BBG Watch Commentary
As part of our HISTORY series, we repost today an article from the Cold War Radio Museum website about congressional criticism of the Voice of America for not serving the information needs of listeners behind the iron curtain and failing to counter Soviet propaganda in the early 1950s. When we look at social media comments about VOA today from Facebook and Twitter users in Iran, China, and Russia, or from Iranians, Chinese, and Russians living in diaspora, they are eerily similar to the complaints from VOA radio listeners in Poland, which Rep. Richard B. Wigglesworth (R-MA) read to the House of Representatives on July 24, 1951.
Voice of America 1951 – ‘Drab’ and ‘Unconvincing,’ Rep. Wigglesworth Quotes VOA Listeners in Poland
In 1951, the Voice of America (VOA), which was at that time located primarily in New York but managed from Washington by the State Department, was under heavily criticism, particularly from Republicans in the U.S. Congress, for failing to counter Soviet propaganda. There was a spirited debate as to whether VOA should continue to offer primarily non-political programs about America, or whether it should join recently established Radio Free Europe with more hard-hitting American opinions about communism, the Soviet Union, and communist China.
With President Truman, a Democrat in the White House in 1951, Democrats tended to be more supportive of VOA and Republicans tended to to more critical, but the bipartisan consensus in Congress was that the management of the Voice of America needed reforms and that VOA programming must become more relevant to people living without freedom behind the iron and bamboo curtains.
Congressional criticism eventually led to some programming changes at VOA later in the 1950s. However, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberation (renamed later Radio Liberty) started to provide most of the program content about life under communism and Western opposition to communism. They were operated at the time under the direction the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) although the connection to the CIA and the U.S Government was kept secret for the time being.
These two stations, based in Munich, West Germany, were staffed with many outstanding anti-communist refugee journalists who were granted significant editorial independence. With RFE and RL programs supplemented with improved VOA broadcasts, U.S. funded outreach to people living in communist ruled countries became stronger and more effective during later years of the Cold War and after four decades of broadcasting helped to bring about the fall of communism in East-Central Europe and in the Soviet Union.
Congressman Richard B. Wigglesworth (R-MA), July 24, 1951
Photo of WIGGLESWORTH, Richard Bowditch, (1891 – 1960). Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives.
A devastating but largely accurate criticism of Voice of America programs to Poland was presented to the House of Representatives on July 24, 1951 by Congressman Richard B. Wigglesworth (R-MA). He read to the House highly critical comments on Voice of America broadcasts to Poland which, he said, had been “collected from letters and other messages by Polish writers and newspapermen” and brought to the United States by recent refugees. He did not disclose how he came into possession of these letters. Some of the journalists in the VOA Polish Service, including Zofia Korbońska, opposed restrictions on reporting about communism imposed on them by the service’s management taking orders from higher-level VOA and State Department officials in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Congressman Wigglesworth was a Harvard-educated lawyer who served as captain in Europe during World War I, worked in Europe after the war, and after his longtime service in the U.S. House of Representatives was U.S. Ambassador to Canada at the end of his public career.
The following biography of Congressman Wigglesworth appears in the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress:
WIGGLESWORTH, Richard Bowditch, a Representative from Massachusetts; born in Boston, Mass., April 25, 1891; was graduated from Milton Academy, Milton, Mass., in 1908, from Harvard University in 1912, and from the law department of the same university in 1916; assistant private secretary to the Governor General of the Philippine Islands in 1913; admitted to the bar in 1916 and commenced practice in Boston, Mass.; during the First World War served overseas as captain, Battery E, and as commanding officer, First Battalion, Three Hundred and Third Field Artillery, Seventy-sixth Division, 1917-1919; legal adviser to the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in charge of foreign loans and railway payments, and secretary of the World War Debt Commission 1922-1924; assistant to the agent general for reparation payments, Berlin, Germany, 1924-1927; general counsel and Paris representative for organizations created under the Dawes plan in 1927 and 1928; elected as a Republican to the Seventieth Congress to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Louis A. Frothingham; reelected to the Seventy-first and to the fourteen succeeding Congresses and served from November 6, 1928, until his resignation November 13, 1958; was not a candidate for renomination in 1958; United States Ambassador to Canada from January 28, 1959, until his death in Boston, Mass., October 22, 1960; interment in Arlington National Cemetery.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
PROCEEDINGS AND DEBATES OF THE 82d CONGRESS
VOLUME 97–PART 7
JULY 23, 1951, TO AUGUST 13, 1951
(PAGES 8623 TO 9914)
UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT PRINTING OFFICE, WASHINGTON, 1951
JULY 24, 1951
Mr. WIGGLESWORTH. Mr. Chairman, a most important responsibility of the Voice of America is to bring hope and encouragement to the enslaved peoples behind the iron curtain. The Voice is apparently failing to meet that responsibility. I want to read to the House a number of comments on Voice of America broadcasts to Poland. These comments have been collected from letters and other messages by Polish writers and newspapermen.
