BBG Watch Guest Commentary
The Katyń Lie and U.S. International Broadcasting
Why did the Voice of America (VOA) participate in the Katyń Massacre Lie and Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty did not?–Lessons for the reform of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG).
By Ted Lipien
I hope to be excused for this rather lengthy exposé on “the Katyń Lie”–the deliberate coverup by the Soviet Union, its satellite regimes, but also by many in the West, of one of the biggest still un-prosecuted genocidal crimes of World War II. Some historical anniversaries call to be remembered because they show history’s unfinished business or history repeating itself in today’s news events. President Putin’s Russia is full of such examples. After decades of Soviet denials of responsibility, on April 13, 1990, USSR President Mikhail Gorbachev released documents showing the NKVD Soviet secret police participation in the executions, which became known as the Katyń Massacre, but encompassed several execution sites and the murder by the Soviet authorities of at least 21,768 Polish citizens. On October 14, 1992, President of the Russian Federation Boris Yeltsin handed over to Polish President Lech Wałęsa a photocopy of “Package No. 1” containing documents confirming the responsibility of the Soviet Communist Party Politburo for the Katyń crime and its coverup during the existence of the USSR. The Russian Government under President Vladimir Putin, however, refuses to continue its previous investigation of the 1940 mass Soviet murder of more than 20,000 Polish POW officers and other prisoners. The likelihood of anyone ever being tried and convicted for this crime is remote as the massacre’s anniversaries come and go. Sixty-nine years ago, the International Military Tribunal in Nürnberg questioned witnesses in the Katyń war crime case at the request of the Soviet Government. On July 1 and 2, 1946, the court heard six witnesses testifying on the Katyń massacre, but the Soviets failed to pin the blame for the murder on Germany and the case was excluded from the final text of the Nürnberg Tribunal judgment.
The 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day (V-E Day) was celebrated on May 8th in the United States and Europe and on May 9th in Russia. For many, it was the anniversary of the start of Soviet-domination of Central and Eastern Europe–a life without freedom and democracy–for the next 44 years. The 75th anniversary of the Katyń Forest Massacre (April-May 1940) was hardly mentioned by international media. This is how the Voice of America marked the WWII Victory in Europe Day anniversary in a short video designed for placement on all-important social media, where VOA has been particularly weak. (Since this video was produced and put online VOA has a new interim director.)
Doing research on “the Katyń Lie,” I came across a powerful observation by Polish WWII general Władysław Anders. Miraculously, he was not among thousands of executed in Katyń. He later fought with his soldiers alongside American, British and other allied forces in the Middle East and Italy without being told that because of political decisions made in Washington, London, at Tehran and Yalta, he and his troops would not be returning to free and independent Poland at the war’s end.
“The victims of the Katyń murder, defenseless prisoners of war being shot by thousands by their executioners at the edge of open tombs, were our comrades in arms, colleagues, heads of families, husbands, brothers, sons.”
The United States, specifically President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his administration, was responsible for the Katyn coverup, as was British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
But America and Americans were also during the war and for decades later keeping the true Katyń story alive, as did many in Britain. Unfortunately, the U.S. Government-funded radio station I was associated with for many years–the Voice of America (VOA)–had been for decades until the 1980s part of the Katyń coverup. The U.S. Congress–also a branch of the U.S. Government–many private Americans and other U.S.-supported Cold War broadcasters–Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty–did not participate in the conspiracy of silence.
This article will try to explain why RFE and RL succeeded where VOA failed. It could also be a lesson to international audiences not to confuse all they hear or read on the Voice of America with U.S. public opinion and what the United States stands for as a nation.
