VOA at 80: Selling “the religion of democracy” was Voice of America’s first mission statement

80 years ago today, on February 1, 1942, the first Voice of America (VOA) radio broadcast in German may have gone on the air. There is some uncertainty as to the exact date of the first VOA radio transmission, and the programs did not acquire the official Voice of America name until several years later. Selling “the religion of democracy” was Voice of America’s first mission statement. Unfortunately, the early VOA leaders and journalists, many of them pro-Soviet fellow travelers and some Communist Party members, believed that the Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin, was a democrat. They convinced themselves that Soviet communism was a progressive ideology that other countries should accept.

Today, the Voice of America is managed by the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM). According to official government employee surveys, USAGM has been for many years the worst federal agency to work for, with the lowest employee morale. What the successive Voice of America management teams never admitted, is that the early VOA broadcasts, while accurate on most news, did not tell the whole truth and endangered the lives of VOA listeners with disinformation. Soviet and other communist propaganda lies in early VOA broadcasts were especially harmful to listeners in East-Central Europe and China.

VOA’s World War II-era fellow travelers claimed that listeners had nothing to fear from Soviet Russia and its totalitarian leader Joseph Stalin, and should not distrust Chinese communists. The CIA reported in the early 1950s that accepting the pro-Soviet propaganda claims promoted by VOA may have caused some people in Czechoslovakia to make decisions that ultimately resulted in their deaths. Early VOA broadcasters, many of them Soviet sympathizers, some of them members of various communist parties, used propaganda to present the Soviet Union as a progressive country and Stalin as a supporter of democracy who, having won the trust of President Roosevelt, should be trusted by the people in East-Central Europe.

No Voice of America director has ever publicly admitted that the first VOA chief news writer and editor was Howard Fast. He was a future recipient of the Stalin International Peace Prize and a Communist Party activist and journalist.

The Voice of America has also never officially admitted that the first VOA director John Houseman was forced to resign after the State Department accused him of being untrustworthy. President Roosevelt’s friend, Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles, secretly warned the White House that Houseman was hiring communists for VOA jobs.

VOA officials have never apologized to listeners for censoring true information about communist atrocities. They have not admitted that those very few anti-communist VOA journalists hired during World War II faced retaliation for expressing their views. One of the refugee VOA broadcasters, Konstanty Broel Plater, resigned in 1944 in protest against Soviet propaganda in VOA programs. A Jewish refugee from Austria, Julius Epstein, lost his job in the Office of War Information (OWI) in 1945.

Almost all the major successes of the Voice of America during the Cold War can be attributed to anti-communist broadcasters, including the legendary Polish anti-Nazi fighter Zofia Korbońska. During the Truman administration and in later years, they replaced the pro-Soviet fellow travelers. But their contributions have been largely ignored. They faced severe discrimination from native-born senior VOA managers in the later decades. VOA was most effective against totalitarianism and propaganda during the Reagan administration.

The Voice of America has changed drastically in the last twenty years. Under its current USAGM management, VOA has been known to create programs that glorify such foreign and American communists as Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and Angela Davis. VOA also hired a few broadcasters who previously produced anti-U.S. propaganda for President Putin’s state media in Russia. VOA is increasingly propagandizing to Americans.

USAGM and VOA leadership still has a highly selective institutional memory and resists calls for reform. To mark the Voice of America’s 80th anniversary, I will be reposting in February some of my articles about VOA’s history. 

Selling “the religion of democracy” was Voice of America’s first mission statement

By Ted Lipien

“To sell the religion of democracy” is believed to be the first written though unofficial mission statement describing the purpose of the Voice of America (VOA) radio broadcasts for overseas audiences as they were being planned during World War II in the U.S. government Office of the Coordinator of Information (COI). These words were written in January 1942 not by a conservative anti-communist but by a progressive American media publisher, Nelson Poynter. In a government memorandum, he was justifying the hiring of John Houseman to become VOA’s first director. John Houseman was hired from his job in Hollywood, and the first Voice of America German broadcast aired in February 1942.

