By Ted Lipien for Cold War Radio Museum
Soviet influence at Voice of America during World War II — documents and analysis
Mira Złotowska, later known as Mira Michałowska who published books and articles in English as Mira Michal and used several other pen names, was one of many radically left-wing journalists who during World War II worked in New York on Voice of America (VOA) U.S. government anti-Nazi radio broadcasts but also helping to spread Soviet propaganda and censoring news about Stalin’s atrocities. While not the most important among pro-Soviet propagandists at the Voice of America during the war, Michałowska later went back to Poland, married a high-level communist diplomat and for many years supported the regime in Warsaw with soft propaganda in the West while also helping to expose Polish readers to American culture through her magazine articles and translations of American authors. One of the American writers she translated was her former VOA colleague and friend, the 1953 Stalin Peace Prize winner Howard Fast, who in 1943 played an important role as VOA’s chief news writer. Despite today’s Russian attempts to undermine journalism with disinformation, the Voice of America has never officially acknowledged its mistakes in allowing pro-Soviet propagandists to take control of its programs for several years during World War II. Eventually, under pressure from congressional and other critics, the Voice of America was reformed in the early 1950s and made a contribution to the fall of communism in East-Central Europe.
Mira Złotowska, better known as Mira Michałowska, and other communist and communist-leaning journalists like her who had worked in New York on World War II Voice of America (VOA) anti-Nazi and pro-Soviet propaganda radio broadcasts, do not appear in the online presentation “VOA Authors: Many Years, Many Stories — 75 Years of After-Hours Wisdom” recently posted (November 2019) by the taxpayer-funded U.S. government multi-media agency. Their boss, the first VOA director John Houseman, who had hired many of them and was eventually forced to resign, was featured in the presentation, not as their patron and promoter of Soviet propaganda but as a defender of truthful journalism—a false claim contradicted by archival records and his own memoirs.
One of the ironies of history is that the Voice of America, which in its early phase helped Stalin to achieve Russia’s domination over East-Central Europe, in later years contributed greatly to helping free the so-called “Captive Nations” from Russia’s indirect but firm imperial rule exercised through local communist dictatorships. To this day, consecutive VOA managements have refused to acknowledge these pro-Soviet journalists as being in charge of planning and producing early VOA radio broadcasts and later working for communist regimes as media and public diplomacy experts. The current Voice of America management, put in charge in 2015-2016, has been particularly guilty of presenting a falsified historical narrative and has made it easier for today’s Russian propagandists to take advantage of the gaps in historical knowledge among VOA managers, editors and news reporters.
It does not appear from U.S. government records that Voice of America director John Houseman personally recruited Mira Złotowska to work on VOA radio scripts, as he did in the case of other Soviet sympathizers, including Howard Fast, the future winner of the Stalin International Peace Prize (later renamed Lenin Prize). Fast was already employed at the agency when, Houseman put him in charge of writing VOA English news. Złotowska and Fast were friends and colleagues among many early Voice of America radically leftist propagandists, some of them also authors of bestselling books, who wrote and recorded English and foreign language broadcasts and produced other propaganda materials. A war refugee born in Poland, Mira Złotowska was hired in 1942 to write and edit Polish language scripts.
Except for Houseman, nearly all of these journalists who helped to spread Soviet propaganda, have been omitted from articles and books about VOA and U.S. international broadcasting, at first intentionally and later mostly because of fading memories. A few American writers previously and currently connected with the organization who may have done some historical research have failed to mention them in their articles and books about VOA, presumably in order not to embarrass their former or current employer, while incorrectly presenting Houseman as a respectable American newsman worthy of praise because years later he claimed in interviews that he had defended giving VOA listeners nothing but the truth. His false claim was accepted as true by countless VOA directors, and by now it has been turned into the official account of the organization’s history.
Mira Złotowska who in addition to her later married name, Michałowska, used close to ten different pen names, herself was also not completely honest in later years about her role at the Voice of America. Since she had decided to return to Poland after the end of World War II to support the Soviet-imposed communist regime, she would not have been able to write freely on this and many other topics during the Cold War if she wanted to have her books and articles published by the state-run publishing houses, newspapers and magazines. When after the fall of communism, it became possible to write honestly, she remained silent about the most sensitive topics from her past. She was also reported to have been in poor health toward the end of her life. Mira Michałowska died in Warsaw, Poland on August 19, 2007, at the age of 93, without leaving any known written detailed accounts of her work on Voice of America wartime radio broadcasts.
On a purely human level, Mira Michałowska’s life story is rich and complex. It could easily be turned into a screenplay for a Hollywood movie about World War II Nazis, anti-Nazis, Communists, anti-Communists, radio propagandists and Cold War spies. Because after the war she was suspected of having a close relationship with an American ambassador serving in Warsaw, she was once called a “Mata Hari,“ but whether she truly was a communist spy or merely a fascinating woman who cultivated many international friendships is still a mystery. What can be said without much doubt is that she and other pro-communist and pro-Soviet idealists like her helped Stalin confuse and deceive many Europeans and Americans into believing that he was mostly a progressive albeit radical leader in the struggle for social justice and popular democracy and would allow countries like Poland and Czechoslovakia to be fully sovereign, free and democratic after the defeat of Nazi Germany.
