By Ted Lipien
As more and more questions are being asked by members of Congress and scandals reported by liberal and conservative press about the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) — the tax-funded, U.S. government-managed international broadcaster — I would strongly recommend that Voice of America (VOA) USAGM federally-employed managers and journalists read The Katyn Diaries, a book about one of World War II major genocide murders. I suggest this because their predecessors at the Voice of America during WWII and for a few years afterwards eagerly repeated Soviet propaganda lies about the Katyn massacre of nearly 22,000 Polish military officers and intellectual leaders, brutally murdered on secret orders from Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. The book includes entries from diaries of Polish officers written shortly before they were executed by the Soviet secret police NKVD. For several decades, the Soviets lied about their responsibility for the war crime and blamed the mass murder on the Germans. The pro-Soviet early Voice of America blindly accepted and promoted Stalin’s Katyn lie.
The betrayal of Eastern Europe by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the false reporting about Soviet Russia by VOA propagandists during WWII caused the Democratic Party to lose some of its support after the war among ethnic voters with family roots in East-Central Europe. A few years after FDR’s death, the Voice of America was partially reformed during the Democratic administration of President Harry Truman, but again became poorly managed during most of the subsequent Republican and Democratic administrations. These problems persisted until Ronald Reagan’s presidency, while the non-federal Radio Free Europe (RFE) and Radio Liberty (RL) were journalistically bold, well-managed and extraordinarily effective against communist censorship throughout the entire Cold War period.
Without full honesty, a commitment to the truth, non-partisanship, and good knowledge of history, the Voice of America cannot have credibility and impact. During WWII, the Roosevelt administration tried to hide the truth about the Katyn Forest massacre from VOA radio listeners and American voters. It used government resources to mislead Americans and tried to censor the ethnic media — but the news of Stalin’s mass murders and FDR’s betrayal of Eastern Europe eventually got out to the American public. Ethnic voters, previously solidly pro-Democratic Party, started to move away from it after learning that President Roosevelt sold the East Europeans down the river to Joseph Stalin at the WWII conferences at Tehran and Yalta for the Soviet communist leader’s empty promises of free elections in countries which soon became Russia’s colonies. Republicans in Congress, joined after the war by some Democrats in districts with large numbers of East European immigrants, focused part of their criticism on the Voice of America and demanded reforms. To protect U.S. national security and to win back the ethnic electorate, the Truman administration reformed VOA and took other steps to counter Soviet propaganda more effectively.
The senior leadership has been the Voice of America’s Achilles heel for a long time. VOA’s early leaders were extremely naive about Russia and communism. They insisted on inserting Soviet propaganda into VOA broadcasts and hired pro-Kremlin broadcasters. They were also arrogant toward those few refugee journalists who disagreed with them. One VOA Polish announcer, Konstanty Broel Plater, who refused to spread Stalin’s disinformation, was threatened by the management for daring to challenge the VOA director. Rather than to read Soviet propaganda, Mr. Broel Plater resigned — to my knowledge, the only such courageous foreign language service journalist among thousands of early Voice of America federal government employees. He had to work on a night shift in a paper mill in Pennsylvania to support his young American family. The Voice of America management has never recognized his protest and the sacrifice of this refugee broadcaster. Similarly, a reporter in VOA’s Ethiopian Service resigned recently after accusing the management of covering up acts of genocide in the Horn of Africa similar to the 1940 Katyn massacre. The VOA management refuses to accept responsibility for any such past or current wrongdoings.
Despite USAGM’s claims of how the agency values immigrant journalists, they are still treated as second class citizens by the bureaucracy and are the first to be fired while the jobs of the senior staff are protected. VOA’s “founding fathers” and managers: first VOA director John Houseman and his bosses and associates — Joseph F. Barnes, Wallace Carroll, Robert E. Sherwood, and Elmer Davis — viewed anti-communist immigrants with contempt. One of them, Julius Epstein, who questioned the rosy view of Joseph Stalin, lost his job at the Office of War Information (OWI), which during WWII included VOA. In 1950, the Voice of America management censored Józef Czapski who was a notable Polish writer, painter and one of the few survivors of the Katyn massacre among WWII Polish military officers. At that time, Republicans and Democrats in Congress came to Czapski’s defense and strongly condemned VOA bosses. In the 1970s, the Voice of America management even censored some of the writings of Russian Nobel Prize dissident writer Alexandr Solzhenitsyn who in his masterpiece The Gulag Archipelago mentions the Katyn massacre.
The favorite broadcaster of Voice of America’s first bosses was the chief VOA news writer and news editor Howard Fast, a future Stalin Peace Prize recipient (1953) and a Communist Party USA activist and party newspaper reporter and editor. Some of Fast’s close friends at wartime VOA — Poland’s Mira Złotowska Michałowska and Czechoslovakia’s Adolf Hoffmeister — joined the communist media or diplomatic services in East-Central Europe immediately after the war.
Another defector from the Voice of America, former VOA Polish Service editor Stefan Arski (aka Artur Salman) who in 1947 returned to Poland, accused anyone who dared to question the Soviet Katyn lie of being a fascist — including those Poles who for five years fought against the Nazis. Arski specialized in putting out virulent anti-U.S. propaganda and attacked the bipartisan congressional Madden Committee which in 1952 investigated the Katyn massacre and VOA’s failures in reporting on it and other Soviet mass murders.
