April 1943 – State Department Warns White House of Soviet Influence at Voice of America
May 4, 2018
Analysis by Ted Lipien for Cold War Radio Museum
In 2018, the online Cold War Radio Museum presented for the first time to a broader online audience a secret 1943 memorandum sent to the Roosevelt White House by the U.S. State Department. The communication raised suspicions about John Houseman, considered to be the first director of the Voice of America (VOA) as being a communist sympathizer and too pro-Soviet to be trusted in a high-level sensitive government position in charge of U.S. radio broadcasts overseas.[ref]In his book, Voice of America: A History (New York: Columbia University Press: 2003), Alan L. Heil, Jr. does not mention the secret 1943 State Department memorandum about Houseman. Heil identified Houseman as the first VOA director: “Hollywood and Broadway producer, author and director John Houseman, another VOA pioneer and its first director…” (p. 36). Allan M. Winkler, who as assistant professor of history at Yale University published The Politics of Propaganda: The Office of War Information 1942-1945 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1978), accepted Houseman’s misleading account that he was denied a U.S. passport because Ruth Shipley, the head of the Passport Division in the State Department, “decided that his current alien status disqualified him for government travel at the time” (pp. 101-102). Houseman had obtained U.S. citizenship in early 1943 through the special intervention of Robert E. Sherwood, but the State Department still refused to allow him to travel abroad on U.S. government business because of his suspected Soviet and communist links.[/ref] The memorandum informed the White House that the State Department refused him permission to travel abroad as a U.S. government representative.
At the height of World War II, the U.S. diplomatic service and the U.S. military authorities had secretly declared the chief producer of VOA broadcasts to be untrustworthy because of his excessive pro-Soviet and communist sympathies. They came to this conclusion even though the Soviet Union was regarded by President Roosevelt as America’s indispensable military ally against Nazi Germany and hopefully later in the war also against Japan.
There were no direct accusations in the memo or details of any ongoing subversive activities. The most serious charge was that Houseman was hiring communists to fill Voice of America positions. This accusation against Houseman was true. Whether he did it on instructions from the Communist Party USA, or whether he had received and followed such instructions while working for the Voice of America, is not mentioned in the memorandum. How he did it was not specified. Soviet intelligence services would routinely use their influence to place agents or individuals highly sympathetic to the Soviet Union in U.S. government jobs. Even if the target of their activity was not a Communist Party member subject to party discipline, they knew how to manipulate those who participated in the Kremlin-controlled communist “front” organizations. A few weeks after Sumner Welles sent his memorandum to the White House, John Houseman resigned from his position as the head of the Radio Program Bureau in the Overseas Branch of the Office of War Information, the current day Voice of America.[ref]New York Times, “Radio Row: One Thing and Another,” September 12, 1943, Page 7.[/ref]
The memorandum about Soviet and communist influence within the wartime Voice of America included a cover memo written by Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles. He was a distinguished career diplomat, a major foreign policy advisor to President Roosevelt, and his friend. Welles’ letter was sent to the White House on April 6, 1943. The attached memorandum with the addendum listing names of individuals who had been denied U.S. passports for government travel abroad was dated April 5, 1943. The documents were declassified in the mid-1970s and have been accessible online for some time from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum Website[ref]Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles April 6, 1943 memorandum to Marvin H. McIntyre, Secretary to the President with enclosures, Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum Website, Box 77, State – Welles, Sumner, 1943-1944; version date 2013[/ref] and the National Archives[ref]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.[/ref]. It appears, however, that they have never been widely disclosed and analyzed before now. They were presented for the first time with a historical analysis on the Cold War Radio Museum website.
John Houseman (born Jacques Haussmann in Romania to a British mother and a French father; September 22, 1902 – October 31, 1988) was a theater producer, radio producer, and Hollywood actor now known mostly for his Oscar-winning role as Professor Charles W. Kingsfield in the 1973 film The Paper Chase and his commercials for the brokerage firm Smith Barney about making money the old-fashioned way. He emigrated to the United States in 1925 and worked as a grain broker before starting his theater, radio, and movie career and collaboration with theater and film director Orson Welles (no relation to Sumner Welles). They reportedly caused some amount of panic in much of the United States with their 1938 Mercury Theatre on the Air production of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds which mixed genuinely sounding but fake evening radio news bulletins with dramatic descriptions of an alien invasion.
A 1982 Voice of America one-page biography mentioned Houseman’s collaboration with Orson Welles in producing the movie classic Citizen Kane. It also noted “the notorious Men from Mars [sic] radio broadcast [which] rocked [sic] the nation in November 1938” (it actually aired on Halloween, October 30, 1938 over the Columbia Broadcasting System radio network) but did not explain the broadcast’s significance as a pioneering experiment in fake news, in this case at least for purely entertainment purposes.
In late 1941 or very early 1942, John Houseman, whose legal name then was Jacques Haussmann, was officially hired by his friend, American playwright and Roosevelt’s speechwriter Robert E. Sherwood. Recruited, based on Sherwood’s and Nelson Poynter’s recommendations, he began to work for the Coordinator of Information, the U.S. government office in charge of spying, and propaganda. Through President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9182 issued June 13, 1942, the office of the Coordinator of Information was turned into the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), while the radio unit where Houseman worked became the Office of War Information (OWI). [ref]Franklin D. Roosevelt: “Executive Order 9182 Establishing the Office of War Information.,” June 13, 1942. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=16273. Last accessed May 6, 2018.[/ref]
Houseman’s hiring was not hidden from the State Department, which is where, according to his autobiography, he was interviewed by both Robert Sherwood and William J. (“Wild Bill”) Donovan, the wartime head of the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). It appears that the State Department and the Office of the Coordinator of Information, the future OSS and CIA, did not have initially any objections to Houseman being hired.
The later promoters of the John Houseman myth as a supporter of accurate news reporting and a symbol of VOA’s journalistic objectivity would be shocked to know that he was hired by the head of the U.S. intelligence agency in a meeting held in one of the State Department buildings, which may have also had the office of the Coordinator of Information. It is not clear whether any career U.S. diplomats participated in the meeting, but the chief of the U.S. spying agency did. If one is to believe how John Houseman described the meeting, the spy agency chief asked him to create the future Voice of America for propaganda warfare.
Such were the beginnings of the Voice of America. Its initial mission was to launch propaganda operations against Nazi Germany, Japan, and other fascist Axis regimes. What the U.S. intelligence service and the State Department may not have anticipated was the inclusion of Soviet propaganda in VOA broadcasts under Houseman and his immediate successors.
“A week later I was flying East on a Government priority. In a telegram from Washington, Robert Sherwood had asked me to meet him in the State Department Building, where he introduced me to a tough, white-haired charmer named William Donovan who asked me if I would undertake the organization and programming of the Overseas Radio operation for the Coordinator of Information.”[ref]John Houseman, Run-through (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972), 485.[/ref]
Houseman’s description of the meeting also has a reference to “U.S. wartime propaganda” and not a word about news reporting. “We were starting from scratch, Bob [Sherwood] explained, with no equipment or personnel and no clear notion of what form U.S. wartime propaganda should take.”[ref]Houseman, Run-through, 485.[/ref]
In a later edition of his autobiography (1989), titled Unfinished Business, Houseman confirms that his first official U.S. government employer was in the office which later became the OSS and still later the CIA. At the time of Houseman’s hiring to run the radio division, U.S. spying and propaganda were in the same office of the Coordinator of Information. Houseman noted that even after the separation of “covert operations” from propaganda operations, Robert Sherwood was still in charge of “psychological warfare.” The emphasis was on propaganda and psychological warfare rather than news reporting.
“Early in June , after months of infighting, the long-awaited ‘reorganization’ was announced. It separated Donovan’s ‘covert operations’ (which became the OSS and later the CIA) from Overseas Information and Propaganda. This left Sherwood free to move with his plans for psychological warfare.”[ref]John Houseman, Unfinished Business – Memoirs: 1902-1988 (New York: Applause Theatre Books, 1989), 248.[/ref]
Houseman wrote that the Foreign Information Service (which included the future VOA) had “the humane and civilized quality” given to it by Robert Sherwood who, as Houseman pointed out quoting an unnamed historian, was waging “a people’s war, a gallant crusade against the forces of reaction that could make the world a better place to live in.”[ref]Houseman, Unfinished Business, 248.[/ref]
Stalin and the Soviet Union were to Sherwood, Houseman and their team some of the most important allies in that struggle. Whoever opposed them was branded as an enemy and a right-wing reactionary. According to one of Sherwood’s “propaganda directives” to the Voice of America staff, dated May 1, 1943, the Poles who refused to accept as true Soviet propaganda on the mass murder of thousands of their prisoners of war in Russia were guilty of “consciously or unconsciously cooperating with Hitler.”[ref]Robert E. Sherwood, Director, Overseas Branch, Office of War Information; RG208, Director of Oversees Operations, Record Set of Policy Directives for Overseas Programs-1942-1945 (Entry363); Regional Directives, January 1943-October 1943; Box820; National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD.[/ref]
The VOA team of communists and left-wing radicals labeled those who opposed communism and Soviet domination as fascists, even though the same anti-communist Poles accused by Sherwood of “cooperating with Hitler” were the first to fight the Nazis. They continued to fight them in occupied Poland, Africa, and Western Europe. Members of the underground state and army in Poland would have been tortured and killed if they had fallen into the hands of the German Gestapo. Soldiers and officers of the Polish Army in the West, under the command of the Polish government in exile in London, were fighting the Germans alongside American and British troops in North Africa and in Italy.
In Sherwood’s and VOA’s version of pro-Stalin propaganda and disinformation, the Soviet message of anti-communists as supporters of fascism was slightly less brutal than in Radio Moscow broadcasts, but it was nevertheless clear. These U.S. officials swore later they had no idea that Stalin could be capable of serving them lies. Most of them should not have been running the Voice of America on behalf of the U.S. government and the American people, but they did.
Hardly anyone in the United States or abroad remembers today that John Houseman was at one time in charge of such propaganda in the VOA radio division. Practically, no one knows that he got the U.S. government job from the Roosevelt administration without having U.S. citizenship or any prior experience in news reporting and radio journalism. The fact that he had frequent contacts with the Communist Party in the United States before his federal employment has never been widely revealed. He was probably hired without any initial security clearance and himself hired communists only to attract suspicions later.
John Houseman was declared by some, perhaps not entirely accurately, the first VOA director during the period from early January 1942 through July 1943. The overall content of the first VOA programs, which Houseman produced, was determined by his superiors, although he played a significant role together with them in shaping the broadcasts and in hiring radio personnel before he was forced to resign over various programming scandals. His strong advocacy for Soviet and communist causes put him at odds even with the pro-Soviet FDR White House.
Throughout this period, Roosevelt most likely was not even aware of Houseman and his work, but the president had selected and knew well some of his superiors. The ones with close links to FDR, Robert E. Sherwood and Office of War Information director Elmer Davis, did not lose their OWI jobs. They were helping FDR also on the domestic news and information front. The lines between foreign and domestic propaganda were blurred. OWI’s U.S. government employees did both domestic and foreign news reporting and other media outreach, but they generally avoided domestic propaganda of purely partisan nature. They promoted FDR and his policies, but they did not directly attack the Republican Party and its politicians, as some VOA executives, editors and reporters do today in violation of the VOA Charter, the bipartisan U.S. law passed in 1976 to prevent such abuses.
At the time, Houseman’s tenure as director of what was later known as the Voice of America did not attract much media attention due to his rather secondary role at the Office of War Information, but the word of his activities at VOA and the communists he had recruited must have gotten eventually to U.S. government security officials, including the Army Intelligence, and the State Department. They acted to deny him a U.S. passport in what was an effort to get him fired from his VOA position.
The Voice of America’s most important World War II first-line journalist was a communist and a pro-Soviet propagandist. He was the VOA chief news writer in 1942-1943, but he is now almost completely erased from VOA’ history except for his own memoir, a few old interviews, a biography by Gerald Sorin, and previously classified U.S. government documents. Howard Fast, a best-selling American author, member of the Communist Party USA from 1943 to 1956, and a recipient of the 1953 $25,000 Stalin Peace Prize, wrote some of the first Voice of America news programs. Having given him the award which would have been worth over 260,000.00 in today’s (2022) dollars, the Soviets had to have been rather pleased with his past journalistic work for VOA and his later reporting for the Communist Party newspaper, the Daily Worker. Fast worked for John Houseman and saw him as his main patron and friend.
The newly rediscovered Sumner Welles memorandum represents yet another proof that foreign radio propaganda activities of VOA’s early left-wing radicals working under John Houseman, Joseph F. Barnes, and Robert Sherwood eventually became intolerable even for the progressive and strongly pro-Soviet Franklin D. Roosevelt administration. It was an early, albeit then still secret indication that officials close to FDR, who were not opposed to his pro-Russia policy, became concerned about the threat of Soviet interference within the U.S. government, specifically at the Office of War Information and its division producing radio programs for overseas audiences.
In light of many subsequent but now largely forgotten scandals in the early history of the Voice of America and the ultimate tragic consequences of U.S. wartime policy toward Soviet Russia—millions of East Europeans losing their freedom for several decades, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and other Cold War crises and setbacks, which perhaps could have been avoided—these initial concerns about some of the key individuals in charge of U.S. government propaganda radio broadcasting trying to strengthen Russia’s international position, especially toward the end of World War II, were fully justified.
According to one contemporary listener to VOA wartime broadcasts from New York and Washington, a left-leaning Polish Peasant Party politician, Stanisław Mikołajczyk, who even joined briefly the communist government in Warsaw after the war before fleeing to the West to save his life:
“[Voice of America wartime radio broadcasts] might well have emanated from Moscow itself.”[ref]Stanisław Mikołajczyk, The Rape of Poland: Pattern of Soviet Aggression (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1948).[/ref]
Another Pole, the Polish government in exile ambassador in Washington, Jan Ciechanowski, had similar observations:
“Of all the United States Government agencies, the Office of War Information [where Voice of America was placed], under its new director, Mr. Elmer Davis, had very definitely adopted a line of unqualified praise of Soviet Russia and appeared to support its shrewd and increasingly aggressive propaganda in the United States. The OWI broadcasts to European countries had become characteristic of this trend.”[ref]Jan Ciechanowski, Defeat in Victory, (Garden City: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1947) 115-116.[/ref]
“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.”[ref]Ciechanowski, Defeat in Victory, 130.[/ref]
“When I finally appealed to the Secretary of State and to divisional heads of the State Department, protesting against the character of the OWI broadcasts to Poland, I was told that the State Department was aware of these facts but could not control this agency, which boasted that it received its directives straight from the White House.”[ref]Ciechanowski, Defeat in Victory, 131[/ref]
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 through local communist dictatorships.