Born Mira Zandel on November 23, 1914 to a middle-class family in Łódź, four years before Poland regained its independence, Mira Złotowska was an important figure in the early years of the Polish language Voice of America radio broadcasts. As a fluent English speaker and writer, she was also in a position to influence English and other VOA broadcasts through her research on Poland-related World War II news reports. Her personnel records from the United States Office of War Information (OWI) show that she was employed in New York from October 17, 1942 to December 30, 1944, and possibly part-time until February 12, 1945. During that period she worked for the OWI unit in charge of writing Voice of America radio scripts and later for a unit producing printed propaganda materials. Most of these OWI propaganda leaflets and pamphlets were anti-Nazi but some were also pro-Soviet, the same mix as in OWI radio broadcasts. Although the pioneer role of Moscow’s willing and unwitting agents of influence who produced them has been forgotten, their work as American government journalists who helped Stalin implement his plans for East-Central Europe and protected him from criticism is an important part of VOA’s history which deserves further study in the age of renewed Russian disinformation and influence operations against the West.
Mira Złotowska belonged to a group of strongly left-leaning political activists who, in many cases with best intentions in mind, transformed the Voice of America into a tool of Soviet propaganda, misleading and harming millions of radio listeners by telling them that they had nothing to fear from Soviet Russia or from its leader Joseph Stalin and should embrace socialism, if not communism, for their own good. The immediate goal of Soviet propaganda during World War II and beyond was somewhat different from the current Russian goal of dividing Americans and interfering with American elections. Stalin wanted above all full control over East-Central Europe. The media mix at that time was also different. The Soviets had to rely on the U.S. government’s propaganda agency, national radio networks, major newspapers, the Communist Party USA and communist front organizations to get their messages across to Americans. The front organizations and friendly journalists provided what the manipulation of social media does for the Kremlin today with far greater efficiency and at a much lower cost. But many of the original Soviet tactics in manipulating foreign and American journalists to advance Russia’s interests by repeating and amplifying Russian disinformation are remarkably similar to tactics employed by propagandists working for Russia’s autocratic leader Vladimir Putin, an ex-KGB operative. The full knowledge and study of the history of Soviet influence over the Voice of America during its early years are absolutely essential for VOA journalists if they want to learn how to counter today’s Russian propaganda media influence operations. Mira Złotowska’s work at the World War II Voice of America provides an interesting and valuable case study of how a news organization can become easily corrupted by foreign ideologies and hostile and dangerous foreign powers if ideological zeal, poor journalism, partisanship and poor management become an important part of the organizational culture.
A failure of VOA’s WWII journalism
The Voice of America was one of the places where Mira Złotowska left her greatest mark as a propagandist during World War II advocating for establishing a radically socialist and Soviet-friendly government in Poland. Where these pro-Soviet Voice of America Polish Service World War II broadcasters failed as journalists was to urge the Poles not only to trust the Soviets and Polish Communists but to join their ranks and willingly participate in building a communist system, which turned out to be a nightmare of severe Stalinist repression. Mass arrests and murders were then followed by several decades of somewhat less deadly communist rule but still marked by economic deprivation and killings of striking workers and other opponents of the regime.
Today’s Americans know very little about Voice of America’s history, but those who have heard of VOA may remember it as a U.S. government shortwave radio station which, together with other American-funded stations, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, broadcast uncensored news during the Cold War to countries under Soviet control behind the Iron Curtain. This part of VOA’s overall valuable legacy is true, but almost no American today knows that early in its existence, the station employed a large number of Soviet sympathizers and agents of influence, a few of whom ended up later establishing communist governments in East Central Europe and helping them target Americans for support with pro-regime propaganda. Initially, these Voice of America journalists were calling for establishing governments that were pro-Soviet and socialist but also democratic. Once Mira Złotowska and others started working for the newly-established regimes, it should have been obvious to them that there was no democracy or freedom, but they persisted in supporting the new order.
Mira Złotowska who was better known later as Mira Michałowska in Poland and Mira Michal to her English-speaking readers was one of the former Voice of America journalists who after their pro-Soviet propaganda work at VOA found employment as journalists, diplomats, and public relations specialists working for Stalinist regimes in East-Central Europe. She is believed to had been the first woman-reporter from Poland who after the war published articles in English in mainstream American news magazines. She remained more or less loyal to the communist authorities in Poland her entire life, even if eventually she reportedly started to detest them, as one Polish scholar suggested already in 1968. In the end, the Communist Party turned against her and her diplomat-husband, presumably because of their Jewish background and their too pro-Western attitudes, but even after the regime-inspired anti-Semitic purge among party and government officials and Polish Jews in general, she did not seek a political asylum in the West. By then, her links to the communist elite may have lasted much too long to be completely renounced.[ref]Karol Estreicher, Jr. quoted by Piotr Oczko, “Wybór Miry. O Mirze Michałowskiej,” Miesięcznik Znak, nr 769, June 2019.[/ref]
Marxists at WWII Voice of America
Voice of America shortwave radio broadcasts targeting foreign audiences in Europe started with a German program, which was first aired in February 1942. Mira Złotowska was linked with VOA broadcasting almost from its very beginning. An elegant young woman in her 20s, who spoke Polish, English, French, German and Russian and wrote books and articles in both Polish and English, she was one of the most colorful and talented writers, editors, translators, graphic artists and radio announcers hired in New York by the Office of War Information to fight Hitler with anti-Nazi propaganda. But, unknown to most Americans concerned today with Russia’s subversion of U.S. media platforms, many of these idealistic World War II Voice of America journalists were at the same time also helping another dictator and mass murderer, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, establish communist regimes in East Central Europe by producing pro-Soviet propaganda and censoring news unfavorable to the Kremlin.
