WWII Voice of America aired Stalin propaganda to cover up his role in Katyn massacre
From deliberate pro-Stalin WWII propaganda to careless “pro-Puntin bias” — Avoiding propaganda pitfalls at Voice of America
By Ted Lipien
Official documents declassified and released by the National Archives since 2012 show that during World War II and for years afterwards, the U.S. Government-run Voice of America external radio station broadcast Soviet propaganda and disinformation to Poland and to other countries throughout the world with the intention of covering up Stalin’s crimes. This was done primarily in the interest of supporting immediate U.S. military and foreign policy wartime goals set by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) and other high-ranking U.S. officials. It was a far cry from the promise enunciated in VOA’s first broadcast on February 25, 1942: “The news may be good. The news may be bad. But we shall tell you the truth.” WWII diplomatic dispatches and other accounts prove beyond any doubt that following the wishes of the Roosevelt White House, the State Department, its own parent agency, the Office of War Information (OWI)–but also on its own initiative and through the work of some of its staffers who later joined communist regimes in Eastern Europe–VOA was guilty of hiding, censoring, distorting and minimizing news about Stalin’s order to kill Polish military officers and other POWs, estimated to number over 20,000, in in what became known as the 1940 Katyń Forest Massacre near Smolensk and at other locations in the Soviet Union. OWI-VOA officials even formally proposed to the White House and the State Department to coordinate American war propaganda with Soviet war propaganda. The central government propaganda agency, which included the Voice of America, operated during the war without any direct accountability except to the White House. It was rife with intrigue and distributed false or misleading information both in the United States and abroad. OWI officials put pressure on U.S. domestic media in an attempt to censor their reports on Katyń and other sensitive though legitimate news stories which included no military secrets. Some members of Congress of both parties and many prominent private Americans strongly objected to such biased VOA reporting and to OWI’s domestic media censorship, but the official clampdown on the Katyń story continued at the Voice of America to some degree during long periods of time from 1942 until the Reagan Administration took office in 1981. It is a shameful event in U.S. Government and Voice of America history which most VOA chroniclers preferred to ignore. Under different circumstances and for somewhat different reasons Vladimir Putin’s propaganda and disinformation, which are very similar in substance and tone to Stalin’s propaganda, also have not been properly exposed by VOA in recent years and are sometimes repeated without any challenge and balance because of massive mismanagement and other problems at the Voice of America and its current parent agency, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). To some degree history is being repeated at the U.S. taxpayer-funded VOA. The growth of BBG bureaucracy is also threatening wellbeing of BBG’s surrogate media outlets, such as Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), which during the Cold War made up for VOA’s bureaucratic and journalistic failures and helped the United States win the ideological struggle. As bad as VOA was at various times, it also contributed at other times to this historic victory. But at least one VOA program suggested to global audiences that it may have been all a mistake. VOA reported without casting any direct doubts that Russia was humiliated by the Cold War defeat and NATO’s eastward expansion, which explains President Putin’s annexation of Crimea and military aggression in eastern Ukraine. Similar propaganda claims from Moscow were aired by the Voice of America during World War II on a far more regular basis. When President Putin recently defended the 1939 Hitler-Stalin Pact, with its secret protocol to divide Poland, VOA worldwide English language news service failed to put it online.
The United States needs the Voice of America (VOA) in some form as an authoritative news source representing the Government and the People as a democratic nation to foreign audiences in accordance with VOA’s Charter and put it under an agency and a board that is more than a cheerleader for the White House or for propaganda of success of its own bureaucrats. The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), or its successive agency, needs a new system for selecting better qualified managerial and journalistic staff. Accountability is absolutely essential. 1 rather than promoting specific foreign policy goals of any particular U.S. administration. The quality of VOA managers and journalists must be vastly improved through better recruiting, management and more funding, and the organization must be under public scrutiny and held accountable for its journalistic performance.
To have an effective news and analysis service able to recognize and respond to Vladimir Putin’s propaganda and disinformation abroad, the U.S. Congress must keep specialists of its surrogate media outlets, such as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and Radio Free Asia (RFA), independent from the Washington government bureaucracy and provide them with more funding. RFE/RL has greatly outperformed the Voice of America during the Cold War and is best equipped to respond to Russian propaganda if given sufficient freedom and resources.
Above all, the United States must avoid creating an all-powerful, central propaganda agency similar to World War II Office of War Information or give unlimited control over all U.S. international media outreach to one CEO. The Office of War Information and wartime Voice of America misled both foreign and domestic audiences, disappointed radio listeners and engaged in frighteningly illegal domestic U.S. press censorship. Such appear to be the main lessons drawn from the public release of WWII records in the custody of the U.S. Government which were previously classified. Many of them relate to the 1940 massacre by the Soviet Union of thousands of Polish POWs at the Katyń forest near Smolensk and at other locations in Russia which some U.S. Government officials tried to cover up even for many years and decades after the war.
Recently declassified documents also show the deception of a widely promoted and accepted narrative that the Voice of America started out in 1942 as primarily a journalistic enterprise telling “The Straight Story” and committed to the Jeffersonian principle of letting “facts be submitted to a candid world.” It is a reassuring claim, but for many years of VOA’s existence it was not true, due to either deliberate distortion of the journalistic truth in the interest of sometimes misguided U.S. foreign policy or, more recently and also throughout much of VOA’s history, because of poor organization and bureaucratic mismanagement.
Yet during long periods of foolish censorship and administrative declines, audiences desperate for news and information from the United States continued to tune in to VOA for reassurance that the American people had not forgotten them. VOA’s history thus became a mix of sad failures of the Washington bureaucracy, perseverance of some of its journalists, and occasional great successes in bringing uncensored news to people suffering from repression.
U.S. taxpayer-funded surrogate broadcaster, Radio Free Europe (RFE) and Radio Liberty (RL), did a much better and most of the time outstanding job, which I can say both as a former young listener to both RFE and VOA in communist-ruled Poland, a former VOA broadcaster and program manager, Eurasia regional marketing director and VOA acting associate director in charge of Central News. For decades, from 1950 until 1980 and even beyond, Voice of America’s upper management, which included in-house program managers and some State Department and later United States Information Agency (USIA) Foreign Service officers with rotational assignments at VOA (a few of whom were excellent area specialists), blocked access to wire services to journalists working in VOA’s foreign language services. One of their fears was that they might report some new news development on the Katyń story without it being carefully evaluated and censored at a higher level. I started my VOA radio career in the 1970s. Even though I worked with some exceptional Polish Service broadcasters and a few VOA English newsroom editors, managers and correspondents who had a solid background in international affairs and journalism (some of them had European education), the 1970s were a particularly depressing period in VOA’s history. I already knew about the unchallenged superiority of RFE journalistic staff and its programs to Poland, but when I visited RFE headquarters in Munich for the first time in the early 1980s I was also amazed by how well managed the surrogate station was compared to what I had experienced at VOA. Even during Mikhail Gorbachev’s rule, the Voice of America English Central Newsroom correspondent in charge of the VOA bureau in Moscow barred from the office a VOA Russian Service correspondent on a reporting trip because–as the VOA bureau chief reportedly said–a VOA language service employee “is not a journalist.” The VOA Russian Service reporter later transferred to Radio Liberty where he had a highly successful tenure. Ironically, the VOA bureau chief in Moscow held a special U.S. Foreign Service assignment, a practice instituted by the Office of War Information during World War II.
The Voice of America in 2015 can only be described a failed child of the Office of War Information. The Broadcasting Board of Governors bureaucracy behaves very much like the all-powerful OWI-VOA bureaucracy, but without being accountable to anyone, not even the White House. Technically, it is accountable to the bipartisan Broadcasting Board of Governors board, but most of its part-time members behave as cheerleaders for BBG bureaucrats rather than acting as a true oversight board. It is impossible for one part-time board to oversee both VOA and the surrogate broadcasters. Members don’t have the necessary expertise or time to do their job right.
As badly as some of the OWI mangers behaved in imposing false news and censorship on foreign and U.S. domestic audiences, some of them were outstanding writers and even journalists. Some objected to WWII era OWI-VOA news censorship, but not necessarily or successfully on the Katyn story. Some were much more concerned when their pro-Stalin reports were censored on rare occasions. Members of Congress, private Americans and foreign diplomats protested from time to time, but there was no effective official oversight of the OWI-VOA.
Official U.S. Government censorship is no longer an issue at VOA, but the BBG and VOA management censors VOA programs produced for placement in some countries in violation of the VOA Charter. The real problem rests within the huge BBG bureaucracy which BBG officials would like to make even bigger by combining VOA with the semi-private surrogate broadcasters under one administrative umbrella. This enormous bureaucracy already contributes to VOA’s frequent failures to detect, understand and present President Putin’s propaganda and disinformation for what they really are. Nothing could be more appalling than high-level BBG bureaucrats presenting the Voice of America with a faulty poll conducted in Russia-annexed Crimea so that a VOA report could state without any questions asked or mentioning the Crimean Tatars–also victims of Stalin’s WWII crimes–that Crimeans are overwhelmingly happy with the Russian rule. I have seen a VOA report presenting at length the official Kremlin propaganda line that Russia was victimized by the West without providing any meaningful balance. This is an eery reminder of what went on at the Voice of America during World War II when VOA also aired pro-Stalin propaganda no questions asked. At least then it was done in the interest of U.S. war effort however misguided the official reasoning may have been. In 2015, it can only be attributed to failures of a failed government bureaucracy. A well-regarded Russian scholar of new media and independent journalist in Russia reported to the BBG in an official 2011 study that the VOA Russian Service website had a “pro-Putin bias.”
It is astounding how similar Soviet propaganda themes of the 1940s are to President Putin’s propaganda narrative today. It would take experienced journalists and analysts to respond to such propaganda. RFE/RL still has some; VOA has very few and those who could do the job can’t most of the time because of general mismanagement and insufficient resources. The Voice of America has also been a dismal failure in generating audience engagement through social media when compared to Russia’s RT, BBC, or even one single major U.S. newspaper. Astoundingly, the State Department’s Facebook page has more “Likes” that VOA’s English news Facebook page targeting a global audience. Most VOA foreign language social media platforms are in the same category. Just as VOA Polish Service failed to report on the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, the VOA Kurdish Service had no direction or resources to update its website, Facebook and Twitter pages when ISIS was murdering fleeing Kurds in Iraq. A VOA report described Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, as a “vibrant city busy with activity.” VOA has also posted regularly what appeared to be in-house commentaries, but which were not identified as such, praising President Obama’s openings to Iran and Cuba but not offering any significant American criticism within these op-eds. There was also an in-house VOA commentary attacking Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu–again without any balance–all to similar to what the Voice of America was airing during World War II.
Another striking similarity between the behavior of the 1940s Office of War Information, the State Department and Voice of America officials and the current state of affairs is how State Department officials in charge of VOA lied to Americans who wrote letters by claiming that the Katyn story had not been censored and was receiving extensive coverage. It would not have received much coverage if it were not for members of Congress and prominent private Americans raising hell. These days we also hear from officials that the Broadcasting Board of Governors is in great shape, reforms are being made, audiences are delighted and the only thing missing is getting the U.S. Congress to approve a super-CEO in charge of a super-agency.