A tendency of all propagandists is to present a simple, one-sided view of history which emphasizes one set of facts while ignoring others. The history of the Voice of America has been as varied and as complex as the history of the Cold War. There may be a few defining events in VOA’s past that are not controversial and have a simple explanation. But a major tilt toward Soviet Russia, America’s temporary military ally yet a long term strategic foe, was undeniable in the early VOA broadcasts. This has been an unacknowledged since the 1950s. However, VOA’s later role in the Cold War must be seen as tremendously positive in support of freedom and human rights, although still marred by occasional reversals and not always as effective as it could have been because of its placement within the U.S. federal government bureaucracy. At the same time, the lack of strong government oversight over the activities of VOA’s government employees turned out to be even more dangerous for taxpayer-funded journalism and national security.
In assessing the first years of its existence, it should be noted at the outset that the Voice of America alone would not have been able to cause or prevent the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe. Statesmen such as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and much larger geopolitical and military forces were decisive in this case.
Disinterested experts and even some former propagandists agree that foreign propaganda by itself cannot win or lose a major military conflict, not even the Cold War in the second half of the last century. That conflict was won through a combination of political, military and economic factors reinforced by American and other Western radio broadcasts and various other forms of public diplomacy. VOA’s wartime broadcasts, however, played a small part in helping to make the communist victory in East Central Europe somewhat easier through unwitting assistance in the much larger Soviet military, security, intelligence and disinformation operations which used agents of influence as valuable assets.
VOA helped the Soviet Union in a propaganda campaign by giving encouragement to the pro-Moscow factions and attacking, ignoring, censoring or banning those who opposed the communists and were seen by VOA’s leftist broadcasters as enemies of communism, peace and progress. Soviet propaganda labeled these mostly democratic political forces as reactionary and fascist, just as the Kremlin’s propaganda machine does today against its enemies—and, in a victory of chaos over reason, even gets some media in the West to do the same. The stark divide between fascism and progress with nothing in between is taken straight out of the communist propaganda handbook.
Considering its revealing content about Soviet subversion tactics, as described by a mid-20th century second-ranking official at the Department of State and author of the historic Welles Declaration, a further analysis of the 1943 Welles memo about John Houseman and other pro-Soviet Americans and foreigners who were associated with U.S. overseas broadcasting during World War II could be an interesting addition to the ongoing debate and controversy over Russia’s recent attempts to use propaganda and disinformation for justifying aggression against other states and the Kremlin’s attempts to influence U.S. policy and American elections in covert and illegal ways.
The Welles Declaration,[ref]The street adjacent to the current Embassy of the United States in Riga, Latvia was named after Sumner Welles (as Samnera Velsa iela) in 2012.”Remarks at the Dedication of Sumner Welles Street”. U.S. Department of State. June 28, 2012. Retrieved November 29, 2017.[/ref] an important U.S. diplomatic statement issued by Sumner Welles in 1940 when he was Acting Secretary of State, reaffirmed America’s non-recognition of the Soviet occupation of the Baltic States. They were occupied by Soviet Russia in fulfillment of the secret terms of the 1939 Hitler-Stalin Pact. Also known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, it led to the start of World War II with the joint German-Soviet invasion of Poland in September 1939.
John Houseman’s autobiography, first published in 1972, is revealing for ignoring such major historical events, which cast a shadow on communism and the Soviet Union. while describing in some detail, but definitely not fully or with complete honesty, his collaboration as a theater producer with the Communist Party. It also shows that he believed the Kremlin’s opponents, especially among the East European émigrés, to be all reactionaries and enemies of social justice. It was one of his many naive or false beliefs.
Soviet and communist subversion remains a sensitive topic in the United States even after the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections and the sudden and dramatic change in attitudes toward Russia among many on the Left and some on the Right. There is now little historical memory of the previous, far-reaching and successful Russian efforts to subvert the U.S. government with the help of U.S. public officials as their ideological allies, if not in most cases actual paid agents of influence.
This lack of broader knowledge of the history of Soviet and Russian covert political subversion in the United States, as opposed to open public diplomacy and open media influence, is partly due to many such accusations having been discredited as unfounded during the anti-communist witch hunt led by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the early 1950s against the political Left. It’s also because, unlike today, such accusations had usually been directed in the past by Republicans against Democrats and Democratic administrations. They were deemed suspect by mainstream media, which refused to analyze them, and thus condemned them to being largely forgotten.
After McCarthy, and until very recently, raising accusations of collusion with Russia were often seen on the Left and most of the moderate Right as paranoid and un-American. McCarthy, however, was not wrong in every instance. Soviet propaganda combined with intelligence activities in the United States was particularly strong in the 1930s and the 1940s, and dangerously subversive in its influence.
Soviet spies and agents stole U.S. atomic secrets. Soviet propaganda and disinformation campaigns helped to shape the Roosevelt administration’s foreign policy and got the President to betray many of America’s wartime allies and to accept in conferences with Stalin at Tehran and Yalta his plans for achieving domination over East Central Europe. At the same time, Soviet agents were infiltrating the U.S. government to steal secret information and spread propaganda to influence policy decisions. Some of them found their way into the Office of War Information, although the OWI was not the most important target of Soviet espionage activities.
The Soviet subversion of the U.S. government had started long before Senator McCarthy launched his anti-communist crusade. While many of McCarthy’s later claims were simply completely false and almost always malicious, most of the accusations leveled secretly by the State Department in 1943 against Houseman and some of the other officials in charge of the wartime Voice of America broadcasts turned out to be at least partially true regarding their propaganda in support of Soviet ideological and foreign policy objectives.
There was, of course, a major and legitimate need to show support for an ally fighting Nazi Germany and a considerable convergence of military interests between the two countries during the war. At the same time, Soviet and communist political goals were opposed by many members of Congress and the vast majority of Americans. In some cases, they were opposed even by President Roosevelt and his top diplomatic and military policymakers, including Sumner Welles and Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces in Europe and later U.S. President, General Dwight D. Eisenhower.
The accusations in the 1943 memo against the persons in charge of Voice of America broadcasts were not partisan in nature or designed to be leaked to the media to damage domestic political opponents. They were advanced secretly by key liberal and progressive foreign policy advisors to President Roosevelt against other administration officials. Nearly all of these officials on both sides were Democrats.
Historian Holly Cowan Shulman, who in her book, The Voice of America: Propaganda and Democracy, 1941-1945, was not unsympathetic to the radical left-wing worldview of the founders of the Voice of America, noted that in their senior federal government positions they sometimes deliberately opposed some of President Roosevelt’s foreign policies when they believed them to be “anti-liberal” and “anti-democratic.” One could add that they also saw them as harmful to the Soviet Union.[ref]Holly Cowan Shulman, The Voice of America: propaganda and Democracy, 1941-1945, (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1990).[/ref]
Stalin, U.S. and foreign communists also opposed some of President Roosevelt’s policies, although most of his policies and decisions were in favor of Russia at the expense of small nations of East Central Europe. As the Welles 1943 memorandum pointed out, the assumptions on the part of U.S. officials in charge of VOA radio broadcasts about American-born and foreign-born communists represented a dangerous and distorted interpretation of liberalism and ran counter to American traditions of liberal thought. Had they been only private U.S. citizens, American communists would have had fully protected constitutional rights to public dissent even during wartime, even if public acceptance of such rights was more limited than it is now. Such non-violent public dissent would not have been a sign of disloyalty to the United States. But as federal officials hired by the FDR administration, they were disloyal to the President and to the government of the United States.
Officials in charge of the Office of War Information and VOA propagandists were putting the lives of American soldiers at risk and helping Russia to take away the liberty of millions of people—all in the name of defending peace, liberty, and democracy. Their only excuse later could have been that they did not know Stalin had nefarious plans, and that FDR’s overall policy toward Russia would have produced the same end result for the VOA audience in Eastern Europe, regardless of what VOA broadcast or did not broadcast.
Had these officials and broadcasters been working for a purely private U.S. media organization, they would have also had the right to engage in journalistic advocacy subject to internal editorial policies, but the Voice of America then and now is a U.S. government entity, fully funded by all American taxpayers, with special rules and much enhanced responsibilities, some of them of legal nature. Honest and idealistic individuals with good intentions can be very dangerous in government positions if they are deceived by their lack of knowledge and lack of experience while being blinded by an ideology and manipulated by a foreign power.
The 1943 State Department memo included an addendum about Houseman and a few other Office of War Information senior-level employees who were denied U.S. passports for their proposed official trips abroad because of suspicions of their communist and Soviet sympathies or for being suspected of joining the Communist Party.
In reading the State Department memo and its addenda, it is important to note that the “Voice of America” name was not yet then commonly used to refer to OWI’s Overseas Branch and its radio broadcasts. It became the official name a few years later. It is also important to note that such terms as “propaganda” and “psychological warfare,” when used to describe U.S. or British wartime radio broadcasting, did not have nearly the same negative connotations in America as they do today.
Another important point to remember is that even private U.S. citizens, who now have the right to almost unrestricted private travel abroad, were not given such rights under the U.S. laws and regulations in effect through most of the 20th century. John Houseman’s request for a U.S. passport for official, not private travel, was totally within the discretion of the U.S. government then, as it would be today.
Likewise important to know is that Houseman, despite being given later by some the title of the first Voice of America director, was not in fact the principle individual responsible for the political content of VOA programs. This, however, made little difference because he fully shared his superiors’ enthusiasm for Russia, Stalin, and communism. Those most responsible for programming policy and for running overseas broadcasts and the radio organization in New York were equally far left-leaning Robert E. Sherwood and Joseph F. Barnes.
Their boss, Washington-based OWI director Elmer Davis, only slightly less left-leaning than Sherwood, Barnes and Houseman, at times recorded his own radio broadcasts, in which he repeated Soviet disinformation propaganda lies.
Davis claimed later that he did it on his own initiative without being prompted by the White House. Whether he was telling the truth cannot be determined with certainty, but it seems doubtful that he never received any orders from President Roosevelt or the White House staff.
For one key broadcast of the war, on the Katyn Forest Massacre, the State Department advised him not to promote the Soviet propaganda lie. The OWI and its Radio Bureau, i.e. the Voice of America, ignored the advice. Later, Elmer Davis could not recall receiving it. He and others all categorically denied after the war that they knew at the time that the information provided by the Soviet Union and broadcast by them or by the Voice of America at their insistence was in any way false. Even years later, they continued to attack their critics, who turned out to be right.
The trip to North Africa for which the U.S. State Department refused to issue a U.S. passport to John Houseman, by then a newly naturalized U.S. citizen, was proposed by his friend and patron Robert E. Sherwood, described by some as one of the founding fathers of the Voice of America. It was Sherwood who had hired Houseman to be the producer of the first VOA broadcasts by putting him in charge of the Radio Bureau of the Office of War Information in New York.
In March 1943, Sherwood also helped Houseman obtain his U.S. citizenship in an expedited manner, having hired him in 1942 for his high-level government job while Houseman was still a non-citizen. Before his employment at VOA, he had lived and worked in the United States for 17 years–seven of them, he said later, as an undocumented immigrant.
Being born in Romania—although his parents were not Romanian but French and British—he could have been mistaken by some for an enemy alien in the fearful atmosphere following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Houseman implied later that he was definitely classified as an enemy alien, but his family background was French and British.
Houseman’s claim of being an enemy alien seems somewhat suspect. He described himself in his autobiography as “Romanian by birth.” A more accurate description would have been “born in Romania to non-Romanian parents.” Neither his mother nor his father was Romanian. His father was a French-Jewish businessman working in Romania. John Houseman also called himself “French by inheritance” and “English by upbringing and naturalization,” an indication that he did have British citizenship while living and working without a proper visa in the United States.[ref]Houseman, Unfinished Business, 240-241.[/ref]
While Sherwood was able to arrange for Houseman to become a U.S. citizen without going through the normal process, he was subsequently unable to persuade the State Department and the Army Intelligence (G-2) to allow Houseman to travel abroad on official U.S. government business. Sherwood’s subsequent appeal to the White House on behalf of the VOA director to get the diplomatic and military ban on Houseman’s official travel lifted proved unsuccessful.
Houseman may have been ignoring or covering up the real reasons for his shortened career as a U.S. government employee that had nothing to do with him being born in Romania or being an immigrant. Before and after him, many U.S.-born citizens were fired from their U.S. government jobs, suspected, sometimes falsely, of being suspected members of the Communist Party. It could not be established whether the U.S. government officially considered him as an enemy alien, and he was vague whether he even had acquired Romanian citizenship at any time. He did admit, however, that he was selected for a sensitive government position without having a U.S. citizenship. That claim was true since he did not become naturalized until March 1943 but was already in charge of the Voice of America since the prior year.
“As I received my civil service appointment in the name of Jacques Haussmann (whose naturalization papers, filed in 1936 had not yet come through) no one–least of all myself–seemed to question the propriety of placing the Voice of America under the direction of an enemy alien of Romanian birth who, as such, was expressly forbidden by the Department of Justice to go near a shortwave radio set.”[ref]Houseman, Run-through, 487[/ref]
The problem the Roosevelt administration had later with John Houseman was not his immigration status or citizenship. He was initially hired by the same administration, although the U.S. citizenship should have been the minimal requirement for his position. The real problem as it developed later appeared to have been his links with the Communist Party, the hiring of communists, and the Moscow-line content of VOA broadcasts.
His boss and close friend, Joseph Barnes, who was a U.S. born citizen, was fired for the same reasons Houseman was forced to resign from his government position. The type of citizenship or national origin did not seem to matter much in Houseman’s case, but it may have increased suspicions against him, as it did against other recent immigrants from Europe.
