On February 24, 1982, the Voice of America held a celebration to mark the 40th anniversary of its founding. It was believed that the first Voice of America radio broadcast in German was aired on February 24, 1942, but it may have aired three weeks earlier, possibly on February 1, 1942. In 1982, President Ronald Reagan came to the VOA building at 330 Independence Avenue, SW in Washington, DC to deliver a special address. In referring to the early years of the Voice of America during World War II and first VOA Director John Houseman, President Reagan most likely did not know that Houseman was a radical pro-Soviet propagandist who in mid-1943 was forced to resign for hiring communists, some of whom remained with VOA until the late 1940s and continued to broadcast Soviet propaganda in support of communist dictator Josef Stalin. They were slowly replaced in the late 1940s and the early 1950s with anti-communist refugee journalists from Eastern Europe. Under strong pressure from the U.S. Congress, the content of VOA broadcasting changed from supporting Soviet foreign policy to exposing communist atrocities in the later years of the Cold War.
February 24, 1982
The President. Thank you very much. I’ve just seen a little bit of the workings of your place and read even more of them on the remarkable job that was done on the recent worldwide broadcast. And I stand here filled with mixed emotions: For years now, I’ve been on the Late Late Show, and I don’t know just what time I’m on the air now — [laughter] — and where.
But 40 years ago today, America opened up a crucial front in its war against the enemies of freedom. It was 79 days after Pearl Harbor, and the Nation was mobilizing all its resources in the epic struggle that by then had encircled the planet.
In those days, as now, truth was a vital part of America’s arsenal. A spirited band of professionals, men and women dedicated to what their country stood for and anxious to do their part, began broadcasting from the fourth floor of a New York City office building. In those early days, under the able direction of John Houseman, programs were recorded on acetate disks and then shipped via bomber to England and Latin America for broadcast.
From this humble beginning, the Voice of America has grown into a respected institution of American communication, a global radio network broadcasting 905 hours weekly in 39 different languages.
Though born in war, the Voice of America continued in peace and has made enormous contributions. Today as we witness new forms of inhumanity threatening peace and freedom in the world, the Voice of America can perform an even more vital function. By giving an objective account of current world events, by communicating a clear picture of America and our policies at home and abroad, the Voice serves the interests not only of the United States but of the world. The Voice of America is for many the only source of reliable information in a world where events move very quickly.
Perhaps today I can outline a news story that you may be hearing about — or as I’ve already found out, many of you have heard about it already — and that was that a short time ago I announced at a meeting of the Organization of American States a new initiative promoting peaceful economic and political development in Central America and the Caribbean Basin. That area of the world was dramatically affected by the rising price of oil and the subsequent economic uncertainty of the last decade.
There are those who have sought to exploit this instability. We in the United States are concerned not only because of the proximity of those nations, but also because we’ve witnessed on too many occasions the suffering and oppression that invariably follow the establishment of Marxist dictatorships.
In the months and years ahead, the United States will work closely with friends in the Western Hemisphere like Mexico, Canada, Venezuela, to promote economic growth, social stability, and political freedom in the Caribbean Basin and in Central America. On our part, we intend to offer a bold new opportunity for social and economic progress. The centerpiece of the program is a free trade arrangement for Caribbean Basin products exported to the United States. This will encourage new economic development and a better life for the people of the area. Also included in the program are incentives for investment and further financial aid, technical assistance, also, for the area.
We will, furthermore, seek to encourage the democratic process in the region. All too often extremists from right or left have sought to undermine social and economic progress, hoping to impose their will by brute force. This mentality is unacceptable to the United States and the free peoples of the Americas. It has no place in this hemisphere.
The United States intends to continue its support to those who are struggling to establish democratic institutions. The Communist-dominated guerrillas of the region offer nothing but the same bankrupt ideas that have imprisoned the populations of Cuba and Vietnam, Afghanistan, and, yes, Poland.
On March 21st, free peoples around the world will join in observing Afghanistan Day. In marches, meetings, and rallies, they will express their support for the heroic freedom-fighters of Afghanistan in their brave struggle against Soviet aggression. I’m happy to say that the Voice of America will provide thorough international coverage of Afghanistan Day.
Today we celebrate this 40th anniversary of an institution that has given hope to the citizens of those Communist regimes and all the victims of tyranny. The challenges we face are no less grave and momentous than those that spawned the Voice 40 years ago. Freedom is no less threatened, and the opposition is no less totalitarian. In this struggle there’s no greater weapon than the truth. Free men have nothing to fear from it. It remains the ultimate weapon in the arsenal of democracy.
