By Ted Lipien
A few Voice of America English newsroom correspondents and some VOA managers who profoundly disliked Ronald Reagan and his policies were greatly upset by the U.S. government-Hollywood television production of “Let Poland Be Poland.” VOA was ordered to broadcast its audio version on January 31, 1982 in response to the imposition of martial law in Poland a month and a half earlier, on December 13, 1981. To critics, “Let Poland Be Poland” amounted to U.S. government propaganda.
Voice of America’s foreign language broadcasters, including its Polish Service, however, were highly supportive of the special satellite TV and radio broadcast. They saw it as a completely natural U.S. counter to communist propaganda, which was the one that indeed employed lies, half-truths and other forms of deception. In their view, such propaganda from Warsaw and Moscow needed to be countered not only with news, but also with opinions and ideas presented using various forms of artistic expression.
“Let Poland Be Poland” was produced by the United States International Communications Agency (USICA) with Hollywood partners and other private entities. The agency, ran by President Reagan’s close friend Charles Z. Wick, was earlier known as the United States Information Agency (USIA). Later, its name was changed back to USIA. At that time, the Voice of America was one of the elements of USICA.
Radio Free Europe (RFE), which was also funded by the United States Congress, but was not part of the federal agency structure and enjoyed much more independence and creative freedom than VOA, had done similar programs with well-kown artists and writers for years with enormous success. SEE: “How Kirk Douglas and Radio Free Europe countered Soviet propaganda“.
“Let Poland Be Poland” was highly popular in Poland. Even some imprisoned Solidarity activists were able to listen to it on radios smuggled into the internment camps. Ronald Reagan was their hero. SEE: Martial law prisoners in Poland praised Reagan, Voice of America and Radio Free Europe.
Voice of America never had larger audiences in Poland and in other East European countries than during the Reagan years. Radio Free Europe had even larger audiences and greater impact over a much longer period of time. Leadership from the White House, the right media strategy and ample funding made U.S. international broadcasting successful during the Reagan presidency in helping to drive a nail into the coffin of the Soviet empire.
The 90-minute 1982 “Let Poland Be Poland” program included statements of support from Henry Fonda, Charlton Heston, Glenda Jackson, Kirk Douglas, Paul McCartney, Bob Hope, President Ronald Reagan, Frank Sinatra, who performed the Polish folk song, “Ever Homeward” in both English and Polish, Czeslaw Milosz, Helmut Schmidt, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and others famous political leaders and artists. In total, 16 heads of state and government leaders made statements in support of Poland and of Solidarity. SEE: “How Frank Sinatra and Voice of America countered communist propaganda.”
In “Let Poland Be Poland,” actor Kirk Douglas talked about the connection between artistic and political freedom, and shared memories from his visit to the National Film School in Łódź in 1966.
Link to “Let Poland Be Poland – Kirk Douglas”
Disclaimer: Ted Lipien, a former Voice of America acting associate director, is a co-founder and supporter of BBG Watch. He was in charge of VOA Polish Service in the 1980s during the martial law in Poland. These are his personal views.