Legislators would be wise to study the history of the Office of War Information, the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty and the recent history of the Broadcasting Board of Governors before they give any credence to such claims. I could add that I could not find a single individual making such claims for a new super-bureaucracy who had listened to VOA and RFE/RL radio broadcasts during the Cold War behind the Iron Curtain, participated later in their creation, managed them and observed the BBG first hand from an executive position. I can honestly say that a single Washington-based U.S. government bureaucracy in charge of all U.S. international media and public diplomacy would be so large, so wasteful and so inefficient that it would destroy whatever effectiveness outlets such as VOA and RFE/RL still have. But I admit that I can see how such a large Washington central government propaganda bureaucracy would look attractive to some current and former BBG and VOA officials, former USIA-VOA officials, public diplomacy experts and perhaps a few others. Despite forcing State Department and Voice of America officials to make some programming changes, the 1950s congressional hearings did not result in any meaningful administrative reforms in Washington, but they did lead eventually to the establishment of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberation (later renamed Radio Liberty). Major structural reforms are even more desperately needed now, but destroying the independent U.S.-funded surrogate media model, which was the major reform of the 1950s and which worked wonders for freedom in countries without freedom and free media, is not one of them.
In presenting this draft paper online for comments and future additions and revisions, I would like to pay tribute to several remarkable Poles who inspired my current research. The first among them is Józef Czapski (April 3, 1896 – January 12, 1993) a Polish artist, author, and critic, as well as an officer of the Polish Army. He was one of the first to start a search in Russia for the Katyń victims. I was aware that in 1950, Voice of America officials censored an interview with this remarkable man by eliminating any of his references to Katyń, making the interview useless and deceptive. Looking through some of my own papers and recordings, I recently found a copy of another interview with Józef Czapski which Polish Service foreign correspondent Wacław Bniński had recorded in 1984 in Paris when I was in charge of the service during the Solidarity and martial law period in Poland. In it, Józef Czapski described being taken prisoner by the Soviets in 1939, Soviet POW camps and his later travels through Russia and conversations with the Soviet NKVD secret police officials in an futile attempt to get them to reveal what had happened to thousands of Polish officers like himself who had mysteriously disappeared. He voiced his bitter assessment of Churchill, Roosevelt and one American OWI-VOA contributor, Kathleen Harriman, a daughter of the U.S. Ambassador to Russia. She was one of several American and other Western journalists in the Soviet Union who had disseminated the Soviet version of the Katyń events, even though at least some of them knew they were lying. In his 1984 VOA interview, Józef Czapski shared his belief that Soviet and Nazi officials may have discussed the execution of Polish officers in Soviet custody. He also shared his views on Khrushchev’s reported offer in 1956 to reveal the truth about Katyń, which was apparently rejected by Poland’s communist leader Władysław Gomułka, and finally he gave VOA radio listeners his hopeful and highly humanistic vision of a future Russia based his faith in the essential goodness of the Russian people. He spoke fluent Russian and had many friends among Russian dissidents. Another remarkable fact about Józef Czapski’s early life was his pacifism. But when shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia he was charged with looking for another group of missing Polish officers and found that they had been executed by the Bolsheviks, he volunteered for the Polish Army and fought in the 1920 Polish-Soviet War. His two search missions in Russia ended in failure, but he was one of the few Polish POWs who had survived Katyń. It took more than 30 years and the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan before the United States Government and the Voice of America dared to talk openly and fully about the Katyn Massacre. Wacław Bninski who interviewed Józef Czapski was another WWII veteran who had served in the underground army in Poland and later worked for Radio Free Europe before joining VOA. The surviving victims of Hitler, Stalin, Teheran, Yalta and Katyn finally got some of the truth that had been denied to them by the U.S. Government before. Ironically, some of the U.S. diplomats and VOA English newsroom journalists I knew held Ronald Reagan in contempt because of his anti-Soviet rhetoric; he was far more popular among VOA foreign language staffers.
A generation older than me, Wacław Bninski was my colleague in the VOA Polish Service. During the 1980s martial law in Poland, I sent him to Rome to report on Pope John Paul II. Another former VOA Polish Service broadcaster among many I am greatly indebted to was Zofia Korbońska, a true war hero and an outstanding journalist. During WWII, she risked her life daily, gathering news and sending coded radio messages from Nazi-occupied Poland to London. Those messages were then transmitted back in news bulletins by shortwave radio from Britain by a surrogate station, Świt, the Polish word for “dawn,” which many Polish listeners assumed was based in Poland. I wrote about her in my “Interweaving of Public Diplomacy and U.S. International Broadcasting” article in American Diplomacy, December 2011 and in “Remembering a Polish-American patriot” in The Washington Times shortly after her death in 2010. If caught by the German Gestapo, who constantly searched for radio transmitters, Zofia Korbońska would have been tortured and executed – the fate of many of her colleagues in the Polish underground. Her courage was legendary.
I also want to thank Polish historian Jaroslaw Jedrzejczak, on whose research I relied in writing this paper. His exhaustive history of the VOA Polish Service awaits publishing in Poland.
There were many who had made the ultimate sacrifice for their country and for freedom. Not too many Americans know about the Katyn Massacre. Let’s imagine for a moment that if among more than 58,000 U.S. military fatal casualties of the Vietnam War, some 20,000–mostly active duty and reserve military officers–among them some of the best U.S. officers, doctors, lawyers, scientists, writers, journalists, teachers, as such were many of the Katyn victims–had been taken prisoner and shot with a bullet through their heads. Józef Czapski described his missing fellow co-prisoners in his WWII era report as “the flower of the ‘Polish Intelligentsia’.” Released in the United States, Andrzej Wajda’s Oscar-nominated film “Katyn” is excellent and historically accurate in many respects, but even Wajda failed, in my opinion, to show new generations in this film the true tragedy of hundreds of thousands of civilian Poles who were deported by Stalin into the depths of the Soviet Union or to show the terror imposed on the Poles by the Moscow-dominated regime in Poland after the war.
The Katyn Massacre tragedy and the official U.S. coverup are both difficult to comprehend. What would Americans say about their government leaders and the Voice of America if one third of all fatal U.S. military casualties of the Vietnam War–some 20,000 Americans, mostly officers– were executed and the White House and VOA tried to censor and suppress such news?
What if in addition to 20,000 American military officers executed, hundreds of thousands of their family members were arrested and deported under abominable conditions and many of them perished. Would the U.S. Government try to cover up such a horrendous crime and urge the Voice of America and other U.S. media to be silent about it in order not to upset relations with a powerful ally even in wartime?
Would any U.S. administration behave the same way if Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union or Imperial Japan brutally executed more than 20,000 American POWs?
Congressman Timothy P. Sheehan (R-IL) made the following observations 2 about the Office of War Information and the Voice of America in his Supplementary Statement to the 1952 Katyn Committee Final Report:
“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.” Rep. Sheehan remarked. “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,” he added.
Sir Owen St Clair O’Malley, a British diplomat who was British ambassador to the Polish Government in Exile in London during World War II wrote a report in May 1943 to Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden on the Katyn Massacre indicating the Soviet guilt and the moral issues it raised. In a message to Roosevelt on August 13, 1943, Winston Churchill shared the O’Malley Report with FDR who by then knew also from U.S. military and diplomatic sources that it had to be the Soviet government who issued the order to kill.
Churchill described the O’Malley Report to FDR as “a grim, well-written story, but perhaps a little too well-written.” He also told FDR that it was his decision to keep the report secret, implying strongly that FDR should also keep quiet about the Soviets being responsible for the Katyn crime. They both participated in the conspiracy of deception and silence. The Voice of America went further. It explicitly accused the Nazis of murdering the Poles without casting any doubts.
“Nevertheless if you have time to read it, it would repay the trouble. I should like to have it back when you have finished with it as we are not circulating it officially in any way.” — Message to President Franklin D. Roosevelt from Winston Churchill, 8/13/1943. 3
“…as the late Mr. Headlam Morley [possibly Sir. James Headlam-Morley, Historical Adviser to the Foreign Office, who died in 1929] said, ‘what in the international sphere is morally indefensible generally turns out in the long run to have been politically inept’,” Owen O’Malley wrote in his report. “It is surely the ease that many of the political troubles of neighbouring countries and some of our own have in the past arisen because they and we were incapable of seeing this or unwilling to admit it,” he warned.
In the conclusion of his report to Anthony Eden, Owen O’Malley included this profound comment on dealing with moral choices in political exigencies:
“If, then, morals have become involved with international polities, if it be the case that a monstrous crime has been committed by a foreign Government–albeit a friendly one–and that we, for however valid reasons, have been obliged to behave as if the deed was not theirs, may it not be that we now stand in danger of bemusing not only others but ourselves: of falling, as Mr. Winant said recently at Birmingham, under St. Paul’s curse on those who can see cruelty ‘and burn not?’.” — Owen O’Malley, British Ambassador to the Polish Government in Exile in London during World War II
New U.S. Government Katyn Documents Released
Responding to a letter to President Obama from Representative Marcy Kaptur (D-OH 9th District) and Representative Daniel Lipinski (D-IL 3rd District), the National Archives declassified since 2011 over a thousand pages of U.S. Government WWII and Cold War documents related to Katyn, OWI and VOA.
This paper is merely a preliminary attempt to analyze these records not previously released to the public. Much more research needs to be done, especially into the documented proposal to coordinate propaganda between OWI-VOA and the Soviet Government. So far, this paper is more of a collection of discoveries and notes rather than a finished product. It includes, however, new information and evidence of how a centralized government-run propaganda agency went wrong and become in the long run counterproductive in the hands of a huge federal bureaucracy headed by a politically inept and supremely arrogant CEO who was accountable only to the White House and the State Department and served a politically naive President. This is in essence what emerges from some of the new discoveries.
New evidence also seriously undermines the myth of Voice of America’s claimed pure journalistic origins and uncompromising commitment to telling the truth no matter what. It shows WWII VOA for what it was conceived to be during the war–a propaganda tool of the White House used to tell the truth when it was convenient and the price of reporting bad news was not too steep, but more than ready to distort the truth or be silent in the service of policies, many of which later turned out to be deeply misguided and hurt America’s long term national interests and security.
This early VOA propaganda role and its failures were clearly highlighted during the 1951-1952 hearings before the Select Committee to Conduct an Investigation of the Facts, Evidence and Circumstances of the Katyn Forest Massacre, Eighty-Second Congress. Transcripts from these hearings are not a new document. They have been available to researchers for more more than sixty years. They contain a wealth of valuable information, but they are now rarely consulted and cited, even by those those who try to reinvent U.S. international broadcasting and public diplomacy. The so-called Madden Committee to investigate the murder of thousands of Polish officers in the Katyn Forest near Smolensk, Russia, named after Congressman Ray Madden (D-IN), got a good description from no other than Elmer Davis of how U.S. government propaganda was formulated by the Roosevelt White House, the State Department and Mr. Davis himself. Whether he was completely honest in his answers is less certain.
“Mr. Sheehan. Mr. Davis, can you tell us how vou were selected for the OWI job?
Mr. Davis. Well, I was selected by the President.
Mr. Sheehan. You stated in the beginning that you reported only to the President?
Mr. Davis. That is correct.
Mr. Sheehan. Therefore, the President must have given you some directives, or some ideas of what he wanted you to do, or what job he wanted you to accomplish. Can you relate that?
Mr. Davis. Well, Mr. Roosevelt was a pretty busy man. I didn’t bother him any more than I had to. I think it is fair to say that he was not very much interested in propaganda, so that I didn’t get very many directives from him about specific matters.
Mr. Sheehan. What do you mean by “not very much interested in propaganda”?
Mr. Davis. I don’t think that he regarded it as of any major importance. For example, I don’t think that he attached anything like the weight to it that President Wilson did.
Mr. Sheehan. In other words, you just had a cursory talk with him. The President didn’t lay down any specific principles ?
Let’s be specific. Did he say at any time the way in which you should treat Russia or any of our otlier allies?