The 65th anniversary of RFE’s first broadcast (1950), aimed at Czechoslovakia, will be on July 4. RFE Polish broadcasts started on May 3rd 1952. May 3rd is the Polish Constitution Day. The withdrawal of U.S. Government’s recognition of the Polish Government-in-Exile happened on July 5, 1945, but the original plan was for the U.S. official announcement to be made on the Fourth of July. Only through the intervention of the Polish Ambassador in Washington, Jan Ciechanowski, whose diplomatic recognition was to be soon withdrawn, the State Department postponed President Truman’s announcement to the following day. When it comes to Russia, historical precedents and anniversaries still seem to haunt American administrations and U.S. public diplomacy. In 2009, President Obama announced his decision to withdraw the U.S. missile shield from Poland on September 17th, the anniversary of the 1939 Soviet invasion and later annexation of eastern Poland under a secret agreement reached between Stalin and Hitler which ultimately led to the Katyń Massacre. At the 1945 Yalta conference (70th anniversary) and earlier, Stalin insisted to Roosevelt and Churchill that the Soviet Union must have the eastern part of pre-war Poland he had already occupied earlier under his secret agreement with Hitler. Roosevelt and Churchill obliged him without consulting or even initially informing their Polish allies. Stalin’s promises of a “strong Poland” and “free elections” were lies. President Obama’s “Reset” with Russia was going to transform U.S.-Russian relations. It also failed. Russia annexed Crimea on March 12, 2014 and continues its military aggression in eastern Ukraine.
Historical analogies abound. In 2013-2014, Russia launched a propaganda campaign with lies and deceptions eerily similar to the Katyń Lie. Stalin suggested to the Polish Government-in-Exile leaders who inquired about the missing thousands of Polish officers that perhaps the prisoners had escaped to Manchuria. The Soviet NKVD secret police was nowhere near Katyń when the Poles were murdered by the Nazis, was the Soviet official announcement in 1943 repeated for decades afterwards. Seventy-one years later, the Russian government-funded outlet RT initially reported that Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 plane, which was shot down in eastern Ukraine near the Russian-Ukrainian border on July 17, 2014, killing all 283 passengers and 15 crew on board, may have been targeted by Ukraine in a failed attempt to assassinate Vladimir Putin. It was a plot organized by Ukraine’s “Western backers,” RT theorized. Last month, deputy Russian foreign minister Gennady Gatilov rejected calls for the establishment of a UN tribunal to try those responsible for the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 calling them counterproductive and hasty. In 1943, the Soviet Government rejected Polish calls for an impartial International Red Cross investigation of the Katyn murder and used it as a pretext to break diplomatic relations with the Polish Government-in-Exile. Russian soldiers fighting in eastern Ukraine today are volunteers “on vacation,” according to Russian official statements. In the spring of 1943, the Kremlin accused the democratic Polish Government of being led by Fascists and collaborators with Hitler. Russian state media describe the current Ukrainian government as “Fascist.” President Putin has defended the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop (Hitler-Stalin) Pact.
Responding to Putin’s disinformation takes expertise that is sometimes lacking at the Voice of America today. I saw one VOA report in 2014 which explained at length without any significant challenge how the Russian annexation of Crimea should be justified by the humiliation of Russia from NATO’s eastward expansion after the end of the Cold War and the West’s threat to Russia. An independent journalist and new media scholar in Russia concluded in a 2011 study commissioned by the BBG that the VOA Russian Service website had a “pro-Putin bias.” Today’s Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), which will celebrate 65th anniversary of its first broadcast on July 4th, while far from perfect, has done a much better job in explaining Putin and his propaganda, as it did during the Cold War explaining Soviet propaganda. Dr. Nikolay Rudenskiy, deputy editor of the independent Russian online media outlet Grani.ru told the BBG in 2011: “History also matters. There is an apparent scarcity of historical themes on the VOA site. Meanwhile, there is a growing interest in public historical debate in Russia, and the site shouldn’t stay away from it.” As with any article focused on historical events and anniversaries that also hopes to offer some insight into the future, I will jump between the past and the present. I hope readers will indulge me for this as well.
As Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty also marked this week the 20th anniversary of its relocation from Munich to Prague, it is important to remember what this station, or rather stations, meant to millions of radio listeners behind the Iron Curtain like myself during the Cold War. I later became the chief of the Voice of America (VOA) Polish Service in Washington at the height of the Solidarity and martial law period in Poland and, before retiring in 2006, acting associate director in charge of VOA Central News. But I will never forget when as a young teenager I listened to Western radios in Poland, the official U.S. Government radio station, the Voice of America, either censored, ignored or vastly downplayed the Katyń Massacre of more than 20,000 Polish officers and other POWs during World War II. Radio Free Europe, on the other hand, did not forget them. These men, among whom as reserve officers where hundreds of Polish physicians, scientists, lawyers, writers, dozens of university professors, journalists, army generals, priests, the Chief Rabbi of the Polish Army–the Polish leading elite–were all killed in the spring of 1940 on the order of Stalin and other Soviet Politburo members. For decades, the Voice of America deliberately, through policies set by its senior executives, shied away from this horrific story and at times censored it and spread the “Katyń Lie.”
I mention this because most former VOA officials and historians have chosen to ignore this important history. They presented instead a monumentally misleading and false narrative of the Voice of America origins as a proud journalistic organization telling the whole truth, bad and good, giving “The Straight Story,” submitting Facts to a candid World. Nothing could be further from the truth. U.S. Government documents about Katyń declassified since 2012 in response to a letter of Representative Marcy Kaptur and Representative Daniel Lipinski to President Obama reinforce previously available evidence which was already part of the public record for many years and showed remarkable involvement of the Voice of America’s parent agency and VOA itself with censorship, propaganda and psychological warfare in its early years. The false narrative about the organization’s origins and initial goals confuses younger VOA journalists into believing it is true. It may convince them and others that taxpayers and Congress owe VOA money without commitment to a well-defined mission and accountability. The lie about VOA’s origins also makes discussing management reforms much more difficult.
Contrary to this sugared but false history, the Voice of America served during World War II as not much more than a crude propaganda tool of the White House. It unashamedly repeated Soviet propaganda lies, spiked news about anti-communist governments-in-exile and their fight against Nazi Germany, glorified Stalin and the Soviet Union, and censored the Katyń story. VOA’s wartime parent agency, the Office of War Information (OWI), also censored domestic U.S. media, particularly ethnic media, along the same lines. This was so outrageous that the U.S. House of Representatives almost voted to completely defund the OWI and ended up significantly cutting the agency’s budget for domestic activities. One of OWI projects was to produce films and brochures justifying the internment of Japanese Americans, although few at the time protested.
Why knowing and understanding this true VOA history is important? It is because many of those who don’t know it, or who know it and choose to hide and distort it, also want to recreate now a mega information agency, not unlike the OWI. Part of their plan is to make still somewhat autonomous surrogate grantees, including RFE/RL and Radio Free Asia (RFA), even more dependent on the defunct and dysfunctional federal bureaucracy in Washington as if its failure to respond effectively to Russia’s RT and other Putin-inspired propaganda has not been obvious enough. It was clear enough to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she called their operations “practically defunct.” It is especially evident on VOA’s social media platforms, with very few “Likes,” “Tweets” or “Comments”–certainly nothing like the thousands RT, BBC or even a single major U.S. newspaper can get. If these officials cared to study history of U.S. international broadcasting, they would have learned that Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty were created in the 1950s as non-federal and largely independent entities precisely because the federal Voice of America offered no hope of reform or effectiveness in countering Soviet propaganda.
As a former radio listener in communist-ruled Poland, I am forever grateful to those great Americans who were involved in planning for and building Radio Free Europe. They did it either directly, or indirectly through fundraising and publicity: former ambassador Joseph Grew; Reader’s Digest owner Dewitt Wallace; former diplomat Dewitt Clinton Poole; prominent New York investment banker Frank Altschul; former ambassador Arthur Bliss Lane; General Dwight Eisenhower; George Kennan; Ronald Reagan and many others. RFE and RL were one of the CIA’s most successful Cold War operations until the early 1970s when the link with the U.S. intelligence agency was terminated by Congress. The organization later functioned successfully under its own corporate board, which–unlike the current part-time Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG)–could devote much more attention to oversight and mission support. The BBG Board can’t do this for the entire agency; it also can’t do it well for its individual media entities; neither can one powerful CEO.
