‘What is true of the parts is true of the whole’ fallacy in journalism and propaganda

Today’s Voice of America (VOA) reporters might benefit from seeing a historical example of how a former VOA journalist who during the Cold War became an anti-American propagandist for the communist regime in Poland wrote one-sided narratives using a few news facts and some true information about the United States and Canada to create an almost entirely false picture of a democratic society and a market economy. Stefan Arski, the Polish communist propagandist who as a former VOA editor had lived and worked in the U.S. and knew something about the realities of life in America, built his anti-American narrative around examples of unemployment, suicide, racial attacks and murders in Western societies.

FORMER VOA EDITOR WRITIG PROPAGANDA FOR COMMUNIST REGIME IN POLAND IN 1952

Arski, Stefan (Artur Salman), Targowica leży nad Atlantykiem (“Transatlantic Traitors”), Warsaw: Książka i Wiedza, 1952, pp. 101-102.

“It can be even worse [a previous example Arski provided was about a Polish immigrant in Canada contemplating suicide because he could not find a job.] ‘Polish Voice’ in Toronto (July 19, 1951) reports in a news item titled: ‘Killed — for Speaking Polish.’

Hit on the head because he did not speak English, Stanislaw Deren, about 40-years-old, died in a Vancouver hospital. Police confirmed that Deren was standing at a street crossing and was speaking in Polish with a female acquaintance when he was approached suddenly by an unidentified man who asked: ‘Why don’t you speak English?’ When Deren responded ‘It’s a free country?,’ the stranger hit him on the head. Deren fell and died seven hours later…

This is what a real ‘free country’ is. They kill you if you speak Polish. But you can starve to death and no one will prevent it. …That’s all about Canada. And the United States? This ‘promised land’ of so many wonders spoken about to refugees by the Voice of America. If one could only eat words, one would die from overeating. Meanwhile, they die from hunger there, just as in Canada.”

What is true of the parts is true of the whole logical fallacy is often used by American journalists motivated by ideology or partisanship. This technique is also employed by more sophisticated foreign propagandists. VOA editors and reporters might find it useful to read anti-U.S. propaganda texts produced in Poland in the 1950s to discover how their former VOA colleague reported news to create an image of America and Canada as countries where immigrants are despised, discriminated against, exploited, physically attacked and even murdered. 

Stefan Arski was one of many communists and fellow travelers who were hired during World War II by the first VOA Director, John Houseman, to produce anti-Nazi propaganda but also generated pro-Soviet propaganda for VOA radio broadcasts beamed abroad and for the Office of War Information (OWI) domestic propaganda activities. The U.S. Congress quickly eliminated funding for domestic government propaganda.

Before the war, Stefan Arski (his real name was Artur Salman) was a Polish Socialist Party activist and a journalist. During the war, he was a refugee in the United States and worked as a translator, writer and editor for the U.S. Office of War Information, the U.S. State Department and the Voice of America from August 2, 1943 until February 15, 1947.  After the war, he joined the Polish Communist Party and was a journalist, writer and propagandist for the Soviet-dominated regime in Poland.

From what I have discovered by reading his OWI personnel file, Arski might have stayed in the United States and might have continued his journalistic career at the Voice of America if the U.S. Congress had not decided to put pressure on the State Department to give priority in VOA employment to U.S. citizens over legal aliens. When he was laid off by the State Department in 1947 from his VOA editor’s job, he did not appear to be a victim of any anti-communist purge. Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Soviet campaign came several years later and, contrary to various claims, there was hardly anybody at the Voice of America who was fired as a result of his largely baseless investigations. Almost all actual Communist Party members working in the Office of War Information and for the Voice of America were quietly fired during the war by the Roosevelt administration. Arski was not yet at that time a declared communist and a party member. He was a radical socialist, but he was already writing pro-Soviet propaganda and remained in contact with communists in the United States, including at least one actual KGB agent. On of his jobs was to get the Voice of America to promote Soviet propaganda narratives in support of Stalin’s plans for Poland.