In Houseman’s case, the authorities would have had fewer reasons to be suspicious than about some other immigrants. He was white, successful, and rich. He spoke perfect English, was fully integrated into American life, had powerful friends in Hollywood and New York, and did not fit the profile of a typical enemy spy. The focus was on his contacts with the Communist Party and accusations that he was hiring communists. If his previous immigration status played any role in the investigation into his past cannot be determined from the available documents. It may have had a minor impact.
The State Department informed the White House that Houseman was among several senior OWI employees, both U.S. born and naturalized citizens, whose applications for official U.S. passports were denied. Under Secretary of State Welles wrote that other such cases may be brought to the President’s attention “if he desires to go into the matter more fully.” There was no known follow-up from the White House in Houseman’s case.
It is not clear from the memorandum whether the State Department and the Army Intelligence would have also objected to Houseman traveling abroad as a private citizen during the war. They most likely would have, since at that time, even being suspected of membership or having links to a subversive organization without any definite proof or due process was seen as sufficient grounds for denying U.S. citizens the right to travel abroad.
Addendum to April 5-6, 1943 memoranda from Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles to Honorable Marvin H. McIntyre, Secretary to the President, The White House.
“Passports Not Issued
HOUSEMAN, John – formerly Jack Davies Haussman – born Bucharest, Rumania, September 22, 1902; emigrated United States, 1936; naturalized Maroh 1, 1943; father born Paris, France; Mother British.
Member of Communist Front organizations including Friends of Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Producer of play “Native Son” considered inflammatory in effect and possibly subversive in intent and un-American. Said to have been responsible for placing Communists in key position in foreign radio sections of OWI. Is reliably reported to be known in newspaper and theatrical circles in New York as a Communist. Military authorities consider should remain United States for the duration.”
John Houseman may not have been a registered Communist Party member, but there is evidence that both before and during his employment as VOA director he enthusiastically supported Soviet policies, sometimes against American interests, although he probably did not think he was in any way disloyal or wrong in his official actions. He appeared to have been a true believer in some of the lofty ideas of communism, as well as Stalin’s good intentions. And he was by far not alone in that belief among radically left-leaning West European and American intellectuals and artists of that period who were faced with the growth of fascism in Europe and persistent racism and discrimination in the United States.
It was true, as the State Department memo had warned, that Houseman was “responsible for placing Communists in key positions in foreign radio sections of OWI.” They were his ideological and intellectual companions. It turned out that in some cases, their loyalties were not with the United States, but with the Kremlin and the communist movement. After the war’s end, not many, but several of these VOA broadcasters, went back to their native countries to work for the Soviet-imposed regimes and engaged in anti-American propaganda. Several of them had worked during the war on the Voice of America Polish desk.
Such unmonitored VOA hiring practices, although not specifically about Houseman, were noted by one of OWI’s World War II era German-language editors, Austrian-Jewish refugee journalist Julius Epstein, who himself had been for a few months a member of the German Communist Party in his student years in Germany.
“When I, in 1942, entered the services of what was then the ‘Coordinator of Information’ which became after a few months the O.W.I., I was immediately struck by the fact that the German desk was almost completely seized by extreme left-wingers who indulged in a purely and exaggerated pro-Stalinist propaganda.”[ref]Julius Epstein, “The O.W.I. and the Voice of America,” a reprint from the Polish American Journal, Scranton, Pennsylvania, 1952.[/ref]
The only far-fetched claim in the State Department memo supporting the accusations against John Houseman was that Native Son, a book by an African American writer Richard Wright, which Houseman co-produced as a play before he started working for the U.S. government, was somehow “possibly subversive in intent and un-American.” Wright’s book was definitely not subversive, but Houseman’s theatrical production of it was possibly deceptive in whitewashing the violent nature of Communism, which Wright himself was not afraid to show in his book. Richard Wright broke with the Communist Party and published an anti-communist essay in the 1949 book, The God That Failed. Two white Communists beat him up at a May Day march in Chicago in 1936. After announcing his intention to leave the Communist Party, Communists called Richard Wright “a traitor.”
Another one of Houseman’s OWI patrons, Joseph Barnes, was listed in the addendum to the same State Department memo as having received a U.S. passport to accompany Republican politician Wendell Willkie on his trip abroad as Roosevelt’s informal envoy to show bipartisan American support for the war. The memo only raised questions about Barnes’ naïve pro-Soviet views and following “the Party line.” Barnes’ position within the organization was above Houseman’s. Houseman dedicated the first edition of his memoirs to Barnes.
Any journalist who had spent some time in Stalinist Russia, as Barnes had, and remained a believer in communism and Stalin, could not have possibly been effective as a producer of truthful and objective U.S. broadcasts, but the memo did not offer any recommendations about his continued employment. The State Department allowed him to travel abroad on official business.
A scholar of U.S. government wartime propaganda, Holly Cowan Shulman, described Barnes as “unquestionably and deeply loyal to the United States.” She wrote sympathetically about the leftist idealism of the early VOA leaders, but also quoted American diplomat and statesman George F. Kennan who knew Barnes while he was a foreign correspondent in the Soviet Union in the 1930s, describing him as “much more pro-Soviet than the rest of us–naively so… .” OWI director Elmer Davis confirmed after the war that he had fired Barnes for opposing policies of the Roosevelt administration but described him as a loyal American:
“I thought he was a very able man, but he was too much addicted to what we called in the war ‘localitis. He was head of the New York office, and it was eventually found desirable to remove him because he didn’t seem to be quite sufficiently in sympathy with the policies laid down in Washington. But I never had the slightest question about his loyalty.”[ref]Elmer Davis Testimony, Hearings before the Select Committee on the Katyn Forest Massacre, Part 7, November 11, 1952, 1999.[/ref]
Addendum to April 6, 1943 memorandum from Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles to Honorable Marvin H. McIntyre, Secretary to the President, The White House.
OFFICE OF WAR INFORMATION
Around the world with Wilkie
BARNES, Joseph Fels – born Montclair, New Jersey July 21, 1904; father born New York; Mother Australia.
News correspondent in USSR several years. Alleged to have stated that the Soviet Constitution is the best ever written. Supported the left wing of the American Newspaper Guild. It is reliably stated that there has been no crucial point in Russian development, since 1934, when Barnes has not followed the Party line and has not been much more successful than the official spokesman in giving it a form congenial to the American way of expression.
Former Office of War Information director Elmer Davis confirmed in a congressional testimony on November 11, 1952 another of Julius Epstein’s charges about hiring communists and communist sympathizers to work on VOA wartime broadcasts.
“One of the greatest OWI scandals broke when Frederick Woltman published his article entitled ‘A. F. of L. and CIO Charge OWI Radio as Communistic.’
Woltman’s article appears in the New York World-Telegram of October 4, 1943. It showed that the A. F. of L. as well as the CIO, the two great American labor organizations, which nobody but the Communists ever accused of being reactionary, withdrew their cooperation from the OWI’s labor desk because of the latter’s outspoken Communist attitude.”[ref]Testimony of Elmer Davis before the Select Committee on the Katyn Forest Massacre, November 11, 1952, 1995.[/ref]
Elmer Davis confirmed that he had removed the person in charge of the OWI labor desk. He also confirmed that he had “fired the head of the Greek desk in New York because he violated a directive sent from Washington about the handling of the news of Greece.”
All in all, Davis admitted to firing about a dozen employees because of their pro-communist views and associations, but also pointed out that in 99 percent of cases suspicions of employees being Communist Party members turned out to be unfounded. He did not tell members of Congress in 1952 whether John Houseman was among those he had fired for being communists. Houseman always insisted that he had resigned on his own, but acknowledged that he would have been fired if he had stayed longer at his job. Davis admitted to members of Congress that some communists were missed and remained on the OWI payroll through the war.[ref]Testimony of Elmer Davis before the Select Committee on the Katyn Forest Massacre.[/ref]
The addressee of Welles’ memo about Houseman and Office of War Information employees was Marvin H. McIntyre, Secretary to the President and Roosevelt’s close friend and political advisor. At one time in his professional career as a journalist, McIntyre was the city editor at the Washington Post.
While the State Department expressed its concerns quietly to the White House, members of the U.S. Congress from both parties, though mostly Republicans, were speaking out in public, warning about communists working on Voice of America broadcasts. At that time, even they did not fully realize how easy it was for foreign, partisan, or personal influence to compromise U.S. interests in a government organization operating as a semi-journalistic outlet without effective security or institutional controls and oversight. Deeply suspicious of the Office of War Information, the lawmakers in Congress eventually cut most of OWI’s domestic propaganda budget even while the war was still going on and from time to time seriously threatened to defund Voice of America overseas operations as well, with each new management or programming scandal made public. VOA’s budget was somewhat reduced in 1943, but overseas broadcasting was not eliminated.
Members of Congress continued to express concerns about the OWI and VOA throughout the war. Republicans and Democrats often focused on VOA broadcasts to Poland, which was the largest country threatened to be dominated by the Soviet Union and was the first victim of Nazi and Soviet aggression in World War II.
While some members of the Roosevelt administration had chosen to ignore the earlier Nazi-Soviet alliance, many members of Congress along with many ordinary anti-communist Americans did not. Two weeks after the State Department memo reached the FDR White House, Congressman Roy O. Woodruff (R-MA) delivered on April 20, 1943 on the floor of the House of Representatives another early warning of Soviet influence over the Office of War Information and its Voice of America shortwave, medium wave and long wave radio outreach abroad. In addition to VOA broadcasts to Poland, Congressmen Woodruff also focused on VOA broadcasts to Yugoslavia, charging that both might have fallen under communist influence.
“…reports are constantly reaching me and other Members of Congress that the propaganda activities of the Polish Unit of O. W. I.’s Overseas Division are destroying rather than building the morale of the helpless Polish people.
These reports tell us that much of this propaganda follows the American Communist Party line and is designed to prepare the minds of the Polish people to accept partition, obliteration, or suppression of their nation when the fighting ends. The same is true of Yugoslavia, where, I am told, the name of the great Mihailovitch [Draža Mihailović, a Yugoslav Serb general during World War II executed by the Communists after the war] is blocked out by O. W. I. radicals.
If it is true that Communists have infiltrated into the O.W.I.’s Overseas Division and are following the party line in their propaganda to Poland, as well as other countries, then it is an outrageous violation of the faith that is reposed in Elmer Davis and Robert Sherwood. If this is not true, then the Polish people in America are entitled to have allayed the rumors which may be enemy inspired.”[ref]89 Cong. Rec. (Bound) – Volume 89, Part 9 (January 6, 1943 to December 21, 1943), 3607.[/ref]
A little over a year later, a Democratic politician, Congressman John Lesinski Sr. (D-MI), told the House of Representatives about Soviet propaganda in VOA radio broadcasts to Yugoslavia. His remarks appeared in the Congressional Record on June 23, 1944 Members of Congress were also concerned about pro-communist VOA broadcasts in Greek, French, and Italian, as well as some VOA broadcasts in English.
“Under present war restrictions, news in regard to our allies—or, for that matter, any foreign country—is not printed unless it has the approval of the Office of War Information, of which Hon. Elmer Davis is Director.
I have followed with a great deal of interest the releases in regard to Yugoslavia, and I cannot understand why the Director of War Information is feeding Communist propaganda to the American people in regard to the conditions in Yugoslavia.”[ref]90 Cong. Rec. (Bound) – Volume 90, Part 5 (June 13, 1944 to August 24, 1944), June 23, 1944, A3320-A3322.[/ref]
OWI director Elmer Davis told a bipartisan investigative committee of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1952 that Congressman Lesinski was lying. Lesinski was not lying, but by then he was no longer alive to respond to Davis’ attack.
“I recall that he [Congressman John Lesinski Sr.] made a speech in the summer of 1943 which contained more lies than were ever comprised in any other speech made about the Office of War Information, and that is saying quite a lot. I may say that I have made that statement to Mr. Lesinski before he died. I mean that I have not waited until after he is dead. I told him so in writing when he repeated some of those statements 2 or 3 years ago. I asked him where he got the information, because that was a perfectly absurd speech to be made by a Member of the Congress of the United States who knows anything about American politics or the American news business.”[ref]Testimony of Elmer Davis before the Select Committee on the Katyn Forest Massacre, November 11, 1952, 1991-1992.[/ref] [Time magazine cover with OWI director Elmer Davis, March 15 1943.]
What Congressman Lesinski had said about OWI in 1943 has been confirmed by multiple sources. The arrogance of Elmer Davis, the journalist who accepted at face value the greatest Soviet propaganda lie and repeated it to domestic and foreign audiences despite warnings and evidence of Soviet guilt, was boundless and typical of the agency’s top brass of that period.
A response by Davis in November 1952 to the members of the bipartisan congressional select committee was also illustrative of his lack of journalistic curiosity and political imagination, as the Katyn story, if correctly and accurately reported to American and foreign audiences by the U.S. government media, such as the Voice of America, could have had an early impact on the future course of U.S. relations with Soviet Russia and might have prevented some of the unfortunate concessions made to Stalin by President Roosevelt on behalf of the United States at Tehran and Yalta. Thanks to men like Davis and Houseman, the truth unfavorable to Russia was suppressed. By all indications, they seemed to have known what they were doing, even though they denied it. Houseman did not deny it because his complicity in the Katyn cover-up was never exposed.
“Mr. Davis. I don’t remember. I may say, Mr. Counsel, that this was not one of the major issues that I had to deal with at that time, from my point of view. To a Pole it was certainly the most important issue in the world, but to me, as to the head of every department or agency of Government, about that time of year the principal question was how his budget was going to get through Congress, and that absorbed most of my time. So whether I asked advice on this question from either Mr. Hull or Mr. Welles, I don’t remember. I don’t recall seeing this memorandum from Mr. Berle, although it is conceivable that I might have. I don’t know.”[ref]Testimony of Elmer Davis before the Select Committee on the Katyn Forest Massacre, November 11, 1952, 1989.[/ref]
A strikingly different picture of Elmer Davis as a respected American newsman emerges from laudatory descriptions found online. Some of them even excuse his role in OWI’s production of propaganda films in support of the internment of Japanese Americans by claiming that he had opposed their production—a strange attempt at whitewashing since he was in charge of the government agency which produced them. The same attempts at whitewashing appear in books, articles, and in most online mentions of John Houseman.