Now, of course, I know there’s a great deal of discussion about the truth, as if there are degrees to truth. Well, no, truth can be told — I remember my first experience, because more than 40 years ago, I was a pioneer in radio, a sports announcer, and I found myself broadcasting major league baseball games from telegraphed reports. I was not at the stadium. And a man on the other side of a window with headphones on and a typewriter would hear the dot and dash of the Morse code and type out and slip under the window. And knowing that there were six or seven other fellows broadcasting the same game — they did it that way in those days; you could take your choice of who you wanted to listen to — you had to keep right up with the play, even though you weren’t there. So you’d get a little slip and it would say, “Out. Six to three.” Well now, number six on a team is the shortstop — not on his bat; that’s the numbered position. Number three is first base, so you knew that had to be a ground ball to the shortstop.
Now, if the game was rather dull, you could say, “It’s a hard-hit ball down towards second base. The shortstop is going over after the ball and makes a wild stab, picks it up, turns, and gets him out just in time.” [Laughter]
Now, I submit to you that I told the truth. [Laughter] He was out from shortstop to first, and I don’t know whether he really ran over toward second base and made a one-hand stab, or whether he just squatted down and took the ball when it came to him. But the truth got there and, in other words, it can be attractively packaged. [Laughter]
Also, I should say, in those days of radio — my goodness, they’re long-gone — when you had a sound-effects man in the studio and he had a wheeled cart, and on it he had every kind of device in the world for your radio dramas, from coconut shells that he beat on his chest to be a galloping horse — [laughter] — to cellophane he could crumple for a fire, and everything.
And one day — and I’m only telling this because it shows that there is still room here for initiative — one day we had a play that called for the sound of water falling on a board. Well, this poor fellow during all the rehearsals, he was working — he tried rice on a drum, he tried dried peas on a piece of cardboard, he tried everything, and nothing would give him the sound of water on a board. And finally one day he tried water on a board. [Laughter] And it sounded just like water on a board. [Laughter]
Well, we’re justifiably proud that unlike Soviet broadcasts, the Voice of America is not only committed to telling its country’s story, but also remains faithful to those standards of journalism that will not compromise the truth.
Recently, we celebrated the 250th birthday of George Washington. He understood the power of truth and its relationship to freedom. “The truth will ultimately prevail,” he said, “where there are pains to bring it to light.” Today we have this responsibility: bringing truth to light in a world groping in the darkness of repression and lies. Let us rededicate ourselves to the task ahead, and like the Founding Father, we can be confident that truth will prevail. And if truth prevails, freedom shall not perish from this Earth.
Thank you for all what you’re doing, and God bless you.
Mr. Conkling. Mr. President, we’d like to ask you to stay for another moment. It’s probably not the appropriate time to discuss our budgets with you — [laughter] — but we do have a great deal of antiquated equipment, and we need to do something about it.
This is a microphone. It was invented some time back during one of the wars, perhaps the Civil War. It is something we would like to present to you as a memento to remember us when budget time comes. [Laughter] We had it thoroughly scanned by security for fingerprints, and they found yours on there. [Laughter]
The President. Well, thank you very much. Thank you.
Mr. Conkling. I do think it is fair to read the inscription. “To President Ronald Reagan on your visit to the Voice of America’s celebration of 40 years of international broadcasting on February 24th, 1982.”
The President. Thank you. This really dates me, I want you to know. [Laughter] I’m getting vengeance for those budget remarks — [laughter].
This was the third modernization in my radio days. [Laughter] We thought it was the newest and most fabulous thing in the world after an old carbon mike where every once in a while you had to turn the game down and then tap it with a pencil to separate the carbon crystals again. [Laughter] We welcomed this. And I welcome this and thank you all very much.
Note: The President spoke at 1:31 p.m. in the auditorium of the VOA headquarters building on Independence Avenue.
Prior to his remarks, the President toured the newsroom with Charles Z. Wick, Director of the International Communication Agency, James B. Conkling, VOA Director, and other VOA officials.
Author: Ted Lipien
Ted Lipien is a former Voice of America (VOA) acting associate director. Before his retirement from VOA in 2006, he also served as Eurasia Division director, and Polish Service chief during Solidarity’s struggle for democracy in the 1980s.
His book “Wojtyła’s Women” was published in 2008 by O-Books, UK. He is now an independent journalist and a media freedom advocate.