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.
Anti-communist VOA Polish Service journalists
One group not fooled by subtle propaganda from Mira Michałowska, the wife of a communist diplomat who presented in her books and articles Warsaw regime officials and their spouses as likable individuals who wanted the best for their country and had no ill will toward the West, was the group of anti-communist refugee journalists working at that time in the already reformed Voice of America Polish Service. With only one exception, no VOA Polish Service journalist during the Cold War would agree to attend a communist diplomatic reception at the Embassy in Washington, at Polish Consulates or the U.N. Mission in New York.
By the 1970, the VOA’s management would not object to such social contacts with communist diplomats, as long as they were promptly reported, and would even welcome them since diplomatic and business relations between the United States and the Edward Gierek regime were improving (all contacts between VOA journalists and communist diplomats still had to be reported to the Office of Security), but VOA Polish Service journalists refused to do anything that might give legitimacy to the communist government in Poland. VOA journalists would interview communist government officials from time to time, but they would not socialize with representatives of a repressive and illegitimate regime. Mrs. Michałowska had no chance of being invited for an interview with the Voice of America Polish Service. She already had full access to readers of state-published popular magazines and communist state TV in Poland.
While Mrs. Michałowska invited rich and influential Americans to diplomatic receptions at the regime’s embassy on 16th Street, NW in Washington to convince them that Poland and its Soviet-backed government should be treated like any other respectable foreign country and government, anti-regime Poles met in Washington at what some called the unofficial embassy of free Poland at the home of Zofia and Stefan Korboński on Decatur Place, NW. Born in Warsaw in 1912, two years earlier than Mira Michałowska, Zofia Korbońska was since 1948 until the 1980s, broadcaster and editor in the VOA Polish Service.
Both highly educated, intelligent, sophisticated and elegant, these two women could not have been more different in their political views, values and loyalties. Working for the Voice of America, first in New York and later in Washington during the Cold War, Korbońska contributed to the fall of communism; Mira Michałowska helped to keep in power. Zofia Korbońska did not publish any books, but books have been written about her, some with transcripts of interviews she had given to journalists and writers. In 2004, Korbońska appeared in the CNN documentary “Warsaw Rising: The Forgotten Soldiers of World War II” hosted by David Ensor who later became VOA Director.
As a member of the Polish Undergroud Army, Armia Krajowa (AK), during the Nazi occupation, Mrs. Korbonska daily risked her life writing and coding secret shortwave radio transmissions sent from Poland to the Polish government-in-exile in London. Her dispatches kept the outside world informed about Nazi atrocities and anti-German resistance. Thanks to her, some of the first news about the killings by the Gestapo of members of the Polish intelligentsia, the Nazi extermination of the Polish Jews and the Nazi medical experiments on women prisoners at the Ravensbrück concentration camp reached the Free World and were broadcast back to occupied Europe by the BBC. Her husband Stefan Korboński was a Polish agrarian politician, lawyer, journalist and a one of the civilian leaders of the wartime authorities of the Polish Secret State. In 1980, the Yad Vashem Institute gave Korboński the Righteous Among the Nations medal for saving Jews under German occupation. As a leader in the Polish Secret State, Korboński was in charge of the underground court system which issued death sentences to some of the Poles who denounced Jews to the German occupiers.
Heda Margolius Kovály
Another VOA woman author definitely worth highlighting but also missing from the official “VOA Authors” online presentation would have been Heda Margolius Kovály, the wife and later widow of Rudolf Margolius (1913 – 1952), Czechoslovak Deputy Minister for Foreign Trade (1949–1952) in the Soviet-dominated regime. She had worked in the 1970s as a freelance reporter for the Voice of America Czechoslovak Service under her radio name Kaca Kralova. Her husband was the youngest communist co-defendant in the 1952 anti-Semitic Rudolf Slánský trial and was executed.