“Elmer Holmes Davis (1890-1958) was a respected newspaper journalist, novelist, essayist, and radio announcer. His insightful and candid commentary on Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) Radio provided the people of the United States with a trusted voice of reason and authority during the tumultuous years of World War II. Later, during the 1950s, Davis helped rally popular opinion against the Communist conspiracy theories of Senator Joseph McCarthy.”[ref]ENCYCLOpedia.com, “Elmer Holmes Davis,” https://www.encyclopedia.com/people/literature-and-arts/journalism-and-publishing-biographies/elmer-davis. Last accessed May 5, 2018. [/ref]
Davis became one of many critics who justly condemned Senator McCarthy. But, except in his congressional testimony in 1952 given under oath, Davis never pointed out later that he himself had fired a few people at the Office of War Information suspected of being communists, although he did not fire all communists and certainly not all active supporters of communism and Stalin’s agenda.
Complaints about VOA broadcasts expressed by representatives of ethnic communities to their members of Congress also played a role in getting U.S. lawmakers involved in efforts to correct the perceived pro-Soviet propaganda, but with men like Davis, Sherwood, Barnes and Houseman in charge, congressional interventions, though many, had a minimal effect on the propaganda policies of the Roosevelt administration targeting foreign audiences during the war.
The appeasement of Stalin and the domestic and foreign U.S. government propaganda support for it continued. Roosevelt correctly assumed that with some domestic propaganda, which the OWI helped to produce, including Elmer Davis’ broadcasts on domestic U.S. radio networks, the majority of ethnic voters, including the Polish Americans, would still vote for him and for the Democratic Party, at least for the duration of the war. After the betrayal at Yalta became obvious, some of these American ethnic voters eventually switched to the Republican Party, especially when Ronald Reagan was running for president.
The wartime rumors of Soviet influence over the Voice of America overseas broadcasts were not inspired by Nazi Germany or Japan. They originated in the U.S. and were true. VOA wartime broadcasts were not only pro-Stalin. They were also critical of those whom communists saw as enemies of the Soviet Union: non-communist Poles, Yugoslavs, Greeks, Frenchmen, Italians and others organizing resistance against the Nazis in their countries or fighting alongside American and British troops, as the Polish Army under General Anders composed of former Stalin’s prisoners in the Soviet Gulag did in North Africa, Italy and in other parts of Western Europe. Their only crime was their lack of unquestioned support for Soviet Russia and Stalin.
The democratic governments in exile complained to the Office of War Information and to the State Department about VOA communist propaganda undermining their anti-Nazi resistance efforts, but their complaints, while received with sympathy by American diplomats, did not have any major lasting effect on VOA broadcasts.
Stanisław Mikołajczyk, Prime Minister of Poland’s government in exile based in London who during the war met with President Roosevelt in Washington, recalled later that Polish diplomats raised the issue of Soviet propaganda in Voice of America broadcasts with State Department officials. Diplomats from other countries did as well. They were not protesting against VOA reporting news but against what many Americans who paid attention, including members of Congress, saw as blatant pro-Soviet VOA propaganda.
“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.”[ref]Stanislaw Mikolajczyk, The Rape of Poland: Pattern of Soviet Aggression (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1948) 25.[/ref]
The 1943 memo to the FDR White House from Under Secretary Sumner Welles may have been partly in response to some of these complaints. The memo may have also contributed to the departure of John Houseman, Joseph Barnes and several other higher-level OWI officials and a few communist broadcasters in the summer of 1943, but their leaving did not have a long-lasting impact on VOA programs.
Pro-Soviet and pro-communist propaganda continued, as did VOA’s hostility toward governments in exile, which were America’s allies but were considered enemies by Stalin. Soviet propaganda labeled them as reactionary, fascist, anti-Russian, anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi—similar to some of the labels used by Russian propaganda and others today.
Houseman’s and Barnes’ forced departure from OWI did not lead to the removal of VOA broadcasters they had hired. According to Julius Epstein, who later wrote a groundbreaking book Operation Keelhaul exposing mass deportations of Russian and other anti-communist refugees from Western Europe to the Gulag under secret Western agreements with Stalin, some of the early pro-Soviet VOA broadcasters were still employed by the organization in 1950.
By then, however, VOA also had a group of anti-communist East European refugee journalists who were hired after the war. In the early 1950s, they were complaining of not being allowed by the VOA management in the State Department and in some cases by their own service directors and managers directly above them to report fully on Soviet human rights abuses.
“There are still too many of the old OWI [Office of War Information] employees working for the Voice, both in this country and overseas. I mean those writers, translators and broadcasters who so wholeheartedly and enthusiastically tried for many years to create ‘love for Stalin,’ when this was the official policy of our ill-advised wartime Government and of our military government in Germany. There is no doubt that all those employees were at that time deeply convinced of the absolute correctness of that pro-Stalinist propaganda. How can we expect them to do the exact opposite now?”[ref]Julius Epstein, Congressional Record: Proceedings and Debates of the 81st Congress, Second Session, Appendix. Part 17 ed. Vol. 96. August 4, 1950, to September 22, 1950 (Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office, 1950) A5744-A5745[/ref]
Epstein made an accurate observation that those in charge of VOA broadcasts, probably even those who later joined communist regimes in Eastern Europe, did not think there was anything wrong about their pro-Stalinist and pro-communist propaganda. They associated the Soviet Union, Stalin and communism with anti-fascism, social justice, and progress.
Even without the secret State Department memo, there has been already much evidence in the public record for many years showing that in a major collusion with a foreign power ultimately hostile to the United States, Western democracy, and liberal values—officials in charge of wartime overseas broadcasts in the Office of War Information coordinated their propaganda with Soviet Union, spread Soviet disinformation, and censored any news unfavorable to the Soviet Union or to its dictatorial communist leader Joseph Stalin. They did it largely on their own, without any known U.S. government directives from outside the organization.
While President Roosevelt’s support for Stalin and Soviet Russia during the war and his willingness to betray or abandon America’s smaller allies against Nazi Germany have been well documented, even he eventually lost patience with his own pro-Soviet propagandists at the Voice of America.
None of this VOA history, however, has been widely known or analyzed. This allows the same mistakes and failures of public oversight to be repeated with a predictable regularity. Those few who did know about VOA’s less than glorious early history were associated in some way with the organization or U.S. public diplomacy. They had more reasons to suppress such information than to make it public. The Welles’ memo remained undiscovered for decades after its declassification.
The evidence of major Soviet influence within the Voice of America during World War II and VOA’s continued reluctance to fully expose true history of communist human rights abuses in its broadcasts for several years after the war—be it from partisan convictions in an effort to protect the legacy of the Roosevelt administration, ideological convictions to avoid demonizing Soviet Russia, or misplaced fears that telling the whole truth about Stalin’s crimes would immediately cause bloody though fruitless uprisings in Eastern Europe—was temporarily brought to broader public attention mostly by members of Congress in the early 1950s as a result of the Korean War.
A little later, in 1965, former President Eisenhower also briefly alluded in his post-White House years memoirs to VOA’s wartime record of journalistic collusion with Russia. As a military leader during World War II, he must have been still upset to have mentioned it years later during the Cold War with the Soviet Union when VOA was already playing a useful although still less than fully effective role in countering Soviet propaganda. General Eisenhower had been actively engaged in earlier efforts to create Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty as more effective media outlets against the Soviet Union. His critical comment appeared in a footnote to a paragraph in which he expressed his own concerns with what he saw as Voice of America’s unethical journalism in support of partisan political advocacy in at least one foreign policy incident during his own administration.
“During World War II the Office of War Information had, on two occasions in foreign broadcasts, opposed actions of President Roosevelt; it ridiculed the temporary arrangement with Admiral Darlan in North Africa and that with Marshal Badoglio in Italy. President Roosevelt took prompt action to stop such insubordination.”[ref]Dwight D. Eisenhower, The White House Years: Waging Peace 1956-1961 (Garden City: Doubleday & Company, 1965) 279.[/ref]
President Eisenhower was right. In both cases during World War II, and to a much lesser extent even briefly during his administration, some VOA officials, editors and reporters sought to create and influence news and U.S. policy through their own ideological commentary rather than merely reporting news. During World War II, General Eisenhower and the Army Intelligence had legitimate concerns that some VOA broadcasters following closely the communist and pro-Soviet line could endanger the lives of American soldiers.
An OWI document with names of top officials in charge of VOA broadcasts. They are not listed in a hierarchical order and are not their actual signatures.
The Voice of America has had an unhappy history of both promoting Soviet propaganda and at times censoring those who tried to expose it, including for several years in the 1970s Russian Nobel Prize writer Alexandr Solzhenitsyn. Much of the censorship first originated in Moscow and was adopted by VOA during World War II. In the spring of 1943, John Houseman and his bosses—Robert E. Sherwood, Joseph Barnes and OWI director Elmer Davis—accepted at face value and repeated one of the greatest Soviet propaganda lies of the 20th century. The Voice of America under their direction became an active participant for several years in what was perhaps the most outrageous Soviet fake news story of World War II and the post-war period.
Despite abundant evidence to the contrary, the OWI initiated overseas VOA broadcasts as well as domestic broadcasts in the United States in support of the blatantly false Soviet propaganda claim that Russia and Joseph Stalin had nothing to do with the brutal mass murder of more than 20 thousand Polish military officers and intellectual leaders held in Soviet captivity since 1939 following the joint German and Soviet partition of Poland.
VOA continued to spread Soviet disinformation and suppressed the truth about the Soviet Katyn Forest massacre, despite having been told by the State Department in mid-April 1943 that taking sides on the guilt for the slaughter of Polish prisoners of war in Russia would not be advisable. The Voice of America under Houseman, Barnes, Sherwood and Davis opted instead for repeating and amplifying the Soviet propaganda lie on Katyn, which later they claimed did not seem to them to be a lie.
Robert Sherwood advised VOA broadcasters in his “Weekly Propaganda Directive” dated May 1, 1943 that “some Poles” who did not accept the Soviet explanation, may be cooperating with Hitler in causing division among the allies, even though Poland was a Nazi-occupied country where such cooperation with Nazi Germany on the part of the underground state, its underground army or the government in exile in London was beyond unthinkable.
“Some Poles are consciously or unconsciously cooperating with Hitler in his campaign to spiritually divide the United Nations.”[ref]Robert E. Sherwood, Director, Overseas Branch, Office of War Information; RG208, Director of Oversees Operations, Record Set of Policy Directives for Overseas Programs-1942-1945 (Entry363); Regional Directives, January 1943-October 1943; Box820; National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD.[/ref]
On the Katyn massacre issue, however, the Roosevelt White House did not intervene. President Roosevelt was secretly pleased with such misleading VOA reporting because it protected the U.S.-Soviet war alliance. Roosevelt and the War Department kept secret U.S. and British intelligence information showing Soviet guilt.
It was only when VOA journalists tried to undermine FDR’s own wartime strategy and risked the lives of American soldiers that the White House finally put its foot down. Several OWI officials lost their jobs in the summer of 1943, but even that move by the FDR administration did not have much effect on the largely autonomous and unmonitored federal agency for the next several years.
Contrary to suggestions of officials in Washington trying to suppress legitimate news reporting by wartime Voice of America broadcasters then based in New York, there is no evidence in OWI or State Department files that the State Department or the War Department were actively trying to control the content of VOA broadcasts or even paid much attention to them. The Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursors of the CIA, did pay attention to some extent, but most disagreements were resolved and a division of propaganda efforts was agreed upon by the two agencies. The State Department and the War Department generally did nothing to intervene until scandals triggered by VOA’s ideological commentaries forced them to act. These were not cases of U.S. military authorities or U.S. diplomats trying to impose or practice prior censorship of overseas radio broadcasts in a heavy-handed way, but rather rare and weakly phrased attempts to prevent the Voice of America from reporting false news and advocating policies too favorable to the Soviet Union and the communist movement when higher-level officials in the Roosevelt administration outside the OWI became aware that they could harm the United States and its fighting forces. There was censorship of purely military information that could prove useful to the enemy.
A previously classified note from the State Department, dated April 22, 1943, was a typical low-key recommendation written in a diplomatic language which suggested that senior U.S. diplomats most likely told OWI and VOA officials to refrain from accepting and promoting the Soviet explanation for the Katyn massacre. Pro-Soviet OWI executives and VOA managers and broadcasters simply ignored such warnings, which also came from other sources.
Mr. [Elbridge] Dubrow said Mr. [Ray] Atherton told him that he thinks the O.W. I. should not get mixed up in this Polish officers question in any way, if it can possibly be helped.”
Elbridge Dubrow and Ray Atherton were high-level State Department officials responsible for European affairs. Adolf Berle was the Assistant Secretary of State.
The State Department was by then aware that the OWI Director, American radio journalist Elmer Davis, and the Voice of America leadership, were already fully engaged in blaming the Katyn massacre on Nazi Germany in domestic radio broadcasts in the United States as well as in overseas VOA broadcasts. If anything, State Department diplomats were trying to tell VOA journalists to practice some journalistic caution, but the pro-Soviet ideologues would not heed their advice.
American and foreign audiences were being deceived by both American and Soviet propaganda. As for VOA, it was propaganda in the name of the U.S. government paid for American taxpayers but failing to reflect accurately in some cases even the FDR administration’s policies and certainly failing to present all American viewpoints. Elmer Davis’ anti-Nazi commentaries, which included a heavy dose of Soviet propaganda and denials of Stalin’s crimes and his imperialistic intentions, were broadcast by the Voice of America to audiences abroad, as well as on domestic radio networks in the United States.[ref] While the transcript of Elmer Davis’ Voice of America broadcast on Katyń, in which he repeats Soviet propaganda claims and denies Soviet responsibility for the mass murder, was already made public by the Madden Committee in 1952, a recording of the same broadcast on a radio network in the United States in 1943 was recently discovered in the WNYC New York public radio station’s online audio archives.[/ref]
The earlier April 6, 1943 secret memo from Under Secretary Sumner Welles, believed to be one of the earliest official warnings of communist influence within the Voice of America, was written several days before the OWI ignored the State Department’s cautionary note on the Katyn incident. Houseman wrote after the war that he had tried to get the State Department’s decision about his U.S. passport reversed by asking Robert Sherwood to make an appeal to FDR’s strongly pro-Soviet advisor Harry Hopkins. If such an appeal was made, it did not succeed.
