Polish children refugees – Time and OWI/VOA propaganda

U.S. Government Propaganda Photo

By Ted Lipien

Time Magazine Story

In addition to misleading foreign audiences through Voice of America (VOA) shortwave radio broadcasts and domestic “news” outreach by the wartime Office of War Information (OWI), U.S. government propagandists had a definite impact on independent U.S. media. A short Time magazine entry on November 15, 1943 described a group of Polish refugee children who had arrived in Los Angeles on their way to their resettlement camp in Mexico as “fleeing horror since 1939” on their way “(via Russia, Persia, India) to a haven near Mexico City.” There was no mention in the Time magazine story about work settlements in Russia and Soviet Central Asia from which these children had come. There was no hint as to why these children, some of them orphans, could not have been adopted by Polish-American families. There was also no information as to why some became orphans. Their parents were not killed by German bombs. Their fathers had been executed on Stalin’s orders and their mothers worked to death doing forced labor after being deported by the Soviets from their homes in eastern Poland to Siberia and Central Asia. Time magazine did not mention any of this. During the war, U.S. media relied heavily on OWI press releases, many of which offered deceptive narratives in order to hide unfavorable news about communism and Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.

Most American readers would have assumed reading the short Time magazine report that the Poles were fleeing from under Nazi occupation, when in fact this group of Poles, which also included a few Jews and Polish citizens of other nationalities, most likely had never seen any German planes or soldiers.

Their parents had been arrested and deported to Soviet prisons, labor camps and work settlements, a fact conveniently omitted from the U.S. news magazine report. The prisoners were released by Stalin after Hitler launched his attack on the Soviet Union, a former ally in their joint attack on Poland in 1939. The Soviets had already executed thousands of Poles, and many more, including children, died in Soviet captivity.

Time noted that the Polish children were guests of the U.S. Army “in the barracks of Camp San Anita littered and marred by resentful Japanese,” as the camp had been used before as a detention center for Japanese Americans. Still, the magazine did not disclose, assuming its editors even knew, that the children were kept isolated by the U.S. government, not allowed to leave the camp, and were later transported in sealed trains to Mexico.1 The way it was presented in Time magazine is exactly how U.S. government propagandists eager to protect Stalin wanted the story to be reported, if it were to be reported at all.

During the war, OWI took and distributed thousands of propaganda photos to U.S. media. In 1943, An OWI photographer took photos in Iran of healthy-looking Polish refugee children, evacuees from Soviet Russia, before they were transported for resettlement in Mexico and in other countries, conveniently out of easy reach by most American media.

Several months earlier, many children were starved and near death after their imprisonment in the Soviet Union. Their condition was documented in photographs taken in August 1942 by a U.S. Army officer, Lieutenant Colonel Henry I. Szymanski. The Roosevelt administration classified his reports and photographs as secret. For ten years, they remained inaccessible to American newspapers until pressure from the U.S. Congress forced the Truman administration to release them.2

Photo by Lt. Col. Szymanski, U.S. Army.

Nowy Świat Editorial

During World War II, some Polish-American newspapers and several members of Congress attempted to expose the Office of War Information’s deceptive foreign and domestic media outreach and to set the record straight.3

One prominent American leader who secretly complained about pro-communist Voice of America radio broadcasts was Supreme Allied Commander in Europe and later U.S. President General Dwight D. Eisenhower. He accused World War II VOA of “insubordination.”4 Another establishment figure who secretly criticized to the White House OWI was President Roosevelt’s close friend and foreign policy advisor Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles.5

High-level OWI officials, including OWI director Elmer Davis and future U.S. Senator from California Alan Cranston who was then in charge of OWI’s domestic propaganda, took secret and unlawful actions to shut down Polish American media outlets, both newspapers and radio stations which were critical of the Soviet Union and exposed VOA radio broadcasts for repeating disinformation. Some of these efforts at domestic media censorship were successful and others failed.6

A Polish-American newspaper Nowy Świat (“New World”), a target of an illegal and ultimately unsuccessful Office of War Information attempt to shut it down, published an editorial on January 4, 1944, which was discussed in a previously classified OWI memorandum. Some members of Congress often quoted Polish-American media to expose Soviet atrocities and misleading pro-Soviet propaganda from the Roosevelt administration.