The material has been brought out of that unhappy country, in large measure, by recent refugees. Among other things, the comments indicate that the Voice of America is still intent on protecting and defending the State Department for the Yalta, Potsdam, and other betrayals of freedom we have suffered. Because the Voice is concentrating on covering up past blunders by the United States Government, the Voice appears, in the words of one of these informants, “afraid or incapable even of strongly challenging the constant flow of anti-American Soviet propaganda.” Let me read some of these comments from Poles now or recently living in Poland. The comments are theirs, not mine:
Voice of America broadcasts are mostly uninteresting, not sufﬁciently topical, too full of detailed news and comments about American internal affairs and events incomprehensible to Poles who cannot follow daily developments in the United States of America.
News and comments on international affairs are usually presented from a wrong angle and often in a way which is irritating and even offensive to the Poles. The Voice of America broadcasters do not appear to understand Polish mentality and susceptibilities. For instance: tone and gist of such broadcasts is so increasingly favorable to Germany and the Germans that they create the impression that the United States Government intentionally wishes to provoke the Poles, who have suﬁered more than any other nation from German aggression, devastation, extermination, brutality, and racialism, by exaggerated praise of German achievements and qualities.
On the other hand, news about Germany which would greatly interest the Poles–such as the possibilities and progress of rearmament in the three western zones of occupation in Germany against Communist aggression–are never mentioned.
Too favorable comments and almost loving tone are broadcast on Tito’s Yugoslavia and lavish praise about Tito’s regime and its achievements. This exaggerated praise for a purely Communist government, imposed upon the people of Yugoslavia by a ruthless dictatorship, coming from the allegedly democratic United States of America, arouses logical doubts in Poland concerning American foreign policy. The Poles wonder if the United States Government is aware of what is really going on in Yugoslavia, or if the United States Government is becoming ideologically pro-Communist.
Voice of America comments on Polish internal affairs and the Communist activities of the present regime are most superﬁcial, belated and show ignorance of actual government trends in the Soviet-imposed task of sovietization. The broadcasts entirely ignore and never counter the constant bitter attacks against the U.S. in books, in official Communist papers, leaﬂets, broadcasts, and press and other means of anti-American propaganda shrewdly and incessantly being spread in Poland under Moscow’s orders. Poles are coming to believe that the United States Government is still afraid of offending the Soviets and their imposed Polish Communist puppet government or that it lacks arguments to refute Communist accusations.
Probably the weakest part of Voice of America broadcasts is its so-called humorous auditions, playlets, and witticisms. Their satire is of poor quality, low and childish. Their tone is such that it gives the Poles the impression that Americans regard them as half-wits and morons.
I have certainly seen evidence to substantiate that one, Mr. Chairman.
Broadcasts about the activities of Americans of Polish descent (the so-called American Polonia) do not interest the Poles in Poland sufficiently to warrant accounts of events and ceremonies. On the other hand, they complain about the total absence of news about the fate and activities of the refugee Poles, of the Polish refugee press, of the Polish people now spread all over the world as refugees. The Voice of America never mentions Polish professors or books written by Poles abroad. It has never given any news about the fate or whereabouts of Polish soldiers of General Anders and other formations of the Polish Allied Army which fought so-gallantly shoulder to shoulder with the Western Powers in World War II. The fate and whereabouts of these people and their families naturally greatly interests the Poles in Poland.
When one considers that special legislation has been passed by the United States Congress to enable additional immigration to the United States of Polish displaced persons and of 18,000 soldiers of the Polish Army and their families, that many thousands of these Poles have been received as immigrants in Latin-American countries and in Canada, it appears surprising, to say the least, that no mention of these facts should be made by the Voice of America—the official American organ of American propaganda. The Polish people conclude that the United States Government, still composed of New Dealers, supporters of the shameful Yalta and Potsdam deals on Poland, are anxious to avoid mentioning any facts which are even remotely connected with the existence of the Polish legal government and the Polish Army which fought in the invasion of Europe and in Italy after having sacriﬁced these allies and their native country for opportunistic reasons and agreed to Soviet domination over Poland.
It seems incredible that the Poles should hear of favorable American immigration laws for Polish soldiers through Radio Madrid and not directly from the United States of America. I should say at this point, Mr. Chairman, that I am informed that the Voice of America has dealt with the soldiers of the Polish Army and the Polish displaced persons admitted to the United States. It would appear, however, that the Voice’s statements cannot have been very frequent or strong, inasmuch as they do not seem to have made much impression.
Generally speaking, practically all reports on Voice of America programs issuing from Poland express the opinion that they are uninteresting, drab, bureaucratic in tone, unconvincing. They give the impression that they are prepared and spoken by clerks who do their job perfunctorily without any intelligent understanding of the human element or of Polish susceptibilities.
Please note the following, Mr. Chairman:
Western radio broadcasts beamed to Poland are rated by the Poles as follows:
1. Radio Madrid is considered the best of all. It is interesting, topical, nonpartisan, informative, and is therefore widely listened to and acted upon, being regarded as a trustworthy anti-Communist directive.
2. The broadcasts of the British Broadcasting Corp. are regarded as next best.
3. In most recent reports the Liberty broadcasts of the National Committee for a Free Europe (N. Y.) are rated as somewhat improved. They are classed as third best after the two above-mentioned ones.
