The main problem, as I see it, is an unfortunate and dangerous unfamiliarity with Voice of America’s World War II history of pro-Soviet, pro-communist propaganda, and insubordination of early VOA officials and broadcasters even toward the already very pro-Soviet Roosevelt Administration. Understanding of this little known and intentionally hidden history is important because the same problems have appeared now at VOA in a slightly different historical and technological context.
Knowing the history of a public institution such as the Voice of America holds the key to avoiding serious policy misjudgments and programming errors. Any manager in charge of VOA and the rest of U.S. international media outreach funded by American taxpayers would be well served by studying how the early VOA leaders and broadcasters hijacked the organization and turned it into a pro-Soviet propaganda outlet which for a number of years advanced the interests of a foreign power and supported a foreign ideology. Today’s VOA managers and journalists, as well as members of Congress and Trump administration officials, would benefit from knowing that VOA was eventually viewed during World War II by top U.S. diplomats and military authorities as subversively pro-Soviet even though some of the same officials were strongly in favor of keeping the Soviet Union as a military ally against Hitler and against Japan.
Critics of wartime VOA broadcasts included future U.S. President General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles and Assistant Secretary of State Adolf Berle. They also included anti-Nazi but non-communist democratic governments in exile of such nations such as Poland, Yugoslavia and Greece who like Soviet Russia were also U.S. allies but were fully occupied by Germany. Among VOA’s critics were members of the U.S. Congress of both parties and leaders of major U.S. ethnic communities and their organizations. Many of them were Democrats, some were liberal Democrats and Roosevelt loyalists. Sumner Welles and Adolf Berle, who were deeply concerned about VOA’s pro-Moscow line, were FDR’s personal friends and advisors. This was no McCarthy-like witch hunt which started a decade later when nearly all communist sympathizers were long gone from VOA.
READ MORE: First VOA Director was a pro-Soviet Communist sympathizer, State Dept. warned FDR White House. Analysis by Ted Lipien. Cold War Radio Museum, May 13, 2018.
READ MORE: April 20, 1943 — Congressman Woodruff warns of Soviet propaganda in Voice of America broadcasts, Cold War Radio Museum, April 19, 2018.
READ MORE: How a refugee journalist exposed Voice of America censorship of the Katyn Massacre, Cold War Radio Museum, April 16, 2018.
READ MORE: Senator Taft’s early warning of Soviet propaganda in WWII Voice of America, Cold War Radio Museum, April 2, 2018.
During World War II, non-communist radio listeners in countries like Poland and Yugoslavia were simply horrified by some of VOA’s pro-Kremlin broadcasts which were prepared by communist sympathizers working on the Polish desk and the Yugoslav desk and in other language services as well. The State Department secret memorandum signed by Sumner Welles accused VOA director John Houseman of hiring communists. A few of these early VOA broadcasters promptly left the U.S. after the war and became anti-American propagandists or diplomats for Soviet-dominated regimes in Poland and in Czechoslovakia. They represented a minority among their countrymen but were a dominant presence at VOA during the war.
Czeslaw Straszewicz, an anti-communist Polish refugee journalist who had worked in London during the war for the British-supported Polish shortwave radio station Świt which used news sent directly by radio to Britain by the anti-Nazi underground army in Poland, assessed VOA Polish broadcasts heard by him in 1944 as pro-Soviet and useless. According to Straszewicz, VOA wartime programs to Poland were pure pro-Soviet propaganda mixed with naive and ineffective anti-Nazi messages. He described his wartime impressions in an article written several years after the war for a Paris-based Polish intellectual journal Kultura.
STRASZEWICZ: With genuine horror we listened to what the Polish language programs of the Voice of America (or whatever name they had then), in which in line with what [the Soviet news agency] TASS was communicating, the Warsaw Uprising was being completely ignored.