We are submitting this OWI article to our Polish readers as an example of the service Polish press receives from the Office of War Information. The observations of the American soldier on duty at Santa Anita, where Polish refugees en route to Mexico were housed, excited all. That is true. But the OWI purposely omitted the explanation and has not added that these tragic children came from Russia, that they forgot to smile there, that they learned there of hunger and want, that they there learned of fear. Freedom of fear… Polish children did not know of that freedom upon their arrival to America. But it also appears that neither does the OWI know of this freedom. It is afraid to admit that these children reached America from Russia. It speaks of a four-year journey, which they completed fleeing Hitler.7

A careless reader may gain the impression that with the beginning of the war, some group of Poles started on their journey to America, and after four years, had reached this continent. Not a word about the fact that together with millions of Polish citizens this group of refugees which has now reached Mexico was deported from Poland by the Soviets and was kept by Russia under the most miserable conditions. But seeing the obvious is not a virtue with the OWI. That Office is not evidently free from fear. (Fear) before whom?8

Voice of America Communists

Polish political prisoners in the Soviet Union, slave laborers, and women and children refugees had no chance of getting objective reporting about their plight from the U.S. Office of War Information and Voice of America radio broadcasts. Some of the individuals put in charge in 1942 of OWI and VOA media programs were notorious foreign and American fellow travelers and communists, many of them hired by the man later described as the first VOA director. His name was John Houseman who later became an Oscar-winning actor. Among his staffers were a future member of Communist Party USA Howard Fast9, Polish communist Stefan Arski, aka Artur Salman, and head of VOA Czechoslovak desk Adolf Hofmeister who later served as a diplomat for the communist regime in Prague. These VOA managers and journalists were even more committed to disinformation and censorship in support of Stalin than some of FDR’s U.S. State Department and War Department officials.10 At one time in 1943, even the Roosevelt White House intervened to curb the excessive pro-Soviet zeal of OWI broadcasters, but it was not nearly enough to allow the true story of Polish refugees to emerge. President Roosevelt and the State Department did not want it to be told. Honest journalism was not even remotely possible in a war emergency and in light of FDR’s almost unlimited willingness to appease Stalin as an indispensable war ally. The State Department merely warned OWI and VOA to be careful in accepting all Soviet propaganda on Katyń at face value. 11

In an effort to confuse Americans and foreign audiences, U.S. propagandists tried to present Polish refugees in Iran as fleeing from the German Nazis. There were indeed at that time many Jewish, Polish and other refugees trying to escape from the German Nazis and regimes collaborating with Hitler, but Polish refugees who came to Iran were escaping to safety not from the Nazis but Germany’s former ally, the Soviet Union, after enduring unimaginable suffering under Soviet imprisonment. While estimates vary slightly, about 43,000 refugees who came to Iran from Russia in 1942 were civilians; 20,000 were children. The numbers of children vary in different documents depending on which age groups are included. The rest were soldiers who formed the Polish Army under the command of General Władysław Anders, himself a former POW in the Soviet Union, one of the few high-ranking Polish officers who were not secretly executed on Stalin’s orders in 1940.

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Photo Credits

U.S. Government Propaganda Photo

U.S. Government propaganda photo, 1943.
  • Title: Teheran, Iran. Little Polish girl in a big sheepskin coat who is at an evacuation camp operated by the Red Cross
  • Creator(s): Parrino, Nick, photographer, Office of War Information (OWI)
  • Date Created/Published: 1943.
  • LINK

Photo by Lt. Col. Henry I. Szymanski, U.S. Army

Photo by Lt. Col. Szymanski, U.S. Army.
  • Twelve-year-old boy, Polish evacuee from Russia, August 1942
  • Photos by: Lieutenant Colonel Henry I. Szymanski, U.S. Army
  • Source: The Katyn Forest Massacre: Hearings Before The Select Committee to Conduct An Investigation on The Facts, Evidence and Circumstances of the Katyn Forest Massacre; Eighty-Second Congress, Second Session On Investigation of The Murder of Thousands of Polish Officers in The Katyn Forest Near Smolensk, Russia; Part 3 (Chicago, Ill.); March 13 and 14, 1952 (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1952), pp. 459-461.