Mr. Davis. No ; not other than to
Mr. Sheehan. Then the whole policy of OWI was entirely within your lap ?
Mr. Davis. We had to check with the State Department, as I say, on specific issues; but, very often, we found that the Government had no policy. When I say “very often” that is a little exaggeration, but there were certain cases in which we found that the Government had not decided on policy. We had to keep on presenting news to and about certain countries, and there we just had to “roll our own.”
Mr. Sheehan. The State Department, then, did not lay down any policy for you at any time ?
Mr. Davis. Oh, yes; they did on various points, quite a lot of them.
Mr. Sheehan. To be specific, did they lay down any policy or ask you to follow any particular line with reference to the treatment of Russian news?
Mr. Davis. No.
The answer from Elmer Davis to Congressman Sheehan’s question about policy guidance to OWI-VOA on Russia strained all credibility.
“Mr. Sheehan. Did you agree with Mr. Roosevelt that propaganda wasn’t worth much?
Mr. Davis. No; though I think that its value often has been overrated. Propaganda never won a war by itself. It can be an extremely useful auxiliary to military operations, but it never won a war singlehandedly.”
U.S. Government documents, some of which were declassified in recent years and made available online for the first time, show that acting on orders of U.S. officials, VOA obscured the truth about the real nature of Stalin’s brutal regime in order not to upset America’s wartime alliance with the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany and later briefly against Japan. In VOA’s early years, its programs praised the Soviet dictator and even described the Soviet Union as a radical democracy according to those who monitored VOA broadcasts during the war. An OWI’s political commentator who after the war returned to Poland to write virulently anti-American articles for communist newspapers and some of his colleagues on the Polish desk presented a false version of current events and history to the dismay of VOA radio listeners who had experienced Soviet atrocities.
The coverup of the Soviet responsibility for the Katyn Massacre was, however, official U.S. policy set by the White House and carried out by highest ranking officials of the U.S. State Department, the Office of War Information and the Voice of America which was then known as the OWI Overseas Branch. The OWI also engaged in more sinister attempts to hide the truth about Katyn by threatening private U.S. broadcasters, primarily those carrying Polish-American radio shows, with suspension of their Federal Communication Commission (FCC) broadcasting licenses if they even mentioned Stalin’s responsibility for the Katyn Massacre or allowed other criticism of the Soviet Union on their programs. OWI official responsible for this unconstitutional interference with the free press in the United States was future U.S. Senator from California Alan Cranston. OWI’s wartime director, American radio journalist Elmer Davis, himself wrote in 1943 a commentary for VOA and other U.S. and foreign media pushing the false Soviet propaganda claim of Nazi responsibility for the Katyn Massacre without including any countervailing information available to him and others in the Roosevelt Administration. OWI policy guidance on Katyn to VOA broadcasters was twofold: to blame the crime on the Germans and present it as a Nazi provocation. They were told to downplay the story. Confronted about it by members of Congress during his 1952 testimony, Elmer Davis became defensive, claimed memory lapses and lashed out at his congressional and other critics.
WWII U.S. Media on Katyn
U.S. newspaper reporters, especially those accredited in Moscow, also did not challenge the Soviet claim about Katyn even though, according to information found by U.S. researcher Krystyna Piorkowska, some of them admitted later that they did not believe it, even at the time, to be true. Contemporary reports from American military officers and diplomats who blamed the Soviets for the Katyn crime were classified and suppressed in Washington. The only eyewitness Katyn report that had not mysteriously disappeared at the State Department was written by Kathleen Harriman, a 25-year-old daughter of U.S. Ambassador to Moscow W. Averell Harriman. After visiting Katyn in 1944 with a group of Western correspondents at the invitation of the Soviet Government she concluded that the Nazis committed the murders. She also worked as an OWI/VOA correspondent in Russia. While members of the U.S. Congress relatively quickly objected to pro-Soviet disinformation by the Voice of America and OWI’s violations of the First Amendment protection of U.S. domestic media against government interference, the Katyn coverup continued at least to some degree within the executive branch of the U.S. Government, including the Voice of America foreign broadcasts, until the 1970s and beyond, well after mainstream U.S. media started to report at length about the Soviet role in the massacre.
Pressure from Polish-American leaders and a congressional investigation of the Katyn Massacre forced the Voice of America to start limited reporting about Katyn in the early 1950s, but key facts of the Katyn story continued to be ignored or censored by VOA well into the 1970s. Polish-born Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski who was U.S. National Security Advisor to President Jimmy Carter from 1977 to 1981, tried to get out the truth about Katyn in his U.S. Government role at the NSC, but fuller reporting on the massacre was not possible at VOA until President Reagan entered the White House in January 1981. Even before his election, Ronald Reagan discussed Katyn in one of his radio talks in November 1976 4 and later his administration channeled considerable resources to VOA to beef up broadcasts to Poland and other countries under communist rule. Most importantly, during the Reagan Administration Voice of America foreign language services, including the Polish Service, were given considerably more editorial freedom than they had had previously, as well as additional resources to carry out their mission. Some longtime VOA officials who objected to more hard-hitting but honest reporting about the Soviet Union were transferred to less influential positions. For the first time in decades, the Polish Service was able to broadcast an uncensored interview about Katyn with legendary Polish officer and artist, Jozef Czapski, who had led a futile search for his missing colleagues in Russia between 1941 and 1943. His first 1950 interview with the Voice of America had been censored.
Radio Free Europe — Surrogate Broadcaster Not Afraid to Report on Katyn
Fortunately, during the Cold War the same news reporting restrictions about Katyn combined with unwillingness or inability to spot and reveal Soviet disinformation were not found at the other U.S. sponsored broadcasters, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty (later known as RFE/RL). These surrogate stations have always been much more editorially independent and have had far more regional expertise than VOA. RFE and RL throughout the Cold War continued to present the whole truth about the Katyn Massacre from their studios in Munich, West Germany. Also funded by U.S. taxpayers, but not as a U.S. Government federal entity, RFE/RL operated under a different set of rules as a non-profit federal grantee. Even RFE/RL’s early secret funding and managing overseer, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) which was in charge until 1972, had a far more liberal attitude toward editorial choices than U.S. government officials in charge of VOA. Throughout most of its existence, RFE/RL’s reporters and analysts had a superior knowledge of the region. For decades, their un-compromised reporting and analysis gave RFE/RL a commanding lead over VOA, BBC and other international broadcasters in audience reach and influence in Cold War Eastern Europe. 5 Although operating with much smaller budgets than during the Cold War and under increasing bureaucratic control from the BBG in recent decades, RFE/RL still managed to report at length on the 2012 Katyn documents story and posted online an interview with George Sanford, a professor emeritus of East European politics at England’s University of Bristol and the author of “Katyn and the Soviet Massacre of 1940: Truth, Justice and Memory.”
VOA Then and Now
Despite its failings during the Cold War, which were largely due to government control and bureaucratic inertia, VOA still had a strong and a somewhat different appeal to radio listeners, particularly in the Soviet Union where until the late 1980s it enjoyed a larger audience than Radio Liberty. Even with RFE/RL successful broadcasting to the region, VOA was still desperately needed in information denied countries. Listeners behind the Iron Curtain sought out its broadcasts as the authoritative voice of the U.S. Government and the American people. The Madden Committee investigation forced VOA to start reporting on the Katyn story. VOA radio listeners in Poland saw it as a sign of America’s turning away from Yalta. But in later years, VOA again assigned the Katyn story to relative silence for many years.
In general, the Voice of America often has disappointed and sometimes mislead its foreign audiences, but at other times still managed to play a highly positive role thanks to the efforts of some of its dedicated journalists. Currently under the oversight of the bipartisan Broadcasting Board of Governors, VOA and its agency once again–in the words of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton–are “practically defunct” in their ability to tell America’s story abroad. 6
A fuller understanding of the history of VOA’s WWII propaganda, censorship and later news failures could help legislators avoid solutions such as placing VOA within the State Department or restricting VOA to reporting mainly U.S. news to strategically important countries, such as Russia or China, although VOA should focus much more on the United States in line with its 1976 VOA Charter. Above all, however, VOA’s early history and its current failings, should be a warning to the Obama Administration about putting the entire U.S. international media outreach under the control of a central Washington government bureaucracy without much independent oversight and accountability. Perhaps the Voice of America can still be reformed within a new agency, but putting VOA and surrogate broadcasters under one central administrative umbrella would be the ultimate disaster.
Roosevelt White House Propaganda
In its early years, Voice of America was primarily a wartime propaganda tool of the White House, a fact freely admitted to by its WWII creators and leaders but later downplayed in official and unofficial histories of the U.S. Government international radio station. President Roosevelt’s March 19, 1943 Executive Order establishing the Office of War Information specifically referred to it as a government propaganda agency and left no doubt that it would function as such:
“1. The Office of War Information will plan, develop, and execute all phases of the federal program of radio, press, publication, and related foreign propaganda activities involving the dissemination of information. The program for foreign propaganda in areas of actual or projected military operations will be coordinated with military plans through the planning agencies of the War and Navy Departments, and shall be subject to the approval of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Parts of the foreign propaganda program which are to be executed in a theater of military operations will be subject to the control of the theatre commander. The authority, functions and duties of the Office of War Information shall not extend to the Western Hemisphere, exclusive of the United States and Canada.” — EXECUTIVE ORDER DEFINING THE FOREIGN INFORMATION ACTIVITIES OF THE OFFICE OF WAR INFORMATION, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, THE WHITE HOUSE, March 9, 1943
This sweeping executive order, essentially responsible for doing away with journalistic objectivity on sensitive news developments during wartime, all but assured that the Katyn Massacre would not receive an honest and balanced coverage and, setting an even more dangerous precedent, left the door open for domestic U.S. media censorship of legitimate news stories by the OWI on behalf of the White House.
The May 5, 1944 memo from William Joseph (“Wild Bill”) Donovan, the wartime head of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), a precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency, to OWI head Elmer Davis made it clear that both agencies were to be engaged in overseas propaganda activities. The memo said that that OSS could disseminate false news and run surrogate radio stations abroad. While it did not say that OWI and its Voice of America would engage in news censorship and disseminate false or deceptive news, VOA did on many occasions during the war and even after the war.
To the shock and disbelief of anti-Communist radio listeners in Eastern Europe and in the West, WWII VOA ignored news of Soviet atrocities, old and new, and even lauded Stalin as a radical democratic leader. The Roosevelt White House wanted VOA to promote the message of Russia as a freedom-loving and reliable ally. During the war, Russian was the only major language missing from Voice of America broadcasts. Russian broadcasts from America would have annoyed Stalin and were not launched until 1947. OWI director Elmer Davis had no problem with proposing in December 1942 to dispatch an OWI representative to Moscow with the rank of minister. The OWI already had such representatives at U.S. embassies in other countries.
In January 1944, OWI Overseas Branch director Robert E. Sherwood proposed to the Roosevelt White House “to coordinate British and American propaganda with Russian propaganda.”