I was part of the RFE/RL move from Munich to Prague as the BBG’s regional marketing director for Eurasia. It was an incredible achievement for the then RFE/RL president Kevin Klose. I was proud of calling for and supporting his return to RFE/RL in 2013 after the organization was almost destroyed by the firing of dozens of Radio Liberty human rights reporters in Russia. The 2012 RFE/RL management crisis was not an act of a single RFE/RL official. In my view, it was a series of actions coordinated over time with the Washington BBG bureaucracy. Kevin Klose rehired some of the dismissed journalists, but he left too soon.
Unfortunately, RFE/RL has not yet resolved some of its labor-management problems. There are worrisome reports of managerial turmoil in the Russian Service and a case of possible censorship of a story that could make Putin look particularly bad. Even some well-known and well-regarded independent online media outlets in Russia carried the story, but Radio Liberty did not and removed the freelancer-author who in the past delivered several oustanding investigative reports from the list of its contributors. The BBG Board should pay attention when Russia’s premier human rights activist Lyudmila Alexeeva is protesting against the suspicious firing of another highly-respected Radio Liberty human rights reporter and when human rights organizations are sending letters to the BBG Board and the U.S. Secretary of State, an ex officio Board member, pointing out unfair labor practices at RFE/RL.
But compared to the Voice of America in recent years, RFE/RL still looks like the paragon of good governance and effectiveness to the extent that is possible under the oppressive and expanding rule of the BBG bureaucracy. Its destructive influence manifests itself in various ways. It has affected RFE/RL and other surrogates, at least to some degree. It could get worse. One recent example was a BBG-ordered public opinion poll in Putin-occupied Crimea shortly after the sovereign Ukrainian territory was invaded by Russia. The ill-advised poll, which could not have possibly produced accurate results, was an incredibly misguided political act which tainted not just VOA, but also RFE/RL.
Returning to the OWI and the wartime VOA–a similarly misguided political act by the top bureaucracy that almost cost the propaganda agency its budget was, ironically, a faulty public opinion poll with pro-Soviet questions, which the OWI wanted to conduct among Polish Americans. Polish Americans and members of Congress were outraged. A newspaper columnist wrote: “the misnamed Office of War Information has apparently decided to end its career by suicide and this may be all for the best.” A Polish American newspaper in New York wrote in an English-language editorial:
“Americans of Polish extraction give expression to their thoughts on politics by the way of casting their votes on election day; they give expression to their feelings with their blood in Africa, Alaska, Guadalcanal, etc. They know more about Hitler and Stalin than the O.W.I. can or cares to tell them. To the theorists and propagandists of the O.W.I., Russia, the Russians, communism and Stalin’s designs are merely clay with which they are playing. To the Poles these are realities. Tragic realities indeed — not theories, not politics. We have been watching O.W.I.’s disturbing meddling and mysterious activities among the foreign born groups and have repeatedly expressed our resentment and our worry over the reaction.”
The biased and offensive OWI polling was terminated when members of Congress intervened and showed their displeasure. Columnist John O’Donnell wrote in an article published on August 20, 1943 in Washington’s Times-Herald:
“Few honest newspaper tears are going to be shed over the demise of an outfit which from birth was a New Deal Roosevelt propaganda body (as discovered by the last Congress which amputated its domestic claws) and throughout its career gave off the distinctly unpleasant stench of being a parking place for pay-roll patriots, political stumble bums and the incompetent sweepings of editorial rooms.”
Rep. John Lesinski, Sr. (D-MI) made this statement on the floor of the House on June 17, 1943:
“The Foreign Language Division of the O.W.I. is under the direction of Alan Cranston. … The result of his costly efforts in the Office of War Information–pardon me, War Interference–is such that none of his press releases contain any mention concerning the activities of the exiled governments–even though they are our Allies and signatories to the Atlantic Charter. Insofar as Mr. Cranston is concerned these exiled governments do not exist–nor do they exist as far as Soviet Russia is concerned.”