VOA’s main mission was producing psychological warfare broadcasts against Nazi Germany and Japan. But under Houseman and many communist and pro-Soviet broadcasters he hired after getting his federal job, the U.S. government station soon acquired the reputation as a propaganda arm of Soviet Russia and an apologist for its communist leader Joseph Stalin.

VOA began to counter Nazi propaganda, but Houseman and his team also started to sell the Soviet dictator and mass murderer as a democratic leader. Soviet Russia was then America’s war ally. But besides praising the bravery of Soviet soldiers, the Voice of America fully absorbed Soviet propaganda for the duration of the war. It presented Stalin as a responsible statesman who would secure peace and justice in countries of post-war East-Central Europe.

During World War II, Nelson Poynter had worked for the Roosevelt administration as a high-level official in charge of several U.S. government international and domestic propaganda and domestic war censorship programs. In his private career, Poynter was the owner of the Times Publishing Company, and the co-founder of the Congressional Quarterly. In his later private professional career, he established the Modern Media Institute, which was renamed the Poynter Institute after his death in 1978 and functions today as a school of objective journalism.

A Wikipedia article about Nelson Poynter does not mention his wartime U.S. government jobs, which included being the chief of the Motion Picture Industry Liaison Division in the Office of War Information (OWI). He coordinated with Hollywood studios the production of various wartime films, including the most blatant pro-Soviet propaganda film of the time, Mission to Moscow (1943). The film presented the Soviet dictator as “an omniscient world statesman.” The infamous Great Purge of the 1930s, in which hundreds of thousands of innocent people were executed, was dismissed as “necessary measures to root out a fifth column.”[ref]Clayton R. Koppes, “Regulating the Screen: The Office of War Information and the Production Code Administration,” ENCYCLOPEDIA.com. Accessed January 16, 2020. https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/culture-magazines/regulating-screen-office-war-information-and-production-code-administration.[/ref]

Aware of public opinion surveys showing a strong distrust of Russia among ordinary Americans even after the Soviets became America’s war allies against Germany, Nelson Poynter of the OWI’s Bureau of Motion Pictures advised Hollywood filmmakers “to silence doubters.” He was pleased that a draft screenplay for Mission to Moscow demonstrated how “Russians are an honest people trying to do an honest job with about the same total objectives as the people of the United States.”[ref]M. Todd Bennett, One World, Big Screen: Hollywood, the Allies, and World War II (University of North Carolina Press, 2012), 176.[/ref]

While these films were OWI-coordinated domestic propaganda aimed at Americans, foreign audiences were equally deceived by Voice of America broadcasts produced by pro-Soviet journalists and broadcasters under Houseman’s watch. Some were members of various communist parties, but most were leftist idealists, activist journalists, and naïve fellow travelers. As a result of massive complaints about the Office of War Information and Voice of America broadcasts, the U.S. Congress voted in 1943 to eliminate almost the entire OWI’s domestic propaganda budget and nearly defunded Voice of American overseas radio operations.

When Nelson Poynter wrote his memo on January 11, 1942 to Robert E. Sherwood, another Coordinator of Information government executive and speechwriter for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Voice of America broadcasts had not yet started, and the Voice of America name was not to be officially used for quite some time to describe them. According to Poynter, their creation and hiring of John Houseman were critically necessary because the United States was already engaged in “fighting a religious, fanatical crusade [sic].” Houseman may have been seen as the best candidate for the job not because of any journalistic skills, which he lacked, but the powerful propaganda impact of the 1938 fake news The War of the Worlds radio program he co-produced with Orson Welles.

Nelson Poynter on U.S. Government Voice of America Propaganda Broadcasting January 11 1942

There is a crying need to invent a new technique in international propaganda broadcasting. The ordinary American commercial program is not the answer. We are fighting a religious fanatical crusade. In turn, we must sell the “religion of democracy”. It is a different, tougher assignment than to sell a cereal or a toothpaste. Houseman has been recommended as the man who has the professional craftsmanship, the imagination, and the personality to do this.

