U.S. Responses to WWII Soviet Propaganda Against Poland — Lessons for Confronting Putin’s Propaganda
By Ted Lipien
Aggressive propaganda in support of territorial claims against other, almost always smaller and weaker nations, has been a constant feature in Soviet history. There are many similarities between Soviet propaganda and propaganda currently employed by the Kremlin against Ukraine and the West. Soviet propaganda portrayed Russia as a victim or a potential victim of aggression, made Soviet aggression appear as self-defense, and labeled all those who opposed the Kremlin in any way as Fascists. The Communist regime in Russia also fabricated and promoted false evidence to cover up Soviet crimes. The very same themes are being used and constantly repeated today by President Putin’s propaganda and disinformation machine to justify his military aggression in Ukraine and other aggressive foreign policy moves. President Putin and his media are also engaged in a propaganda campaign to distort World War II history and to whitewash some of Stalin’s most hideous crimes.
Soviet-era propaganda was especially active during World War II. After the Hitler-Stalin alliance collapsed in 1941 with the Nazi attack on the Soviet Union, it was directed not only against Nazi-Germany, which would have been understandable in wartime as a response to Nazi propaganda and horrific Nazi crimes against civilians. One of the main targets of Soviet disinformation campaign during the war was Poland, which was occupied by Nazi Germany. Poland, led by its Government-in-Exile based first in Paris and later in London, was at war with Nazi Germany. Other non-communist governments also at war with Germany, but which opposed Moscow’s territorial and political demands, were equally targeted by Soviet propaganda and accused of being Hitler’s allies. No lie was too big for the Kremlin then, just as no lie is too big for the Kremlin’s propaganda experts now. In the digital era, however, they are much more sophisticated in manipulating public opinion than their predecessors in Soviet times.
Poland was America’s and Britain’s World War II ally and the first country in Europe which was attacked by and fought Nazi Germany. Close to 200,000 of Polish troops which had escaped to the West, including those who came out of Russia under the command of Polish General Władysław Anders, continued to fight on the side of the anti-Hitler coalition. The Polish underground army, which reported to the Polish Government-in-Exile based in London, battled German forces in Poland. None of this mattered to Stalin who wanted the eastern part of pre-war Polish territory for the Soviet Union. He had already gotten about half of Poland earlier from Hitler through the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact signed in Moscow in August 1939. He wanted to keep this territory, which in 1943 was still in the hands of the German armies. Stalin also wanted to install after the war a communist regime in Poland which would be under his full control.
Bowing to relentless pressure from the Kremlin and motivated by their desire keep the Red Army fighting to prevent any chance of a German military victory, as well as a desire to limit the loss of lives of American and British soldiers, U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill betrayed their Polish ally. They eventually somewhat reluctantly agreed to most of Stalin’s territorial and political demands. The Soviet dictator was seen by them as a much more valuable wartime military ally than Poland. In retrospect, it was strategically a short-slighted view. Poland’s freedom and territory were sacrificed despite FDR’s and Churchill’s earlier promises made in August 1941 in the Atlantic Charter that any territorial gains obtained through force would not be tolerated after the war.
While this article focuses on Poland, the leaders of the United States and Great Britain in effect handed over all of Eastern Europe to Stalin for decades to come. It was a monumental strategic blunder extracted by Stalin, mostly through bullying and propaganda, although eventually he had his troops on the ground in Eastern Europe and the Western allies did not. In terms of political decisions, however, territorial and political concessions to Stalin did not have to be made at all. The Western allies were in a strong position, at least initially, to demand concessions from Stalin instead. Opposing him did not require the United States and Britain to go to war with Russia. It required a better statesmanship and firmness in protecting America’s and Britain’s long-term strategic interests.
Churchill later justified his decision on the Polish territory and the government of post-war Poland as a wartime necessity. He and Roosevelt knew that what they did to their Polish ally was morally wrong, but they wanted to keep Russia in the war against Nazi Germany at practically all cost. Roosevelt also assumed, naively as it turned out, that after the defeat of Germany, Stalin would help the United States in the war against Japan. Stalin, however, was going to do whatever he thought served his interests. There was practically no chance that after 1941 he would have been able to reach a separate peace agreement with Hitler similar to the one the two countries had already concluded once in 1939. After they agreed to almost all of Stalin’s demands, Roosevelt and Churchill claimed in their public statements that America and Britain were doing everything possible to ensure that Poland would remain democratic after the war. It was at best a delusion on their part. It was their own propaganda designed to confuse and appease their own public opinion. While Roosevelt may have believed he could persuade Stalin to behave more like a Western democrat, Churchill was much less naive.