During World War II, the Office of War Information was run by the propaganda tsar, American radio broadcaster Elmer Davis, who himself penned a radio commentary for the Voice of America falsely blaming the Germans for the Katyń Massacre fully in line with Soviet propaganda claims. VOA foreign services were ordered to push this propaganda line and to translate and use his commentary. They did.
One of the VOA Polish desk writers at that time in New York, Stefan Arski, was a pro-Soviet activist who later went to Poland and served as the regime’s chief propagandist. He wrote virulent propaganda op-eds against the United States in Polish communist newspapers. His most vicious attacks were against the investigation of the Katyn Massacre by a Select Committee of the House of Representatives, known as the Madden Committee after its Chairman, Indiana Democrat Rep. Ray Madden. When Elmer Davis was asked in a Congressional hearing about his Katyń commentary and mismanagement of the agency, his response was minimize his own mistakes and to lash out at his critics in Congress and at former ambassador of the Polish Government-in-Exile Jan Ciechanowski who, acting behind the scenes, brought the OWI/VOA’s Katyń censorship and other OWI misdeeds to the attention of the Congress and U.S. media.
During the committee hearings in 1952, Elmer Davis said: “I recall that he [Congressman John Lesinski, Sr. made a speech in the summer of 1943 which contained more lies than were ever comprised in any other speech made about the Office of War Information.”
“I asked him where he got the information, because that was a perfectly absurd speech to be made by a Member of the Congress of the United States who knows anything about American politics or the American news business.”
In his testimony, Elmer Davis was equally dismissive of former Polish ambassador Jan Ciechanowski:
“I don’t remember that Mr. Lesinski ever warned me about anything, Mr. Ciechanowski, perhaps by his excessive number of warnings, made me forget which particular ones he especially spoke about.”
Calling Elmer Davis as being “completely committed to the idea of using commercial advertising methods–in the American style–in political propaganda,” on July 13, 1943, Ambassador Ciechanowski reported the following information in a secret cable to the Polish Foreign Ministry in London:
“…the O.W.I. made our life difficult, especially during the period of the “Katyn Affair,” by withholding through censorship all of our major statements while letting the Soviet ones go through.” (…) Polish affairs were placed in the hands of a group of Polish citizens manifesting their pro-Soviet stand… As soon as this situation developed, I personally called Mr. Davis’ attention during a special visit to the inappropriate selection of Polish personnel. (…) Despite his promises, my intervention produced no results. Similar interventions by Ambassadors from Greece, Holland and Yugoslavia– countries whose O.W.I. desks are staffed by communists and army and navy deserters, etc.–also met the same fate. As our relations with Russia worsened, O.W.I. attitude toward us started to worsen more and more. For example, we were refused help in organizing this year’s 3rd of May radio program to be broadcast in the United States nationwide despite willingness by Congressional Majority and Minority leaders, McCormack and Martin, to record speeches. (…) I inform the State Department about each confirmed O.W.I.’s biased report. However, the State Department is powerless. (…) I am conducting my action through members of Congress who are of Polish descent.”
Elmer Davis later claimed he was convinced the Germans were responsible for the Katyń murders. He, however, almost certainly had access to information that the evidence pointed strongly to the Soviet responsibility for the crime. As a journalist, he could have easily asked questions of the right sources, including State Department officials, Ambassador Ciechanowski, and some American reporters who had visited the Soviet Union. Davis’ radio commentary did not acknowledge existence of any controversy over the Katyń Massacre other than dismissing the German claim that it was a Soviet crime. The fact that no one had seen the prisoners or heard from them since the spring of 1940 and no one could find them should have been a clear sign to Elmer Davis that the Soviet explanation lacked credibility. Before the spring of 1940, Polish POWs sent letters to their families. All correspondence from those who went missing stopped at that time, more than a year before Germany attacked Russia.