Houseman was convinced that it was Assistant Secretary of State Adolf A. Berle who had ruled against him (he gave his title as “Undersecretary of State”). He also blamed the Polish government in exile, Polish Americans and a State Department official in charge of issuing passports who was partly Polish American. He probably did not know that the decision not to send him abroad as a U.S. government representative had been discussed in some detail between the State Department and the White House.
The secret allegations against one of the key persons in charge of U.S. overseas radio broadcasts were, in fact, sent to the Roosevelt White House by Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles, a liberal Democrat. The memo said that it was written in response to an inquiry from the President’s Secretary. Sumner Welles was a Roosevelt loyalist, a close friend of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his family, and a distinguished diplomat who held the second-highest position in the State Department. At one point he served as the Acting Secretary of State. He also accompanied President Roosevelt on one of his trips abroad. There were reports that FDR preferred Welles to Secretary of State Cordell Hull and only reluctantly accepted his resignation later in 1943 when Welles’ rivals disclosed to the media his homosexual indiscretions, some of which were true, although he denied the incident which led to his resignation.
Despite the sexual scandal, Roosevelt and Welles remained in close contact. FDR tried later to revive his career and send him on a diplomatic mission to Moscow as his representative, but Welles declined the offer, fearing that it might undermine the position of Secretary Hull, even though the two men did get along well when Welles was still with the State Department.
Houseman did not have anywhere near the same professional or social standing as Welles or another one of his critics in the State Department, Assistant Secretary of State Adolf A. Berle, who like Welles was also a close friend and advisor to President Roosevelt. There is no evidence that President Roosevelt had ever met the first VOA director. Houseman was, however, a protégé of some of FDR’s and Eleanor Roosevelt’s other associates, Robert E. Sherwood and Joseph Barnes, who themselves were strongly pro-Soviet, much more so than even the president and his wife.
There is no evidence in the archival records that any of the top OWI officials were actual Soviet-paid agents of influence. The State Department memo did not allege such a connection. They were rather ideological allies who felt the need to promote a good relationship with Stalin’s Russia and promote its interests, just as today’s corporate businessmen put in charge of U.S. international broadcasting might want to keep a good relationship with Putin’s Russia or with China. Similarly, these highly partisan government executives may want to promote domestic partisan causes, but during World War II, VOA officials and broadcasters favored the policy line from Moscow and its communist movements abroad for ideological rather than partisan, personal or business reasons.
Houseman’s links with the Communist Party prior to his employment with the U.S. government were never fully investigated at the time or afterwards. He somehow escaped Senator McCarthy’s scrutiny, who instead focused on his boss, Joseph Barnes. In all likelihood, McCarthy did not know of the 1943 State Department memo which listed both Barnes and Houseman as possible communist and Soviet sympathizers, with Barnes being nevertheless given a U.S. passport for his official travel while Houseman’s request was repeatedly denied. Barnes vigorously challenged McCarthy’s accusations that he had been a Communist Party member.
In later years, Houseman did not try to hide his collaboration with communist activists, with whom he had worked in his theatrical career in the 1930s, but such information was omitted from books and articles about VOA written by others. In his book, he admitted to receiving political instructions from Communist Party members, but never said he was a dues-paying communist. His memoirs, Unfinished Business, include more than a dozen references to his contacts with the U.S. Communist Party.
Unlike other progressive Americans who eventually became disillusioned with Stalinism, Houseman never strongly condemned Stalin. In discussing the State Department’s refusal to provide him with a U.S. passport for government travel abroad, he lashed out in his book at his perceived enemies and critics with ethnic stereotypes and unlikely conspiracy theories.
“To explain this refusal various theories were put forward: one was that Mrs. Shipley, head of the Passport Division, being herself of Polish origin, was taking revenge for the injuries supposedly inflicted on the Polish government-in-exile by the Voice of America. Then, from some mysterious quarter, came the information that I had apparently been confused with Hans Haussmann–a notorious radical, formerly head of the Communist Party in Switzerland.”[ref]Houseman, Unfinished Business, 252.[/ref]
The State Department memo, however, correctly presented Houseman’s identity and did not directly accuse him of being a Communist Party member in Switzerland or in the United States. Houseman may not have known that Ruth Bielaski Shipley, who was in charge of the passport Office in the State Department, was an American woman of mixed religious background who appears not to have emphasized her ethnic roots in any accessible public comments. One of her uncles was a Polish officer, a friend of President Lincoln, who had volunteered for the Union Army and was killed in the Civil War. She was the daughter of a Methodist minister Alexander Bielaski and his wife, Roselle Israel Bielaski, and the first woman to become the head of the Passport Division in the Department of State.[ref]Your Roots in Poland, “Bielaski family – real american career,” https://yourrootsinpoland.com/blog-en/bielaski-family-real-american-career/. Last accessed May 1, 2018.[/ref] Ruth Shipley was indeed notorious during the Cold War for denying U.S. passports for private travel abroad to many U.S. born and naturalized American citizens suspected of being members of the Communist Party on the basis that they presented a risk to U.S. security. Her brother, Alexander Bruce Bielaski, was from 1912 to 1919 the director of the Bureau of Investigation (which was renamed in 1935 to the Federal Bureau of Investigation – FBI). While being in charge of the Passport Division, Shipley was often criticized for her zeal and her lack of transparency—foreign travel was not yet seen as a constitutional right or accorded due process in passport cases—but in Houseman’s case, it was not a private application but a passport request for official U.S. government travel. She was well-regarded at the time by Secretaries of State of Democratic and Republican administrations.
If the Army Intelligence recommended that he not travel abroad as a U.S. government employee, Shipley who was known for her strict observance of rules and regulations would not have thought twice about denying him an official passport if she had been asked to make a decision in his case. She could have been overruled by higher-level State Department officials or the White House if anyone wanted to intervene. If it had been her decision to deny Houseman a diplomatic passport, it was not changed but rather confirmed by officials just below the Secretary of State.
Shipley seemed to have been following not just what were then strict U.S. government rules but also the Roosevelt administration foreign policy. In 1944, she was criticized for issuing a passport to an obscure Polish-American Catholic priest, Father Stanislaus Orlemanski, who went to see Joseph Stalin on a pro-Soviet propaganda trip arranged by the Soviet government. Such a trip had to have had the administration’s initial backing, but in the end turned out to be controversial. A New York Times article stated that President Roosevelt had to defended Shipley’s decision at a press conference on May 9, 1944 by pointing out that Father Orlemanski’s mission to Moscow was a private trip, and reportedly said, “When anyone has got by Mrs. Shipley,… one can be sure the law has been lived up to.”[ref]New York Times, “President Clarifies Priest’s Passport,” May 9, 1944.[/ref] This controversy erupted already after Houseman’s departure from the OWI.
Robert Sherwood and his colleagues wanted badly to exploit the priest’s trip for propaganda purposes to show that there is freedom of religion in Soviet Russia and that the fear of Russia and communism are misplaced.[ref]Office of War Information, London to OWI Washington, Confidential Dispatch from Sherwood, May 8, 1944, National Archives.[/ref]
To their great disappointment, the Office of War Information in Washington advised Sherwood, then based in London to coordinate American and Soviet propaganda, that too much U.S. government’s publicity for Father Orlemanski’s trip to Russia would not be advisable.
Sherwood responded in a confidential cable, “We are eager to learn the cause for not playing up Orlemanski, which I feel is material which is most effective for fighting the bogey of Bolshevism.”[ref]Office of War Information, London to OWI Washington, Confidential Dispatch from Sherwood.[/ref] Sherwood’s faith in Stalin’s deceptive propaganda appeared unshakable.
Had Ruth Shipley been alive when Houseman published his memoirs, she would have probably ignored his attack on her professional integrity. She was one of the pioneer Civil Service career women in the U.S. government who had reached a high-level executive position.
In 1937, she altered the Passport Division’s policies and began issuing passports in a married woman’s maiden name alone if she requested it, no longer followed by the phrase “wife of”. She noted that the passports of married men never carried “husband of” as further identification. There is no denial, however, that she had refused to issue passports for private travel or delayed their issuance to many completely innocent left-leaning Americans, including some Hollywood figures. Houseman’s case was, however, different from theirs because of his official government position and his proposed official travel.
Even though no formal accusations of being a member of the Communist Party or any other kind were ever publicly made against Houseman, many years after the war he still felt the need to defend his good name while at the same time lashing out at his past anti-communist critics who by then were dead or have forgotten about him as a relatively minor figure in the Roosevelt administration. There is no record that Ms. Shipley had ever made any public comments about Houseman and his denied passport request.
In a later edition of his memoirs, titled Unfinished Business, Houseman claimed that the head of Army Intelligence (G-2) Major General George Veazey Strong met with him in early April 1943 and assured him he found no evidence in his records of “disloyalty or subversion.” Houseman admitted, however, that the general disapproved of him holding a sensitive government position.[ref]Houseman, Unfinished Business, 252.[/ref] Houseman wrote that he was made to wait for more than an hour in the outer office of General Strong, who was “courteous and pleasant” but was concerned about him being in “a sensitive wartime position” as a man who “until two weeks ago had been an enemy alien.”
It seems unlikely that the head of U.S. Army Intelligence would have been so limited as to suspect a man of partial Jewish background, having French and British parents, who only had lived in Romania the first four years of his life, was educated in England, and spoke with an upper-class British accent, of being a secret Fascist or a potential spy for the fascist governments of Romania or Nazi Germany.
As an expert propagandist, Houseman was most likely exploiting the “enemy alien” narrative to hide the real reasons for General Strong’s and the State Department’s concerns: his links with the Communist Party, extreme pro-Soviet sympathies and VOA broadcasts in line with Soviet propaganda that threatened the lives of American soldiers. There is a definite trend in Houseman’s autobiography to attribute blame for mistakes and nefarious motives to others, both to his friends and to his critics. He also tends to portray himself as a victim of prejudice, while liberally making prejudicial statements about others.
The G-2 Army Intelligence was not radically anti-Soviet during the war. After the war, members of Congress heard secret testimony that “quite a number of employees in G-2 who were suspected of Communist or left-wing sympathies were transferred to the Counter-Intelligence Agency.” A bipartisan committee suspected General Strong’s successor at G-2 of having destroyed evidence pointing to Soviet responsibility for the Katyn Massacre and recommended a thorough investigation.[ref]Timothy P. Sheehan, “Supplementary Statement by Mr. Sheehan,” The Katyn Forest Massacre, Final Report of the Select Committee to Conduct an Investigation and Study of the facts, Evidence, and Circumstances on the Katyn Forest Massacre, (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1952) 7-9.[/ref] The U.S. Military Intelligence authorities’ concerns about Houseman in 1943 were probably not related to any suspicions of espionage but most likely to VOA’s propaganda under his watch.[ref]Final Report of the Select Committee to Conduct an Investigation and Study of the facts, Evidence, and Circumstances on the Katyn Forest Massacre, 15-16.[/ref] The committee’s conclusion was that “the course of our governmental policy toward Soviet Russia might have been more realistic with more fortunate postwar results” if the American public were not deceived by the various wartime agencies of the Executive Branch.[ref]Final Report of the Select Committee to Conduct an Investigation and Study of the facts, Evidence, and Circumstances on the Katyn Forest Massacre, 12.[/ref] A major part of the deception abroad was done through the Voice of America by its pro-Soviet officials and broadcasters.
Even Houseman admitted in his book that “General Eisenhower was heard to complain that the Voice of America was doing more harm to the Expeditionary [U.S. military forces abroad] than to enemy morale.”[ref]Houseman, Unfinished Business, 250.[/ref] It was a devastating condemnation of VOA’s wartime role, which General Eisenhower confirmed in his 1965 memoirs after leaving the White House.
While in office, President Eisenhower delivered a speech through the Voice of America in 1957 in observance of VOA’s fifteenth anniversary. He condemned communists who “think that a few theorists and rulers know what is best for everyone.” Notably, he did not offer any great praise for the Voice of America, which other U.S. presidents including Ronald Reagan generally did, noting in only one sentence that VOA “has been bringing to people everywhere the facts about world events, and about America’s policy in relation to these events.”[ref]Dwight D. Eisenhower, “37 – World Broadcast in Observance of Fifteenth Anniversary of Voice of America, February 25, 1957, The American Presidency Project, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=10982. Last accessed May 1, 2018.[/ref] In his 1965 book, General Eisenhower chose to emphasize the damage done by VOA broadcasts while he was the Allied commander in North Africa.
Houseman indirectly confirmed that VOA broadcasters worked against the strategy approved by President Roosevelt and General Eisenhower when he wrote in his autobiography that “Shocked and disillusioned by the political compromises being made in North Africa by the State Department and the Armed Forces, Sherwood’s idealists did not hesitate to express their dissenting voices.”[ref]Houseman, Unfinished Business, 250.[/ref] He did not elaborate that Sherwood’s idealists were also his idealists in the Radio Bureau, and that he himself was among them. Their broadcasts against General Eisenhower’s deal with French Admiral Darlan could have easily prolonged the battle in North Africa and cost the lives of many American, British, Polish, and other allied soldiers. Pro-Soviet VOA’s government-employed and government-paid propagandists under Sherwood’s, Barnes’ and Houseman’s direction were playing a dangerous game of journalistic advocacy. General Eisenhower and President Roosevelt had good reasons to be upset.
Houseman tried to counter Eisenhower’s criticism by noting in his autobiography that at another time the general “invited the help of the Voice of America in launching a major propaganda assault on the Axis.”[ref]Houseman, Unfinished Business, 250.[/ref] Houseman did not note whether Eisenhower was pleased with VOA’s anti-Axis propaganda efforts. VOA’s pro-Soviet “idealists” were also later undermining U.S. military strategy in Italy.
History has also shown that VOA’s propaganda did not work to any larger degree on the Germans or the Japanese. They fought to the bitter end and gave up only after Hitler’s suicide and the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Idealism that recognizes one dictator while helping another brutal dictator to impose a genocidal political system on millions of people was not a good excuse for what U.S. government officials in charge of the Voice of America did during World War II. The addendum to Welles’ memo simply said that the U.S. military agreed with the State Department’s assessment of Houseman’s unsuitability for foreign travel on behalf of the U.S. government, but provided no further details.
