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Broker for the first Western hotel in Moscow was a former U.S. propaganda agency employee

Cold War Radio Museum

In July 1979 an American businessman and former journalist David Harold Karr who had arranged the building of the first Western hotel in Moscow was found dead under reportedly suspicious circumstances in Paris, France.

Karr’s new biography, The Millionaire Was a Soviet Mole: The Twisted Life of David Karr, by Harvey Klehr, expected to be published in July 2019, will likely provide many new details about his tumultuous life, including his work during World War II as a U.S. government censor and propagandist in the same agency that produced anti-Hitler and pro-Soviet Voice of America (VOA) radio broadcasts before it became an anti-Soviet station in the 1950s and continued in that role for the rest of the Cold War. During World War II, officials in the Office of War Information (OWI) who were in charge of Voice of America and many of VOA broadcasters were pro-Soviet radicals. Karr’s work at OWI was not directly linked with VOA. He appeared to have been working on censoring ethnic American newspapers and radio stations, some of which were exposing OWI’s Soviet propaganda lies which were repeated in VOA broadcasts.

Barely able to graduate from high school, Karr parlayed a freelance job in journalism into writing for the Daily Worker, the official newspaper of the Communist Party, in the 1930s. He worked for several Communist organizations investigating American fascists. He inveigled his way into FDR’s reelection campaign in 1940, and obtained a position at the Office of War Information regulating foreign-language newspapers, even though he neither spoke, read nor understood any language but English. 1

Throughout his controversial career as a journalist and business broker, Karr maintained secret contacts with Soviet officials and intelligence agencies. He was later publicly identified in declassified U.S. Venona Project signal intelligence files as an NKVD information source. As an investigative reporter, Karr earned a reputation for misrepresenting himself to sources. 2

At one time during the Cold War, Karr became a partner of American investor Armand Hammer who for decades arranged business deals in the Soviet Union. It was reported that thanks to his Soviet connections, Karr was granted North and South American trademark rights to Misha the Bear, the mascot of the 1980 Olympic Games which the U.S. later boycotted in protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Very few people remember that early in his life David Karr (born David Katz) was working for the foreign language division of the Office of War Information. OWI had the Overseas Branch, which produced shortwave radio broadcasts for foreign audiences, and the Domestic Branch, which distributed U.S. government information, including pro-Soviet propaganda, to domestic media outlets in the United States. Karr’s job was to control ethnic media outlets which questioned and countered pro-Soviet disinformation. OWI officials accused them of undermining the war effort and spreading pro-German propaganda.

The entire Office of War Information and its Voice of America division were dominated during the war by pro-Soviet left-wing anti-fascist propagandists. They shielded Stalin and the Soviet Union from criticism, supported the establishment of Moscow-dominated regimes in East Central Europe, and spread Soviet propaganda and disinformation to cover up communist human rights atrocities. One of the communist sympathizers who did work on VOA radio broadcasts was American journalist Howard Fast who later joined and then broke with the Communist Party. 3

Before his career of brokering business deals in the Soviet Union, Karr worked as an assistant to American newspaper columnist Drew Pearson and was suspected of providing him with KGB-supplied disinformation.

If not a member of the Communist Party USA, during his work for the Office of War Information David Karr was definitely a pro-Soviet communist ideologue, as were many foreign language broadcasters hired by VOA’s first director, future Hollywood actor John Houseman. Karr most likely worked for another OWI official, future U.S. Senator from California Alan Cranston who initiated illegal censorship of ethnic American newspapers and radio stations to prevent them from criticizing Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. Cranston later tried to justify his actions as necessary for the war effort.

