— Senator Homer Earl Capehart, (R-Indiana) May 26, 1948.
By 1948, the Voice of America’s failure to adjust to the reality of aggressive Soviet behavior was becoming well known and seen as a problem in Washington. Even VOA programs not dealing directly with international affairs and U.S. foreign policy had what many members of the U.S. Congress considered radical left-wing bias, or, more likely, in most cases, showed poor knowledge or incompetence of their producers and editors, whether they were at NBC or VOA. This was unacceptable to both Republicans and some Democrats, who saw VOA broadcasts as being generally lame and even counterproductive in representing the United States and advancing American interests abroad. This applied not only to broadcasts produced by VOA journalists themselves but also to programs contracted out to be produced under VOA’s supervision by American media companies, such as NBC. U.S. lawmakers, who initially favored such government-private media cooperation, were beginning to question such arrangements due to the lack of proper guidance and editing by the Voice of America.
In early 1948 Senator Homer E. Capehart (R) of Indiana was made aware of Spanish-language programs about U.S. states produced under a U.S. government contract for the Voice of America by the National Broadcasting Co. — NBC. The booklet sent to Indiana households included excerpts from the VOA programs as quoted by Senator Capehart in English translation in his speech delivered on the floor of the Senate on May 26, 1948:
“Listen to this,” Senator Capehart said as he read to the Senate from one of the VOA programs:
Nevada has no interest in itself; it’s a land of cowboys, and its principal cities are in competition. In Las Vegas people get married, and in Reno they get divorced.
Senator Capehart was not amused by such humor, and neither were other Senators as they listened to his reading of excerpts from the NBC-VOA programs on Nevada, Utah, Alabama, Pennsylvania, and Texas. Some humor could have been effective if it did not descend into a mockery, as it seemed to do in these 1948 VOA-acquired broadcasts. It almost appeared as if NBC reporters traveling around the country at the U.S. government’s expense were writing their programs for VOA after having drunk a few martinis. The broadcasts were not wrong about everything, but their authors appeared not to know or care that what could seem hilarious to some Americans in a comedy show might be viewed and interpreted differently by a foreign audience listening to shortwave radio for news they could not get from any other sources.
Mr. CAPEHART. Does not the Senator [Leverett Saltonstall, R-MA)] agree with me that it seems almost incredible that such programs should have been sent over the Voice of America? Does he not agree with me that it is almost impossible to believe that such programs could be broadcast, if anyone having to do with them had the least bit of common horse sense or judgement? One would think that any 10-year-old child, if he had picked up that script and read it in advance of its being broadcast, would have said that it should not have been used.
“Listen to this, Mr. President, Senators from New England will enjoy this. I am glad to see the Senator from Massachusetts [Mr. SALTONSTALL] in the Chamber,” Senator Capehart said on the Senate floor as he read another excerpt from the NBC program commissioned and aired by the Voice of America.
New England was founded by hypocrisy and Texas * * * by sin. [Laughter.]
Leverett Saltonstall, a moderate Republican senator from Massachusetts, thanked the senator from Indiana for doing a public service “in informing the Senate as to the character of this [VOA] ‘stuff’,” which he described as “baloney.”
Other senators pointed out that the scripts were written under contract with the National Broadcasting Co. because some members of Congress had insisted earlier that part of VOA programming be contracted out to be produced by private U.S. media. They also noted, however, that contracting out journalistic work to private media companies, as encouraged by some members of Congress, and later complaints from the State Department about insufficient funding were no excuse for the lack of basic supervision and editing by VOA’s government employees working within the State Department’s bureaucracy.
Senator Capehart noted:
I do not care how large or how small a staff the Department has. Are we to understand that no one in the State Department read the scripts which were broadcast, and which I have read this afternoon? Even an 8-year-old child, if he had read them, would have condemned them. In my opinion anyone in the State Department who was honest and had the best interests of America at heart would have blue-penciled them. It may well be that no one in the State Department read them.
The scripts were, in fact, read and accepted for broadcast by VOA editors who apparently agreed with NBC reporters and did not see anything wrong with making a little fun of America. They might have thought that humorous and mild criticism would add credibility to VOA broadcasts, but they misjudged the sensibilities of their mid-20th congressional stakeholders and got some facts wrong. In case the State Department supervisors had not listened to the broadcasts in Spanish before they were aired, Senator Capehart said that the Voice of America’s managers would deserve even more severe criticism.