General Strong died in 1946. By the time Houseman published his book, the content of General Strong’s 1943 conversation with Houseman could not have been confirmed by him, but in all likelihood the general was not primarily concerned with Houseman’s immigration status, which by then was already resolved, his former “enemy alien” designation, if there was one, and which also would have been resolved by then, or his ethnic background, but rather by what risk he could have posed in his role at the Voice of America.
There is no record that President Roosevelt knew about Houseman’s passport case, had personally intervened on his behalf, or tried to save him from losing his job, but FDR or Harry Hopkins may have ordered the President’s Secretary to do a routine check with the State Department. If FDR White House officials were more intensely involved with this issue, they and the President seemed to have sided with his Under Secretary of State by not reaching out to Mrs. Shipley, whom FDR knew, and not ordering others to get the decision on Houseman’s passport application reversed.
After Houseman’s departure, VOA’s pro-Soviet propaganda and coordination of propaganda with Moscow continued under OWI’s Robert E. Sherwood. He and OWI director Elmer Davis later got into a major disagreement and were told by FDR to resolve their differences. Sherwood was sent to London with the approval from both the White House and the State Department to continue coordinating U.S. wartime propaganda with the British government and the Soviet Embassy in the U.K. Among its many uses, the OWI was during the war a place for rewarding the president’s loyalists with jobs frequent foreign and domestic travel, as have been in recently in the Broadcasting Board of Governors and the U.S. Agency for Global Media.
While not all the allegations in the 1943 State Department memo about Houseman and other OWI employees can be taken at face value, this was by no means a partisan anti-communist witch hunt conducted for publicity purposes. Sumner Welles and other top State Department diplomats were not demagogue politicians like Senator Joseph McCarthy who much later made mostly baseless and often ruinous allegations, although not against John Houseman who by then was no longer in the center of public attention as a political figure, or even as one of the famous Hollywood figures at that time. It is still, however, somewhat surprising that he had avoided McCarthy’s scrutiny while many innocent Hollywood writers, actors, and producers, as well as State Department officials, were among his victims in the early 1950s.
The forced resignation of John Houseman resulted from a different kind of concern and scrutiny in 1943. The authors of the 1943 memo, which was marked “Secret and Personal,” were themselves Democrats and some of America’s most elite diplomats. Theirs was an earnest attempt to protect the Democratic administration of President Roosevelt from what they saw was an out of control and unaccountable group of ideological activists in charge of Voice of America overseas broadcasting and domestic propaganda.
Their concerns were valid but could not be made in public for fear of embarrassing the administration and the Soviet Union, a valuable and an indispensable military ally. In appears that in his remarkably honest memo for a State Department diplomat under these circumstances, Sumner Welles was attempting to protect the administration from being exploited by the Soviets through gullible U.S. government officials and employees. At the same time, Welles and other State Department diplomats continued to implement FDR’s pro-Soviet policies, which ultimately resulted in Stalin taking control of East Central Europe and imposing communist dictatorship in the region. Their enthusiasm in supporting such policies may not have been nearly the same as FDR’s, but they carried out his policy and did not try to sabotage it.
There is no indication in the archives whether FDR was shown the State Department memo or how he might have reacted to it, but Houseman did not get a U.S. passport and soon resigned from the Radio Bureau of the Overseas Branch of the Office of War Information. Others in charge of wartime Voice of America, however, continued to promote Soviet interests at the expense of supporters of democracy and U.S. allies. They misled audiences abroad as well as Americans, and covered up Stalin’s genocidal crimes. Sumner Welles’ memo accurately predicted that it might happen.
The U.S. Under Secretary of State’s observations about communists in the wartime Voice of America also seem especially significant in light of some of the current questions many Americans have whether the U.S. government knows how to respond to Russian propaganda and attempts to manipulate American voters with ad-boosted Facebook posts and other digital media strategies not available to the Soviets in the 1940s and during the Cold War.
One of the consequences of McCarthyism is that no one dares to ask whether Vladimir Putin’s secret services and those of China, Iran, Cuba, and other countries are working to place their agents of influence in the United States, including the Voice of America, although Iranian Americans and Chinese Americans have asked such questions regarding VOA.[ref]See: Mariam Memarsadeghi and Akbar Atri, “10 ways the US government could help Iranians win back their country,” The Hill, January 12, 2018, http://thehill.com/opinion/international/368566-10-ways-the-us-government-could-help-iranians-win-back-their-country. Last accessed May 5, 2018. Also see: Sasha Gong, “Spineless Federal Bureaucrats CAVED To Chinese Pressure To Censor Voice Of America. Now They Deny It,” The Daily Caller, May 4, 2018, http://dailycaller.com/2018/05/04/voa-bureaucrats-caved-to-chinese-censorship-pressure-and-now-deny-it/. Last accessed May 5, 2018.[/ref]
The 1943 State Department memo is a timely warning about U.S. government officials and government-employed journalists who for either ideological, partisan, or business reasons may be compromised in carrying out their duties. It includes one of the best descriptions of how Soviet propaganda and disinformation worked then, in an eerily similar fashion to how Russian propaganda and disinformation are employed now against democratic governments and democratic elections.
“The records of the men involved seem to indicate that should there be a divergence between the policy of the States and the policy of Soviet Russia, these men, with a large degree of control of the American machinery of war making, would probably follow the line taken by Russia, rather than the line taken by the United States.”
The 1943 State Department memo also warned:
“It has been the theory of this Department that, outside of Soviet Russia, most of the groups struggling for expression desire freedom and a chance to find their own way, and that they have looked to the United States, rather than to the Russian collectivism, as offering the hope of achieving both social advance and individual freedom. The concern which we have is that the men asked to state, represent and carry out American policy shall be men who both understand that policy, and will be loyal to it, rather than to any outside connection.”
The 1943 Sumner Welles’ State Department memo also included a prophetic warning in light of the 2016 Russian propaganda and disinformation campaign targeting American voters to change their views about American politicians disliked by the Kremlin.
“They have included a continued and bitter hostility to the Government of General Vargas in Brazil; to the present Peruvian Government; and to a considerable number of officials in the United States Government who are deemed inconvenient.”
The memo charged that Houseman was “Said to have been responsible for placing Communists in key position in foreign radio sections of OWI [Office of War Information].”
The memo also commented on the fascination of some American progressives for Soviet communism and urged finding other liberal individuals—not communist sympathizers—to be put in charge of U.S. government programs.
“If it is desired to give a distinctly liberal cast to these organisations, it would seem possible to find men who are liberal in the light of their own conviction, and of the American ideal, rather than men who have, for one reason or another, elected to give expression to their liberalism primarily by joining Communist front organizations, and apparently sacrificing their independence of thought and action to the direction of a distinctly European movement.”
While there was no proof that Houseman was a member of the Communist Party, the charge that Communists and Soviet sympathizers were preparing wartime Voice of America broadcasts under his direction and that some of OWI senior officials were Soviet sympathizers has been well documented. Not all VOA World War II broadcasts contained falsehoods—most did not, and VOA did not lie about U.S. military defeats in World War II—but many VOA wartime broadcasts were anti-journalistic, anti-democratic and strongly pro-Soviet.
VOA programs at that time and after John Houseman’s resignation were viewed as particularly harmful by various governments in exile opposed to the Nazis. VOA either ignored these governments, by not reporting on their statements and explanations and refusing to interview their representatives, or repeated false Soviet charges against them. Non-communist resistance fighters and audiences throughout Europe found Soviet propaganda in VOA programs particularly offensive and complained about censorship. Czesław Straszewicz, a Polish journalist based in London during the war, wrote in the 1950s about the harsh negative impact of VOA’s pro-Kremlin wartime broadcasts on the audience in Nazi-occupied Poland and among the Poles abroad.
“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.”[ref]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. [/ref]
After the war, several of VOA’s foreign language broadcasters and their spouses left the United States to work for the communist regimes in Eastern Europe, some of them taking on roles as anti-American propagandists. One such communist propaganda expert, Stefan Arski (aka Artur Salman), had worked on VOA’s Polish desk during the war. In 1947, the Washington Embassy of the Polish communist government published a political pamphlet written by Arski. He promptly joined the Communist Party in Poland.
Another journalist, who later became a communist diplomat, Dr. Adolf Hoffmeister, had been in charge of VOA’s wartime broadcasts to Czechoslovakia. He also joined the Communist Party, but later had a falling out with the regime. It is not known whether Houseman had hired these two men, but they worked on VOA programs under his watch.
Soviet propaganda triumphed at the Voice of America during World War II. Most historians writing about VOA have never acknowledged the power of Soviet influence within the Office of War Information and at the Voice of America in its early years. This unpleasant history was being ignored, hidden, and replaced with the narrative that from its very beginning the Voice of America operated under the slogan: “The news may be good. The news may be bad. We shall tell you the truth.”
Those words were indeed spoken by William Harlan Hale in the very first VOA German broadcast in 1942. They were not always followed, although on balance the overall contribution of the Voice of America was most definitely on the side of human rights, freedom and democracy. The criticism of VOA’s management and some of its journalists during various periods in its history should not detract from the organization’s overall positive role in support of press freedom during most of the Cold War.
Unfortunately, most history books about VOA present John Houseman as a noble figure while paying little attention to many journalists from East and Central Europe, Russia, China, and other communist-ruled countries who after the war were responsible for making the Voice of America successful in the information war with the Soviet Union. One of them was the legendary former anti-Nazi fighter Zofia Korbońska, who during the war sent coded radio messages from Nazi-occupied Poland to London warning about the ongoing extermination of Jews. Among wartime failures of the Voice of America was not paying much attention to the news of the Holocaust, which was noted by historian Holly Cowan Shulman.[ref]Holly Cowan Shullman, “The Voice of America, US Propaganda and the Holocaust: ‘I Would Have Remembered’,” Historical Journal of Film, Radio & Television 17, no. 1 (March 1997): 91-103.[/ref]
Other authors writing about the Voice of America were concerned about President Ronald Reagan, whose administration was responsible for removing the last remains of pro-Soviet censorship introduced by John Houseman, his bosses, and some of the broadcasters they had hired.
Alan L. Heil, Jr., who had worked for VOA from 1962 in editorial and executive positions until he retired in 1998, described in his Voice of America: A History how Houseman became a hero of the anti-Reagan VOA broadcasters, almost all of whom in the 1980s were American-born.
They were, with a few exceptions, U.S.- trained journalists working at the VOA newsroom and producing VOA English-language programs. Their position within the organization was clearly privileged compared to foreign-born VOA broadcasters who were denied promotions, access to wire services, and money for correspondent travel.
“Hollywood’s celebrated film producer John Houseman, who, as head of the overseas radio production section of the Office of War Information, could be considered the first VOA director, came back for its fortieth-anniversary celebration on February 24 . He reminded the packed auditorium that honest reporting had been the key to the Voice’s credibility when the tide turned in the direction of an Allied victory at the end of World War II. That underlying theme sustained VOA through the difficult winter of 1981/1982.” [ref]Alan L. Heil Jr, Voice of America: A History (New York: Columbia University Press Publishers, 2003), 208.[/ref]
Ironically, the suspicion of unreliability, propaganda, and journalistic bias was directed by some management figures in later years of VOA’s existence largely against anti-communist East European broadcasters who had worked on reversing John Houseman’s legacy of ideological activist journalism in the interest of a foreign power. Alan Heil described some of these anti-communist East European broadcasters as “a vocal minority” which advocated for stridency.
“a vocal minority in the language services, mostly East European in origin, [who] agreed with the Reagan appointees that VOA programming should be more strident against the Soviet Union.”[ref]Heil, Voice of America: A History, 200.[/ref]
These anti-communist VOA refugee journalists were in many cases victims of Houseman’s and VOA’s earlier betrayal of their countries and democracy in FDR’s misguided attempt to appease Stalin. They were journalists, writers, intellectuals and artists. Some of them had been held in communist prisons, but most did not see themselves as being particularly strident. They also did not see themselves as being a minority among the East European broadcasters at VOA, but rather as a majority sharing similar views about communism. During much of the Cold War, they struggled against the reluctant management to call a spade a spade in reporting on the Soviet Union. To many of them, the first years of the Reagan administration, described by Reagan’s critics at VOA as “the difficult winter of 1981/1982” seemed exhilaratingly liberating.
Writing about the early period of the Reagan administration at the Voice of America, Heil, who mentioned some of their grievances against the previous management, also hinted at other possible motivations of the East European broadcasters.
“A few of the language service activists saw an opportunity to enhance their influence or even gain appointment to senior Voice positions.”[ref]Heil, Voice of America: A History, 200.[/ref]
Rising of language service activists to senior positions at VOA, if any of the foreign language broadcasters had such ambitions, did not happen even at that time as the Reagan administration brought into VOA its own people from outside the organization, many of whom did well while a few others did not.
In his memoirs, Houseman had his own descriptions of VOA’ pre-Cold War broadcasters. He did not present them as communists, communist sympathizers, fellow traveler idealists, liberals, admirers of Soviet Russia and Joseph Stalin, which many of them were. He called them “intelligent and cultivated men and women” although exhibiting “the diversity of ethnic prejudices and passions retained and intensified in exile.” His harshest description was reserved for the Poles but presumably not the ones who prepared pro-Soviet broadcasts to Poland at his direction.
“Why were the Poles, after centuries of partition and suffering, riddled with anti-Semitism and obsessed by mad dreams of a greater Poland?”[ref]Houseman, Unfinished Business, 249[/ref]
These comments made by Houseman in the 1989 edition of his autobiography, the year in which Poland finally regained its sovereignty and independence, were nearly the same as some of the Soviet propaganda accusations of the World War II period hurled against the non-communist Poles in the Polish government in exile in London and those engaged in the anti-Nazi underground state and resistance movement in Poland.
If there were Poles of Houseman’s description working at VOA during World War II, they were not in charge of VOA programs. Those programs supported the transfer of formerly Polish but ethnically largely Ukrainian, Belorussian, and Lithuanian territories to a greater Soviet Union. His comments showed that he believed the Soviet Union would provide these nationalities and people of Eastern Europe with greater freedom, tolerance, and social justice, and he perhaps held on to that belief after the war.