I remember as if it were today when the [Warsaw] Old Town fell [to the Nazis during the 1944 Warsaw Uprising] and our spirits sank, the Voice of America was broadcasting to the allied nations describing for listeners in Poland in a happy tone how a woman named Magda from the village Ptysie made a fool of a Gestapo man named Mueller.” 1
Stalin did not want the world to know about the anti-Nazi 1944 Warsaw Uprising organized by the anti-communist underground Polish state and VOA broadcasters obliged him.
The root of the problem during World War II was the now well-hidden and forgotten history of the Voice of America being then firmly in the hands of pro-Soviet communist sympathizers, including its first director, later famous Hollywood actor John Houseman. Things got to be so bad that in April 1943 the State Department refused to issue a U.S. passport for Houseman’s proposed official government travel abroad and secretly described him to the FDR White House in a memorandum signed by Under Secretary Welles as too pro-Soviet to be trustworthy in a sensitive government position. The U.S. Army Intelligence agreed with this assessment and concluded that Houseman should not be allowed out of the country for the duration of the war. That’s how dangerous the U.S. military authorities saw these early pro-Soviet and pro-communist VOA leaders and broadcasters.
John Houseman soon resigned under pressure after rogue VOA broadcasts to Italy, France and then French North Africa put the lives of American soldiers at risk, but other VOA officials who kept their jobs took their clues from Moscow and helped the Soviet Union spread the greatest fake news propaganda lie of the 20th century on the Katyn Forest massacre of thousands of Polish officers who were prisoners of war in Soviet hands. VOA tried to exonerate Stalin, cover up his crimes and encourage local populations to embrace the new communist authorities as parts of Poland were being liberated from the Nazis by the Red Army.
READ MORE: OWI head Elmer Davis spreads Soviet Katyn propaganda lie in Voice of America broadcasts. Cold War Radio Museum, May 11, 2018
The most pertinent observation about the early Voice of America was made by General Dwight D. Eisenhower who was so enraged by VOA’s pro-Soviet wartime broadcasts that he wrote about it in his book published after he left the White House. He also mentioned that VOA tried to sabotage U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East during his presidency by seeking to generate a negative reaction from a U.S. senator instead of simply reporting the news.
EISENHOWER: “During World War II the Office of War Information [where Voice of America operated] had, on two occasions in foreign broadcasts, opposed actions of President Roosevelt; it ridiculed the temporary arrangement with Admiral Darlan in North Africa and that with Marshal Badoglio in Italy. President Roosevelt took prompt action to stop such insubordination.” 2
General Eisenhower issued earlier a similar warning against the military-industrial complex on the right of the political spectrum. His 1965 warning was against foreign and extreme Left-wing influence within parts of the U.S. government, particularly the Voice of America.
I know that the Voice of America can do great things for freedom (I had worked there from 1973 to 2006), but it can also do a lot of damage or it can fail to do what the VOA Charter calls for it to do on behalf of all Americans.
VOA’s pro-Soviet propaganda did not help to shorten the war with Nazi Germany which fought to the bitter end. If anything, VOA may have helped to lengthen the war because the Germans were afraid of the Russians more than anything else and would likely find the pro-Soviet tone of VOA broadcasts as both in variance with reality and threatening. This requires more historical research to confirm, but VOA’s wartime overseas broadcasts and OWI’s domestic propaganda, much of which overlapped, definitely helped Stalin to solidify communist rule over East-Central Europe by dividing and undermining opposition to Soviet Russia in the United States and abroad although the Soviet dictator did not really need VOA’s help to establish Russian domination over Eastern Europe. He had gotten a green light already from President Roosevelt and reluctant Winston Churchill. Most importantly, he had the Red Army on the ground as the new occupation force.
