BBG Watch Commentary
In mid-April 1943, the Voice of America (VOA), which was then known as the Overseas Branch of the U.S. Office of War Information (OWI), started to spread Soviet propaganda lies about the Katyn Forest massacre of thousands of Polish POW officers. They had been murdered by the Soviet NKVD secret police in April and May 1940 on the orders of Joseph Stalin and the Politburo of the Communist Party. But when Nazi Germany announced the discovery of the Katyn graves on April 13, 1943, the Soviets immediately blamed the massacre on the Germans.
The Voice of America joined the Soviet Union in broadcasting the Katyn lie. The instructions came from President Roosevelt’s speech writer Robert E. Sherwood who was one of the founding fathers of the Voice of America, but most wartime VOA broadcasters were themselves more eager to support the Soviet propaganda line. At lowers levels, the Office of War Information had a significant number of pro-Soviet journalists, some of whom could be described as agents of influence. A few of them went back to Eastern Europe after the war to work for Soviet-dominated communist regimes. Robert Sherwood was at the time in charge of the Overseas Branch of the Office of War Information which had its headquarters in New York. His boss, OWI Director Elmer Davis, who was hired by President Roosevelt because of his popularity as a domestic U.S. radio news broadcaster, also participated in the Katyn coverup. Both Sherwood and Davis would claim after the war that they were absolutely convinced at the time that Katyn was a German atrocity.
Elmer Davis’ commentaries promoting the false Soviet version of Katyn events, written according to propaganda instructions issued by Sherwood, were also rebroadcast by American radio networks and picked up by newspapers in the United States. In a major collusion with the Soviets, the U.S. government was using its considerable and uncontrolled propaganda resources to influence Americans with false news and misleading commentary. Hollywood actor, John Houseman, often referred to as the first director of the Voice of America, was likewise a strong promoter of Soviet propaganda. The conspiracy to keep the truth not only from foreign audiences but also from Americans went even further. Some of the OWI officials, including the future Democratic U.S. Senator from California Alan Cranston, engaged in illegal attempts to intimidate and censor ethnic radio stations and press in the United States to prevent them from broadcasting and publishing the truth about the Soviet Union and the Katyn massacre
Not everyone in the U.S. government was supportive of such VOA propaganda. Many members of Congress were warning against it even during World War II and made partially successful attempts to cut the agency’s budget. Also some of the senior-level State Department officials urged the Voice of America leaders to be cautious in attributing the responsibility for the Katyn murders to Nazi Germany. VOA’s pro-Soviet leadership and pro-Soviet VOA broadcasters completely ignored such advise. A few Office of War Information journalists who expressed doubts about Russia, including German-Jewish refugee Julius Epstein, were silenced by their bosses. The wartime Voice of America was full of propagandists, admirers of the Soviet Union and of Joseph Stalin. Epstein referred to it after the war as “Love for Stalin” among OWI’s Voice of America personnel. It is true that in order to establish credibility, VOA did not try to ignore or cover up bad news about initial U.S. military failures during World War II, but VOA leaders and most journalists were regularly ignoring bad news about America’s Soviet military ally and were quite willing to lie or not to tell the whole truth in order to protect Stalin and Soviet interests. In some cases, they went much beyond than what even the Roosevelt White House wanted them to do.
Only some of it can be explained by the fact that the Soviet Union was at the time America’s major military ally against Nazi Germany. President Roosevelt did not want the Katyn massacre to be blamed on Stalin or Russia. For the rest of the war, under the guidance of Robert Sherwood and Elmer Davis, VOA closely coordinated its propaganda with Soviet propaganda on Katyn and other major news events.
But even after the war, State Department officials in charge of the Voice of America prevented newly-hired anti-communist journalists from reporting on the Katyn massacre. One of the excuses given by VOA officials and the then director of the VOA Polish desk was that disclosing the full truth about Katyn to the radio audience in Poland could spark a bloody and ultimately futile rebellion in the communist-ruled country. If it was a real fear, it was totally unfounded because by the end of the 1940s the anti-communist opposition in Poland was completely crushed by mass arrests, executions and other forms of regime terror. It took vigorous criticism and pressure from members of Congress to finally force the State Department and the Voice of America leadership to start reporting more fully on the Katyn massacre in the early 1950s. At about the same time, semi-private Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty were established with secret funding provided by the CIA. To their credit, they did not hesitate to report truthfully and fully about the Katyn massacre and other Soviet crimes.