Some liberal members of the Roosevelt administration became concerned over Soviet influence in the agency responsible for Voice of America broadcasts which at that time were not yet commonly known under that name. They were referred to as OWI shortwave Radio broadcasts. John Houseman’s pro-Soviet sympathies were exposed in an attachment to a secret memo sent by Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles to the Roosevelt White House in April 1943. Houseman was forced to resign a few months later but was not publicly identified at the time as a communist sympathizer. Welles’ memo to the White House, which noted the State Department’s decision to deny Houseman a U.S. passport for official government travel abroad, remained classified for many years. 4 Like Houseman, Karr also lost his government job in the Office of War Information, but many communist sympathizers and actual communist agents continued to work on VOA programs until at least the end of the war. A few of them later went to work for communist regimes in East-Central Europe, including Polish communist propagandist Stefan Arski. 5

David Karr’s links with the Communist Party and his earlier work for the party newspaper, The Daily Worker, were exposed publicly on the floor of the House of Representatives by Congressman Harold Dies Jr. (D-TX), chairman of the House Special Committee on Un-American Activities, which investigated suspected communists, fascists, Ku Klux Klan members and other groups viewed as potentially subversive. Some of the accusations that came out of the committee turned out to be exaggerated and controversial, but many allegations, including those against Karr, were largely accurate. Karr denied being a member of the Communist Party, but he reportedly also made a number of false statements about himself. Some of the communists in the OWI’s radio division (Voice of America name was not yet widely used) were identified in 1943 by other members of the U.S. Congress.

Congressional Record—House, February 1, 1943

Here is the case of David Karr who is assistant chief of the foreign language division of the Office of War Information at a salary of $4,600. For 2 years, Karr was on the staff of the Communist Party’s official newspaper, the Daily Worker. There is not the slightest doubt that all members of the Daily Worker staff were required to be members of the Communist Party. Karr was a writer for the Communist front publication, Equality, whose editorial council was composed largely of well-known Communists and Communist fellow travelers. 6

Notes:

  1. Harvey Klehr, The Millionaire Was a Soviet Mole: The Twisted Life of David Karr. Expected publication July 2019.
  2.  Klehr, Harvey and Haynes, John E., Venona: decoding Soviet espionage in America, Yale University Press, ISBN 0-300-07771-8 (1999), p. 245.
  3. Howard Fast, Being Red (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1990), 27. “I don’t want to leave the impression that I worked in innocence all those months at the Office of War Information without realizing that there were Communist Party members working with me.”
  4. State – Welles, Sumner, 1943-1944, From Collection: FDR-FDRPSF Departmental Correspondence, Series: Departmental Correspondence, 1933 – 1945 Collection: President’s Secretary’s File (Franklin D. Roosevelt Administration), 1933 – 1945, National Archives Identifier: 16619284. The Sumner Welles memorandum can be accessed online: http://www.fdrlibrary.marist.edu/_resources/images/psf/psfb000259.pdf.
  5. The bipartisan Select Committee to Conduct an Investigation and Study of the Facts, Evidence and Circumstances of the Katyn Forest Massacre, also known as the Madden Committee, said in its final report issued in December 1952: “In submitting this final report to the House of Representatives, this committee has come to the conclusion that in those fateful days nearing the end of the Second World War there unfortunately existed in high governmental and military circles a strange psychosis that military necessity required the sacrifice of loyal allies and our own principles in order to keep Soviet Russia from making a separate peace with the Nazis.” The committee added: “For reasons less clear to this committee, this psychosis continued even after the conclusion of the war. Most of the witnesses testified that had they known then what they now know about Soviet Russia, they probably would not have pursued the course they did. It is undoubtedly true that hindsight is much easier to follow than foresight, but it is equally true that much of the material which this committee unearthed was or could have been available to those responsible for our foreign policy as early as 1942.” The Madden Committee also said in its final report in 1952: “This committee believes that if the Voice of America is to justify its existence, it must utilize material made available more forcefully and effectively.” A major change in VOA programs occurred, with much more reporting being done on the investigation into the Katyń massacre and other Soviet atrocities, but later some of the censorship returned. Radio Free Europe (RFE), also funded and indirectly managed by the U.S., never resorted to such censorship, and provided full coverage of all communist human rights abuses. See: Select Committee to Conduct an Investigation and Study of the Facts, Evidence and Circumstances of the Katyn Forest Massacre, The Katyn Forest Massacre: Final Report (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1952), 10-12. The report is posted on the National Archives website: https://archive.org/details/KatynForestMassacreFinalReport.
  6. Harold Dies Jr., Congressional Record, February 1, 1943, 482, https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/GPO-CRECB-1943-pt1/pdf/GPO-CRECB-1943-pt1-16-2.pdf

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