Anniversary of Katyn murders–a war crime covered up by Soviet propaganda and Voice of America

81 years ago, on April 3, 1940, the Soviet secret police NKVD started the mass murders of Polish military officers and intellectual leaders in carrying out orders of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin and other members of the Communist Party Politburo who were already responsible for the deaths of millions of Russians, Ukrainians and people of other nationalities. One of the Polish officers in Soviet captivity who miraculously avoided the 1940 execution, major Józef Czapski, celebrated his birthday also on April 3. Born in 1896, Czapski was 44 years old at the time of the Katyn murders. After his release in 1941 and a brief period of resumed diplomatic relations between the Polish government-in-exile in London and the Soviet government, he conducted a futile search in Russia for his fellow officers who, had they been still alive, could have led the Polish Army being formed in the Soviet Union to fight against the Nazis. They became prisoners of war in Soviet hands when the Red Army invaded and occupied eastern Poland in 1939 under the then secret terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, also known as the Hitler-Stalin Pact. As Czapski was conducting his search, Soviet officials repeatedly lied to him about the fate of the missing Polish officers.

But Soviet communist officials were not the only ones participating in the Katyn coverup. In 1950, during a visit to the United States from France, where Czapski lived in exile after the war, some of his comments about his search for Katyn victims were deleted by the Voice of America (VOA). The censorship of Czapski’s Katyn statement was exposed by Congressman Philip J. Philbin (D-MA) in a speech on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives on May 16, 1952. 1 He mentioned VOA’s interference with Czapski’s program and spoke about warnings by former Office of War Information journalist Julius Epstein about a pro-Soviet bias in Voice of America broadcasts. VOA officials tried to discredit Epstein and his claims, but later, in response to pressure from Congress and the Truman White House, changed their policy directives and allowed full coverage of the Katyn story. Prior to the policy change, which had the support of Truman’s Secretary of State Dean Acheson, VOA director (1949-1952) and State Department diplomat Foy D. Kohler, even suggested that Epstein, who was a refugee from Nazi Germany, was perhaps unworthy of being a naturalized U.S. citizen and should be investigated. 2 VOA officials claimed there was no censorship and that Czapski had agreed to the shortening of his program after being told that the Polish Service would produce its own commentary. This claim by VOA officials was essentially false. Czapski was outraged by the removal of his references to Katyn.

Are we to assume, according to the views of the writer mentioned above, that the Voice therefore decided to play down Katyn because it would create too much hatred against Stalin among the Poles. It is indeed appropriate to ask, as he has. whether anyone connected with this Government desires to create love for Stalin among the Poles at the American taxpayer’s expense.

Philip J. Philbin (D-MA), 82nd Congress, Second Session, Congressional Record, Part 4-17, May 16, 1952, page 5388.

Moreover, it should be noted that the Voice censored the speech of Count Joseph Czapski, one of the few survivors of Katyn, when he was permitted to address the Polish people through the facilities of the Voice. He was not permitted to mention the mere word of Katyn. I am at a complete loss to understand such a policy. Why was it pursued?

Philip J. Philbin (D-MA), 82nd Congress, Second Session, Congressional Record, Part 4-17, May 16, 1952, page 5388.
Józef Czapski

Born to an aristocratic Polish family, Czapski, fluent in Russian and an admirer of Russia’s pre-Bolshevik culture, was not only a former Polish Army officer but also a talented writer and painter. He was outraged about VOA censoring his Katyn comments. His books, articles and paintings were already being censored by the communist rulers in Poland. He did not expect VOA to treat him the same way.

From April 1943 until the end of World War II in 1945, the Voice of America aggressively promoted Soviet lies about Katyn. For several years after the war, VOA limited reporting on Katyn even when a bipartisan committee of the U.S. House of Representatives started an investigation of the mass execution of Polish officers in Soviet captivity. 

The genocidal Soviet crime against the Polish elites is known collectively as the Katyn forest massacre, after the main location near Smolensk, in western Russia, where the bodies of several thousands of Polish officers were discovered. Many of them were reserve officers and prominent members of the Polish intelligentsia. The total number of victims of the 1940 executions of Polish officers as well as government and intellectual leaders was almost 22,000. Polish prisoners of war were murdered in Katyn, Kharkov, and Kalinin (Tver). Polish prisoners, both soldiers and civilians, were also murdered at other locations in the Soviet Union in the spring of 1940. After the graves were discovered by the German Army in April 1943, the Soviet government categorically denied the responsibility for the Katyn murders and falsely accused the Germans of carrying them out.