“In view of the existence of the London Propaganda Coordinating Committee consisting of representatives of the Department of State, Foreign Office, Combined Chiefs of Staff, OWI and PWE it is desirable for the Russian Government to be represented and to dovetail its political warfare activity directed to Europe with that of OWI and PWE.” — draft of State Department cable to the U.S. Embassy in London, January 1944
Warnings of VOA’s Pro-Soviet Bias in the 1940s
Some of the information of VOA’s early pro-Stalin bias was made public in the late 1940s by Polish democratic leaders in London and the Ambassador to the United States of the wartime Polish Government in Exile. Polish wartime Prime Minister Stanislaw Mikolajczyk wrote in his 1948 book “The Rape of Poland”:
“We finally protested to the United States State Department about the tone of OWI broadcasts to Poland. Such broadcasts, which we carefully monitored in London, might well have emanated from Moscow itself. The Polish underground wanted to hear what was going on in the United States, to whom it turned responsive ears and hopeful eyes. It was not interested in hearing pro-Soviet propaganda from the United States, since that duplicated the broadcasts sent from Moscow.” (p. 25)
Describing his June 1944 meeting in Washington with U.S. Undersecretary of State Edward Stettinius, Prime Minister Mikolajczyk recalled:
“I mentioned also the tone of OWI broadcasts to Poland. They had been following the Communist line consistently, which made our own job more difficult.”
“‘It’s unwise to adopt this approach to the Polish people,’ I told the Undersecretary (Stettinius). ‘If you continue to call Russia a ‘democracy,’ you may eventually regret that statement, and your people will condemn you.”
“Your government once called Poland ‘the inspiration of the nations,’ but now the OWI calls the Communist forces just that. Please don’t think we haven’t tried to make friends with Russia, for we have. Poland just does not want to become another Red satellite.” (pp. 58-59)
The Polish Ambassador to Washington Jan Ciechanowski wrote in his 1947 book “Defeat in Victory”:
“Of all the United States Government agencies, the Office of War Information [where Voice of America was placed], under its new director, Mr. Elmer Davis, had very definitely adopted a line of unqualified praise of Soviet Russia and appeared to support its shrewd and increasingly aggressive propaganda in the United States. The OWI broadcasts to European countries had become characteristic of this trend.”
The most eloquent explanation of the State Department’s dilemma in dealing with Stalin during World War II was given to the Madden Committee by Sumner Wells, a former Ambassador to Cuba, and later Assistant Secretary of State and then Under Secretary of State from May 1937 until the latter part of the summer of 1943. Ambassador Ciechanowski wrote rather highly of him in his book and presented him as well-disposed toward Poland
“Mr. Machrowicz. Mr. Welles, you stated, I believe, some time ago that there was no reason to doubt the good faith of our then ally, the Soviet Union. Was there any reason to doubt the good faith of our other faithful ally, the Polish Government, at the time?
Mr. Welles. None whatever.
Mr. Machrowicz. And the Department did have information from the Polish Government definitely indicating Kussian guilt for the Katyn massacre, did it not?
Mr. Welles. I think it had later what I would call determining evidence. Now, whether that was available as early as the date that you fixed, Mr. Congressman, I do not remember.
Mr. Machrowicz. Did you find anything in the attitude of the Polish Government officials which would indicate anything but a desire to settle their differences with Russia in an amicable manner?
Mr. Welles. From beginning to end, Mr, Congressman, I found nothing but a consistent desire on the part of the Polish Government in exile and, I repeat, particularly on the part of General Sikorski, to find a way out of the impasse through negotiation. I think no man alive could done more than he did to that end.
Mr. Machrowicz. Mr. Welles, looking now in retrospect, don’t you think the whole difficulty was that our Government looked too much toward appeasing Soviet Russia as opposed probably to some of the firm steps recommended by people of the type of Ambassador Standley and others? Would not a little more firmness probably have helped the situation at the time ?
Mr. Welles. It is a very difficult thing to answer in the light of hindsight, Mr. Congressman. As I look at it today, I think you are entirely correct. As we looked at it then, of course, the success of the war effort was the major effort; and I must remind the members of the committee that the one overshadowing fear on the part of our military authorities at that time was a separate peace on the part of the Soviet Government with Germany.
Mr. O’Konski. That is the point I was driving at. In other words, Mr. Welles, the overshadowing thought and the governing policy of our leaders at that time was to go easy with respect to anything that might antagonize Russia? The fact that there were 10,000 to 15,000 officers involved didn’t make any difference? If there had been 100,000, 150,000, or 500,000, the policy would have been still the same? In other words, there was a general fear, unfounded, in my opinion, but in existence at that time that nothing must be done to antagonize good old Soviet Russia, so go easy on everything, no matter what ghastly crimes they commit and no matter how many treaties they violate and no matter how much they insult us ? We still have to go easy on them because we need them as an ally. Wasn’t that really the governing policy ?
Mr. Welles. No, I would not go nearly as far as that, Mr. Congressman; but I think that all of us must agree that at that moment the overshadowing consideration was winning the war, and we had a mighty difficult time in establishing decent relations with the Soviet Union.”
Communists at OWI-VOA
Helping to generate a pro-Soviet propaganda message were scores of WWII VOA broadcasters, some of whom were dedicated pro-Kremlin Communists who were already gone when Senator Joseph McCarthy launched his crusade to root out Soviet sympathizers but ended up hurting innocent individuals and damaging U.S. Government’s reputation. It was a different story during the war. One of the key Polish language commentators at the OWI was Artur Salman, also using the name of Stefan Arski, who later went back to communist-ruled Poland and became the regime’s chief anti-U.S. propagandist denying the Soviet responsibility for the Katyn massacre. No longer with OWI, which was disbanded in 1945, nor with the Voice of America which continued its operations, Stefan Arski was still in the United States in 1947 as a correspondent for the Warsaw Socialist newspaper Robotnik. The Washington Embassy of the Polish Communist Government published Arski’s advocacy book, “The New Polish-German Border: Safeguard of Peace.” He is identified in the 1947 book as having “served in the Office of War Information in the United States during the war.” 9 Shortly after his book was published, Arski returned to Poland. In a 1952 article in the Polish Communist Party daily Trybuna Ludu, titled “Propaganda of Genocide’s Perpetrators,” this former VOA wartime commentator called the activities of the U.S. congressional commission investigating the Katyn Massacre “a gross provocation” equal to the original provocation of the Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels. 10In his article, Stefan Arski condemned the Voice of America coverage of the Katyn hearings. In another article, he described Radio Free Europe as being created by “the flower of America’s dark reactionary forces, fascism, and imperialist domination.” 11 He was no doubt a talented propagandist of his time whether he worked on Voice of America programs or for the communist regime in Warsaw. A February 14, 1952 Incoming Telegram No. 533 from Warsaw, Poland to the Secretary of State regarding an article in “Zycie Warszawy” offers another typical example of anti-U.S. propaganda in Polish communist media.
Seweryn Bialer, a former Polish Communist official who specialized in ideological warfare before defecting to the West in 1956, described briefly in a June 1956 Senate Committee testimony Stefan Arski’s status as a propaganda expert in Poland. 12 Bialer’s translator was Jan Karski, the famous Polish WWII underground courier who during the war had traveled to London and Washington and warned both Winston Churchill and FDR about the murder of millions of Jews by the Nazis in German-occupied Poland. Between February 1944 and May 1945, Seweryn Bialer was a prisoner in the Auschwitz concentration camp before he joined the communist regime in Poland after the war. Shortly after his defection to West Berlin arriving in the United States, Seweryn Bialer participated in numerous interview sessions for Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty in New York, which were broadcast to Poland in 1956. He received a Ph.D. in political science from Columbia and was appointed Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of Political Science. He became a well-regarded expert on the Communist parties of the Soviet Union and Poland. In 1983 he was awarded a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship.
But even Dr. Bialer overestimated the power of communism. It was reported that in May 1981, after President Reagan at Notre Dame University dismissed communism as “a sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written,” Dr. Bialer confidently contradicted Reagan in Foreign Affairs: “The Soviet Union is not now nor will it be during the next decade in the throes of a true systemic crisis, for it boasts enormous unused reserves of political and social stability that suffice to endure the deepest difficulties.” 13 The Soviet Union collapsed eight years later. Some Poles never forgave Dr. Bialer for his earlier association with the communist regime in Poland. But in 1956 he provided information on a number of Poles who had previously lived in the United States and were working for the communist authorities in Warsaw, including Stefan Arski.
“Mr. Morris.[Robert Morris, chief counsel] And your field is propaganda and not intelligence?
The Interpreter.[Jan Karski interpreting for Seweryn Bialer] Yes, sir; mostly political propaganda.
Mr. Morris. Now, did you know any of the American Communists who left the United States and returned to Poland, their native Poland?
The Interpreter. Yes; several cases.
Mr. Morris. Did you know a man named Arski?
The Interpreter. Yes, sir; I know him.
Mr. Morris. Is that Stefan Arski ?
The Interpreter. Yes, sir.
Mr. Morris. Mr. Chairman, Stefan Arski used to be one of the people on the Polish desk of the Office of War Information in the United States.
What was Stefan Arski doing?
The Interpreter. Mr. Stefan Arski is presently in Poland. He is a journalist, and one of the most violently anti-western and anti-American journalists. He specializes in American affairs, and he contributes mostly to the People’s Tribune, an official organ of the Communist Party in Poland.
He wrote several books which we used as a kind of basis for our anti-American propaganda.
Mr. Morris. Mr. Chairman, Mr. Mandel here has the testimony before the Kersten committee, the House committee that investigated the Katyn Forest massacre, and Mr. Arski of the Office of War Information figured in that inquiry.
I wonder if we might put that testimony before that committee about Mr. Arski into the record.
Senator Butler. It will be so ordered.
(The material referred to was marked “Exhibit No. 287″ and reads
Exhibit No. 287
Excerpt from the Katyn Forest massacre, hearings before the Select Committee To Conduct an Investigation of the Facts, Evidence, and Circumstances of the Katyn Forest Massacre, 82nd Congress, 2d session on investigation of the murder of thousands of Polish officers in the Katyn Forest near Smolensk, Russia, part 7. November 11, 1952 (p. 1993)
Mr. Machrowicz (Representative Thaddeus M. Machrowicz of Michigan). Did you know a Stefan Arski, alias Arthur Salman?
Mr. Davis (Elmer Davis, wartime director of the Office of War Information). No.
Mr. Machrowicz. For your information, he was also employed by the Office of War Information in 1945. He is now in Warsaw, Poland, and is editor in chief of the Communist paper Robotnik, which means the Worker, the most outspoken
anti-American organ in Warsaw. He at that time was also an employee of the Office of War Information. You have no recollection of him?
Mr. Davis. No.
Mr. Machrowicz. You have no recollection of either Ambassador Ciechanowski or Congressman Lesinski warning you about the fact that these three persons were known Communists, and were in the employ of the Office of War Information?
Mr. Davis. 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.
Mr. Machrowicz. Would it refresh your recollection if I told you that you
told Ambassador Ciechanowski to keep away from that matter?
Mr. Davis. I don’t know, …”
The head of OWI’s Czechoslovak desk, Dr. Adolf Hofmeister, was also a Communist sympathizer who later served the Soviet-dominated regime in Prague as their ambassador to Paris and in other posts. OWI’s chief Elmer Davis admitted knowing Dr. Hofmeister, but he claimed that he did not know Stefan Arski, alias Artur Salman, who had worked for him during the war at OWI’s Polish desk.
“Mr. Machrowicz.[Rep. Thaddeus Michael Machrowicz (D-MI)] Did you know a Stefan Arski, alias Arthur Salman?
Mr. Davis. No.
Mr. Machrowicz. For your information, he was also employed by the Office of War Information in 1945. He is now in Warsaw, Poland, and is editor in chief of the Communist paper Robotnik, which means The Worker, the most outspoken anti-American organ in Warsaw. He at that time was also an employee of the Office of War Information.
You have no recollection of him ?
Mr. Davis. No.”
OWI CEO Elmer Davis was highly dismissive of the late Congressman John Lesinski, Sr. (D-MI) and former Polish Ambassador to Washington Jan Ciechanowski.