4. The Voice of America broadcasts come last. Very few of us here (in Poland) consider it worth while to lose time and run personal risks listening to the Voice of America program (June 1951).
I close Mr. Chairman with the following verbal message from reliable Polish leaders and press men which to me is particularly interesting. It was brought out of Poland by a refugee who managed to ﬂee from that country in June 1951. I quote:
How can we learn the truth about American foreign policy? The United States is ﬁghting the Soviet-led Chinese Reds in Korea. But local Communist propaganda tells us that Americans are not victorious and the proof advanced is that they cannot follow up their small temporary military advantages and have never dared bomb Manchurian bases. We are being told by Moscow-sponsored broadcasts that peace will soon be concluded on China Red terms and that Korea will be liberated together with Formosa from American imperialism. Also that the glorious Allied Chinese Peoples Democracy will replace the traitor Chiang Kai-shek in the U. N.
Here it is again, Mr. Chairman. That proposed solution we have heard so often in recent months, attributed to Nehru and Attlee and often said to have the off-the-record, behind the scenes acquiescence of our own State Department.
I hope devoutly, Mr. Chairman, that this is propaganda and not fact. This would be a sorry ending to a war which has already cost us between $7,000,000,000 and $8,000,000,000 and perhaps 350,000 casualties.
But to return to the quotation:
This Soviet information is never refuted by the Voice of America. Are we to accept the Communist version?
We hear a lot from western broadcasts about Western European rearmament and General Eisenhower. The United States is openly rearming Europe in case of a third world war against the Soviets.
At the same time the Voice of America is full of praise for Tito’s regime in Yugoslavia which is no less Communist and ruthlessly dictatorial than Soviet communism. When are your Americans sincere?
Are they sincere when they are anti-Soviet and anti-Communist or when they appear afraid to press their advantages in Korea and praise Tito communism?
The Voice of America does not clarify these problems. On the contrary, by its superficiality on all subjects and by avoiding to discuss vital ones, it only deepens our doubts. It does not ring true. The number of its Polish listeners has therefore been steadily decreasing. Tell your Americans that they are wasting their time trying to sell the American democratic way of life to us who are suffering under totalitarian communism imposed upon us at Yalta.
We have bought democracy long ago. What we want to know from the United States is if and when they will do something deﬁnite to help us throw off this yoke. Their pro-German sympathies, so evident in their Voice of America broadcasts, make us fear that, even if they do ultimately roll back the Soviets to their legal prewar boundaries of Russia proper, they may then approve of and participate in Poland’s Prussianization as they approved of and participated at Yalta and Potsdam in our sovietization. Their verbal attacks on Soviet expansion and communism cannot inspire our conﬁdence, as long as the United States Government upholds the Yalta agreements and as long as it appears afraid or incapable even of strongly challenging the constant ﬂow of anti-American Soviet propaganda.
These extraordinary comments, Mr. Chairman, speak for themselves.
During the Eighty-ﬁrst Congress, a Senate committee, following conferences with the heads of state and leaders of government in 16 countries and dependencies, “found ample evidence that our Voice of America, our State Department, and American foreign policy have not been successful in meeting the Communist propaganda.”
The hearings on this bill indicate that the State Department over the years has been “beseiged from field offices around the World with suggestions, demands, and requests to correct the programing of the Voice of America.” Criticism has been directed at program content. It has been directed at methods. It has been directed at personnel. Some of the radio scripts which I have personally seen have been absolutely worthless. Some of them, in my opinion, have been actually harmful.
In his speech of April 9, 1951, the gentelman from New York [Mr. ROONEY] referred to speciﬁc instances of grossly improper management, where the taxpayers’ dollars Were thrown down the drain pipe by the people in charge of this program.”
Other instances of failure to cooperate with the Congress appear in the hearings on this bill.
Within the funds made available by the Congress, the agency has made it possible for State Department personnel to make no less than 354 speeches in 29 States in a period of 18 months. It has also found it possible to pay some $500,000 to the Gallup poll and other commercial ﬁrms to evaluate the work it has been trying to do.
Mr. Chairman, I am for the objectives of the Voice of America. Their attainment, in my judgment, is of tremendous importance under present conditions.
I am opposed, however, to spending hundreds of millions of dollars for a Voice of America whose work to date I heard characterized in Europe by high authority only a month ago as “pitiful.”
Surely it should be possible to marshal the enormous advertising skill in this country and to apply it through skillful and trustworthy personnel, by methods which will assure results that are vital not only to America but to the entire Western World. 1
IF YOU APPRECIATE SEEING THESE ARTICLES AND COLD WAR RADIO MEMORABILIA
ANY CONTRIBUTION HELPS US IN BUYING, PRESERVING AND DISPLAYING THESE HISTORICAL EXHIBIT ITEMS
CONTRIBUTE AS LITTLE AS $1, $5, $10, OR ANY AMOUNT
- 97 Cong. Rec. (Bound) – Volume 97, Part 7, July 24, 1951; 8749-8750. ↩