The news of Roosevelt’s and Churchill’s territorial concessions to Stalin at the expense of Poland and other countries of East-Central Europe was kept secret until shortly before the end of the war. FDR and Churchill not only feared their own public opinion. They did not want Polish troops to stop fighting the Germans. There was, however, almost no chance that the Polish underground army in Poland or the Polish army in the West would cease their fight against Germany. The main reason FDR and Churchill kept their agreements with Stalin secret was the morally shameful nature of their actions and the fear of public backlash in their own countries. Roosevelt also feared losing the Polish American vote in the 1944 U.S. presidential elections.
FDR was right to be afraid and made attempts to confuse and deceive leaders of the Polish American community. Some U.S. media and Polish-American organizations were warning as early as 1942 of the imminent selling out of Poland to the Soviet Union. Members of the U.S. Congress of both parties issued similar warnings, inserting media articles and their own statements in The Congressional Record. None of this made any difference for U.S. policy toward Russia and for Poland in the short run. With the lack of will on the part of Roosevelt and Churchill to resist Stalin, Poland was doomed to fall under Soviet domination. But at least the growing opposition of American public opinion to Poland’s betrayal by the Roosevelt administration opened the way for a reassessment of U.S. policy toward Russia shortly after the war.
During the war, The Congressional Record became one of the main repositories of protests, statements and newspaper articles condemning Soviet aggression against democratic nations and exposing Soviet propaganda in support of such aggression. Meanwhile, U.S. government-funded and controlled Voice of America operating within the wartime U.S. mega-propaganda agency, the Office of War Information (OWI), engaged in unrelenting support for the Soviet Union. It included covering up of Soviet crimes, such as the execution murder on the orders of Stalin of thousands of Polish POW military officers and other Polish officials, which became known as the Katyn Massacre. The Congressional Record was the voice of America during World War II, the Voice of America was not. The OWI director Elmer Davis even penned a commentary in support of Soviet propaganda claims on Katyn. It was broadcast not only by VOA oversees, but also in the United States. The OWI also engaged in U.S. domestic propaganda and U.S. media censorship–activities which eventually contributed to OWI’s demise.
During the war, the OWI and the VOA employed a number of Soviet agents and sympathizers. Voice of America’s Polish Service included a communist journalist, Stefan Arski, who after the war returned to Poland and became the Warsaw regime’s chief anti-American propagandist. The head of VOA’s Czechoslovak Service, Dr. Adolf Hofmeister, returned after the war to Czechoslovakia to serve the communist regime in Prague.
However, the leadership of the Office of War Information and the Voice of America, and not merely some of its employees, was just as enthusiastic in promoting Soviet propaganda themes. OWI executives discussed coordination of U.S. propaganda with Soviet propaganda. They also issued directives to censor news reports about Soviet crimes.
John Houseman (1902-1988), a Hollywood actor considered to be the first Voice of America director, accepted and repeated some of the Soviet propaganda slurs against the Poles without any questions asked. This shameful part of VOA’s history is not widely known. It has been suppressed, just as the Soviet responsibility for the Katyn Massacre was being suppressed or ignored by the U.S. State Department and the Voice of America for many years, even after the end of World War II.
In was a different story in the U.S. Congress. While a few left-wing members issued statements glorifying Stalin, a large number of Republicans and Democrats kept warning the Roosevelt administration and the American public about the danger of appeasing the Soviet Union and sacrificing U.S. allies to satisfy Stalin’s territorial and dictatorial ambitions.
From the beginning to the end of World War II, there were numerous warnings in The Congressional Record about Soviet aggression and propaganda. One of them was from U.S. Senator John A. Danaher (1899 – 1990). A Yale Law School graduate, Danaher was elected to the U.S. Senate as a Republican in 1938, and served from January 3, 1939 to January 3, 1945.
The Soviet Ambassador to Mexico Constantine Oumansky (1902-1945), (alternative spelling: Konstantin Aleksandrovich Umansky), who in 1943 repeated the Kremlin’s aggressive territorial claims against Poland, had been earlier the Soviet Ambassador in Washington. He was killed in a plane crash in Mexico City in 1945.
According to World War II-era U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Ambassador Umansky
“[was] insulting in his manner and speech, and had an infallible faculty for antagonizing those of us with whom he came in contact. Overbearing, he made demands for concessions as if they were his natural right….In my opinion, he did much to harm Russian-American relations.” 1
Ambassador Umansky, however, was simply repeating the Kremlin’s aggressive propaganda themes against Poland and its legitimate government. It was a coordinated campaign of bullying, lying and and creating confusion through propaganda and disinformation, starting with Stalin and other top Soviet leaders and reinforced by the NKVD, Soviet diplomats, Soviet media, Soviet agents of influence in the West. The Kremlin had successfully used such propaganda in the past, and does so now.