In his book, Houseman also made a somewhat incredulous claim that no major security breaches were ever discovered among wartime VOA personnel:
“It has never ceased to surprise me that no major security breach was ever discovered among our heterogeneous personnel. God knows there were plenty of people who would have been delighted to find and expose it–among them the Roosevelt-haters in Congress and the disgruntled exiles who felt they should have a greater say in the broadcasts beamed at their own countries.”[ref]Houseman, Unfinished Business, 249.[/ref]
The “disgruntled exile” description seemed to have been favored by Elmer Davis, and by John Houseman. The first VOA director claimed to be an exile but was, in fact, a successful and wealthy economic immigrant who did not have a proper visa or a work permit and was living and working in the United States illegally.
Houseman did not mention VOA’s key language service staffers, Stefan Arski and Adolf Hoffmeister, who were legitimate exiles from Fascism. After the war, they went to work for communist regimes. Houseman’s boss, Elmer Davis, admitted to members of Congress that he himself had fired several communists.
Actual Soviet intelligence agents were not identified or caught during the war, but it was proven later that a few had worked for the OWI. The Venona project, a U.S. counterintelligence program of gathering Soviet secret signal traffic that ran from February 1, 1943, and was unknown even to President Roosevelt, contains the unidentified cover names of several Soviet espionage contacts in the Office of War Information. One Soviet agent in the OWI identified by name was Flora Wovschin. She had worked there from September 1943 until February 1945 and continued working for the U.S. government at the State Department until September 1945. She is believed later to have fled to the Soviet Union.[ref]John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 198-201.[/ref] The vast majority of OWI employees were not linked in any way with the Communist Party or espionage, but many of them through their idealism and lack of journalistic skepticism and skills still helped the Soviet Union advance its ideological and geopolitical agenda.
Historically, most of the damage to VOA’s journalistic mission was done by pro-Soviet rather than anti-Soviet government executives and journalists. It was toward the end of World War II, when propagandists working for VOA were most active in defending Stalin. They covered up his crimes, ignored anti-Nazi democratic movements in Eastern Europe, and helped Soviet Russia with their propaganda to impose on the population communist governments in the region. Unfortunately, when it comes to discussing the organization’s future and efforts to counter current Russian, Chinese, or Iranian propaganda, there is still a wall of silence around this topic.
The historic betrayal of democracy and good journalism by the early Voice of America, which in the later years of the Cold War became one of America’s most important tools in support of democracy and freedom, is still being ignored, even though it has been well documented in such public sources as the Congressional Record of the 1940s and the 1950s.
As the Cold War with the Soviet Union intensified, it was not convenient to bring up such history, but some writers, even those familiar with Houseman’s own memoirs, may have intentionally avoided presenting his full background as a supporter of Soviet and communist causes. They created a myth around him and the wartime VOA for their own ideological or professional reasons, which ultimately caused more harm than good.
They did not mention OWI’s wartime propaganda films supporting incarcerating U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry in internment camps nor OWI’s illegal attempts to censor domestic U.S. media and provide it instead with Soviet propaganda full of disinformation.55
Such selective presentation of VOA’s early history prevents an honest re-examination of the past in light of today’s propaganda from countries like Russia, China, Iran, or Cuba. The lack of knowledge or distorted knowledge of the history of the Voice of America makes reforms of U.S. information outreach abroad more difficult and more elusive.
Few Americans know that due to the domestic propaganda abuses by the OWI during the war, the 1948 law, the Smith-Mundt Act, was passed partly to prevent Voice of America officials and broadcasters from propagandizing in the United States.
Congress lifted some of the restrictions of the Smith-Mundt Act a few years ago. Americans may once again be more exposed to partisan propaganda from the Executive Branch and possibly also foreign propaganda infiltrated into VOA online and broadcast content.
Several decades ago, at least one scholar alluded, although still somewhat obliquely and briefly, to VOA’s beginnings as a pro-Soviet propaganda outlet of the extreme Left. Holly Cowan Shulman wrote about the Voice of America propagandists in her book, The Voice of America: Propaganda and Democracy, 1941-1945, published in 1990 by the University of Wisconsin Press. She is the daughter of one of the early VOA directors, Louis G. Cowan, and the sister of a later VOA director, Geoffrey Cowan.
“Sherwood, Barnes, Wartburg, and Johnson, and their like-minds colleagues the Overseas Branch [OWI’s Voice of America] believed that propaganda could mold and influence foreign policy. Propaganda, in other words, was not merely an expression of policy made by others. The propagandists believed they could make their own version of American foreign policy come true. They believed they were right; they argued that they understood the foreign influence of American policy ways that the State Department, and even the president, did not; and they used the Voice of America to enter the foreign policy debate between members of the Roosevelt’s administration.”[ref]Holly Cowan Shulman, The Voice of America: Propaganda and Democracy, 1941-1945, (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1990), 91.)[/ref]
Schulman’s assessment is in line with WWII-era Assistant Secretary of State Adolf A. Berle’s recollections in his memoirs published in 1973 that World War II OWI and VOA officials were “following an extreme left-wing line in New York, without bothering to integrate their views with the State Department.”[ref]Adolf E. Berle, Navigating the Rapids: 1918-1971, ed. Beatrice Bishop Berle (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovic, Inc., 1973), 440.[/ref]
Berle was referring specifically to the July 25, 1943 Voice of America broadcast about King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy, who wanted to end his country’s alliance with Hitler. Ending the German-Italian alliance was a major political and military objective of both the United States and Great Britain, but King Victor Emmanuel was not viewed with approval by Stalin or the Italian communists. He was called in a VOA broadcast the “moronic little King.”
Arthur Krock, who was the Washington bureau chief for the New York Times and a frequent and severe critic of the Office of War Information, wrote that the parent agency which managed VOA spoke with an “‘ideology’ that conforms much more closely to the Moscow than to the Washington-London line.”
In this instance, Voice of America leaders were rebuked by President Roosevelt, and some, including Joseph Barnes, were fired or told to resign. By August 1, 1943, John Houseman was no longer a U.S. government employee.
Arthur Krock wrote his comment about the OWI a full year after John Houseman was forced to resign as VOA director and was replaced as the head of the Radio Bureau by Lou Cowan. A few weeks before the forced departure of Houseman and later Barnes, Berle was one of the State Department officials who had tried but failed to prevent the Voice of America from going full-speed with the Soviet propaganda lie on the Katyn Forest Massacre.
The cover-up of Stalin’s crimes by the Voice of America did not stop with the war’s end. The abolishment of the Office of War Information by President Truman and the transfer of the Voice of America to the State Department in September 1945 ended some of the most blatant pro-Soviet U.S. propaganda broadcasts, but reluctance to expose Stalinist atrocities continued through the end of the 1940s and even into the early 1950s.
Severe bipartisan criticism in the U.S. Congress finally forced State Department officials and managers in charge of the Voice of America to do more honest reporting on the Soviet Union and the Communist Bloc starting in 1951/1952.
While there was censorship of U.S. radio programs from New York and Washington in later years by State Department and subsequently United States Information Agency (USIA) officials, some of the greatest ideologues, censors, and promoters of Soviet interests in Voice of America’s early history were not the White House, the State Department, or the Pentagon. They were VOA’s own ideologically driven and largely unaccountable senior managers, editors, and journalists, including John Houseman. The limiting of reporting on the Katyn Forest massacre and other Soviet atrocities ended at the Voice of America only during the Ronald Reagan administration. At different times before that, the restrictions on the Katyn story varied from the most severe to relatively minor.
After the war, Adolf A. Berle served on the Board of Directors overseeing Radio Free Europe (RFE) from its beginning until 1963. Unlike VOA, RFE never censored the Katyn Massacre story and gave it full reporting.
Julius Epstein who helped to expose VOA’s early pro-Soviet propaganda and censorship was attacked in the early 1950s by VOA executives, who were by then State Department diplomats, as “a disgruntled job-seeker who has proven himself to be an irresponsible promoter, an unscrupulous opportunist and a consistent liar” and “not … best type of new American citizen [sic].”[ref]Memorandum from Foy D. Kohler (OIB/NY) to All Commission Members, December 18, 1951; RG 0059, Department of State, U.S. International Information Administration/International Broadcasting; Entry# P315: Voice of America (VOA) Historical Files: 1946-1953; Reports Psychological Operations POC THRU Katyn Forest Massacres III; Container #18; National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD.[/ref]
Epstein and others managed, however, to convince members of Congress to launch in 1951 a bipartisan investigation of the Katyn Forest Massacre, which also focused on VOA’s wartime and post-war failures.
The so-called Madden Committee, named after its chairman, Congressman Ray Madden (D-IN), concluded that while some measures taken by the Office of War Information could be excused as a wartime necessity, American officials and VOA journalists mislead the American public and foreign audiences about the true nature of the Soviet regime thus preventing a more pragmatic policy from being adopted. Considering the cost of the failure of the Yalta Agreement, it was a profoundly serious charge that was never answered and was quickly forgotten.
“The Katyn investigation revealed that many individuals throughout the State Department, Army Intelligence (G-2), Office of War Information and Federal Communications Commission, and other Government agencies, failed to properly evaluate the material being received from our sources overseas. In many instances, this information was deliberately withheld from public attention and knowledge. There was a definite lack of coordination on intelligence matters between Army Intelligence (G-2) and the State Department, at least as far as the missing Polish officers and the Katyn massacre was concerned.
The possibility exists that many second-echelon personnel, who were overly sympathetic to the Russian cause or pro-Communist minded, attempted to cover up derogatory reports which were received concerning the Soviets.”[ref]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.[/ref]
The Madden Committee also said in its “Final Report”:
“Testimony before this committee likewise proves that the Voice of America—successor to the Office of War Information—had failed to fully utilize available information concerning the Katyn massacre until the creation of this committee in 1951.”[ref]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, (Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1952).[/ref]
The bipartisan congressional committee added:
“This committee believes that if the Voice of America is to justify its existence it must utilize material made available more forcefully and effectively.”[ref]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, (Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1952).[/ref]
But even the Madden Committee was not made aware in 1951 and 1952 of many secret U.S government diplomatic cables and other communications. They showed the extent to which Robert E. Sherwood, a “founding father” of the Voice of America, and other Office of War Information officials, including John Houseman, coordinated VOA’s wartime propaganda with Soviet propaganda and became advocates for Stalin’s plans for the domination of Eastern Europe.
Wider public disclosure of the previously secret State Department memo may be yet another blow to several decades of claims by a few former Voice of America officials and journalists who still maintain that John Houseman had been a historic figure, an outstanding first VOA Director and an ardent supporter of truthful and objective news reporting[ref]This early VOA history is little known and John Houseman is still being wrongly presented as a champion of journalistic integrity. See: Jay Nordlinger, “A Voice of America, Part I” National Review, April 19, 2016. Accessed October 3, 2016. http://www.nationalreview.com/article/434211/voa-remarkable-chief-its-ukrainian-service-myroslava-gongadze-part-i.[/ref], although he himself referred to his wartime government work as “propaganda” and “psychological warfare” operations.[ref] See: John Houseman, Unfinished Business Memoirs: 1902-1988 (New York: Applause Theatre Books, 1989). “Psychological warfare could not furnish me with the theatre’s climaxes of consummations; there was no applause for the Voice of America… .” (247) “But our main instrument of propaganda remained The Voice of America which, by this time, [end of 1942] was broadcasting close to a thousand shows a day in twenty-two languages including Swahili. (249)[/ref] In the 1972 first edition of his memoir, published under the title Run-through, Houseman referred to his “latest and strangest adventure” at the Voice of America as being appointed to be “Chief of radio propaganda for the United States Government in the Second World War.”[ref]Houseman, Run-through, 487.[/ref]
Wallace Carroll, another gullible journalist among VOA’s “founding fathers,” was a newspaper correspondent in the Soviet Union in 1941. He filled his reports from Russia with naïve and uncritical acceptance of Soviet propaganda, as did other fellow-traveler journalists.
In 1942, Carroll published a book devoted entirely to advocating a close U.S.-Soviet relationship. It was titled, We’re In This With Russia. While cheering for the joint Soviet-American effort to beat Hitler made perfect sense, Carroll was also particularly concerned that Soviet communists and Joseph Stalin still did not have good press in the United States. In the Office of War Information, he made sure that they did.
This unwillingness to make intelligent use of the “capitalist press” was only one of a number of weaknesses in the Soviet propaganda organization. After all the commotion which has been made about Russian propaganda, I was surprised to find that the Soviets were overlooking many ways of influencing world opinion, not only through the press, but through the movies, the radio, and other media. They seldom missed a trick in the propaganda directed at their own people, but the machinery they employed to put their case before the world would have been considered inadequate by any other great power.[ref]Wallace Carroll, We’re In This With Russia (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1942), p.89[/ref]
Allan Heil noted that in 1944 Carroll was part of the new Voice of America leadership team.[ref]Heil, Voice of America: A History, p. 44.[/ref]
Carroll, one of the “founding fathers” of the Voice of America, was woefully unaware how successfully the Soviets manipulated him and such VOA communist newspersons and broadcasters as Howard Fast, whose 1953 Stalin Peace Prize was, in the eyes of the Kremlin, fully deserved.
When Wallace Carroll, the American journalist who helped to create VOA, published his book in praise of the Soviet Union, Stalin and other Soviet communists were already responsible for the death of millions of innocent people, most of them Russians and Ukrainians, and for forcible deportations of more millions of men, women, and children, many of whom soon died or, if they managed to survive imprisonment and slave labor, never returned to their homes. Whether through professionally inexcusable ignorance or ideological zelaotry, Davis, Sherwood, Carroll, Barnes, Houseman, Fast, and other Voice of America founders and pioneers urged VOA listeners to trust Stalin.