In her memoir, Under a Cruel Star published in the West, Margolius Kovály made several comments about Western radio broadcasting during the early years of the Cold War. She explained how some members of the communist elite in Czechoslovakia at first could not believe early in the Cold War that what Radio Free Europe was reporting on human rights violations in their country could possibly be true. Arski and Michałowska were lucky that there were no major Stalinist show trials in Poland against Communist Party officials, but there were many show trials against political opponents of the regime, resulting in numerous executions. There were also many extrajudicial killings by the communist secret police in Poland. In Czechoslovakia, of the fourteen Czechoslovak Communists sentenced in the Slánský trial for alleged anti-state crimes, eleven were Jews. Heda Margolius Kovály recalled that announcers of the regime-controlled Radio Prague were playing up the fact that most of the defendants were, as they put it, “of Jewish origin” even though earlier the communist doctrine did not appear overly anti-Semitic. However, it emphasized and promoted class, religious, ideological and, in some cases, ethnic hatred. Journalists who helped to spread Soviet propaganda deceived Jews and other groups in Europe and in America that Jews and other minorities had nothing to fear from communism and should support communist regimes as their only protection against intolerance and violence. They could not have been more wrong. 1
A Polish WWII journalist on Voice of America
Because of their pro-Soviet propaganda, Voice of America World War II broadcasts were of little use to the vast majority of Poles who were not communists and were rightly afraid of Soviet Russia. One Polish refugee journalist in London, Czesław Straszewicz wrote in 1953 in Kultura, a liberal opinion magazine published in France by Poles living in exile. Culture also published books and articles by writers and journalists living in Poland who were silenced in their own country by the communist authorities by publishing bans and censorship.
Many of these books and articles were then broadcast to back to Poland by Radio Free Europe, but usually not by the far more cautious Voice of America. During the Nixon and Ford administrations, the senior management of the United States Information Agency and VOA for several years prevented the VOA Russian Service from interviewing Russian dissident Nobel Prize author Alexandr Solzhenitsyn. It was a partial ban on the famous critic of Soviet communism. During World War II, John Houseman, Howard Fast, Stefan Arski, Adolf Hofmeister and many others engaged in an almost total censorship of negative news about Stalin and the Soviet Union.
“With genuine horror we listened to what the Polish language programs of the Voice of America (or whatever name they had then), in which in line with what [the Soviet news agency] TASS was communicating, the  Warsaw Uprising was being completely ignored.” 2
Konstanty Broel Plater – an honest journalist
One VOA Polish Service journalist, Konstanty Broel Plater who protested against pro-Soviet propaganda in Voice of America World War II broadcasts, chose to resign in 1944 rather than read Soviet lies on the air. He was one of the very few journalists at the Voice of America during the war who saw the danger of appeasing Stalin and refused to take part in that effort. In the VOA Polish Service during World War II, he might have been one of the very few who did not try to help Stalin install a pro-Soviet government in Poland.
Stefan Arski and Mira Złotowska were responsible for such censorship and pro-Soviet propaganda with full support from their American bosses, including first VOA director John Houseman. When Konstanty Broel Plater protested against broadcasting Soviet lies, a management’s representative sent from Washington to New York to talk to him asked him whether he really wants to have a fight with the Voice of America director. There were a few others like Broel Plater working on VOA broadcasts in New York during World War II, but they could do little to stop Soviet propaganda.
Ambassador Jan Ciechanowski
In his book Defeat in Victory, Jan Ciechanowski, former ambassador in Washington of the Polish government-in-exile in London wrote after the war how he tried to warn the Roosevelt administration about the danger of VOA Soviet propaganda broadcasts. His warnings produced no results, and he was later mocked by OWI director Elmer Davis.
So-called American propaganda broadcasts [Voice of America, originally called “America Calling Europe”] to occupied Poland were outstanding proofs of this tendency. Notorious pro-Soviet propagandists and obscure foreign communists and fellow travelers were entrusted with these broadcasts.