To protect the military alliance with the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany (Hitler was earlier Stalin’s ally in starting World War II), pro-Soviet Roosevelt administration officials in the Office of War Information (OWI) promoted Stalin’s propaganda lie about Katyn to Americans, as well as to foreign audiences through Voice of America broadcasts. The Katyn lie had a long-lasting impact on U.S. foreign policy at the 1944 Yalta conference, where President Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Churchill made major concessions to Stalin. They probably would not have been able to make them if Western public opinion were not misled by the Soviet disinformation effort assisted by the U.S. Office of War Information, the Voice of America, and to a lesser degree by the British government. OWI officials and many of VOA’s journalists were either throughly fooled by Soviet propaganda or, if they had any suspicions, they nevertheless kept promoting the Kremlin’s lies about Katyn. Their reporting or silence helped the Soviet Union achieve control over Eastern Europe after the war and prevented Americans from discovering Stalin’s true intentions until much later. Progressive American newspersons at the Office of War Information and the Voice of America who participated in this collusion, even if they privately acknowledged some of Stalin’s faults, still saw communist Russia at the end of the war as a power for global peace and social justice. There were a few wartime Voice of America refugee journalists who dared to question Soviet propaganda, but their number was very small. They were either silenced or forced by the management to resign.

Even after the war, some former senior OWI officials continued to defend the Katyn lie. They also made disparaging comments about some of VOA’s emigre broadcasters who may have disagreed with them on Soviet Russia. During the war, the Office of War Information not only tried to whitewash Stalin but, as a bipartisan congressional investigation by the Madden Katyn Committee revealed, also engaged in illegal attempts to censor Polish-American and other ethnic radio stations and newspapers which tried to present to Americans the truth about Soviet Russia and Katyn. 

Wallace Carroll, one of VOA’s “founding fathers” who was after the war executive editor of the Winston-Salem Journal and Sentinel, served as news editor in the Washington bureau of the New York Times from 1955 to 1963, and was a member of the Pulitzer Prize Board, still insisted in his book Persuade or Perish published almost three years after the war that the Soviet version of the Katyn massacre was true. He wrote in 1948: 3

As Hottelet [Carroll’s trusted advisor at OWI Richard C. Hottelet] had predicted, the dissension which was permitted to arise over the Katyn massacre was still working to the advantage of defeated Germany after the war. In July, 1946, more than three years after Goebbels opened his campaign, the German leaders on trial for war crimes at Nuremberg revived the allegations against the Russians in an obvious attempt to drive a wedge between the Soviets and the Western Powers.

Wallace Carroll, Persuade or Perish (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1948), 152.

In his book, Carroll repeatedly refers to any warnings about Stalin, communism, the Soviet Union and Katyn as “the Bolshevik Bogy.” 

Even in 1948, this celebrated American journalist was still unwilling to give up on the Soviet propaganda lie. He was also plainly wrong that it was  the Germans who had revived the Katyn allegations at the Nuremberg trials of Nazi leaders. He failed to do even a basic check of facts before publishing his authoritative book on propaganda. It was the Soviet prosecutor at Nuremberg who introduced the Katyn charges and tried to blame the mass murder on the Germans. The Soviets fell into their own trap. It soon became obvious that they could not prove their case with their own poorly fabricated evidence because the crime was in fact committed by the Soviet secret police on the orders of Stalin. Seeing his evidence refuted, the Soviet prosecutor quietly dropped the Katyn charges against the German defendants. 

Yet, in his book Persuade or Perish, Wallace Carroll preached to Americans about the importance of identifying and resisting propaganda with the help of psychological warfare experts like himself while making the case in support of one of the greatest Soviet propaganda manipulations of World War II and the Cold War. This did not prevent him from having a long career as a highly-respected American newspaper editor and publisher and a defender of journalistic standards. His newspaper, Winston-Salem Journal, won the 1971 Pulitzer Prize for articles about environmental protection.