The Voice of America management not only has not acknowledged to this day VOA’s early collusion with Soviet Russia’s propaganda machine and the arrogant anti-immigrant bias of VOA’s “founding fathers,” but continues to present these fellow travelers as defenders of truthful journalism. In the 1980s, propagators of VOA’s fictional history even managed to dupe some Reagan administration officials into believing that John Houseman was a responsible newsman. During WWII, Houseman not only hired pro-Soviet propagandists and expressed pride in propaganda, but this talented Oscar-winning Hollywood actor was, in fact, one of the inventors of fake radio news before joining VOA in 1942. He was responsible with Orson Welles for the 1938 adaptation of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, which created a panic among some American radio listeners. He proudly described himself as a propagandist. While most of VOA’s output during WWII was anti-Nazi, a large portion of it represented pro-Soviet propaganda. The VOA management has never admitted that the Roosevelt White House and the State Department quietly forced Houseman to resign by refusing to give him a U.S. passport for government travel abroad.
The Voice of America management also still does not want to admit that General Dwight D. Eisenhower viewed some of these early VOA leaders and journalists as unwitting agents of Soviet and communist influence or that President Roosevelt’s liberal advisor and friend, Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles, secretly urged the FDR White House that pro-Soviet fellow travelers be removed from their U.S. government jobs. Some of them were fired, not because of wild accusations by Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy (WI), which came much later and which were often baseless, but because of behind-the-scenes actions taken under pressure from Congress by the Democratic administrations of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman. Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. Senate charged in 1948 that Voice of America broadcasts contained “baloney,” “lies,” “insults,” “drivel,” “nonsense and falsehoods,” amounting to “useless expenditures” and “a downright tragedy.”
By repeating NKVD/KGB’s Katyn propaganda lie, the early Voice of America indirectly helped Stalin to enslave millions of new victims in Eastern Europe. The East Europeans may have been doomed by the circumstances of history and FDR’s appeasement of Stalin, but VOA made their enslavement by the Soviets slightly easier. Not only have VOA’s founders not apologized to the mothers, wives, and children of the 22,000 Katyn victims and to the families of millions of Gulag prisoners — about whom VOA was silent during its first years — but they aggressively attacked those who tried to disclose VOA’s naive early faith in Soviet propaganda.
Without a major management reform, journalistic failures and the falsification of history are likely to continue as the leadership of the Voice of America and the U.S. Agency for Global Media prepares to celebrate VOA’s 80th anniversary in 2022. Neither the Voice of America management nor any journalist while still on the VOA payroll has ever officially admitted that even the strongly pro-Soviet Roosevelt administration forced John Houseman, Joseph Barnes and Howard Fast to resign from their Office of War Information and VOA jobs. Other pro-Soviet VOA broadcasters were fired by the Democratic Truman administration, which also helped to create Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty as a better American-funded weapon against Soviet propaganda. The Democrats in Congress realized at that time that the biased Voice of America became a liability among ethnic voters, while the Republicans successfully used VOA’s failures to their political advantage. The Republican Reagan administration stopped all Katyn-related censorship in Voice of America broadcasts and VOA’s audience in Poland increased fivefold, but President Reagan was still viewed with great contempt by some native-born VOA newsroom correspondents. Most VOA broadcasters from countries under communism, on the other hand, admired Reagan for calling the Soviet Russia the “evil empire” and for advancing the fall of communism, as did free trade union Solidarity activists in Poland.
The contributions of anti-communist refugee VOA broadcasters who had replaced the Soviet sympathizers during the early years of the Cold War and who actually helped to win it are still being overlooked by the current USAGM management in favor of glorifying in the agency’s promotional materials the early pro-Soviet VOA managers and journalists. I only succeeded to getting one Polish anti-communist refugee journalist, Zofia Korbońska, to be officially recognized in a 2020 USAGM press release.
Today’s Voice of America still lauds the ideological and professional VOA followers of New York Times’ pre-WWII Moscow correspondent Walter Duranty. Recent VOA broadcasts glorified such Communists as Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, without mentioning their countless victims. Early VOA broadcasters glorified Stalin, who during WWII was in control of America’s most important military ally against Nazi Germany, but like Hitler was also a mass murderer and a former Hitler ally.
Just like Pulitzer Prize-winning Duranty who lied about millions of Stalin’s famine victims in Ukraine, VOA’s founding leaders had nothing but hostility toward any journalist who dared to criticize Stalin and Soviet communism. Even after the war, one of the early VOA directors Foy D. Kohler, who was also a State Department diplomat, suggested in a confidential memo that Julius Epstein, an Austrian-Jewish refugee who in the early 1950s revealed the station’s censorship of the Katyn story, be investigated as an immigrant not worthy of a U.S. citizenship.
This is Part Two of:
At Voice of America, history repeats itself
It supplements a Washington Examiner op-ed.
Ted Lipien is a journalist, writer, and media freedom advocate. He was Voice of America’s Polish service chief during Poland’s struggle for democracy and VOA’s acting associate director. He also served briefly in 2020-2021 as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s president.
Featured Photo by Lt. Col. Szymanski, U.S. Army
The WWII Voice of America censored news about Polish deportees and prisoners in Soviet Gulag slave labor camps. Even for several years after the war, VOA hid information about thousands of Polish children whose fathers were killed by the Soviet NKVD secret police and whose mothers died from hunger and untreated illnesses while forced to work in unbearable conditions.
- Three sisters, ages 7, 8, and 9, Polish evacuees from Russia, August 1942
- Photos by: Lieutenant Colonel Henry I. Szymanski, U.S. Army
- Source: The Katyn Forest Massacre: Hearings Before The Select Committee to Conduct An Investigation on The Facts, Evidence and Circumstances of the Katyn Forest Massacre; Eighty-Second Congress, Second Session On Investigation of The Murder of Thousands of Polish Officers in The Katyn Forest Near Smolensk, Russia; Part 3 (Chicago, Ill.); March 13 and 14, 1952 (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1952), pp. 459-461.