Other U.S. senators, including both liberal and conservative Democrats, joined Capehart in criticizing VOA broadcasts.
Mr. HATCH. Mr. President, in all seriousness, I want to say that what the Senator from Indiana has said this afternoon, though there has been laughter throughout the Chamber over it, amounts to a downright tragedy.
Senator Tom Connally (D-TX) was quoted asking whether Senator Capehart knew the name of the author of the Voice of America programs on U.S. states. The program was, in fact, written for VOA by NBC, although it was subject to VOA’s editorial review and approval.
Senator Capehart responded:
Mr. CAPEHART. I do not know, but it was prepared under the auspices of the Secretary of State’s office and broadcast by NBC, as the Voice of America program, for which the Congress appropriated $27,000,000. While the Senator was out of the Chamber, I read in their entirety broadcasts in Utah, Nevada, Alabama, and Pennsylvania. Thus far I have failed to find a single State that has not been slandered, or a single State as to which uncomplimentary remarks have not been made.
Senator Connally, a Democrat from Texas, seemed even more indignant than Senator Capehart after he heard what VOA had said about his own state.
Mr. CONNALLY. Let me say to the Senator, the State Department, or the National Broadcasting Co., or whatever little insignificant tool of either one of them uttered that sentence has libeled and slandered a State that during World War II furnished proportionately more volunteers than any other State in the Union and contributed as much as any other State toward the national defense in the prosecution of the war.
The author, who evidently knows nothing about the history of Texas, slandered and libeled the great Commonwealth from which I come.
Senator Tom Connally was a liberal Democrat from who in the 1930s supported not only President Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation but was also one of the most interventionist Democrats when it came to U.S. engagement abroad during and after the war. Connally was a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and served as chairman from 1941 to 1947, and from 1949 to 1953. As Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he was instrumental in the ratification of the treaty creating the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
Neither Connally nor any other senator said that they wanted to abolish the Voice of America, but they were appalled by what they saw as poor quality and mismanagement of VOA programs. Identifying and punishing the NBC writer or the VOA editor was also not what they were after. What they wanted were reforms and a leadership change at the Voice of America, which would lead to improving the efficiency and effectiveness of a taxpayer-funded government program within the State Department.
One of the senators voicing support for Senator Capehart and asking for replacing ineffective department heads rather than punishing individual journalists was Republican George Aiken from Vermont. Aiken was initially an isolationist but later supported the Truman Doctrine in 1947 and the Marshall Plan in 1948.
Mr. CAPEHART. What a tragedy it would have been had someone not called the attention of the Senate to the kind and type of broadcasts which are being made, and if it had been continued in foreign languages over a period of months and months and years and years.
Mr. AIKEN. Mr. President, will the Senator from Indiana yield?
Mr. CAPEHART. I yield to the Senator from Vermont.
Mr. AIKEN. I suggest that ascertaining the author of the script and perhaps reprimanding the author or securing his dismissal from the Government service will amount to very little, and will probably correct nothing. The State Department, and the State Department alone, is responsible for the type of broadcasts which go out over the world under this program. I think the Congress has spent too much time in running down subordinates, getting sensational stories about subordinates, and then doing nothing about the department heads who are responsible for the subordinates. That is why I wish to point out that just so long as we devote our eﬂort to running down subordinates of a department and do not take any action against the heads of the departments who are responsible for the acts of the employees. Just so long will we have contributed very little toward better government. I hope that in this case at least action may be taken. I think we have to hold the department heads responsible if we are to get good Government service.
Russia and communist propaganda were not the main focus of Senator Capehart’s speech, but he made several allusions that the authors of the broadcasts may have been promoters of socialism and critics of religion.
Senator Elbert D. Thomas, a Democrat from Utah, whose state and religion (Mormonism) were the butt of some of the more flippant jokes in one of the NBC-produced VOA programs, agreed with the Republican senator from Indiana that the broadcasts were in any case counterproductive in opposing Soviet and communist propaganda.
Mr. President, I wonder whether anyone in a foreign country who is debating whether he should join the Communist Party—someone in Italy, or perhaps a person in some other country—has heard programs such as the one we have learned about today, and I wonder whether such persons believe that what they are told in such programs are correct statements about how democracy works in the United States—as told by America itself, as told by one of our great corporations, as told by our own State Department. If so, how in the world could such a person fail to decide to be a Communist under those circumstances, and can we doubt that anyone who believed such statements would decide to have nothing to do with the kind of democracy which is reflected by such broadcasts?