“Mr. Machrowicz. You have no recollection of either Ambassador Ciechanowski or Congressman Lesinski warning you about the fact that these three persons were known Communists, and were in the employ of the Office of War Information ?
Mr. Davis. I don’t remember that Mr. Lesinski ever warned me about anything, Mr. Cieclianowski, perhaps by his excessive number of warnings, made me forget which particular ones he especially spoke about.”
Elmer Davis admitted that Adolf Hofmeister became after the war the Ambassador to France of the Czechoslovak Communist regime, but he stated that “he showed no signs of that inclination [being a Communist supporter] while he was with us that I ever heard of.” Mr. Davis also said that “we found about a dozen [Communist sympathizers], and I fired them.”
But even without such pro-Communist propagandists as Arski and Hofmeister writing scripts for the Voice of America, the Roosevelt White House would have gotten VOA to carry its preferred propaganda message. The Office of War Information Director Elmer Davis, before the war a reporter and editorial writer for The New York Times and subsequently a popular CBS radio news presenter prior to being hired to run the OWI, wrote a commentary for VOA and for distribution to other media on May 3, 1943 in which he unabashedly put the blame for the Katyn Massacre on the Nazis, even though he was well aware of significant evidence of Soviet guilt. 14
“But while the German armies are finding it pretty tough going, the German propaganda won a striking success last week when it succeeded in bringing about a break in diplomatic relations between Russia and the Polish Government in exile. The way the Germans did this is a good example of the doctrine Hitler preached in Mein Kampf, that it is easier to make most people swallow a big lie than a little one.” – Elmer Davis broadcast, May 3, 1943
Elmer Davis set the propaganda tone on Katyn which was then reinforced by various OWI policy directives for Voice of America radio broadcasts and other media outreach.
At 11:00 a.m. on April 16, 1943, OWI’s Control Office sent out “Special Guidance” to “All Desks.”
“Purpose of Germans is clearly to disturb Polish-Soviet relations. This propaganda trick should be exposed as such in all languages so that it may be discredited to both occupied and Allied countries. London is doing this and asks us to join.”
There is nothing in this guidance about the truth or balance.
Notes on OWI’s 5:30 p.m. Meeting, April 16, 1943, marked “CONFIDENTIAL,” said:
“A Special Guidance was issued today on how to treat the Smolensk ‘massacre’ story. We are to show up this story for the propaganda trick it is and we are to use stories rebutting it.”
OWI’s 9:15 a.m. Notes of April 17, 1943 urged Elmer Davis’s one-sided and deceptive broadcast to be used within Europe. Little wonder that many Polish speaking Voice of America radio listeners in Poland, in the Soviet Union (those who could listen to radio) and in the West found these broadcasts both useless, other than presenting the official pro-Yalta U.S. position, and offensive.
“WITHIN EUROPE: The Elmer Davis broadcast should be liberally used to introduce this item. (…)
This line is to be particularly stressed in our product to neutral and satellite states.Occupied countries will need little convincing.”
OWI’s April 19, 1943 memorandum had the following lines:
“On April 17th the 5:30 p.m. notes had the following negative: ‘No further use to be made of Polish atrocity story.’ This decision was taken because the BBC apparently had given only routine coverage to this story which we, by this time, had treated very fully.
In the course of the day (Saturday, April 17) a message was received from Mr. Winner in which he questioned the utility of the story and said that it was the feeling of the 2:30 p.m. meeting in Washington that the whole subject was dangerous and had better be dropped.
Later reports received from our Propaganda Analysis section on Sunday, April 18th, show that BBC in shows monitored by CBS and FCC carried this story only four times.”
The reference to the story being “treated very fully” meant not balanced reporting but presenting the Soviet version repeatedly. The April 19 memo set the tone for the later Voice of America approach to the Katyn story which was to keep silent about it as much as possible for many years. Ironically, it was exactly the same strategy adopted later by both the Soviet government and the Polish regime in Warsaw. Any references to Katyn were to be suppressed or ignored except in special circumstances.
This approach of limiting coverage of the Katyn story could be seen in OWI’s New York Office of Control 12:45 p.m. April 17, 1943 memo to “All Desks”:
“POLISH OFFICERS ‘ATROCITY’ STORY:
In connection with the 9:15 a.m. note on this subject, we should now drop further use of statement by United States senators on this.
These statements were carried in BN-153 of April 16th.”
1943 State Department Guidance on Katyn
Shortly after Elmer Davis wrote his commentary in 1943, even the State Department advised OWI not taking a position on the Katyn Massacre due to contradictory evidence. The State Department would have preferred if the Voice of America remained silent on the story. Elmer Davis decided, however, to push the Nazi guilt propaganda. An April 22, 1943, a State Department memorandum stated:
“and on the basis of the various conflicting contentions [concerning Katyn] of all parties concerned, it would appear to be advisable to refrain from taking any definite stand in regard to this question.” – U.S. State Department Memorandum, April 22, 1943 15]
The Congressional Committee investigating the Katyn Massacre concluded in 1952 in its Final Report that “Mr. Davis, therefore bears the responsibility for accepting the Soviet propaganda version of the Katyn massacre without full investigation.” “A very simple check with either Army Intelligence (G-2) or the State Department would have revealed that the Katyn massacre issue was extremely controversial,” the Committee noted.
Wartime Congressional Concerns About OWI-VOA
Members of Congress knew that the OWI was putting out pro-Soviet, anti-Polish propaganda. They also suspected that Soviet sympathizers were working at the OWI’s Polish desk. Mr. Louis Robert Coatney found and presented in his 1993 Master thesis the following information:
“In Congress, members sympathetic to Poland entered items mentioning Katyn in the appendices of the Congressional Record. In the Record, itself, there is no direct mention of Katyn. There is, however, intriguing mention of the Office of War Information (OWI) on 19-20 April 1943. On 19 April, Senator Robert Taft (R–Ohio) submitted a bill regulating the OWI’s activities. On 20 April, Congressman Roy O. Woodruff (R-Michigan) asked for the floor for one minute. In his brief diatribe, he demanded an investigation into Communist infiltration of the OWI, concluding “the man in charge of the Polish Overseas Unit of O.W.I. has not lived in Poland for 15 years and has been active in French Communist circles, coming recently to America.”
Even more interesting were some of Congressman Woodruff’s earlier remarks:
“For 3 years the Polish Government in exile has been working to keep morale within Poland alive against the time of liberation. But now reports are constantly reaching me and other Members of Congress that the propaganda activities of the Polish Unit of O.W.I.’s Overseas Division are destroying rather than building the morale of the helpless Polish people.
These reports tell us that much of this propaganda follows the American Communist Party line and is designed to prepare the minds of the Polish people to accept partition, obliteration, or suppression of their nation when the fighting ends. The same is true of Yugoslavia, where, I am told, the name of the great Mihailovitch is blocked out by O.W.I. radicals.
If it is true that Communists have infiltrated into the O.W.I.’s Overseas Division and are following the party line in their propaganda to Poland, as well as other countries, then it is an outrageous violation of the faith that is reposed in Elmer Davis and Robert Sherwood.” — Congressman Roy O. Woodruff (R-Michigan), April 20, 1943
Congressman Woodruff was essentially right on every point. Some of the key members of OWI’s Polish desk preparing Voice of America broadcasts wanted a socialist or communist government friendly to Moscow to be established in Poland. Some of them may have bought into their own propaganda, which was also accepted by FDR, that Stalin was a democrat, albeit a radical one, and that his demands vis-à-vis Poland should be met. Very few of OWI employees were later identified as Soviet intelligence agents or agents of influence, but even without them Elmer Davis, Robert Sherwood and VOA’s first director John Houseman would have produced propaganda programs reflecting President Roosevelt’s view of Stalin and his vision of U.S. relations with Russia. They would have blocked any opposing views. The hearings’ focus on OWI’s Communist sympathizers, while not trivial, detracted from what was the fundamental problem of a faulty White House policy toward Stalin and a faulty set-up of the propaganda agency.
Kathleen Harriman Mortimer
Another OWI contributor of Katyn fame was Kathleen Harriman, a daughter of President Roosevelt’s ambassador to Russia, W. Averell Harriman, who at the request of her father went to observe the Soviet exhumation of Polish officers’ bodies at Katyn and wrote a report endorsing the Soviet claim that the Poles had been killed by the Nazis. According to former U.S. Ambassador to Poland, Arthur Bliss Lane, her report was the only one in the Katyn file at the State Department at the end of the war. She testified before the Katyn Committee under her married name Mrs. Kathleen Mortimer. In her testimony, she tried to minimize her OWI work and said that she had not reported from Katyn for OWI. It was her official report to the U.S. Government that caused confusion and mislead officials in Washington, but her conclusion was exactly what her father, President Roosevelt and Stalin wanted to hear.
According to Polish officer Captain Jozef Czapski who was one of the few not killed by the Soviet NKVD secret police and was charged by the Polish Government in London with a futile search for the missing soldiers, Mr. Harriman’s report to the U.S. Government did tremendous damage, but several U.S. and other Western correspondents who went with her to Katyn wrote articles with similar conclusions. If they had reported differently, they would not have been able to stay in the Soviet Union or could have been charged by the Soviet regime with being Nazi agents. Ms. Harriman might have been safer as a daughter of the U.S. ambassador, but she failed to raise any doubts about what she saw. A report by an American military officer, Lieutenant Colonel John H. Van Vliet, Jr., who as an American POW had witnessed the German exhumation and concluded without any doubt that the Soviets were responsible for the murders, had mysteriously disappeared from U.S. government archives. 16
The State Department also could not provide its diplomat going to Warsaw in 1945 as U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet-dominated regime in Warsaw numerous other U.S. and Polish reports pointing to the Soviet guilt at Katyn. They also were classified and hidden or seemed to have mysteriously disappeared. The only report the State Department could show to Ambassador Bliss Lane in 1945 was written by a 25-year-old OWI freelancer.
OWI’s Domestic Propaganda and Censorship
OWI’s head Elmer Davis, despite his distinguished journalistic and radio background, was all too eager to ignore inconvenient facts and to present the pro-Soviet line, as did many other American journalists. When the Polish American media and other more enterprising American broadcasters tried to expose Stalin’s crimes, one of OWI’s divisions made every attempt to silence such reporting, thus introducing government censorship and propaganda into the U.S. domestic political sphere. OWI even produced films on the benefits of the internment of Japanese Americans.
Members of Congress were especially harsh in condemning OWI’s domestic news censorship activities on on the Voice of America for restricting news reporting about Katyn in broadcasts to Poland.
“Furthermore, members of the staff of both OWI and FCC did engage in activities beyond the scope of their responsibilities. This unusual activity of silencing radio commentators ﬁrst came to light in August 1943 when the House committee investigating the National Communications Commission discovered the procedure.
The technique utilized by staff members of OWI and FCC to silence was as follows: Polish radio commentators in Detroit and Buffalo broadcasting in foreign languages after the announcement of the discovery of the mass graves of Polish officers at Katyn reported facts indicating that the Soviets might be guilty of this massacre.
In May 1943 a member of the FCC staff suggested to a member of the OWI staff that the only way to prevent these comments was to contact the Wartime Foreign Language Radio Control Committee. This committee was made up of station owners and managers who were endeavoring to cooperate with the OWI and FCC during the war years. Accordingly a meeting was arranged in New York with two of the members of this industry committee. They were specifically requested by the OWI staff member to arrange to have a Polish radio commentator in Detroit restrict his comments to straight news items concerning Katyn, and only those by the standard wire services. The fact that a member of the FCC staff attended this meeting is signiﬁcant because the FCC in such a case had no jurisdiction. In fact, the FCC member was in New York to discuss the renewal of the radio license of one of these industry members. The owner of the radio station in Detroit was contacted and requested to restrict the comments of the Polish commentator on his station, and this was done.