About ten years after Arski was hired by the U.S. government and several years after he was laid off, Senator McCarthy started to criticize VOA for employing communists and being soft on communism. However, many other members of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, were warning about Soviet agents of influence working at the Voice of America long before Senator McCarthy’s started his deplorable witch-hunt. It was the earlier actions by Democratic administrations under bipartisan pressure from Congress that produced limited reforms, which led to the departure of some pro-Soviet propagandists, including Stalin Peace Prize winner, American Communist Howard Fast. Other VOA officials and journalists like Stefan Arski who were Stalin supporters continued working for the U.S. government in their international broadcasting positions for several more years.

Howard Fast’s boss, John Houseman, who hired communists but himself was probably not a Communist Party member, was quietly forced to resign in mid-1943 under pressure from President Roosevelt’s State Department. U.S. diplomats and General Dwight Eisenhower became gravely alarmed by VOA’s pro-communist propaganda, which put U.S. diplomatic efforts to and American troops at risk in North Africa and Italy. 

The FDR White House did not object to Houseman’s forced resignation but did not put a stop to all pro-Soviet propaganda in VOA broadcasts since Russia was an important war ally against Nazi Germany and President Roosevelt wanted to trust Stalin to keep his promises. VOA journalists like Arski continued to support establishment of pro-Soviet socialist governments in East-Central Europe.

Stefan Arski’s State Department personnel file contains documents showing that he received several promotions and wanted to continue working for VOA after the war, but in 1947 he was replaced by an American citizen, probably in anticipation of the 1948 Smith-Mundt Act reforms. It is possible that he was targeted by the State Department’s management for being a Soviet sympathizer, but I found no proof of it. In any case, this would have been long before Senator McCarthy appeared on the scene. Arski was laid off during the Truman Administration. To be absolutely precise, Arski resigned after being told that he might be laid off and replaced by a U.S. citizen.

“Reactionary Polish emigrants are the enemy who are at the same time both ridiculous and disgusting. It is the enemy who would have been long ago shattered into nothing if it were not backed by, financed by, inspired by, and directed by imperialists and warmongers. Let us remember that this is the enemy who has no limits, no scruples, for whom no villainy is unfamiliar. These people were born on the Polish soil. They once spoke Polish and considered themselves citizens of this country. They later rejected their fatherland and denied their Polishness… There are no greater knaves and villains than the renegades, the apostates and the deniers. No other enemy wheezes with such hatred toward Poland and Polishness than those who have separated themselves from their nation.” 

The same former Voice of America editor who wrote this propaganda screed in 1952 in Poland, co-wrote this promotional material about VOA in 1943 while he was working for the Office of War Information in New York.

“this is the Voice of America —
calling the People of Poland
It is a crime to listen to foreign broadcasts in Poland, punishable by 2-10 years in prison. It means death to be caught spreading foreign news.
However, that does not deter Poles from coming together, every night, in cellars and attics, to listen to a radio, to the Voice of America and the BBC.
The radio is the chief source of news for editors of underground papers. Thus, the British Eighth Army’s victory at El Alamein was known in Warsaw only 24 hours later than in New York. When American troops landed in North Africa, Poles in Poland knew it only a few hours after it was known in New York.
The Voice of America receives full acknowledgement from the Polish underground press. It prints speeches of President Roosevelt and Vice-President Wallace, runs long editorials on American war aims, analyzes the South Pacific war front.
But there is a trick to listening to the Voice of America—reception must be reduced to a whisper, one’s ear must be glued to the loudspeaker. There is constant German jamming, the threat of the Gestapo agents patrolling the streets outside one’s house, and the Volksdeutsche who is one’s neighbor.
Still, you listen and tell your friends the next day. They tell their friends, and so on, till all know the truth. Listening to the Voice of America is another form of resistance.”