The congressional committee was not buying Davis’ explanations.
“Mr. Davis, therefore, bears the responsibility for accepting the Soviet propaganda version of the Katyn massacre without full investigation,” the Select Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, which investigated the Katyn Massacre, concluded in its final report in 1952.
The OWI survived the Congress’ wrath, but barely. It was promptly disbanded in 1945, with the Voice of America going to the State Department.
How is all of this relevant today? I see similar thirst for power and arrogance among some BBG and former VOA officials when they are faced with evidence of mismanagement and poor or unbalanced VOA news reporting. I see it in their exaggerated “propaganda of success” for which there is little evidence as far as their own contributions are concerned. Their empire building (or empire protection, in this instance) is very disappointing. For all the talk of the sanctity of the broadcasting mission, the agency’s leadership is betraying those values by putting bureaucratic protectionism above all else. The bipartisan reform bill H.R. 2323, the United States International Communications Reform Act, introduced on May 14, 2015 by Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) and unanimously approved by the House Foreign Affairs Committee, of which Rep. Royce is Chairman and Rep. Engel its Ranking Member, threatens the control of BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) empire. Legislators have made important improvements in the new bill compared to last year’s reform bill which passed the House of Representatives but was not picked up by the Senate. Replacing “promoting U.S. foreign policy,” which as we know can be quite wrong on occasion, with reporting on it, was a wise move. The new bill, as the old one, also wisely separates the Voice of America from the surrogate broadcasters and prevents the new agency from becoming a huge, unaccountable bureaucracy. The bureaucrats don’t like it.
Once again, ignoring history and political good sense, BBG officials are allowing parochial interests to interfere with what’s best for the agency and in support of effective communications with foreign audiences. Contrary to their claims made to BBG Board members and others who will listen, a mega communications agency with an information tsar-CEO, is not going to be efficient, a favorite in Congress, give the Board more influence or get the agency more money. It will definitely not save taxpayers any money. Just like the OWI, it will waste money and lead to abuses of America’s freedoms. These officials should study the history of the OWI, Elmer Davis, the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, which they managed to persuade the Congress to weaken, and the creation of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. The Smith-Mundt Act and RFE and RL were a direct joint and bipartisan Executive Branch and Congressional response to monumental mismanagement and missteps of the OWI and the Voice of America–many of them similar to mismanagement and missteps of the agency’s executives today. If consolidation was a remedy for all ills, then the consolidation of the United States Information Agency (USIA) with the State Department should have made U.S. public diplomacy more effective. Almost everyone agrees that it has not.
My impressions of VOA and RFE broadcasts as a listener during the Cold War behind the Iron Curtain is anecdotal, but they were shared by everyone I knew. For a more scientific evaluation, the IBB bureaucracy and other government empire builders, and above all BBG members, should compare audience figures for VOA and RFE and RL during the Cold War as they were estimated based on various RFE/RL and USIA surveys. VOA’s audience reach in the Soviet block was far behind that of the much better-managed surrogate broadcaster, with the exception of two VOA foreign language services: the Czechoslovak Service led by Pavel Pecháček, and the Russian Service until about 1989. The Polish Service, which during the workers protests of 1970-1971 was reaching only about 20% compared to about 80% for RFE, was beginning to catch up with RFE in the 1980s when we finally could tell the whole truth about Katyn and a number of other “sensitive” issues.
But in terms of political impact and relevance of U.S.-funded broadcasts in Eastern Europe, the Voice of America, including the Polish Service, simply could not compete with RFE under any circumstances. All BBG Board members have to do is to scan indexes of the vast number of scholarly books on East European dissident and human rights movements. References to RFE are numerous; there are some, but relatively very few references to VOA, which now can only be described as being on a congressional life support. Its misleading audience claims include indirect audiences to many self-censored placement programs which could not be broadcast without substantial payments made to foreign stations with U.S. taxpayers’ dollars. Censorship in the interest of audience building has come back to the Voice of America in a big way, and to some degree even to RFE/RL.
