— Office of War Information announcer William Harlan Hale. February 1942.
The first “Voice of America” radio broadcast in German aired in February 1942. There has been some uncertainty as to the exact date of the first German-language VOA broadcast. Moreover, for the first several years, the name “Voice of America” was not yet used. The early U.S. government’s Office of War Information radio programs for overseas audiences had various names, such as “America Calling Europe” or the “Voice of the United States of America.”
Older VOA promotional brochures, including one that was printed in 1970, said that “the VOA came into being February 24, 1942” with its first German broadcast beginning with these words: “Daily at this time we shall speak to you about America and the war. The news may be good or bad. We shall tell you the truth.
The Office of War Information produced propaganda in various media for both foreign and domestic consumption, including propaganda films justifying the internment of Japanese American U.S. citizens. Wartime U.S. shortwave broadcasts, which were later described as “Voice of America” and are still praised by former and current VOA officials, covered up Stalin’s crimes and lauded the Soviet Union as supporting freedom and democracy. Some OWI government wartime officials also engaged in illegal attempts to censor domestic U.S. media to prevent them from reporting negative news about the Soviet Union. In 1952, a report issued by a bipartisan congressional committee criticized the U.S. government’s wartime propaganda activities, including the Voice of America broadcasts, as misleading foreigners and Americans and harming longterm U.S. interests.
Early U.S. radio programs usually did not include outright lies, but they often intentionally did not offer the full truth and distorted it according to the wishes of the administration, and, even more often and more dangerously, according to strong ideological biases of their authors. This applied especially to news and commentary about the Soviet Union. Soviet Russia was then America’s major military ally against Nazi Germany. During the war, Russia was not criticized or exposed in U.S. government’s broadcasts for expansionist and repressive policies of its totalitarian communist regime. It was presented instead by the Roosevelt administration, both to foreign audiences and to Americans, as a dynamic progressive nation and a valuable partner helping the United States to defeat Germany that would also help build a more peaceful world after the war. Those who knew better, including some members of Congress, were appalled by such pro-Soviet propaganda and warned that the United States government would come to regret it.
“The Manual of Information” for the News and Features Bureau in the Overseas Branch of the Office of War Information printed for internal use in February 1944 explained in some detail the purpose of OWI’s propaganda and psychological warfare programs.
It pointed out that President Roosevelt’s Executive Order “of June 13, 1942, and a later order of March 9, 1943, charged the Office of War Information with the responsibility of conveying information to the world at large and empowered it to conduct among foreign nations propaganda which would contribute to victory.”
The manual also noted that “the program for foreign propaganda in areas of actual or projected military operations was to be coordinated with military plans and subject to the approval of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.”
In the words of Elmer Davis, Director of the Office of War Information, at a hearing of the subcommittee of the Committee on Appropriations of the U.S. House of Representatives May 18, 1943:
…this is a war agency, which owes its existence solely to the war, and was established to serve as one of the instruments by which the war will be won…an auxiliary to the armed forces whose effectiveness has been recognized by military commanders all the way down from Julius Caesar to George C. Marshall.”[ref]United States. Office of War Information. News and Features Bureau. Training Desk. Manual of Information, News And Features Bureau, Office of War Information, Overseas Branch. Washington: The Training Desk, 1944.[/ref]
While the manual emphasized the need for truth in military news, it also provided a significant loophole for censoring information considered harmful to the war effort.[ref]United States. Office of War Information. News and Features Bureau. Training Desk. Manual of Information, News And Features Bureau, Office of War Information, Overseas Branch. (Washington: The Training Desk, 1944.)[/ref]
Truth in Propaganda
Truth is employed by the Overseas Branch in all its media because truth is on the side of the United Nations in this war and is our most effective propaganda weapon. Truth in military news creates confidence in all our output; truth about all phases of our democratic life (imperfect as it may be in some respects) proves the strength of democracy.
However, information is not disseminated abroad merely because it is true —- it must be useful in the psychological warfare program of the OWI, which is designed to shorten the war and thus save lives. The whole story may not always be told, but the story which is told will always be true.[ref]United States. Office of War Information. News and Features Bureau. Training Desk. Manual of Information, News And Features Bureau, Office of War Information, Overseas Branch. (Washington: The Training Desk, 1944.)[/ref]
The U.S. government-hired staff preparing these early broadcasts included a number of communist and Soviet sympathizers. Some of them found government employment thanks to John Houseman, a theatre producer who was most directly in charge of radio production rather than in charge of editorial policy.
His official title was not the Voice of America director. The 1943 Official Register of the United States listing persons occupying administrative and supervisory positions in the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of the Federal Government, and in the District of Columbia Government, as of May 1, 1943, shows Houseman’s official title as: “Chief, Radio Program Bureau, Overseas Branch, Office of War Information.” Officials who were later in charge of the Voice of America and friendly historians assigned the title of the first VOA director to him several years later usually without mentioning that the organization was not created under that name. They also glossed over the fact that the early radio operation was controlled by extreme left-wing idealists and pro-Soviet sympathizers, with John Houseman being one of them, but not necessarily in the most important executive position.