In 1952, the bipartisan Madden Committee, named after Indiana Democrat U.S. House of Representatives member Ray Madden, which investigated the Katyn massacre, concluded that OWI officials misled Americans with their pro-Soviet propaganda and VOA officials were guilty of covering up the Soviet crime even for several years after the war. Thanks to congressional investigations and under pressure from President Truman’s “Campaign of Truth,” the Voice of America started to report extensively on Katyn and other Communist atrocities but not until about May 1951. In 1950, the VOA Polish Service still censored a program recorded by Józef Czapski by cutting out his comments about Katyn and carried only very brief news items about the investigation of the Soviet war crime by the special committee of the U.S. House of Representatives.

If Wallace Carroll and other of VOA’s “founding fathers,” including the first VOA director John Houseman and his protégé Howard Fast, VOA’s first chief news writer and editor who in 1953 received the Stalin Peace Prize, were not blinded by their arrogance and listened to those VOA foreign-born journalists who were not communists or Soviet sympathizers and who did not share their naive views about Stalin and Soviet Russia, they might have learned something important. Instead, they persisted in their confirmation bias ignorance long after it was established that they were wrong. Their mistakes were then covered up by future generations of like-minded VOA officials who did not want to admit that progressive U.S. administrations and progressive American journalists working for the U.S. government could be easily fooled by crude communist propaganda. Had they not been subjected to any outside control and scrutiny, especially by members of Congress, their journalistic failures might have never been revealed and corrected. After a period of relatively unrestrained reporting on communist human rights abuses in the 1950s, VOA resumed to place limits on reporting on Katyn in the détente periods of the Cold War, especially during the Nixon-Ford administrations. This limited VOA censorship of Katyn-related news stories was not lifted until the Reagan administration took office in 1981. However, during the entire Cold War period, Katyn censorship was not practiced by U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe (RFE) and Radio Liberty (RL) which successfully defended their journalistic independence. Czapski was re-interviewed by the VOA Polish Service but until the 1980s. He was a frequent guest on Radio Free Europe programs throughout the Cold War.

Another quote about emigre Voice of America journalists from Wallace Carroll’s 1948 book Persuade or Perish exemplifies a rather dismissive treatment of foreign-born Voice of America broadcasters who, in his view, could not be fully trusted but who in reality were often better educated, had first-hand knowledge of fascism and communism, and often were better as journalists than their native-born, privileged, mostly white and male senior American supervisors. Unlike Carroll, Houseman and Fast, these refugee journalists, especially those hired after the war, were not naive about Russia and were not fooled by simplistic ideologies and propaganda, but even they were still treated for decades by some American-born senior VOA officials as second class citizens. Until the 1980s, they were denied access to wire services and money for regularly originating their own news reports about human rights conditions in the countries of their origin. 4 Fortunately, RFE and RL journalists were not subjected to the same treatment by their American management as VOA’s non-native broadcasters.

There was another fault of American propaganda from New York [Voice of America broadcast from New York until 1954] that we strove to overcome with just as little success—a fault that can only be described as the emigre imprint. The Office of War Information, like the British propaganda agencies, had been quick to hire talented refugees from the lands overrun by Hitler and Mussolini. These exiles brought with them priceless gifts—linguistic skill, knowledge of national characteristics and customs, journalistic training. I came to know many of them and found them animated for the most part by a sincere desire to carry out the propaganda program of the United States government. But unfortunately some of them had brought with them passions and political convictions which sometimes proved too much for their good intentions. There were indeed times when they used the American radio to wage polemical battles in which the United States had no interest.

Wallace Carroll, Persuade or Perish (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1948), 132-133.

Notes:

  1. Philip J. Philbin (D-MA), 82nd Congress, Second Session, Congressional Record, Part 4-17, May 16, 1952, page 5388. https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/GPO-CRECB-1952-pt4/pdf/GPO-CRECB-1952-pt4-17-2.pdf
  2. Memorandum from Foy D. Kohler (OIB/NY) to All Commission Members, December 18, 1951; RG 0059, Department of State, U.S. International Information Administration/International Broadcasting; Entry# P315: Voice of America (VOA) Historical Files: 1946-1953; Reports Psychological Operations POC THRU Katyn Forest Massacres III; Container #18; National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD.
  3. Wallace Carroll, Persuade or Perish (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1948), 152.
  4. Wallace Carroll, Persuade or Perish (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1948), 132-133.
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