In many ways, VOA has had a glorious history at times and some outstanding journalists. I had the honor of working with many of them. But in the last decade or so, VOA and its federal agency in Washington began to resemble more and more the wartime OWI. Some of the agency’s bureaucrats are a frightening reminder of Elmer Davis and his top officials. One interesting bit of history I uncovered is that Robert E. Sherwood even suggested inviting Stalin’s propagandists to come to London during the war to coordinate Soviet propaganda with American and British propaganda. What happened to this proposal will require further research, but even without it the wartime VOA was fully committed to spreading Soviet disinformation.
Not everyone at VOA during World War II was in favor of false propaganda and censorship, but many were because it reflected their misguided view of Stalin and the Soviet Union. VOA reporting on Katyń only changed slightly when the bipartisan Congressional investigation of the massacre started in 1951. Some of the pro-Soviet VOA broadcasters left after the war and new ones were hired who did not buy into the Soviet propaganda. One of them was the legendary Zofia Korbońska. When she died in Washington in 2010 at the age of 95, the VOA and BBG bureaucracy did not bother to issue a press release. I wrote about her in a Washington Times article shortly after her death. She was one of many of VOA’s outstanding journalists who tried to report on Katyń, even though most of the time they were stymied by the management. During World War II, Mrs. Korbońska, the wife of Stefan Korboński, the last civilian head of the Polish underground state, was also working for the underground resistance movement in Nazi-occupied Poland. Her main job was sending to London coded radio messages about Katyń, medical experiments on women at the Ravensbrück Nazi concentration camp and similar topics which were then broadcast back to Poland by the British-run Polish language surrogate radio station Swit. Unlike the OWI/VOA management, the Brits did not censor Swit, although they clearly did not like its news about Stalin’s atrocities. Eventually, the BBC also broke its partial taboo on reporting on the Soviet guilt for Katyń; VOA did not in a substantive way until the 1980s. The last major Katyń censorship incident at VOA was in 1978 and was a topic of a Jack Anderson’s column:
“In a strange case of censorship, the Voice of America recently tailored a story about a grisly World War II massacre to fit the Soviet distortion of history. American authorities depleted precisely the facts that the Soviet censorship code prohibits the press from publishing behind the iron curtain. There is a poignant human story behind the incident. A bold Polish writer and poet, Andrzej Braun, dared to protest against the Soviet-imposed censorship before the Polish Writers Congress. It was a dangerous, defiant act, which was reported to the Voice of America. Afterward, the lonely hero listened eagerly for word that the Voice of America had broadcast the story of his protest. Incredibly, he heard an account that sounded as if his story had been censored by the Kremlin. Sources in contact with the dissident Polish writers reported his reaction; they told us he was absolutely ‘crestfallen’.”
It was only during the Reagan administration that we were able to broadcast an interview about Katyń with Józef Czapski, a Polish military officer, artist and writer who was one of the few survivors of Stalin’s massacres of the Polish military and intellectual elite. It was a major war crime and genocide for which no one was ever prosecuted and which the Voice of America helped to hide. Imagine if more than 20,000 Americans were executed by the Nazis, the Japanese, the North Koreans or the North Vietnamese. Would the Voice of America also try to hide it if instructed by the White House, the State Department or on its own? Would anyone even for a moment suggest that Americans should be silent and forget about finding and bringing the perpetrators to justice. Roosevelt and Churchill did urge silence to leaders of the Polish Government-in-Exile. Voice of America was silent or largely silent even years after the war. These brutally murdered Polish POWs had mothers, fathers, wives, lovers, children–some of their family members were also killed by Stalin’s NKVD thugs or died in the Soviet Union as a result of hard labor, malnutrition and disease. That is why the next Voice of America director should apologize for VOA’s Katyń Lie and silence, but I doubt it will ever happen. On the other hand, very few of us believed that the Cold War would ever end, but it did. RFE and RL made a major contribution to the fall of the Soviet empire and VOA, despite its many shortcomings, did as well.