After the war, Carroll was executive editor of the Winston-Salem Journal and Sentinel, served as news editor in the Washington bureau of the New York Times from 1955 to 1963, and was a member of the Pulitzer Prize Board. In his book Persuade or Perish, he still insisted that the Soviet version of the Katyn massacre was true almost three years after the war. He wrote in 1948:
As Hottelet [Carroll’s trusted advisor at OWI Richard C. Hottelet] had predicted, the dissension which was permitted to arise over the Katyn massacre was still working to the advantage of defeated Germany after the war. In July, 1946, more than three years after Goebbels opened his campaign, the German leaders on trial for war crimes at Nuremberg revived the allegations against the Russians in an obvious attempt to drive a wedge between the Soviets and the Western Powers.[ref]Wallace Carroll, Persuade or Perish (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1948), p. 152.[/ref]
In his book, Carroll repeatedly refers to any warnings about Stalin, communism, the Soviet Union, and Katyn as “the Bolshevik Bogy,” as did Robert E. Sherwood during World War II in a confidential telegram from London to Wallace Carroll. Besides being in charge of Voice of America broadcasts in the Office of War Information, Sherwood was President Roosevelt’s speechwriter. As the head of all overseas media operations run by OWI, Sherwood issued directives to VOA journalists to support Soviet claims of innocence for the Katyn massacre. He also promoted the Soviet propaganda theme that Stalin was no longer an enemy of religion.
Even in 1948, Wallace Carroll, a celebrated American journalist was still unwilling to give up on Stalin’s Katyn propaganda lie. He was also plainly wrong in his claim that the Germans had revived the Katyn allegations at the Nuremberg trials of Nazi leaders. Even a basic check of facts before publishing his authoritative book on propaganda in 1948 would have revealed that the Soviet prosecutor at Nuremberg had introduced the Katyn charges and tried to blame the mass murder on the Germans. The Soviets fell into their own trap. It soon became apparent that they could not prove their case with their own poorly fabricated evidence because the Soviet secret police committed the crime on the orders of Stalin. Seeing his evidence refuted, the Soviet prosecutor quietly dropped the Katyn charges against the German defendants.
Carroll also viewed with some contempt refugee Voice of America journalists who disagreed with him, most likely because of few of them like Konstanty Broel Plater were anti-communist:
There was another fault of American propaganda from New York [Voice of America broadcast from New York until 1954] that we strove to overcome with just as little success—a fault that can only be described as the emigre imprint. The Office of War Information, like the British propaganda agencies, had been quick to hire talented refugees from the lands overrun by Hitler and Mussolini. These exiles brought with them priceless gifts—linguistic skill, knowledge of national characteristics and customs, journalistic training. I came to know many of them and found them animated for the most part by a sincere desire to carry out the propaganda program of the United States government. But unfortunately some of them had brought with them passions and political convictions which sometimes proved too much for their good intentions. There were indeed times when they used the American radio to wage polemical battles in which the United States had no interest.[ref]Wallace Carroll, Persuade or Perish, pp. 132-133.[/ref]
A broader public disclosure of the previously secret State Department memo may be yet another blow to several decades of claims by a few former Voice of America officials and journalists who still maintain that John Houseman had been a historic figure, an outstanding first VOA Director, and an ardent supporter of truthful and objective news reporting.[ref]This early VOA history is little known and John Houseman is still being wrongly presented as a champion of journalistic integrity. Jay Nordlinger, “A Voice of America, Part I” National Review, April 19, 2016. Accessed October 3, 2016. http://www.nationalreview.com/article/434211/voa-remarkable-chief-its-ukrainian-service-myroslava-gongadze-part-i.[/ref] However, he himself referred to his wartime government work as “propaganda” and “psychological warfare” operations.[ref]John Houseman, Unfinished Business Memoirs: 1902-1988: “Psychological warfare could not furnish me with the theatre’s climaxes of consummations; there was no applause for the Voice of America… .” (p. 247) “But our main instrument of propaganda remained The Voice of America which, by this time, [end of 1942] was broadcasting close to a thousand shows a day in twenty-two languages including Swahili. (p. 249).[/ref]
In the 1972 first edition of his memoir, published under the title Run-through, Houseman referred to his “latest and strangest adventure” at the Voice of America as being appointed to be “Chief of radio propaganda for the United States Government in the Second World War.”[ref]Houseman, Run-through, p. 487.[/ref]
In the early 1980s, in what may have been an attempt to discredit President Reagan’s plans for the Voice of America, Houseman claimed that truthful news reporting had been of paramount importance during his VOA directorship. The Reagan administration increased funding to strengthen U.S. international broadcasting. It also moved to replace some VOA managers who opposed the use of blunt but accurate terms to describe the reality of Soviet communism. Reagan’s appointees at VOA also helped remove the last vestiges of pro-Soviet censorship that Houseman and his associates had established during World War II.
The first VOA director had escaped public criticism in later years for his manipulation of VOA news in favor of Soviet Russia. Most VOA employees and Reagan administration-appointed managers had no idea about Houseman’s pro-Soviet legacy at VOA. Former VOA journalists such as Zofia Korbońska, or Julius Epstein, who had warned about “love for Stalin” among some of the early VOA executives and broadcasters, were completely forgotten.[ref]Epstein wrote in 1950: “There are still too many of the old OWI [Office of War Information] employees working for the Voice, both in this country and overseas. I mean those writers, translators and broadcasters who so wholeheartedly and enthusiastically tried for many years to create ‘love for Stalin,’ when this was the official policy of our ill-advised wartime Government and of our military government in Germany. There is no doubt that all those employees were at that time deeply convinced of the absolute correctness of that pro-Stalinist propaganda. How can we expect them to do the exact opposite now?” See Dondero, Congressional Record: Proceedings and Debates of the 81st Congress, Second Session, Appendix. Part 17 ed. Vol. 96. August 4, 1950, to September 22, 1950, A5744-A5745.[/ref]
At the beginning of the second year of the Reagan administration, John Houseman was invited in February 1982 to speak at the VOA’s 40th anniversary observances in Washington, DC. The man who had been one of those in charge of wartime VOA broadcasts which perpetuated the most outlandish Soviet propaganda lies, including the main one about the Katyn Forest massacre, told the audience of VOA journalists in the packed auditorium that “honest reporting had been the key to the Voice’s credibility” during World War II.[ref]Heil, Voice of America: A History, 208.[/ref]
The man from Hollywood, who at one time had helped Stalin achieve his goals in Eastern Europe, gave advice on good journalism to the applause of VOA managers and reporters, very few of whom knew anything about his pro-Soviet propaganda in VOA’s first years. Some of those who did know about Houseman’s ideological legacy were among those opposed to changes being implemented at VOA by the Reagan administration and were not about to tell anyone the real story of his wartime years.
“We would have to report our reverses without weaseling,” Houseman stressed, speaking about VOA’s early promise to broadcast both good news and bad news.[ref]Heil, Voice of America: A History, 35.[/ref]
Listening in the audience were VOA Polish Service and other East European broadcasters, some of whom had to leave their country as refugees when the communist regime took power at the end of World War II. The 1945 Yalta Agreement was a historic and personal reversal for many of them, as well as a few years later for VOA broadcasters from some of the communist-ruled countries in Asia, Africa, and Cuba. The communist takeover most likely could not have been avoided in the case of Eastern Europe due to Soviet military occupation, but it was made easier for Stalin and the local communists by the appeasement policy of the Roosevelt administration supported by even more pro-Soviet Voice of America radio broadcasts.
Houseman’s appearance at VOA’s 40th anniversary observances was the final propaganda triumph of the man who appeared not to feel any qualms. Through no effort of his own, but thanks to the help of a few of his admirers at VOA, Houseman became a symbol and a rallying point for the purity of Voice of America journalism. The truth is that at the outset of the Reagan administration, as well as now, no responsible expert or official contemplated using strident propaganda over good objective journalism at the Voice of America, but partisans have always attempted to present such stark choices to elicit sympathy for themselves and support for their cause.
In 1982, the Voice of America gave John Houseman a “Special Founder’s Award” with the following wording, most likely suggested by intellectual admirers:
“As one of the founders, you gave the young Voice of America the unique stamp of your creative energies. On VOA’s 40th Anniversary we salute your efforts.”
The unique stamp had the words “pro-Soviet” written all over it, but except for Houseman and perhaps one or two individuals in the audience, no one else had any idea how VOA under his command had done its work for Stalin during World War II.
Most of VOA’s East European broadcasters and Ronald Reagan had a much better insight into what kind of journalism it would take to topple peacefully the Soviet Union than some of Houseman’s fans at VOA in the 1980. Those few who knew about his pro-Soviet and pro-communist views while serving as the first VOA director seemed to have been less bothered by it than by Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech, which filled them with horror. It was yet another propaganda triumph for John Houseman, the celebrated actor of many different roles.
During the same ceremony, VOA’s DJ Willis Conover received a special recognition award for his jazz programs, the Lao Service received a Meritorious Honor Award, and several other journalists and employees also received honor awards. A Superior Honor Award went to the Polish Service:
“For exceptional service, professionalism, and devotion to duty in the preparation of Voice of America broadcasts to the people of Poland.”
Freed from the restrictions of the previous management, these outstanding Polish American journalists were working to undo the damage from the pro-Soviet propaganda legacy gifted to VOA by Houseman and his wartime team.
Thanks to President Reagan, Lech Wałęsa, Pope John Paul II, and to some degree the new VOA management and reinvigorated VOA broadcasts, Soviet domination and communism in Poland collapsed by the end of the decade. A few years after John Houseman delivered his speech at the Voice of America, the nightmarish experiment with communism in East-Central Europe was finally over.
Ted Lipien was VOA 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 a reporter and service chief in the 1980s during Solidarity’s struggle for democracy in Poland. He is one of the co-founders of Free Media Online and the Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB – cusib.org) as well as a cofounder and supporter of BBG Watch whose volunteers monitor management and performance of taxpayer-funded Voice of America and other U.S. government-run media operations within the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). He is the author of “Wojtyla’s Women: How They Shaped the Life of Pope John Paul II and Changed the Catholic Church,” O-Books, UK, 2008.
THE UNDER SECRETARY OF STATE
April 6, 1943
I am sending you herewith. In accordance with our recent telephone conversation, a memorandum prepared in the Department of State covering some of the cases which you mentioned.
I think this memorandum will give you some of the key cases of the kind you had in mind, but there are others which may be brought to the President’s attention if he desires to go into the matter more fully.
Yours very sincerely,[Signature of Sumner Welles]
Honorable Marvin H. McIntyre
Secretary to the President,
The White House
April 5, 1943
The following is a record of the activities of twenty-four individuals designated to be sent out on missions of importance by various agencies of the United States Government. Of these, nineteen, being the great majority, were selected by the Office of War Information, the Board of Economic Warfare, and by the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs.
All of these individuals are reported to have been actively connected either with the Communist movement, or with organisations for liberal purposes commonly known as “front” organizations, whose impetus came from Communist sources.
It is recognized that mere membership in a “front” organisation does not itself prove that the individual was a Communist or under Communist control, since sincere liberals have frequently joined these organizations. But practically every informed investigator has developed the fact that the Communist underground organization in America has made a practice of using these “causes” and “front” organizations as a means of interfiltrating [sic] into various positions men who could be counted upon to obey implicitly directives given by the Communist Party officials.
It is further clear that the Communist Party is only secondarily interested in Communism as such, either for the United States or elsewhere. Its primary activity consists in supporting the interests of the Soviet Government, irrespective of whether these interests happen to coincide with the interests of the United States or not. Thus, the directives given do not limit themselves to endeavoring to assure a Russian victory, which is in the interest of the United States, and towards which every possible activity of the Department is directed. They also include a variety of objectives directed at various times against General Sikorski and the Polish Government; General Mikhailovich, in Yugoslavia; the British Government in India; General Franco’s Government in Spain; against the possible survival of the Baltic republics; against the possible assimilation of the Social Democrats in Italy; and against the unification of the French under auspices other than those supported by the Communist Party, which happens to be, at the moment, General de Gaulle. They have included a continued and bitter hostility to the Government of General Vargas in Brazil; to the present Peruvian Government; and to a considerable number of officials in the United States Government who are deemed inconvenient.
These activities are stated to be in the interest of the submerged classes in all of the various countries.
The reality which emerges, however, is invariably a Party movement, or (as in Croatia), a puppet government, following the orders of Soviet Russia, which not infrequently has led to the complete submergence of the country involved. At various times Soviet policy has not only diverged from, but has directly opposed that of the United States, notably, between 1939 and 1941, when the Soviet Government was supporting and working with the German espionage and the German fifth column activities.
The records of the men involved seem to indicate that should there be a divergence between the policy of the States and the policy of Soviet Russia, these men, with a large degree of control of the American machinery of war making, would probably follow the line taken by Russia, rather than the line taken by the United
If it is desired to give a distinctly liberal cast to these organisations, it would seem possible to find men who are liberal in the light of their own conviction, and of the American ideal, rather than men who have, for one reason or another, elected to give expression to their liberalism primarily by joining Communist front organizations, and apparently sacrificing their independence of thought and action to the direction of a distinctly European movement.
It has been the theory of this Department that, outside of Soviet Russia, most of the groups struggling for expression desire freedom and a chance to find their own way, and that they have looked to the United States, rather than to the Russian collectivism, as offering the hope of achieving both social advance and individual freedom. The concern which we have is that the men asked to state, represent and carry out American policy shall be men who both understand that policy, and will be loyal to it, rather than to any outside connection.
OFFICE OF WAR INFORMATION
Around the world with Wilkie
BARNES, Joseph Fels – born Montclair, New Jersey July 21, 1904; father born New York; Mother Australia.
News correspondent in USSR several years. Alleged to have stated that the Soviet Constitution is the best ever written. Supported the left wing of the American Newspaper Guild. It is reliably stated that there has been no crucial point in Russian development, since 1934, when Barnes has not followed the Party line and has not been much more successful than the official spokesman in giving it a form congenial to the American way of expression.
Passports Not Issued
HOUSEMAN, John – formerly Jack Davies Haussman – born Bucharest, Rumania, September 22, 1902; emigrated United States, 1936; naturalized Maroh 1, 1943; father born Paris, France; Mother British.
Member of Communist Front organizations including Friends of Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Producer of play “Native Son” considered inflammatory in effect and possibly subversive in intent and un-American. Said to have been responsible for placing Communists in key position in foreign radio sections of OWI. Is reliably reported to be known in newspaper and theatrical circles in New York as a Communist. Military authorities consider should remain United States for the duration.
April 28, 2018
Join the discussion
You must be logged in to post a comment.