Socialists and Marxists, both American and foreign-born, served at all levels of the organization. They were in the executive offices in Washington and in New York, in the newsroom, and in Voice of America English and foreign language services. Some of them were dogmatic Communists completely loyal to Stalin, while most may have been more independent Marxists, Socialists, Social Democrats, pro-Soviet fellow travelers and men and women with or without major U.S. party affiliations who also embraced at least some of Marx’s theories and believed in at least some of Soviet propaganda claims.
American supporters of Stalin at OWI were in their majority not intentionally disloyal to the United States, but they were profoundly misinformed about the Soviet Union and fatally naive. One of the most dedicated American Communists who played a key role during the first two years of the Voice of America’s existence was a best-selling American author who was later rewarded with the Stalin Peace Prize. He was the former chief writer of Voice of America English news during the war Howard Fast. Mira Złotowska knew and admired Fast. His was the first book she translated from English to Polish and had it published in Poland. But at the Office of War Information, she also came under the influence of a dogmatic socialist journalist and propagandist Stefan Arski, who after the war became one of the fiercest critics of the United States and in books and articles published by the regime relentlessly attacked anti-communist Polish refugee exiles, including Polish writers and journalists who remained in the West.
An American government propagandist
Almost no one in Poland or in the United States now or for the past fifty years associates Mira Michałowska with her Voice of America job during World War II. Some of her online biographical entries mention briefly that she had worked for the Office of War Information on producing anti-Nazi propaganda pamphlets, but the OWI name or various names of its wartime Polish-language radio programs, for which she wrote and edited scripts, have no special meaning for the Poles.
Contributing to the confusion about her past were the various names under which she published her books and articles. The author’s blurb in her book Nobody Told Me How: A Diplomatic Entertainment, which she wrote in English under the name Mira Michal and published for Western readers said that “Miss Michal worked on the Polish desk of the O.W.I., writing news broadcasts and features for Polish consumption, and when the war was over she worked for two years as a researcher for Time.” By then, even most Americans would not have known what the letters O.W.I. stood for, although some might have known what the Voice of America was doing at that time to fight censorship behind the Iron Curtain. Identifying herself in her book with VOA would not have been good for her standing with the regime in Poland, and she could not very well point out to Americans during the Cold War that while working there she wrote propaganda in support of the Soviet Union and the establishment of the communist government. The entire book is remarkably unclear that she and her husband were working on behalf of the government, which was communist and loyal to Moscow. There was no significant risk to mentioning the OWI because hardly anyone knew by then what the OWI did during the war. Her book was published in the United States in the early 1960s by J. B. Lippincott.[ref]Mira Michal, Nobody Told Me How: A Diplomatic Entertainment (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1962).[/ref] It is true that she was employed by the U.S. government war propaganda outlets, one of which only eventually acquired the Voice of America name. American government-produced radio broadcasts were not yet generally known under this name when she worked there from 1942 until 1944 or early 1945, although she was probably one of the first persons who had used the Voice of America name already in 1943.
The wartime VOA broadcasts had no significant impact on the non-communist Polish audience compared to the influence and news value of BBC and other Polish-language radio transmissions from London. It did not help that Mira Złotowska and her VOA colleagues censored real news of interest to the Poles, protected Stalin from criticism and aired pro-Soviet propaganda. They did it both on their own initiative and as required by the station’s senior management and the Roosevelt White House. Their radio broadcasts were heard at that time by very few people in Poland, usually only a handful of news monitors working for the underground Polish authorities and the anti-Nazi resistance. Some of the VOA world news, which was generally accurate if it did not pertain to communism in the Soviet Union and Stalin’s atrocities and real political plans, were copied from time to time in underground news bulletins, but the VOA Polish broadcasts themselves have not been mentioned in any memoirs or documents that I have been able to find with the exception of one booklet written by Złotowska and her colleagues and one highly critical article written by a Polish refugee journalist after the war. There is much more documentary evidence, however, of Złotowska’s post-war activities as a writer, journalist and wife of a regime diplomat.
Ted Lipien was Voice of America acting associate director in charge of central news programs before his retirement in 2006. In the 1970s, he worked as a broadcaster in the VOA Polish Service and was the service chief and foreign correspondent in the 1980s during Solidarity’s struggle for democracy in Poland.