By applying indirect pressure on the station owner, these staff members accomplished their purpose, namely, keeping the full facts of the Katyn massacre story from the American people. (See vol. VII of the published hearings.) Ofﬁce of Censorship officials testified and supported the conclusion of this committee that the OWI and FCC officials acted beyond the scope of their official Government responsibilities on this matter of Katyn.
Testimony before this committee likewise proves that the Voice of America-—successor to the Ofﬁce of War Information-—-had failed to fully utilize available information concerning the Katyn massacre until the creation of this committee in 1951. The committee was not impressed with statements that publication of facts concerning this crime, prior to 1951, would lead to an ill-fated uprising in Poland. Neither was it convinced by the statements of OWI ofﬁcials that for the Polish-Americans to hear or read about the Katyn massacre in 1943 would have resulted in a lessening of their cooperation in the Allied war effort.” — House Report No. 2505, 82nd Congress, Concerning the Katyn Forest Massacre, December 22, 1952
Polish Perceptions of VOA During 1944 Warsaw Uprising
WWII Voice of America broadcasts not only gave Stalin a near hero status, but they also ignored or distorted news about activities of the non-Communist Polish underground resistance movement Armia Krajowa (AK), which Stalin wanted to eliminate while promoting a small group of Polish Communists who were to rule Poland in his name after the war. During the 1944 AK-led Warsaw Uprising against the Germans, non-communist Poles, who were the vast majority of the nation, found VOA Polish broadcasts useless, if not offensive.
A Polish radio journalist in London reported after the war of being horrified by the lack of news from Warsaw in Voice of America Polish language programs as AK fighters were rounded up by the Nazis and the city burned. The Red Army stopped its offensive and allowed the uprising to fail. Even President Roosevelt, worried about his 1944 election campaign and under pressure from Polish Americans, eventually made an attempt to get allied planes to drop supplies to the Polish fighters by asking Stalin to allow planes to land on the Soviet-controlled territory. After a long delay, Stalin reluctantly agreed, but the help was both late and insufficient.
Unlike the U.S. Government, the British Government exercised less censorship over the BBC and even allowed a Polish surrogate radio station in Britain, Swit (a surrogate Polish station), to broadcast practically anything Polish journalists London wanted to tell listeners in Poland. Swit was in secret radio communication with the Underground in Poland and received frequent news updates which were then immediately broadcast back to Poland. With the exception of very few people who knew the secret, most Poles believed that Swit was actually broadcasting from inside Nazi-occupied Poland, which would have been impossible in the long run due to German electronic surveillance.
During World War II, there were no American supported surrogate broadcasts to Poland. The OWI’s Voice of America was the only U.S. radio broadcaster reaching Poland on shortwave. While VOA broadcasts were monitored by the anti-Nazi underground in Poland for their international news and U.S. government views, the BBC and the Polish surrogate radio station in Britain Swit were, according to many accounts, the primary source of important news from and about Poland. In his book “The Secret Army,” General Tadeusz Bór-Komorowski who led the 1944 uprising in Warsaw against superior German forces, makes numerous mentions to BBC, Swit, Radio Moscow and Polish underground radio, but there is not a single reference in his detailed book to the Voice of America. VOA’s bias and lack of news from Poland may have been the reason. During the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, the Voice of America news from Washington strictly toed the Soviet line.
A WWII Polish radio broadcaster in London Czeslaw Straszewicz wrote in a 1953 article in Paris-based Polish liberal anti-communist intellectual journal Kultura about VOA’s dismal performance:
“During the Warsaw Uprising, Swit could broadcast anything we wanted under the disapproving looks of the Brits. 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] 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.”
One of the Polish anti-Nazi Underground operatives providing news to Swit from Poland was Mrs. Zofia Korbonska, who after the war defected to the West with her husband, Polish political leader Stefan Korbonski. She later joined the Voice of America Polish Service thanks to the intervention of former U.S. Ambassador to Poland Arthur Bliss Lane.
Former U.S. Ambassador on VOA’s Failures
Ambassador Arthur Bliss Lane, who had left the U.S. Foreign Service in 1947 and his book, “I Saw Poland Betrayed” warned about Stalin’s duplicity and President Roosevelt’s naiveté, hoped that outstanding personalities like Mrs. Korbonska would be able to force reforms at VOA. After it became obvious that the news organization cannot be reformed internally within the State Department, Ambassador Bliss Lane joined other prominent Americans in pushing for the creation of Radio Free Europe and for placing it as far away from Washington and as close to the target area as possible.
Ambassador Arthur Bliss Lane made the following observations about the Voice of America in his 1948 book:
“As for radio broadcasts beamed to Poland as the ‘Voice of America,’ my opinion of their value differed radically from that of the authors of the program in the Department of State. First, from a practical standpoint, no broadcast from the United States could receive wide dissemination in Poland: there were few radio sets in operation after the Nazi occupation, and those on sale were arranged so that only Polish Government stations could be heard. Second, I felt that the Department’s policy to tell the people in Eastern Europe what a wonderful democratic life we in the United States enjoy showed its complete lack of appreciation of their psychology. And, especially in Poland, which had suffered through six years of Nazi domination, it was indeed tactless, to say the least, to remind the Poles that we had democracy, which they also might again be enjoying, had we not acquiesced in their being sold down the river at Teheran and Yalta. Indeed, after I left Poland, persons returning to the United States told me that very few Poles would listen to the ‘Voice of America’ broadcast even if they had access to radio sets which could receive it.
But this opinion of mine is not to be construed as an objection in general against radio broadcasts to the Soviet Union or to other nations behind the Iron Curtain. If appropriate material is used which will bring hope and cheer, instead of intensifying despair, there is much of a constructive nature that we can do. But the wisdom of statesmanship, not of salesmanship, is a requisite.” — Arthur Bliss Lane, I Saw Poland Betrayed: An American Ambassador Reports to the American People, The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Indianapolis and New York, 1948, p. 219.
Ambassador Bliss Lane was right and prophetic on almost every point, but he underestimated the ability of the Poles to obtain shortwave radios and their willingness to listen to VOA despite the program’s many deficiencies because it still offered a somewhat free voice from the United States.
After his retirement from the Foreign Service, Lane became a public supporter of greatly expanding U.S. radio transmissions to the Soviet block outside of the State Department’s control. He believed that what the Voice of America was putting on the air did not only send a wrong message, it was not nearly enough to help topple the Soviet regime. He joined a group of prominent Americans who in the early 1950s created and supported Radio Free Europe (RFE), a station run by the CIA and staffed with East European émigrés. This group of organizers and supporters included General Dwight Eisenhower, General Charles Douglas (C.D.) Jackson, who later became President Eisenhower’s advisor on countering Soviet propaganda, the hero of the Berlin Airlift General Lucius Clay, former U.S. Ambassador to Japan and former Under Secretary of State Joseph C. Grew, U.S. intelligence specialist Frank Wisner, future CIA Director Allen W. Dulles and many other distinguished members.
One of those soliciting private donations for RFE was Ronald Reagan. These campaigns did not succeed in producing the millions of dollars needed to keep the station on the air. The money had to come from the U.S. Congress and was hidden in the CIA budget. With it came restrictions and instructions of various kinds but of a more general and sophisticated nature than those at the Voice of America in Washington. Émigré journalists at RFE were told that they did not have to agree with or support every single U.S. policy provided that their broadcasts served long term foreign policy interests of the United States. They did and with a smaller contribution from the Voice of America they helped to win the Cold War.
But even more strategic and nuanced approach to editorial guidance at Radio Free Europe did not save individual editors and language services at RFE from having to disagree frequently with their American managers. Some, like Jan Nowak, the legendary director of the RFE Polish Service, often openly defied the management’s instructions and survived, although at least one U.S. ambassador to Poland, Jacob D. Beam, wanted to have him fired and RFE broadcasts to Poland terminated for being too critical of the Polish communist leader Wladyslaw Gomulka. Vice President Richard Nixon, to whom Beam complained about RFE, reportedly told him that besides fostering good relations with the government, an American diplomat also has a duty to maintain a close relationship with the people of the country where he serves. Beam later served as Ambassador to the Soviet Union. Ironically, Jan Nowak’s editorial policy was to give general support to Gomulka’s reforms which did not last very long. Such editorial independence, courage and ability to confront upper-level BBG, VOA or RFE/RL managers on editorial policy is simply impossible within the current Broadcasting Board of Governors centralized administrative setup which BBG bureaucrats want to make even more centralized.
According to many former Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty officials, Bliss Lane was right. What made the station successful was ample funding but without the usual U.S. government institutional controls under which the Voice of America had to operate at that time and does now (unfortunately, the BBG’s surrogate media outlets are now also suffocating under the government bureaucracy in Washington). There was also an additional benefit of maintaining an appearance of having a privately-run radio station. When communist regimes raised protests with American diplomats against the content of the broadcasts, the State Department could claim that RFE had no official links to the U.S. Government, although practically no one believed such claims.
Once Radio Free Europe started its broadcasts to Poland on May 3, 1952 radio listeners in Poland quickly embraced the new American-funded station and it became by far the most popular. During the 1970-1971 workers’ unrest and regime crisis in Poland, RFE/RL’s audience was estimated at about 80 percent; and VOA’s audience was estimated at about 20 percent based on travelers’ surveys. Audience size differences between RFE and VOA in other East European countries were not as enormous, but they were substantial in favor of RFE. The only exceptions for some time during the Cold War in Central and Eastern Europe was Czechoslovakia, as was the Soviet Union.
VOA Censorship of Katyn In 1970s
Even as late as 1978, some broadcasters at the Voice of America were still afraid to tell the whole truth about the Soviet murder of thousands of Polish officers and continued to censor material facts. This resulted in condemnations from independent writers and political dissidents in Poland, in a Jack Anderson’s column, and behind the scenes from the National Security Advisor to President Carter, Polish-born scholar Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski. “Found on checking into Jack Anderson column on VOA censorship of Katyn story that it is all too true,” NSC staffer Paul Henze wrote in a June 21, 1978 memo to Dr. Brzezinski. 17
Jack Anderson wrote in his June 1976 column about the censorship incident at the Voice of America:
“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’.”
Jozef Czapski – VOA in the 1950s and During Reagan Years
The VOA Polish Service only started to report the whole truth about the Katyn massacre in the 1980s during the Reagan administration when I was placed in charge of the service. At that time, VOA was still part of USIA. For the first time, in 1984 VOA Polish Service broadcast a lengthy interview with Jozef Czapski, a Polish reserve officer during the war, artist and writer. He was one of the few survivors of the Russian massacre of Polish officers and was looking for “missing” Polish POWs in Russia. He was being deceived as to their fate by Soviet officials. 18
While the 1984 VOA interview is in Polish, it follows closely the report Jozef Czapski submitted to American officials during WWII. I have included Jozef Czapski’s report in a footnote. 19
An earlier VOA interview with Jozef Czapski recorded in 1950 during his visit to the United States, when VOA was still under the State Department, had been censored by VOA officials to remove any references to Katyn. 20
Lessons for the Future
This early VOA history is not to be found in most books about the station written by former VOA officials who prefer to stress the misleading narrative of the Voice of America always reporting the truth, whether the news was good or bad. During WW II VOA generally did not falsify military news, although it sometimes distorted it for propaganda purposes, but political news was censored and often replaced with propaganda and disinformation, which served both the White House and Stalin, but not necessarily long-term U.S. national security and foreign policy interests and values.