Even before limited programming reforms were implemented at the Voice of America in the early 1950s as a result of pressure from Congress and U.S. public opinion, U.S. lawmakers responded to some of the wartime censorship and government propaganda by passing the 1948 Smith-Mundt Act which banned any domestic distribution of VOA programs and by demanding much stricter security checks on VOA employees. These restrictions were relaxed and largely ignored in recent years.
It is therefore no surprise that criticism similar to what concerned Americans were saying in the 1940s and the early 1950s is now again being directed against the Voice of America management and its current parent agency, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), by members of Congress, as well as opponents of autocratic regimes in Iran and China, and by leaders of Iranian and Chinese communities in the United States.
One of the most important things the US gov can do right now on Iran is to fix VOA Persian & make it a more effective organization in line with US interests. The war of ideas & information matters more than ever before. #iranprotests
— Alireza Nader (@AlirezaNader) April 4, 2018
Cold War Radio Museum
September 17, 2017
On April 13, 1943 Radio Berlin (Reichssender Berlin) broadcast official news of the German Nazi government that German military forces in the Katyn forest near Smolensk, in the then German-occupied region of the Soviet Union, had uncovered a ditch that was “28 metres long and 16 metres wide [92 ft by 52 ft], in which the bodies of 3,000 Polish officers were piled up in 12 layers”. The Germans blamed the murders on the Soviets. The Soviet government blamed it on the Germans — in this case a blatantly false Soviet accusation designed to cover up the mass murders which had been committed by the secret Soviet police NKVD on the orders of Stalin and the Politburo in April and May 1940.
The Soviet propaganda version of the Katyn Forest massacre was, however, accepted and promoted by the Roosevelt administration, including the Voice of America (VOA) despite evidence available to President Roosevelt and the Office of War Information (OWI) officials who were in charge of overseas VOA broadcasting and domestic U.S. government propaganda that the Soviets were the likely perpetrators of the mass murders. OWI officials, including its director Elmer Davis, repeated Soviet propaganda on Katyn not only overseas but also in domestic broadcasts in the United States. OWI officials, including future U.S. Senator from California Aland Cranston, tried to intimidate and censor some of the American media outlets, most of them Polish American radio stations and newspapers, which attempted to report truthfully to Americans on the Soviet crime.
During April-May 1940, thousands of Polish prisoners of war in Soviet captivity were moved from their internment camps and taken to three execution sites, one of them being the Katyn Forest. The total number of Polish POWs executed by the Soviets in the spring of 1940 is now estimated to be over 20,000. Those who died at Katyn included an admiral, two generals, 24 colonels, 79 lieutenant colonels, 258 majors, 654 captains, 17 naval captains, 3,420 NCOs, seven chaplains, three landowners, a prince, 43 officials, 85 privates, and 131 refugees. Also among the dead were 20 university professors; 300 physicians; several hundred lawyers, engineers, and teachers; and more than 100 writers and journalists as well as about 200 pilots. 1
September 17, 1939 is the date of the invasion of eastern Poland by the Soviet Union under the secret provisions of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, also know as the Hitler-Stalin Pact, which launched World War II on September 1, 1939. After Hitler betrayed Stalin and Soviet Russia eventually became a major military ally of the United States in the war with Nazi Germany, the Roosevelt administration used the Office of War Information, where radio programs of what would become known later as the Voice of America originated (during the war the VOA name was not yet officially used), to hide the origins of the German-Soviet attack on Poland in September 1939 and to help cover up Stalin’s crimes. Many members of the U.S. Congress, however, both during and immediately after World War II, kept warning about the secret collusion between the Roosevelt administration and the Soviet Union.
Close cooperation between Soviet and American government propagandists and employment of Soviet agents of influence at the wartime Voice of America helped to obscure the betrayal of U.S. allies and democratic values at the February 1945 Yalta Conference between President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. The betrayal was accompanied by U.S. government’s pro-Russian propaganda and censorship of information to prevent Americans and foreign audiences from learning about the true nature of Soviet communism and Stalin’s intentions to subjugate Central and Eastern Europe. While protecting Stalin and Russia from criticism was excused by some during the war as dictated by military necessity, it was harder to excuse continuing coverup of Stalinist crimes in post-war Voice of America broadcasts.
