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Quote: “Said to have been responsible for placing Communists in key position in foreign radio sections of OWI.” – U.S. State Department About First VOA Director John Houseman

Cold War Radio Museum

The State Department informed the White House in a memorandum from Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles sent on April 6, 1943 that John Houseman, the chief producer of Voice of America (VOA) radio broadcasts, although the Voice of America name was not yet used to describe them, was among several senior Office of War Information (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. A few weeks later, Houseman submitted his resignation. He was not officially fired, but there is little doubt that he was pressured to resign. He could not travel abroad as a U.S. government employee, although by that time he was already a naturalized U.S. citizen. 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

North Africa

HOUSEMAN, John – formerly Jack Davies Haussman – born Bucharest, Rumania, September 22, 1902; emigrated United States, 1936; naturalized March 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.

The memorandum Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles sent to the FDR White House in April 1943 noted the fascination of some American liberals with Soviet Communism and urged finding other liberal individuals – not communist sympathizers – to be put in charge of U.S. government information 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.  

Sumner Welles also pointed out:

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.

A lot of pro-Soviet propaganda was promoted by VOA during World War II with full and often enthusiastic approval from the White House, but when VOA officials and broadcasters hired by Houseman started to put the lives of American soldiers at risk in North Africa and Italy by too much propaganda in support of Soviet and communist interests, Houseman was quietly fired and VOA later received a public rebuke from President Roosevelt himself for undermining vital U.S. diplomatic, military and security interests.

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 on the Voice of America Polish desk during the war.

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. 1

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 he announced his intention to leave the Communist Party, Communists called Richard Wright “a traitor.” 

Notes:

  1. Julius Epstein, “The O.W.I. and the Voice of America,” a reprint from the Polish American Journal, Scranton, Pennsylvania, 1952.
Author
Curator

Ted Lipien is the online Cold War Radio Museum's principal volunteer editor. He is an independent journalist, writer, and media freedom advocate. He was Voice of America’s Polish Service chief during Poland’s struggle for democracy and VOA’s acting associate director. He also served briefly in 2020-2021 as RFE/RL president. His book “Wojtyła’s Women” was published in 2008 by O-Books, UK. E-mail him at: tedlipien@gmail.com.

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