  1. “Happiness in California,” Time, November 15, 1943, 23.
  2. Eighty-Second Congress, Second Session On Investigation of The Murder of Thousands of Polish Officers in The Katyn Forest Near Smolensk, Russia, Part 3 (Chicago, Ill.),The Katyn Forest Massacre: Hearings Before The Select Committee to Conduct An Investigation on The Facts, Evidence and Circumstances of the Katyn Forest Massacre, 459-461, https://archive.org/details/katynforestmassa03unit/page/460.
  3. See: Cold War Radio Museum, “April 20, 1943 — Congressman Woodruff warns of Soviet propaganda in Voice of America broadcasts,” http://www.coldwarradiomuseum.com/april-20-1943-congressman-woodruff-warns-of-soviet-propaganda-in-voice-of-america/ ; “Senator Taft’s early warning of Soviet propaganda in WWII Voice of America,” April 2, 2018, http://www.coldwarradiomuseum.com/senator-tafts-early-warning-of-soviet-propaganda-in-wwii-voa/ and “U.S. Congressman on Katyn Massacre Coverup at Voice of America,” September 17, 2017, http://www.coldwarradiomuseum.com/u-s-congressman-on-katyn-massacre-coverup-at-voice-of-america/.
  4. “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.” See: Dwight D. Eisenhower, The White House Years: Waging Peace 1956-1961 (Garden City: Doubleday & Company, 1965) 279. Also see: Ted Lipien, “President Eisenhower condemned biased Voice of America officials and reporters,” Cold War Radio Museum, December 5, 2018, http://www.coldwarradiomuseum.com/president-eisenhower-condemned-biased-voice-of-america-reporters/.
  5. 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, http://www.fdrlibrary.marist.edu/_resources/images/psf/psfb000259.pdf.
  6. The bipartisan Select Committee to Conduct an Investigation and Study of the Facts, Evidence and Circumstances of the Katyn Forest Massacre, also known as the Madden Committee, said in its final report issued in December 1952: “In submitting this final report to the House of Representatives, this committee has come to the conclusion that in those fateful days nearing the end of the Second World War there unfortunately existed in high governmental and military circles a strange psychosis that military necessity required the sacrifice of loyal allies and our own principles in order to keep Soviet Russia from making a separate peace with the Nazis.” The committee added: “For reasons less clear to this committee, this psychosis continued even after the conclusion of the war. Most of the witnesses testified that had they known then what they now know about Soviet Russia, they probably would not have pursued the course they did. It is undoubtedly true that hindsight is much easier to follow than foresight, but it is equally true that much of the material which this committee unearthed was or could have been available to those responsible for our foreign policy as early as 1942.” The Madden Committee also said in its final report in 1952: “This committee believes that if the Voice of America is to justify its existence, it must utilize material made available more forcefully and effectively.” A major change in VOA programs occurred, with much more reporting being done on the investigation into the Katyń massacre and other Soviet atrocities, but later some of the censorship returned. Radio Free Europe (RFE), also funded and indirectly managed by the U.S., never resorted to such censorship, and provided full coverage of all communist human rights abuses. See: Select Committee to Conduct an Investigation and Study of the Facts, Evidence and Circumstances of the Katyn Forest Massacre, The Katyn Forest Massacre: Final Report (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1952), 10-12. The report is posted on the National Archives website: https://archive.org/details/KatynForestMassacreFinalReport.
  7. Paul Sturman, “Nowy Swiat and OWI releases,” Executive Office of the President, Office for Emergency Management Office Memorandum, January 4, 1944. Declassified. U.S. National Archives.
  8. Paul Sturman, “Nowy Swiat and OWI releases.”
  9. Fast, Howard. Being Red. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1990.
  10. Warnings about communist influence at VOA were given to the Roosevelt White House in 1943 by FDR’s personal friend and foreign policy advisor, Under Secretary of State Sumner Wells, who helped to arrange for the transport of a group of Polish children refugees to Mexico, and by General Dwight D. Eisenhower. See: Ted Lipien, “First VOA Director was a pro-Soviet Communist sympathizer, State Dept. warned FDR White House,” Cold War Radio Museum, May 5, 2018, http://www.coldwarradiomuseum.com/state-department-warned-fdr-white-house-first-voice-of-america-director-was-hiring-communists/ and “President Eisenhower condemned biased Voice of America officials and reporters,” Cold War Radio Museum, December 5, 2018, http://www.coldwarradiomuseum.com/president-eisenhower-condemned-biased-voice-of-america-reporters/.
  11. Ted Lipien, “First VOA Director was a pro-Soviet Communist sympathizer, State Dept. warned FDR White House,” (May 5, 2018), http://www.coldwarradiomuseum.com/state-department-warned-fdr-white-house-first-voice-of-america-director-was-hiring-communists/.
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