In the 1990s, however, VOA went again into a period of a long decline under the new bureaucratic regime of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). When in 2012, after a request sent to President Obama by members of Congress, the U.S. National Archives declassified nearly 1,000 pages of documents showing that the U.S. Government had early and extensive knowledge of Soviet guilt, which U.S. officials decided to hide, VOA’s main English language news website failed to report on the newly released Katyn evidence even though VOA had been guilty of numerous incidents of Katyn story censorship in the past. Reporting on this development also could have helped counter Russia’s current propaganda campaign of distorting other key events in WWII history, especially the 1939 Hitler-Stalin Pact, also known as the Ribbentrop-Molotov Non-Agression Pact with its secret addendum to divide Poland and allow Stalin a free hand in the Baltics. 21
While the Russian Government and President Putin no longer deny Soviet responsibility for the Katyn murder, they have blocked any further Russian investigation and make false historical claims to justify Russian aggression in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. The VOA Russian Service only posted a short, five paragraph news item on the Katyn documents release. A year earlier, an independent new media scholar in Russia had warned the BBG about scarcity of historical themes on the VOA Russian site and–most significantly–its “pro-Putin bias.” VOA English and Russian services both ignored an Associated Press report in January 2014 about U.S. researcher Krystyna Piórkowska’s spectacular discovery in the U.S. National Archives of the the Paris-dated May 10, 1945 sworn testimony of former American prisoner of war Lt. Col. John H. Van Vliet Jr. who had visited Katyn in 1943. 22 His other report on the visit to Katyn, written a few days later in Washington, has been missing for many decades. Considering the Voice of America’s long record of disinformation and underreporting of the Katyn story, one would expect VOA to report on this discovery, especially in light of Putin’s increasing historical lies and propaganda about Russian military intervention in Ukraine. These more recent VOA news reporting failures were likely a result of mission confusion, shortage of area experts and carelessness rather than being acts of deliberate censorship characteristic of VOA’s early years, but they all point to an organization in a deep crisis unable to cope with the onslaught of propaganda from Russia in the digital age as it was also unable to deal with it through much of its earlier existence.
Ironically, Mr. Elmer Davis, the OWI director and the author of the pro-Soviet Katyn commentary for the Voice of America, was not a State Department diplomat but an American journalist in the service of the President and the White House. He was a Peabody Award recipient. Faced with evidence of his journalistic and managerial failures, he lashed out at his critics even though they were right.
There are no guarantees that even highly distinguished journalists will perform well in official U.S. Government positions. They did not do well then, and they do even worse now with the considerable drop in quality of managers and journalists BBG and VOA are able to attract and keep. Giving them even greater control of not only VOA but also the surrogate broadcasters would be a grave error despite dubious claims that such a move might save money. It is well remembering that RFE and RL were created as semi-independent surrogate broadcasters because VOA was perceived as a failure in the 1940s and 1950s that that RFE and RL had considerably greater audience reach and impact than VOA throughout the Cold War. Arguing BBG consolidation is like saying that the consolidation of the United States Information Agency (USIA) into the State Department was a great idea and resulted in major savings. Getting rid of USIA and creating the BBG was in fact a major post-Cold War mistake that weakened both U.S. public diplomacy and U.S. international broadcasting.
Knowing the early and later history of VOA and RFE/RL is important in light of current efforts by defenders of the status quo to stall any meaningful reforms of U.S. international media outreach in the age of new information war with Putin’s Russia. They would like to bring RFE/RL and the other so-called “surrogate broadcasters” under even greater political and bureaucratic control in Washington. Members of Congress who have traditionally supported and defended U.S. international broadcasting are proposing an alternative reform in the form of a bipartisan bill, H.R. 2323, the United States International Communications Reform Act. If passed by the House and the Senate and signed by the President, the bipartisan reform bill introduced by Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), the Committee’s Ranking Member, would strengthen the independence of surrogate broadcasters and might reform the management of the Voice of America. Status quo defenders claim that reforms have already been made and that centralization of control in Washington would result in savings and make U.S. international media outreach more responsive and effective. The historical record suggests the opposite.
VOA news reports in English and in other languages frequently fall for Kremlin propaganda and disinformation. Recent news reporting failures and BBG’s management’s responses are eerily similar to VOA’s performance and the management’s unconvincing justifications of poor reporting and censorship during WWII and for years afterwards. While WWII VOA propaganda was made deliberately pro-Soviet by high-level government officials helped by a few pro-Kremlin Communists within the OWI, an independent Russian scholar concluded in a 2011 study commissioned by the BBG that the current VOA Russian Service has a “pro-Putin” bias because of its inability to understand and respond to Putin’s propaganda and confusion about what should be VOA’s mission. 23
Knowing this history could be useful to U.S. lawmakers trying to reform the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the present parent agency for all U.S. international media entities, including the Voice of America. For one thing, VOA should under no circumstances be charged with “promoting” foreign policy of any U.S. administration, as such policies can later turn out to be disastrously wrong, nor should any entity directly run by the U.S. Government, such as VOA or BBG, be expected to be a central news provider to countries without free media or an effective administrator of surrogate broadcasting.
Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, established in the early 1950s, broadcast information about Katyn without any restrictions or censorship. Creating a central Washington-based bureaucracy to be in charge of all U.S. international media outreach, which the BBG already is now to a large extent, would be a continuation and strengthening of the current administrative disaster.
I can say this with some knowledge and authority having traveled the whole road from being a listener to VOA and RFE at a young age in a communist-ruled Poland, to being in charge of VOA Polish Service successful broadcasts during the Solidarity period, and finally being part of the BBG and VOA mid-level and upper management as marketing director for Eurasia and VOA Eurasia Division director and acting associate director before retiring from the agency in 2006. During my career, I managed to preserve integrity of VOA’s journalistic work, but I also kept close contacts with State Department and USIA diplomats. 90 percent of the time, they were not the problem. The problem was the internal VOA management and later the BBG bureaucracy which was worse than anything I had experienced before.
When I joined VOA in 1973, Radio Free Europe had many times more listeners in Poland than VOA. All VOA East European services lagged significantly behind their RFE counterparts in audience reach. Only VOA Polish and Czechoslovak services eventually caught up with RFE in audience size, but not in their overall impact. In the 1970s, I was appalled by the poor quality of VOA news reporting. It would have been even worse if it were not for a few European-educated editors in the VOA newsroom. They tried to help, but ultimately they and language service chiefs were powerless against the growing bureaucracy. One of my much older colleagues who before World War II was a Polish correspondent in Paris, returned to Poland in 1939 to join the Polish Army, escaped from under the Soviet occupation, served as a war correspondent in Western Europe, published a best selling book, worked for Radio Free Europe for several years as an editor and manager before moving to Washington and joining VOA, spoke several languages and studied Latin and Greek in his youth, could not understand why a VOA administrative assistant who processed his payroll had a higher grade and higher pay than he did.
There are now still exceptional VOA services and reporters, but I must say sadly that VOA news reporting in general is nearly as bad now as it was in the 1940s. VOA is now largely irrelevant on social media when compared to BBC, Russia’s RT or any large U.S. newspaper. I can’t imagine the Voice of America during the years I had worked there commissioning a U.S. Government-funded poll in a Soviet-occupied territory and later proclaiming without any questions asked that the vast majority enthusiastically supports the Russian rule, as BBG and VOA did in Crimea shortly after it was illegally annexed by Russia. Even worse, BBG and VOA officials would not admit that they had done anything wrong. I would bet that they have never heard of the Welles Declaration 24 which for decades guided the U.S. policy of non-recognition of the 1940 Soviet annexation of the Baltic states. If they did, they would have thought twice about doing a poll in Russia-annexed Crimea, not to mention the fact that according to U.S., Russian and Ukrainian experts a public opinion poll under these circumstances could not produce valid results.
Then as now, the problem was not so much official censorship, which has largely disappeared, as it was bureaucratic incompetence, poor leadership and waste of resources. The BBG firewall designed to protect VOA from White House and State Department policy directives did nothing to eliminate mismanagement. The 1976 VOA Charter largely took care of official censorship issues, but it did not solve the management problem. The BBG legislation only made BBG officials more unaccountable.
Any new legislative reforms should focus primarily on eliminating bureaucratic waste and making both VOA and surrogate broadcasters journalistically more independent, but also accountable. VOA and the surrogates definitely do not belong together, as they have different missions and perform best on their own.
I must admit that what made the VOA Polish Service successful when I was a service chief, was a refocus on Poland-related news, but with a strong U.S. perspective. I listened to RFE on shortwave radio in Washington to find out what was really going on in Poland to plan our broadcasts appropriately, but VOA would never have been able to match RFE’s ability to report surrogate news and provide surrogate commentary. However, by focusing on U.S. responses to events in Poland, VOA provided a valuable service both to the people of Poland and to the American people who are paying for U.S. international media outreach. For strategically important countries, and for some countries in crisis, having both VOA and surrogate broadcasts makes good sense. For most countries such duplication should be avoided.
Arguments that a central Washington bureaucracy can run all of U.S. international media outreach are a recipe for keeping the defunct status quo. It is worth remembering that prominent Americans of both political parties, including General Eisenhower and George Kennan, pushed hard for creating Radio Free Europe as a separate, non-governmental entity after concluding that Washington-based VOA has become ineffective. Thanks to them, RFE/RL became the great success story of the Cold War. Eventually VOA also managed to play a constructive role. But VOA never came close to having the kind of influence and impact RFE/RL had and continues to have in some countries.
- VOA CHARTER
To protect the integrity of VOA programming and define the organization’s mission, the VOA Charter was drafted in 1960 and later signed into law on July 12, 1976, by President Gerald Ford. It reads:
The long-range interests of the United States are served by communicating directly with the peoples of the world by radio. To be effective, the Voice of America must win the attention and respect of listeners. These principles will therefore govern Voice of America (VOA) broadcasts:
1. VOA will serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news. VOA news will be accurate, objective, and comprehensive.
2. VOA will represent America, not any single segment of American society, and will therefore present a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions.
3. VOA will present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and will also present responsible discussions and opinion on these policies. (Public Law 94-350) ↩
“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.” — Timothy P. Sheehan (R-IL), Supplementary Statement to “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 Forest Massacre,” December 22, 1952↩
- Message to President Franklin D. Roosevelt from Winston Churchill, 8/13/1943 with the 24 May 1943 Owen O’Malley Report to the Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, on the Katyn Massacre. ↩
See: “Cold War Broadcasting Impact: Report on a Conference organized by the Hoover Institution and the Cold War International History Project of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars at Stanford University,” October 13-16, 2004. Link. ↩
“And finally, we need to do a better job conveying a counter-narrative to the extremist Jihadist narrative. You know, I’ve said this to this Committee before — a lot of new members on it — you know, we have abdicated the broadcasting arena. You know, yes, we have private stations: CNN, Fox, NBC, all of that. They are out there, they convey information, but we’re not doing what we did during the Cold War.”
“Our Broadcasting Board of Governors is practically defunct in terms of its capacity to be able to tell a message around the world. So we’re abdicating the ideological arena, and we need to get back into it. We have the best values. We have the best narrative.”