I protested repeatedly against the pro-Soviet character of such propaganda. I explained to those responsible for it in the OWI that the Polish nation, suffering untold oppression from Hitler’s hordes, was thirsting for plain news about America and especially about her war effort, her postwar plans, and her moral leadership, that Soviet propaganda was being continuously broadcast anyway to Poland directly from Moscow, and there seemed no reason additionally to broadcast it from the United States. 3
When Ambassador Jan Ciechanowski tried to warn the Roosevelt administration and members of Congress about the U.S. government funding and promoting Soviet propaganda, Złotowska, Arski and other Soviet sympathizers were in charge of preparing Polish news for the Voice of America. His efforts resulted in Congress drastically curtailing OWI’s domestic propaganda activities and may have contributed to VOA director John Houseman being forced to resign, but the pro-Moscow journalists in the VOA Polish Service were not removed and most of them were not removed in other VOA foreign language services until sometime after the war. 4
Why should Mira Michałowska or Howard Fast be included among many excellent authors who were highlighted in the Voice of America “VOA Authors” presentation for writing books before, during and after their employment as reporters, editors, managers or as government officials running VOA? Certainly not because they were great journalists, although they were both very good and prolific writers. The answer to that question might be that it should be done for the sake of accuracy and as a warning to all Americans, especially to American journalists who are concerned about Russia’s propaganda activities and want to know how to protect themselves from disinformation and Russian trolls. Besides, most of the VOA authors who were highlighted in the online presentation happen to be American men who published books in English (only a few foreign-born writers, men and women, are included) while the vast majority of journalists who had worked for the Voice of America were foreign-born refugees from communism. A significant number of foreign-born anti-communist refugee VOA authors were women.
Admittedly, Mira Michałowska was a supporter of a deadly ideology, but if her profile were included together with more profiles of East-Central European anti-communist journalists like Zofia Korbońska who had worked at the Voice of America in later years to correct the damage done by Houseman, Arski, Hoffmeister, Michałowska and many other early VOA pro-Soviet Russia propagandists, this could have been a historically educational and worthwhile project. From the perspective of pure informational value and objectivity, Howard Fast, also a Communist who had worked in a key editorial position in World War II Voice of America, wrote and published more best-selling books than all the other writers listed in the “VOA Authors” project.
Soviet influence over early Voice of America broadcasts was subsequently covered up by VOA officials, who created a false narrative designed to obscure the fact that Soviet Russia managed to dupe the organization into spreading Soviet propaganda in favor of establishing communist regimes in East-Central Europe. VOA Director Amanda Bennett, appointed during the Obama administration, wrote in a 2018 opinion article in The Washington Post that “The radio broadcast that eventually became Voice of America was created to give people trapped behind Nazi lines accurate, truthful news about the war, in contrast with Nazi propaganda.” 5 Her assertion was not entirely false, but it was also not entirely true. What the VOA Director may not have known or forgot to mention is that U.S. government propaganda during World War II, including Voice of America broadcasts, was, in addition to providing a lot of true information about the course of the war and Nazi atrocities, also severely tainted with many half-truths and deliberate lies designed to protect from domestic and foreign criticism an important U.S. military ally–Soviet Russia and its communist dictator Josef Stalin.
Under the heading “Truth in Propaganda,” the Office of War Information “Manual of Information” said that “Truth is employed by the Overseas Branch in all its media because on the side of the United Nations in this war and is our most effective propaganda weapon.” But the manual also pointed out that “information is not disseminated abroad merely because it is true–it must be useful in the psychological warfare program of the OWI, which is designed to shorten the war and thus save lives. The whole story may not always be told, but the story which is told will always be true.”
Not telling the whole story by the wartime Voice of America and its journalists involved using lies, distortions, half-truth and hiding of facts about Stalin, the Soviet Union and some of the most horrific human rights crimes of the 20th century.
