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.
An early critic of Voice of America
Any usefulness of pro-Soviet Voice of America programs in Polish during World War II was very low except to Communists and others already inclined to believe Soviet propaganda. Their number in Poland was relatively low. According to one contemporary listener to VOA wartime broadcasts, a left-leaning Polish Peasant Party politician, Stanisław Mikołajczyk, these radio transmissions from the United States were nothing more than Soviet disinformation.
Mikołajczyk, who had served as Prime Minister in the Polish government-in-exile in London and later even joined briefly the communist government in Warsaw after the war as Deputy Prime Minister, had to flee to the West in 1947 to save his life. His assessment of Voice of America Polish broadcasts is significant because for a while he was willing to cooperate with Stalin and Communists in Poland. Stanisław Mikołajczyk was not referring specifically to Mira Złotowska but in general to the tone and content of VOA wartime Polish-language programs.
We finally protested to the United States State Department about the tone of OWI broadcasts to Poland. Such broadcasts, which we carefully monitored in London, might well have emanated from Moscow itself. The Polish underground wanted to hear what was going on in the United States, to whom it turned responsive ears and hopeful eyes. It was not interested in hearing pro-Soviet propaganda from the United States, since that duplicated the broadcasts sent from Moscow. 1
Mira Złotowska and Stefan Arski were some of the key Voice of America Polish Service editors and writers responsible for producing these OWI radio broadcasts.
Congress questions domestic media censorship
While the Voice of America was spreading pro-Soviet propaganda abroad, OWI officials, including future U.S. Senator Alan Cranston (D-CA), were trying in violation of U.S. laws to shut down Polish American radio stations and newspapers which reported the truth on the Soviet mass murder of Polish military officers at Katyn. Cranston’s boss, OWI director Elmer Davis, recorded broadcasts for domestic U.S. radio networks in support of the Soviet Katyn lie. President Roosevelt had asked Davis to continue recording commentaries to domestic U.S. radio networks although not specifically in connection with the Katyń murder. Initially, OWI had a multimillion dollar budget for domestic propaganda targeting Americans, but after learning that some VOA journalists were communists or fellow travelers and after discovering some of Mr. Cranston’s activities, many concerned members of Congress from both parties eliminated almost all the funding for domestic propaganda while only partly reducing OWI’s budget for Voice of America radio broadcasts and printed propaganda abroad. The ability of the OWI Polish desk to propagandize to Polish-Americans was drastically limited. 2 Another high-level OWI official, Hollywood playwright and President Roosevelt’s speechwriter Robert E. Sherwood, was coordinating Voice of America propaganda with Soviet propaganda.
Former OWI director Elmer Davis may have perjured himself when he told the bipartisan Madden Committee in 1952 that he did not know about any of Alan Cranston’s illegal domestic censorship activities and would not have approved them had he known about them. A copy of an unsigned memorandum from Davis to the U.S. Attorney General found in the National Archives, however, urges the Department of Justice to take measures against the Polish-American newspaper Nowy Świat, “if that can legally be taken.” It shows that Davis was well aware of Cranston’s domestic censorship activities and tried to help him to shut down a Polish-American newspaper.
Taking action against a newspaper in the United States which supported the war effort and did not violate any U.S. laws but merely reported truthfully on Soviet human rights atrocities would have been completely illegal. As a journalist, Elmer Davis had to know that what he was proposing was illegal. To protect himself, he wrote that only legal steps should be taken, but he failed to mention his memorandum or any knowledge of the Nowy Świat controversy to members of Congress asking him questions.
More critics of Voice of America
Some would argue that Arski, Hoffmeister and Złotowska were not just innocent well-meaning progressive journalists, Voice of America broadcasters, artists and intellectuals. They used their considerable talents in the service of a deadly totalitarian ideology. They produced propaganda against Hitler, who was a dictator and mass murderer, while at the same time spreading propaganda in favor of another mass murderer and dictator, Josef Stalin. However, it could be said in their defense—more in the case of Michałowska and Hoffmeister than Arski—that at least they did not commit any known crimes against other Poles or Czechs and in their positions of influence within the communist regimes were better for the general welfare of the people in their respective countries than other more hardline officials would have been had they taken their place. To his credit, later in his life Hoffmeister broke his ties to the communist regime in Czechoslovakia. To my knowledge, Michalowska never did.
Their propaganda activities as Voice of America journalists were not, however, a totally victimless lapse of judgement. One secret source told the CIA in the 1950s that the Voice of America may have contributed to imprisonment and deaths of some Czechoslovaks with its pro-Soviet propaganda. A few refugees who had returned to Poland and Czechoslovakia from the West after the war may have been convinced by the Voice of America or propaganda pamphlets produced by these journalists that the pro-Soviet governments would be democratic and would follow the rule of law. “A great deal of harm can be done by irresponsible broadcasting,” the CIA source warned.
Fortunately, for the sake of their lives and safety of their families, the vast majority of wartime refugees, including thousands of Polish and Czechoslovak soldiers who had fought against Hitler’s armies as Britain’s and America’s allies, chose the life of being political exiles in the West. Many of them were former prisoners in the Soviet Gulag. They were not duped by Voice of America’s pro-Soviet broadcasts, but many of them could not return to their home countries for many decades, although later some travel behind the Iron Curtain became possible. The majority became silenced and forgotten refugees. Others worked for Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America or were frequent participants in their programs. One of the most talented RFE Polish Service broadcasters was Polish-Jewish poet, journalist, playwright, comedy writer, and songwriter Marian Hemar.
During World War II, however, Soviet influence reached the very top of the U.S. government broadcasting agency and was not limited to journalists producing radio programs in foreign languages. In addition to broadcasting Soviet propaganda, Voice of America officials and editors banned Stalin’s critics. Some of these bans and partial censorship continued for a few years after the war.
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.
- Stanislaw Mikolajczyk, The Rape of Poland: Pattern of Soviet Aggression (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1948). ↩
- The Katyn Forest Massacre. Final Report of the Select Committee to Conduct an Investigation of the Facts, Evidence and Circumstances of the Katyn Forest Massacre pursuant to H. Res. 390 and H. Res. 539, Eighty-Second Congress, a resolution to authorize the investigation of the mass murder of Polish officers in the Katyn Forest near Smolensk, Russia, (Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1952), accessed October 26, 2017, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=osu.32435078695582. ↩