After the war, one of many members of the U.S. Congress who raised alarm about Soviet influence and censorship at the Voice of America was a U.S. Representative from Illinois (1951 to 1959) Timothy P. Sheehan. He was a Republican member of the bipartisan Select Committee of the House of Representatives which investigated the 1940 Soviet mass murder of Polish officers in the Katyn Forest near Smolensk, Russia. In a supplementary statement to the committee’s Final Report, Congressman Sheehan included a segment on “Propaganda Agencies.” The congressional investigation put a stop to most of VOA’s censorship of the Soviet responsibility for Katyn Forest Massacre in which more than 20,000 Polish military officers and government leaders were executed by the NKVD secret police.
Timothy P. Sheehan, R-IL:
“Admittedly, during the Katyn investigation, we but scratched the surface on the part that the Office of War Information and the Voice of America took in following the administration line in suppressing the facts about the Katyn massacre. During the war there may have been a reasonable excuse for not broadcasting facts which were available in our State Department and Army Intelligence about the Katyn massacre and other facts which proved Russia’s failure to live up to her agreements. After the war there certainly was no excuse for not using in our propaganda war the truths which were in the files of our various Government departments.
One of the witnesses from the Department of State, which controls the policy of the Voice of America, stated that they did not broadcast the fact of Katyn behind the iron curtain was because they did not have sufficient facts on it. Yet the preponderance of evidence presented to our committee about the cover-up came from the files of the State Department itself.
The Voice of America, in its limited broadcasts about the Katyn massacre, followed a wishy-washy, spineless policy. From other information revealed about the policies followed by the Voice of America, a committee of the Congress ought to make a thorough investigation and see to it that the Voice pursues a firm and workable propaganda program and does not serve to cover up the mistakes of the State Department or the incumbent administration.” 2
In a segment on “Misjudgment of Russia,” Congressman Sheehan also mentioned the role of the Voice of America in misleading not only foreign but also American public opinion. During World War II, many of the Office of War Information news and broadcasts were widely distributed to media in the United States. The U.S. Congress put a stop to domestic distribution of VOA programs by passing the 1948 Smith-Mundt Act. The Final Report of the so-called Madden Committee, named after U.S. Representative Ray J. Madden, D-IN, was issued on December 22, 1952.
Timothy P. Sheehan, R-IL:
“Roosevelt’s misjudgment that Russia would honor her agreements, in spite of the factual record of her past broken promises, has proven to be the major error in our entire foreign policy. In setting this policy, our Government, through the State Department, the Army Intelligence (G-2), the Office of War Information, and the Voice of America, followed the policy line so that the American people were misled. During the war the American public was led to believe that Russia was a loyal and trustworthy ally and after the war and until very recently, the executive department covered up the fact that they were so grossly mistaken about Russia.
To me, the reason why our Government suppressed the truth about the Katyn massacre was because this was but a small part of the giant error made in our foreign policy program. If our Government would have disclosed the truth about Katyn and the sellout of Poland, it would have had to disclose more truths about the perfidy of Russia. The American people would have then spoken in no uncertain terms and the Democrat administration did not want that to happen for very obvious reasons.” 3
Union Calendar No. 792
82d Congress, 2d Session- – – – – – – – – – – House Report No.2505
THE KATYN FOREST MASSACRE
READ MORE: U.S. Congressman on Katyn Massacre Coverup at Voice of America, Cold War Radio Museum, September 17, 2017, updated April 13, 2018
- Nataliya Lebedeva, “The Tragedy of Katyn,” International Affairs (Moscow), June 1990 and “The Katyn Controversy: Stalin’s Killing Field”. Studies in Intelligence. CIA (Winter). https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-publications/csi-studies/studies/winter99-00/art6.html. Retrieved 13 April 2018. ↩
- The Katyn Forest Massacre: Final Report of the Select Committee to Conduct an Investigation and Study of the Facts, Evidence, and Circumstances on the Katyn Massacre (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1952), p. 15. ↩
- The Katyn Forest Massacre: Final Report of the Select Committee to Conduct an Investigation and Study of the Facts, Evidence, and Circumstances on the Katyn Massacre (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1952), pp. 14-15. ↩