Learning from history
To this day (November 2019), officials in charge of the Voice of America and its current parent agency do not want to admit that many foreign and American communists and Soviet agents of influence were working on producing VOA radio broadcasts during World War II or in some cases in later years. They laud Soviet sympathizer John Houseman and hide embarrassing information about him when they should be honoring such VOA broadcasters as Konstanty Broel Plater, Zofia Korbońska and Heda Margolius Kovály. While there is no reason to highlight Mira Michałowska, Howard Fast, Stefan Arski or Adolf Hoffmeister in every VOA promotional material, for the sake of historical accuracy and learning from past mistakes, they should not be completely erased by the management from VOA’s history. Americans would benefit from knowing that some VOA broadcasters during World War II, a few of them Communists, engaged in censorship and propaganda to benefit Soviet Russia.
There is a definite danger in ignoring history. The cover-up of VOA’s less glorious moments in U.S. government broadcasting and journalism has continued for decades during the Cold War and afterwards, leading to some past mistakes being repeated in today’s disinformation wars waged by Russia against the West. I discovered that many Voice of America reporters and editors today have no idea that Angela Davis was a pro-Soviet American communist who during the Cold War had condemned East European and Soviet dissidents as counterrevolutionaries. She received the Lenin Peace Prize. In two fairly recent VOA programs, Angela Davis was presented as a brave fighter for human rights. As George Orwell wrote in Nineteen Eighty-Four: A Novel, “The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.”
Putin’s Russia has weaponized history for disinformation warfare. Any news organization that wants to stand up to today’s Russian propaganda must know the history of Soviet communism, as well as its own history. The Voice of America must know this history better than any of Putin’s propagandists if it wants to counter their subversive media activities. The life story of Mira Michałowska is a good example of how difficult it is to protect news organizations and journalism from subversive effects of ideological activism and manipulation by foreign actors. It may never be possible to confirm whether Michałowska was a spy. She may have merely done what was expected at that time from communist functionaries like her husband and their wives, and from regime journalists and writers like herself. As the wife of famous Polish communist-era journalist and writer Ryszard Kapuściński, himself a member of the Communist Party, said in his defense after it was revealed that he had agreed to cooperate with the communist intelligence service, her late husband was not bothered by it because he knew that all Polish journalists who during the Cold War traveled abroad were registered as potential informants.
Some Polish journalists and writers, including Michałowska, were more willing to cooperate with communist authorities than many others, even if they considered themselves to be pro-Western communist reformists. Some of them made at times positive contributions to Polish culture and managed to expand slightly the limits of political and cultural freedom, but if every Pole at home and abroad chose to behave that way and never changed his or her views and behavior, Poland might still be today under communist rule. Fortunately, many opposed the inhuman system from the very beginning and others joined the peaceful struggle later when they saw that they had made a mistake in initially supporting the communist regime. For them, including Polish Social Democrats and other left-leaning liberals, there was never any question that communism and the Soviet empire were evil. Thanks to incorruptible journalists like Jan Nowak-Jeziorański and Marek Walicki at Radio Free Europe, Zofia Korbońska at the post-war, reformed Voice of America, Polish workers like Lech Wałęsa, Polish Catholic Church leaders like Pope John Paul II, and American leaders like President Ronald Reagan, Poland is now free.
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.
- Margolius Kovály, Heda. Under A Cruel Star: A Life in Prague 1941-1968. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1989. ↩
- Czesław Straszewicz, “O Świcie,” Kultura, October, 1953, 61-62. I am indebted to Polish historian of the Voice of America’s Polish Service Jarosław Jędrzejczak for finding this reference to VOA’s wartime role. ↩
- Jan Ciechanowski, Defeat in Victory (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1947), 130-131. ↩
- Teofil Lachowicz, “Zapomniany dyplomata,” Przegląd Polski (New York), October 20, 2000. ↩
- Amanda Bennett, Voice of America Director, “Trump’s ‘worldwide network’ is a great idea. But it already exists.” The Washington Post, November 27, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/trumps-worldwide-network-is-a-great-idea-but-it-already-exists/2018/11/27/79b320bc-f269-11e8-bc79-68604ed88993_story.html. ↩