During World War II, Soviet propaganda included ludicrous claims that Polish non-communist leaders in charge of Polish soldiers fighting German armies in the Middle East, in Italy, on the Western European front and in Poland, were Fascists and Hitler’s allies. The fact that Stalin had been Hitler’s ally in the forcible partition of Poland in 1939 was conveniently omitted. This is eerily familiar when compared to current Kremlin propaganda themes employed against Ukraine and the West. They are just as aggressive, and just as ludicrous, but they are presented in a far more sophisticated way using all the advantages of digital media.
Since during World War II Russia became America’s wartime military ally against Nazi Germany, the Roosevelt administration and the U.S. government-funded Voice of America facilitated the spread of Soviet propaganda in the United States and abroad. In the United States, it tried to censor media outlets which were critical of Soviet policies. These activities managed by the Office of War Information quickly became politically controversial, drawing criticism from U.S. politicians of both parties and U.S. media. In response to public criticism and strong opposition in Congress to the Office of War Information, it was promptly disbanded by the Truman administration after the war. The 1948 Smith-Mundt Act forbade the Voice of America to engage in domestic political propaganda in the United States. VOA was placed within the State Department to ensure a better reflection of U.S. foreign policy. During the war, the Office of War Information, the Voice of America and their executives did everything that the Roosevelt White House wanted them to do, but in their eagerness to support Soviet propaganda they sometimes went beyond what the State Department wanted OWI and VOA to report. During the war, the OWI and VOA employed a few secret Soviet agents and many Soviet sympathizers. After the war, hiring standards and security clearances for VOA personnel were tightened. Pro-Soviet agents and pro-Soviet VOA employees departed the organization.
With the worsening of U.S.-Soviet relations after the war, VOA was allowed to report on communist repression in East-Central Europe and in the Soviet Union and played a highly positive role during the Cold War. U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, which were established in the early 1950s, were even more blunt and much more effective in exposing Soviet and communist crimes and propaganda.
While program delivery methods have changed after the Cold War, with the Internet and satellite television offering an abundance of information sources, the Russian government’s aggressive use of propaganda and disinformation continues under President Putin. His propaganda experts are taking full advantage of digital media, showing far greater sophistication compared to Soviet-era propagandists for the Kremlin. The United States has been caught off-guard. Critics, including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, say that the current U.S. government office in charge of taxpayer-funded media targeting foreign audiences, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), is “practically defunct” in its ability to engage in the information war with the Kremlin. While not nearly as bad, or intentionally pro-Kremlin as the OWI and the VOA were during World War II, the BBG’s response to today’s aggressive propaganda from the Kremlin is disorganized and feeble, according to these critics. 2
As a remedy for current bureaucratic ills of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, some BBG officials who come from Hollywood and other entertainment business backgrounds want to recreate a mega-agency which in the style of management would be similar to the World War II Office of War Information and Voice of America. They would be wise to take notice of how the OWI and the VOA became an enormous and wasteful government bureaucracy that was spectacularly mismanaged, engaged in censorship and disinformation, both in the United States and abroad, promoted Soviet propaganda, and ultimately did more damage to America’s image and interests than good. They should remember that Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty were created in the early 1950s as non-federal entities specifically because the federally-managed Voice of America and earlier the Office of War Information were not able to counter Soviet propaganda. They should remember that the 1948 Smith-Mundt Act was passed because of domestic propaganda and censorship by the Office of War Information and because of its many other management abuses and waste of taxpayers’ money.
These failures happened because such a mega government agency run by government bureaucrats cannot possibly have sufficient focus, expertise, restrictions and oversight. CEOs come and go, but a government bureaucracy remains. Even some highly successful private sector CEOs who did not have much or any prior government and international affairs experience were remarkably bad when put in charge of U.S. public diplomacy or a mixed government-private media entity. Advertising executive Charlotte Beers who had been hired to work as the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy in the George Bush Administration thought that video commercials about happy Muslims in America can counter violent jihad better than programs designed by diplomats trained in intercultural communications. Her project was a spectacular failure. Another private sector executive hired by the BBG abruptly dismissed dozens of Radio Liberty journalists in Russia who later had to be rehired. BBG bureaucrats did nothing to prevent this and other similar blunders. They even ordered a public opinion poll to be conducted in Russian-occupied Crimea shortly after the annexation without bothering to check with the Ukrainian government. They later proudly presented the poll’s faulty results as proof that all Crimeans are extremely happy about the Russian rule.
There is no way one executive, no matter how good, can manage them and such a large and diverse operation. He or she will have to rely on these government bureaucrats. There are countless political and cultural components and different ways of getting the message out. Media outreach, public diplomacy, and counter-propaganda — which are not the same thing, but in many respect are — require experts in different fields and close supervision, neither of which the BBG nor a single CEO can provide.
What the United States needs are smaller and nimble media outlets similar to Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, which would operate under close scrutiny of a specialized board, while the Voice of America should operate independently under its own Charter to report on and reflect America with its long-term values and interests. It is an arrangement that had worked extremely well, while the mega propaganda government agency model did not. These are two different missions that cannot be successfully combined and managed together. They both require different types of expertise and close scrutiny by experts who have specialized backgrounds and knowledge and can devote their full-time attention to what they know best.