I will end this lengthy essay on history and commentary with one more story to illustrate my strong, unequivocal opposition to any bureaucratic moves that could undermine the independence and effectiveness of U.S.-funded surrogate media outlets such as Radio Free Europe. There is no doubt in my mind that if a mega Washington bureaucracy again runs all of U.S. international media outreach, it will not only be a managerial disaster. It will also likely result in new censorship that did not happened at Radio Free Europe during the Cold War but did happen at the Voice of America. At the very least, a bureaucratic consolidation would destroy whatever’s left of the effectiveness the surrogates still have over the Washington bureaucracy.
British writer Louis FitzGibbon, who devoted almost all of his adult life to making the world familiar with the Katyń war crime, described rather well the difference between the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe in his book “The Katyn Cover-Up” published in 1972.
“The war had been over for several years when Mr. Czapski, a survivor of the annihilation, came to the United States for a visit in the early spring of 1950. The Voice of America invited him to make a broadcast in the Polish language to Poland. He submitted a script. Officials of the Voice of America meticulously eliminated all references to the Katyn massacre. He was not even allowed to mention the word ‘Katyn’.”
The VOA Polish Service broadcast an uncensored interview with Józef Czapski, but not until 1984 when I was in charge of the service and Ronald Reagan was in the White House. In April 1971, BBC-2 showed a documentary film about Katyń. As a result of the BBC showing the Katyń film, Charles Curran, the then Director General of the BBC, had his prior invitation to visit Poland withdrawn by the Warsaw regime. BBC Radio interviewed Mr. FitzGibbon, as did Radio Free Europe. He recalled:
“Radio Free Europe, about which there has recently been some controversy, is the medium for combating Soviet propaganda behind the Iron Curtain. With a head office in Munich it has a branch in London and thither I was invited on 26 April. I was interviewed by Mr. Garlinski and given an opportunity to discuss the Katyn case, my book and my reasons for writing it. (…) On 6 May, I went again to Radio Free Europe studio in London, this time to interview Mr. Airey Neave. We conversed ‘live’ for some fifteen minutes, and I later heard from the director in Munich that the broadcast had been a great success.”
The controversy about RFE probably had something to do with numerous attempts during the Cold War to close it down so it would not “interfere” with the policy of detante with the Soviet Union. Had it not been for Radio Free Europe, or if during the Cold War it had to report directly to the Washington federal bureaucracy, which is what BBG officials want now, I’m quite sure RFE would not have been able to interview Mr. FitzGibbon in 1971 or for years afterwards.
Why did the Voice of America fail on the Katyń story and Radio Free Europe succeeded? VOA was always part of a large Washington federal bureaucracy, the most dysfunctional being the International Broadcasting Bureau within the BBG. VOA has a vaguely defined mission. Throughout most of its federal existence, VOA has been poorly managed. For most of its existence, it was forced to adjust its programs to support immediate U.S. foreign policy goals. It was still poorly managed and to some degree censored even when the VOA Charter became law in 1976. The BBG’s “policy firewall” did not make any positive difference as the quality of VOA programs worsened, expertise diminished, and accountability disappeared. Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, on the other hand, were never federal government entities. They have always been better managed. They always had superior expertise. Most importantly, RFE and RL did not have to adjust their programs to support immediate U.S. foreign policy goals. RFE and RL programs only had to be consistent with the long term goals and values of the United States.
Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka will decorate former RFE/RL managers, Kevin Klose and Pavel Pecháček, with Karel Kramar medals for their work in support of democracy and freedom. They deserve this honor. What the next Voice of America director should do is to formally apologize to international audiences for VOA’s long-lasting censorship of the Katyń Massacre story. History has a habit of repeating itself unless it is studied and understood by people who are willing and capable of correcting past mistakes.
Disclaimer: the commentary reflects personal opinions of the author who is also one of the founders and supporters of BBG Watch.