Many critics say that today’s Voice of America is actually helping the repressive Iranian regime stay in power by promoting the so-called regime “liberals” who, come to think of it, are very much like the Polish communists of the World War II and post war period, except that the latter were anti-clerical. VOA initially promoted and presented Stalin and pro-Moscow communists as democrats to the still living victims of the Soviet regime’s crimes. These early VOA listeners included mothers, wives and children of the prisoners who had been murdered in Katyn and at other locations in the Soviet Union or relatives of those who had died in the gulags.
Chinese dissidents today voice similar criticism, accusing VOA’s senior management — but significantly not frontline VOA China Branch journalists, some of whom have been suspended by the management — of caving in to pressure from the communist government in Beijing.
Whether the Voice of America does work for freedom or against freedom depends on who is in charge, who provides leadership and direction and how programs are prepared, monitored and evaluated.
I had worked at VOA as a reporter and manager with a great team of anti-communist journalists and saw us win the Cold War. One of our greatest frustrations during that entire period, except for the 1980s, were some members of the VOA management who were ideologically closer to the early pro-Soviet VOA team than to the mainstream of American political thought at that time. These VOA managers who are now long gone from VOA were horrified by Ronald Reagan and his “Evil Empire” style remarks. Most East European and other anti-communist VOA broadcasters were on the other hand delighted by the change of policy toward Soviet Russia initiated by President Reagan, as were their audiences with the exception of the hardline communists and strongly Left-wing radio listeners. Ronald Reagan proved that the old VOA management team which had resisted him was on the wrong side of history. Fortunately, very early in his administration some of these VOA managers were moved to less responsible positions. VOA foreign language broadcasters were given much greater freedom to expose communist regimes for what they really were. It is my impression that some of today’s VOA foreign language broadcasters — although certainly not all or even the majority — have different perspectives and less historical knowledge than the Cold War generation.
Today some parts of the Voice of America are again looking to “reformers” among oppressive regimes, even in North Korea, and are thus denying hope to the oppressed populations.
I found many VOA news videos that illustrate this point. One such video composed largely of North Korean regime propaganda was produced by the VOA Korean Service in 2011 before director Amanda Bennett came on board in 2016, pointing to the fact that this is a longstanding problem under the management of the Broadcasting Board of Governors which is currently headed (since 2015) by John F. Lansing.
Several questionable VOA video reports about Iran were produced under the watch of the current agency leadership shortly after the Iranians started their latest wave of anti-regime protests last December. These are straight news reports but they are narrow and heavily focused on the regime’s narrative and thus inappropriate for audiences in Iran or in any country ruled by an oppressive regime. Some liberal Iranians, as opposed to the “reformist” Mullahs, call the current state of VOA broadcasts to Iran “deplorable.”
The third category of videos produced by VOA in 2016, 2017 and into 2018 shows how dangerously partisan the publicly-funded outlet has become under its current management.
Perhaps the only positive thing one could say about the early pro-Soviet VOA leadership and broadcasters is that they did not produce highly partisan programs attacking presidential candidates of the opposing party. They must have concluded there was no need for it because these American politicians did not represent a real challenge to FDR during wartime and there were no viable communist or extreme Left-wing candidates. U.S. domestic partisanship on the part of the agency would put it in danger of being defunded by Congress. But some of these early VOA leaders and broadcasters quickly turned against President Roosevelt when they decided that he was not sufficiently supportive of the Soviet Union and communist movements abroad. President Eisenhower’s warning about insubordination within VOA during World War II was about these fellow travelers who were pushing the Soviet agenda at the expense of American interests and security. General Eisenhower had a simple advice for VOA: “The Voice of America should … employ truth as a weapon in support of Free World.”
Disclosure: Ted Lipien was VOA acting associate director in charge of central news programs before his retirement in 2006. In the 1970s, he worked as a broadcaster in the VOA Polish Service and was a reporter and service chief in the 1980s during Solidarity’s struggle for democracy in Poland. He is one of the co-founders and supporters of BBG Watch whose volunteers monitor management and performance of taxpayer-funded Voice of America and other U.S. government-run media operations within the Broadcasting Board of Governors.