1943 Polish American Protest to FDR About Soviet Territorial Claims Against Poland Based on 1939 Hitler-Stalin Pact
United States of America
PROCEEDINGS AND DEBATES OF THE 78th CONGRESS
VOLUME 89–PART 12
OCTOBER 15, 1943, TO DECEMBER 21, 1943
(PAGES A4333 TO A5700)
Telegram to President Roosevelt From National Committee of Americans of Polish Descent
EXTENSION OF REMARKS
HON. JOHN A. DANAHER
IN THE SENATE OF THE UNITED STATES
Thursday, November 18, 1943
Mr. DANAHER. Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent to have printed in the Appendix of the RECORD a telegram addressed to President Roosevelt by the National Committee of Americans of Polish Descent.
There being no objection, the telegram was ordered to be printed in the RECORD, as follows:
TELEGRAM TO PRESIDENT ROOSEVELT
NEW YORK, N. Y., November 16, 1943.
The PRESIDENT or THE UNITED STATES,
White House, Washington, D. C.: In its issue of November 14 the New York Times has published the following news from Mexico City, quote: “In a speech delivered late last night Constantine Oumansky, Soviet Ambassador, indicated that Russia was determined to retain the part of Polish territory she received on the basis of the German-Soviet agreement of September 28, 1939, after the German invasion of Poland. * * *
Diplomatic circles here say it was the ﬁrst time in the Western Hemisphere that a leading Soviet official had publicly announced such a claim. There was no doubt, according to these sources, that Mr. Oumansky’s statement, coming shortly after the three-power conference in Moscow, was the outcome of instructions from the Kremlin. Some diplomats saw it as an indication that Secretary of State Cordell Hull and Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden yielded to the Russians on the post-war settlement of Poland.”
This statement, made at a time when even the most skeptical have been convinced that the Moscow Conference is a tremendous success and that we must accept in good faith the word of the Soviet Government given our representatives, has deeply shocked millions of Americans of Polish origin, whose feelings and thoughts I consider it my duty to interpret in this message.
Ambassador Oumansky’s statement clearly and unmistakably challenges that most noble document, the Atlantic Charter, construed and signed by you, Mr. President, and given to the tottering peoples of the World as an anchor to grasp and hold onto in their continued resistance and hope that decency shall ﬁnally prevail. That hope was given to all of Poland and not half.
The signatories of the Atlantic Charter say: “They wish to see sovereign rights and self government restored to those who have been forcibly deprived of them.” Ambassador Oumansky says that the Soviets have no intention of respecting Poland’s sovereign rights to half of the territory grabbed in their joint enterprise with Hitler.
Ambassador Oumansky’s statement constitutes a flagrant violation of the principles of international law adhered to by civilized peoples even before the promulgation of the Atlantic Charter.
Ambassador Oumansky openly declares that the Soviet Government has resolved to violate the following agreements freely entered into: I. The Treaty of Riga; II. The Kellogg Pact; III. The Convention for Definition of Aggression; IV. The Nonaggression Pact Concluded With Poland; V. The Covenant of the League of Nations, of which the Soviets were a member on September 17, 1939; VI. The Polish—Soviet Pact, signed July 30, 1941, in which pact the Soviets nulliﬁed their agreement with Germany made September 28, 1989; VII. Finally, the declaration of the United Nations signed at the White House January 1, 1942, which act bound the signatories to respect the principles of the Atlantic Charter.
The lofty ideals of this charter for the realization of which the American people decided to raise their mighty arm and shed their blood on the battleﬁelds of Europe have been degraded by a high dignitary of the Soviet Government.
I consider it my duty to inform you, Mr. President, that 5,000,000 Americans of Polish origin are deeply shocked and gravely concerned in the face of this newly expressed will of aggression so far officially not answered. Moreover, Ambassador Oumansky’s attitude can be construed as an attempt to undermine the faith of 300,000,000 of European peoples in the historic role of America and your moral leadership. These peoples with the people of Poland in glorious lead continue to resist Germany’s ruthless force because of their conviction that the ideals of the Atlantic Charter and the “Four Freedoms” are to become the basis for the better world of the future.
Yours most respectfully,
M. F. WEGRZYNEK,
National Committee of Americans
of Polish Descent.
- As quoted in Brinkley, David (1988). Washington Goes to War. Ballantine Books. p. 37. ISBN 0-345-40730-X. ↩
- “Options for Reforming U.S. Overseas Broadcasting,” Testimony of The Honorable S. Enders Wimbush, Public Policy Fellow, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and former Broadcasting Board of Governors Member, the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs, Tuesday, November 17, 2015. ↩