In an additional twist of historic irony, while working for the Office of War Information, Arski co-authored in 1943 a socialist, pro-Soviet anti-Nazi propaganda pamphlet about Poland under German occupation which included a segment about the Voice of America. His collaborators were another VOA writer and editor Mira Złotowska, who later married a high-level Polish communist ambassador and under a pseudonym Mira Michal wrote soft pro-regime propaganda for American news magazines, and the head of the VOA Czech desk Adolf Hoffmeister who resigned in 1945 to join the Czechoslovak Communist Party and become the regime’s ambassador to France. 

Their 1943 PR description of Voice of America broadcasts is interesting from a historical point of view because it is one of the earliest examples of using the “Voice of America” name which was not yet the official name of OWI radio broadcasting during the war. It is also interesting because it includes a number of false or completely exaggerated claims.

VOA wartime broadcasts with their pro-Soviet propaganda had minimal impact in an anti-communist Catholic country like Poland. They had some news value on topics not related to Russia, but patriotic Poles found most of VOA broadcasts useless and their pro-Soviet tone offensive. This is how one Polish refugee radio journalist, Czesław Straszewicz, who worked in London during the war and listened to VOA broadcasts, described them in an article published in France in 1953:

“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.”

During the war, those Poles who could listen to radio — Poles caught listening to radio would be shot by the Germans or sent to concentration camps — listened to the BBC or Radio Świt. Radio Świt was a Polish-language radio station located in Britain but pretending to broadcast from inside of Poland.

Future VOA Polish Service broadcaster Zofia Korbońska, a member of the underground anti-Nazi resistance, provided news from Poland to Radio Świt and to the BBC. She sent coded messages to London by radio at a great risk to her life. Many of her assistants were caught by the Gestapo, tortured and executed. After the war, she and her husband had to flee from Poland to avoid arrest by the communist regime.

During and after the war, pro-Soviet communists and socialists had very little support in Poland, but Arski and Złotowska tried to make it appear in their propaganda pamphlet and in VOA broadcasts that they did.

I should add that while most of my research has been on the Voice of America broadcasts to Poland, I also found plenty of materials on Soviet propaganda influence in VOA’s English, Czech, French, German, Greek, Italian, Yugoslav and other services. Some of this influence at some of the services lasted for a few years after the war.

By the way, as incredible as it may seem, the Voice of America did not broadcast during the war in Russian, Ukrainian or in most other languages spoken in the Soviet Union. While I have not yet found documents offering a definite proof, the only reasonable assumption is that pro-Soviet officials in charge of VOA wartime broadcasts were afraid of offending Joseph Stalin.

There are many declassified U.S. government documents which show that a senior OWI official and FDR’s speech writer, Robert E. Sherwood, coordinated OWI and VOA propaganda with Soviet Embassy officials in London under general approval from the Roosevelt White House. VOA’s chief news writer and editor, Howard Fast, admitted in his 1990 book Being Red that he communicated with Soviet Embassy officials in Washington and censored any news which he deemed to be anti-Soviet.

While Stefan Arski was not born or educated in the United States, Howard Fast lived in America his entire life. Using some facts, rejecting others, and ignoring information that did not conform to their worldview, they were both creating propaganda narratives in support of Stalin and the Soviet Union having convinced themselves that America was a profoundly unjust and racist society. They were not bothered by the fact that millions of immigrants wanted to live in America despite its faults. Arski left to live and work in Poland where he immediately became a member of the communist elite. Anti-communist Polish refugees did not have the option of going back to their home country without risking arrest or other forms of repression. They chose to remain in America and in other Western democracies. Contrary to Arski’s dire warnings, the vast majority of them had successful lives. Even if they did experience some discrimination from time to time for being immigrants, it was nothing they could not confront and overcome. Compared to what their life would have been somewhere else under communism and a socialist economy, it is good that they were not deceived by propaganda from early VOA journalists. Stefan Arski’s American friend and former VOA colleague, Howard Fast, wrote years later how American communists like himself cried when they heard Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev reveal in 1956 some of Stalin’s crimes. They were too blinded earlier to be convinced by facts and were always able to find information that confirmed their bias. Confirmation bias and the old logical fallacy “what is true of the parts is true of the whole” seem even more common among journalists today.

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