Nelson Poynter addressed his memorandum to Robert E. Sherwood, a noted Hollywood playwright, COI co-director, and speechwriter for President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Poynter later worked in the COI’s successor agency, the Office of War Information, where Houseman produced VOA radio broadcasts until his forced resignation in mid-1943. At OWI, Poynter continued to coordinate with Hollywood studios the production of pro-Soviet and other war propaganda films, and later returned to his private newspaper publishing career.

“Psychological warfare could not furnish me with the theater’s climaxes…; there was no applause for the Voice of America…”

John Houseman, Unfinished Business (New York: Applause, 1989), 247.

Born Jack Davies Houssemann, John Houseman has been presented for decades as the first director of the Voice of America. He was hired on April 1, 1942, as Chief of Radio Production for the United States Coordinator of Information. His title changed later to Chief of Radio Program Bureau in the Overseas Operations Branch of the newly created Office of War Information. In his 1902-1988 memoirs, Unfinished Business, Houseman confirmed that even after covert operations were moved to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the Office of War Information continued its psychological warfare operations under his boss and President Roosevelt’s speechwriter Robert E. Sherwood.[ref]John Houseman, Unfinished Business — Memoirs: 1902-1988 (New York: Applause Theatre Book Publishers, 1989), 248.[/ref]

He added, however, that Sherwood believed that “truth … is by far … most effective form of propaganda.”[ref]John Houseman, Unfinished Business — Memoirs: 1902-1988 (New York: Applause Theatre Book Publishers, 1989), 245.[/ref]

The Voice of America has continuously presented only this part of Houseman’s biography as part of VOA’s official history. The VOA management has consistently obscured one fact. John Houseman and scores of early Voice of America journalists including communists and other apologists for Stalin were duped by Soviet propaganda and promoted it in VOA radio broadcasts during World War II and even to a smaller degree for a few years after the war.

During World War II, the “Voice of America” name was then not yet officially used for shortwave radio broadcasts produced under Houseman’s supervision. Still, some of VOA’s pro-Russian socialist and communist propagandists referred to their radio broadcasts in printed materials as “Voice of America” already in 1943. Some of them, including Stefan Arski, aka Artur Salman, worked later as propagandists for pro-Soviet communist regimes in East-Central Europe. Arski returned to Poland and joined the Communist Party. The chief of the wartime Voice of America Czech Service Adolf Hoffmeister returned to Czechoslovakia and became the regime’s ambassador to France.[ref]Unconquered Poland. (New York: Poland Fights: “Polish Labor Group,” 1943).[/ref]

“And the United States? This promised land of many miracles, described to radio listeners in Voice of America programs. If one could eat words, one would die from overeating. Meanwhile, [Polish immigrants in the U.S.] are dying from hunger, just as they are dying in Canada.”

Stefan Arski, aka Artur Salman, a former wartime Voice of America socialist writer and editor (until 1947) and later Communist Party member wrote such anti-U.S. propaganda in his book published in 1952 by the communist regime in Poland. Targowica leży and Atlantykiem (“Transatlantic Traitors”), (Warsaw: Książka i Wiedza, 1952), 102.

In early 1943, Houseman recruited Howard Fast, a future Communist Party USA member, and the 1953 Stalin International Peace Prize winner, to be the chief writer and editor of Voice of America radio news.[ref]Ted Lipien, “Howard Fast – Voice of America’s Only Stalin Peace Prize Recipient,” Cold War Radio Museum, March 12, 2019, https://www.coldwarradiomuseum.com/stalin-prize-winning-former-chief-writer-of-voice-of-america-news/.[/ref] Fast bragged in his 1990 autobiography Being Red that he “established contact at the Soviet embassy with people who spoke English and were willing to feed me important bits and pieces from their side of the wire.”[ref]Howard Fast, Being Red (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1990), 18-19.[/ref] He also admitted that “As for myself, during all my tenure there [VOA] I refused to go into anti-Soviet or anti-Communist propaganda.”[ref]Howard Fast, Being Red (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1990), 23.[/ref] It meant in practice that wartime VOA would not broadcast any news critical of Stalin or the Soviet Union and would cover up his crimes to the greatest extent possible. Howard Fast formally joined the Communist Party sometime in 1943, remained with the Voice of America until January 1944, and later worked as a reporter and editor for the party newspaper the Daily Worker.