Mr. President, the saddest part of this matter is not only that the broadcasts are based upon ignorance, not only that they are untrue, but that the State Department itself makes an excuse, saying, “The Congress of the United States insisted that we use the going facilities of the country.”
What businessman would sponsor a program of that sort and pay out money for advertising his own business if that sort of stuff were used as the advertising? The Senator from Indiana represents a great concern that advertises to a very large extent. Would the Senator from Indiana like to be a sponsor of such a program and pay $1,000 a minute for it?
But, Mr. President, the sad part of all this is that every man, woman, and child in the United States is hurt by such programs, which supposedly are sent out to beneﬁt our country and to make democracy more secure, and $27,000,000 has been spent for these purposes. Yet today the House of Representatives is holding up a Federal aid-to-education bill because it is claimed that it costs too much.
Are there not some minds in the State Department or some minds in the National Broadcasting Co., if that company is responsible for these programs, with a sound feeling of responsibility for carrying out a contract and not wasting the money of all the people of the United States and at the same time blackmailing millions upon millions of people?
Mr. President, the Voice of America program, which was established on a basis of realism, has suffered tremendously from this accidental issuing of a contract to what has been considered to be a great and responsible concern. Yet that concern states as an answer and as an excuse that the Congress insisted that the going facilities of the country be used.
It was long ago that the Senator from Utah asked questions about these programs, because he heard about them. It was long ago that representatives of the group responsible for the programs talked to me about them. But it did not dawn on me how serious the situation was.
Mr. President, those of us who have been trained to be teachers—and the Voice of America should be handled by teachers—have been taught from the very beginning that the attempt to mold the minds and thoughts of young people is a very serious undertaking. If there is not enough psychology and not enough pedagogy and not enough understanding of American history in the State Department to enable it properly to supervise such matters, then all we are doing and all we are spending and all that our people are sacriﬁcing in keeping components of our Army abroad will be useless. What will the people of any foreign country think of an American soldier after listening to a program of that kind? What will they think he is trying to represent? What will they think of one of the diplomatic or other representatives of our country anywhere? Mr. President, we simply cannot believe that any agency of the United States Government would allow such a thing to happen.
I trust that what the Senator from Indiana has done will result in having those who are concerned with these programs obtain a clear understanding of the intent of Congress and in having corrections made, so that the Voice of America will no longer be used for such useless expenditures of money, but henceforth will be used for the purpose for which it was created.
More VOA History
As foolish and misguided as these NBC programs broadcast in Spanish by the Voice of America appeared to U.S. senators, they were not nearly as bad as some of VOA’s original programs broadcast in earlier years. During World War II, VOA aired programs in English and in dozens of foreign languages, but not in Russian, because its officials were afraid of offending Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. Pro-Soviet propaganda and Soviet disinformation dominated, however, VOA broadcasts in English and broadcasts in foreign languages to Germany, France, Italy, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and other countries. VOA added Russian broadcasts in 1947, but the first person in charge of the broadcasts was State Department diplomat and later VOA director Charles W. Thayer who was reported to have doubts that Stalin was responsible for some of the atrocities attributed to him, including the World War II Katyn Forest murder of thousands of Polish military officers in Soviet captivity.[ref]“How a refugee journalist exposed Voice of America censorship of the Katyn Massacre,” Cold War Radio Museum, April 16, 2018, http://www.coldwarradiomuseum.com/how-refugee-journalist-exposed-voice-of-america-katyn-censorship/.[/ref]
The Senate debate in May 1948 did not focus on major deficiencies in VOA broadcasts to the Soviet Union and the rest of the Soviet satellite countries, but by then these problems were also already being discussed openly in Congress and behind closed doors in other parts of the U.S. government.
A year earlier, as the U.S. Congress was debating the eventual passage of the Smith-Mundt Act, which implicitly placed restrictions on domestic dissemination of government news through the Voice of America while funding the expansion of the State Department’s cultural and academic exchange programs, Congressman Howard Buffett (R-NE), the father of American investor Warren Buffett, expressed concerns that officials in charge of VOA may have been secretly planning domestic propaganda activities similar to those of the Office of War Information during World War II before Congress defunded its domestic program. As it turned out, State Department officials had no plans to distribute U.S. government radio broadcasts domestically because such a move would have killed the funding not only for VOA but also for the public diplomacy programs the State Department cared about most of all. Congressman Buffett was right, however, that U.S. diplomats were using VOA to influence U.S. public opinion to drum up support for more money for their information outreach budget.