“Most people in the world just want to have a good decent life that is supported by a good decent job and raise their families and we’re letting the Jihadist narrative fill a void. We have to get in there and compete and we can do it successfully.” — Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during testimony on January 23, 2013 before the House Foreign Affairs Committee meeting chaired by Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) ↩
- “Appeasement of Russia grew by the hour both in London and Washington. To the anxious Poles in London it seemed as if both the British and American people felt shameful about their inability to open the second front for which Stalin now clamored. Communist propaganda, which stressed the activities of the Red Army and neglected all Russian depredations, made its weight felt on the Allied free press.” (p. 25)
“The picture of Russia became distorted. Ambassador Jan Ciechanowski reported from Washington that pro-Soviet elements had moved into important places in some of the United States war agencies and that any American who attempted to bring up such distasteful matters, as for instance, the cold-blooded murders of the Polish, Jewish Socialist leaders—Henryk Ehrlich and Wiktor Alter—was pilloried as a ‘Fascist saboteur and German spy.’” (p. 25)
“In the end Roosevelt asked me to see Stalin. I agreed instantly, and he dispatched a message to the Marshal asking him to receive me. It was a flattering message, couched in informal terms. Before I left the White House for the last time, Roosevelt promised to help the Polish underground, indicated a willingness to aid in the enormous task of rehabilitating postwar Poland—he mentioned loans for a highway program and the extension of rural electrification—and assured me that the OWI broadcasts about which I had complained would be changed.” (p. 61) ↩
- “As a high light of this pro-Soviet psychosis, which was being actively instilled in the minds of American public opinion from official quarters, I should mention the refusal I got from the OWI when I asked this agency to help me in obtaining the rectification of maps of Poland which then appeared in the current issue of the Encyclopedia Britannica Atlas.”
“While agreeing with me that a rectification was desirable, considering that these maps showed a final incorporation into Russia of the territories given by Hitler to the Soviets during the Russo-German honeymoon in 1939 and 1940, the OWI officials contended that any rectification might annoy the Soviets and this they were not prepared to risk.” (pp. 115-116)
“But, curiously enough, while some government departments realized the danger of unduly encouraging Soviet-Russian appeasement, some of the new war agencies actively conducted what could only be termed pro-Soviet propaganda.”
So-called American propaganda broadcasts to occupied Poland were outstanding proofs of this tendency. Notorious pro-Soviet propagandists and obscure foreign communists and fellow travelers were entrusted with these broadcasts.”
“I protested repeatedly against the pro-Soviet character of such propaganda. I explained to those responsible for it in the OWI that the Polish nation, suffering untold oppression from Hitler’s hordes, was thirsting for plain news about America and especially about her war effort, her postwar plans, and her moral leadership, that Soviet propaganda was being continuously broadcast anyway to Poland directly from Moscow, and there seemed no reason additionally to broadcast it from the United States.”
“When I finally appealed to the Secretary of State and to divisional heads of the State Department, protesting against the character of the OWI broadcasts to Poland, I was told that the State Department was aware of these facts but could not control this agency, which boasted that it received its directives straight from the White House.” (pp. 130-131)
(Ambassador Ciechanowski’s account of his conversation with U.S. Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles after Stalin broke diplomatic relations with the Polish Government-in-Exile on April 26, 1943. Stalin objected to Poland’s request to the International Red Cross for an independent investigation of the Katyn massacre.) “On my part, I drew Mr. Welles’s special attention to the necessity of curbing the exaggerated pro-Soviet tendency of OWI propaganda at this delicate moment.”
“He promised he would try to do so.” (p. 161)
“Contrary to OWI and fellow-traveler propaganda, American public opinion was becoming apprehensive that the Soviets were not turning out to be an ideal of ‘radical democracy’ and beginning to wonder if it was not more judicious to seek reinsurance in world affairs in a more natural association between the two English-speaking democracies.” (p. 201)
In the atmosphere of silence inspired by the OWI on all Soviet-Polish matters, the publication of excerpts from the Polish and Soviet declarations suddenly revealed to public opinion the existence of an acute Soviet-Polish problem.”
“This revelation coincided with the rising anxiety that, contrary to officially inspired enthusiasm, the Teheran meeting had not been the unqualified success it was made out to be. I frequently heard expressions of criticism of the President for his ‘secret diplomacy,’ and suspicious that, behind the curtain drawn around Teheran, secret agreements had been concluded. The approach of the election campaign was making public opinion noticeably more alert and critical.” (p. 264)
(Ambassador Ciechanowski’s account of his 1944 conversation with Louis Fischer, an American writer and expert on Soviet affairs.) “In his opinion, the President and American official circles had become so personally engaged in pro-Soviet propaganda that it was difficult to imagine how they could ‘go into reverse’ at this time, when internal political considerations were playing such a big part.” (p. 267) ↩
- Stefan Arski, “The New Polish-German Border: Safeguard of Peace,” Polish Embassy, Washington, D.C., 1947, p. 64. ↩
- Stefan Arski, “Propaganda ludobójców,” Trybuna Ludu, 1952, nr. 61. ↩
- Stefan Arski, “Uwaga! Radiodywersja!,” Warszawa, 1953, p. 25. ↩
- Scope of Soviet activity in the United States. Hearing before the Subcommittee to Investigate the Administration of the Internal Security Act and Other Internal Security Laws of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, Eighty-fourth Congress, second session[-Eighty-fifth Congress, first session]
- Steele, David Ramsey (1992). From Marx to Mises: Post Capitalist Society and the Challenge of Ecomic Calculation. Open Court. ISBN 9780875484495. ↩
- This is copy of a memo summarizing this conclusion.
- September 18, 1950 Department of Defense press release on the missing Van Vliet Report.
- A memorandum for Zbigniew Brzezinski from his assistant Paul B. Henze describes the 1978 VOA Katyn censorship incident.
- VOA Polish Service radio interview with Jozef Czapski (in Polish) recorded in France on April 18, 1984 by VOA Polish correspondent Waclaw Bninski. [playlist tracklist="true" ids="38671,38672,38673,38674,38675"] ↩
- Jozef Czapski Report
- Prof. J.K. Zawodny wrote in his 1962 Katyn study “Death in the Forest”:
“Even in the postwar years, after President Roosevelt had died, the war with Japan was over, and the U.N. Charter was already in effect—the policy of suppressing the Katyn case was continued by the State Department. The war was over for several years when Mr. Czapski, the man so activey engaged in searching for the missing men in Russia, and himself 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. From it officials of the Voice of America meticulously eliminated all references to the Katyn Massacre. He was not even allowed to mention the word ‘Katyn’.” (p. 186) In a footnote, Prof. Zawodny cited 82 Congressional Record 5390 (1952) and stated that this information was verified by Mr. Czapski in his letter of December 26, 1959. (p. 196)]. Recently released State Department documents strongly suggest that some VOA bureaucrats might have been even more eager to avoid annoying the Soviets than some of their State Department colleagues. ↩
- Treaty of Nonaggression Between Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics
The Government of the German Reich and The Government of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics desirous of strengthening the cause of peace between Germany and the U.S.S.R., and proceeding from the fundamental provisions of the Neutrality Agreement concluded in April, 1926, between Germany and the U.S.S.R., have reached the following Agreement:
Both High Contracting Parties obligate themselves to desist from any act of violence, any aggressive action, and any attack on each other, either individually or jointly with other Powers.
Should one of the High Contracting Parties become the object of belligerent action by a third Power, the other High Contracting Party shall in no manner lend its support to this third Power.
The Governments of the two High Contracting Parties shall in the future maintain continual contact with one another for the purpose of consultation in order to exchange information on problems affecting their common interests.
Should disputes or conflicts arise between the High Contracting Parties, neither shall participate in any grouping of Powers whatsoever that is directly or indirectly aimed at the other party.
Should disputes or conflicts arise between the High Contracting Parties over problems of one kind or another, both parties shall settle these disputes or conflicts exclusively through friendly exchange of opinion or, if necessary, through the establishment of arbitration commissions.
The present treaty is concluded for a period of ten years, with the provision that, in so far as one of the High Contracting Parties does not denounce it one year prior to the expiration of this period, the validity of this treaty shall automatically be extended for another five years.
The present treaty shall be ratified within the shortest possible time. The ratifications shall be exchanged in Berlin. The Agreement shall enter into force as soon as it is signed.
Done in duplicate, in the German and Russian languages.
MOSCOW, August 23, 1939.
For the Government of the German Reich:
With full power of the Government of the U.S.S.R.:
Secret Additional Protocol
On the occasion of the signature of the Nonaggression Pact between the German Reich and the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics the undersigned plenipotentiaries of each of the two parties discussed in strictly confidential conversations the question of the boundary of their respective spheres of influence in Eastern Europe. These conversations led to the following conclusions:
1. In the event of a territorial and political rearrangement in the areas belonging to the Baltic States (Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania), the northern boundary of Lithuania shall represent the boundary of the spheres of influence of Germany and the U.S.S.R. In this connection the interest of Lithuania in the Vilna area is recognized by each party.
2. In the event of a territorial and political rearrangement of the areas belonging to the Polish state the spheres of influence of Germany and the U.S.S.R. shall be bounded approximately by the line of the rivers Narew, Vistula, and San.
The question of whether the interests of both parties make desirable the maintenance of an independent Polish state and how such a state should be bounded can only be definitely determined in the course of further political developments.
In any event both Governments will resolve this question by means of a friendly agreement.
3. With regard to Southeastern Europe attention is called by the Soviet side to its interest in Bessarabia. The German side declares; its complete political disinterestedness in these areas.
This protocol shall be treated by both parties as strictly secret.
Moscow, August 23, 1939.
For the Government of the German Reich:
Plenipotentiary of the Government of the U.S.S.R.:
V. MOLOTOV ↩
- Krystyna Piórkowska is the author of “English-speaking Witnesses to Katyn Recent Research,” which was issued by the Muzeum Katyńskie (Katyn Museum), division of the Muzeum Wojska Polskiego (Polish Military Museum). It is the first scholarly study of the history of the POWs, including American officers, who were brought to Katyn in mid-May 1943 and chronicles their attempts to disseminate the truth about the massacre. It was during that research that she located materials confirming that at least the US witnesses were registered code users, which is described in the book. It was her belief that Lt. Col. John H. Van Vliet, Jr. and Captain Donald B. Stewart had sent coded messages concerning Katyn that led her to search materials in the US National Archives – where, on August 30, 2012 she found confirmation of this fact, including a copy of a coded message concerning Katyn. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org ↩
- Dr.Nikolay Rudenskiy, who in 2011 was deputy editor of independent Russian online media outlet, Grani.ru, made the following observation in a study commissioned by the BBG:
“Now, my impression is that VOA has been too careful in avoiding anything that might look like ‘anti-Russian’ bias. A telling example of this attitude can be found in the coverage of Vice President Biden’s visit to Moscow. The reporting focused on Biden voicing support for Medvedev’s ‘modernization,’ traveling to Skolkovo etc., all of which was amply covered by national TV channels. But Vice President’s speech in Moscow University, in which he criticized Russia’s leadership on democracy and human rights, was clearly downplayed. The report on this event (http://www.voanews.com/russian/news/russia/Biden-students-2011-03-10-117738384.html) was titled ‘Joe Biden to Moscow Students: Future is Yours’; a headline as cheerful as meaningless, reminding of Soviet newspapers. What is worse, the report failed to mention that Biden spoke about the Khodorkovsky case as an example of Russia’s ‘legal nihilism’ – an important fact noted both in Russia and abroad. One might suspect that the omission was deliberate. If so, that could be regarded as a case of ‘pro-Russian’ (or, rather, pro-Putin) bias.”
Dr. Rudenskiy also stressed the importance of VOA programs on history, including WWII history, which Putin’s propaganda is distorting to promote the Kremlin’s objectives.
“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. For example, this year will see the 70th anniversary of both Russia’s and America’s entry into World War II – a good occasion to discuss some controversial issues in the war’s history, for instance, the relative importance of the U.S. and the Soviet Union’s respective contributions to the common victory.”