“I established contact at the Soviet embassy with people who spoke English and were willing to feed me important bits and pieces from their side of the wire. I had long ago, somewhat facetiously, suggested “Yankee Doodle” as our musical signal, and now that silly little jingle was a power cue, a note of hope everywhere on earth…”

Howard Fast, Being Red (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1990), 18-19.

In the official version of VOA’s history, John Houseman resigned from his U.S. government job voluntarily, but he left the Office of War Information under strong pressure from the State Department. In April 1943, Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles, a key member of the Roosevelt administration foreign policy team and a close friend of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in an attachment to a then-secret memo to the FDR White House, accused Houseman of hiring communists to work on U.S. government radio broadcasts for overseas audiences.[ref]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, http://www.fdrlibrary.marist.edu/_resources/images/psf/psfb000259.pdf. The Welles memorandum is also accessible at: State – Welles, Sumner, 1943-1944, From Collection: FDR-FDRPSF Departmental Correspondence, Series: Departmental Correspondence, 1933 – 1945 Collection: President’s Secretary’s File (Franklin D. Roosevelt Administration), 1933 – 1945, National Archives Identifier: 16619284, https://catalog.archives.gov/id/16619284. Also see: Ted Lipien, “First VOA Director was a pro-Soviet Communist sympathizer, State Dept. warned FDR White House,” Cold War Radio Museum, May 4, 2018, http://www.coldwarradiomuseum.com/state-department-warned-fdr-white-house-first-voice-of-america-director-was-hiring-communists/. [/ref]

None of the accusations against Houseman were made public. The only false conclusion in the State Department’s notification to the White House was that Native Son was a subversive and un-American novel. Its African-American author, Richard Wright, was a Communist Party member, but he eventually broke his links with the party and exposed its intolerance in later books. Because of his refusal to submit to party discipline, other communists called Richard Wright a “traitor.” In 1936, they beat him up when he tried to join marchers in the 1936 Communist Party May Day demonstration in Chicago:

“…my hands were smarting and bleeding. I had suffered a public, physical assault by two white Communists with black Communists looking on.”

Richard Wright in The God That Failed  (New York: Bantam Books, 1959), pp. 143-145.[ref]Richard Wright’s essay in Richard Crossman, ed. The God That Failed (New York: Bantam Books, 1959), pp. 143-145.[/ref]

The State Department note described Houseman as a “Communist,” but there is no record that he had formally joined the Communist Party.

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 Maroh 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.”

What doomed Houseman’s federal career was the State Department’s decision to deny his request for a U.S. passport for his planned official U.S. government travel abroad. The addendum to the Welles memorandum stated that military authorities, most likely the U.S. Army Intelligence (G-2), concurred with the State Department’s conclusion that Houseman should not travel outside the United States for the duration of the war.

Houseman resigned his director’s position in mid-1943 but continued to work for the agency for a few more months as a consultant. When shortly after the war, the OWI wanted to rehire Houseman in 1945 for another high-level position based in Germany, the State Department once again refused to give him a U.S. passport. Houseman’s former boss in Hollywood, studio executive David O. Selznick, wrote in 1945 on a confidential U.S. government background investigation form that “Only worry would be allegedly extreme leftist views, which possibly misunderstood and exaggerated in gossip.”[ref]John Houseman OWI Personnel Records.[/ref]

“Only worry would be allegedly extreme leftist views, which possibly misunderstood and exaggerated [sic] in gossip.”

David O. Selznick about former first Voice of America director John Houseman, 1945.

But our main instrument of propaganda remained The Voice of America…”

John Houseman, Unfinished Business (New York: Applause, 1989), 249.

Ted Lipien was Voice of America acting associate director in charge of central news programs before his retirement in 2006. In the 1970s, he worked as a broadcaster in the VOA Polish Service and was the service chief and foreign correspondent in the 1980s during Solidarity’s struggle for democracy in Poland. He is working on his new book, “Voice of America: 80 Years of Hidden History.”