Religious Programs at the Voice of America

Anti-communist atheist Bertram D. Wolfe discovered that Voice of America (VOA) English writers could not write persuasively about religion in communist-ruled nations in the early 1950s. Religious programming was then and continues to be a challenge for VOA’s American-born officials and broadcasters, partly because of the wrongly perceived separation of church and state concerns and partly because of a certain amount of contempt for religion among some but not all strongly left-leaning VOA journalists. Some American journalists employed by VOA in the 1940s and the early 1950s also did not fully understand the nature of the persecution of religion and other human rights violations under Communism. Many current VOA officials, editors, and reporters know even less about Communism. Bertram D. Wolfe was one of several prominent ex-Communists who helped to expose Soviet subversion of the early Voice of America broadcasts.

By Ted Lipien for Cold War Radio Museum

A Wikipedia entry for Bertram David Wolfe (January 19, 1896 – February 21, 1977) describes him as “an American scholar, a leading Communist, and later a leading anti-communist. ” He was one of the founding members of the American Communist Party (1919) and a member of the leadership of the Communist Party of Mexico, which he represented at the 5th World Congress of the Communist International, held in Moscow in 1924. After a conflict with the leadership, he was expelled from the Communist Party USA in 1929 and joined a splintered American communist movement.

Eventually, Wolfe became a leading Cold War anti-communist while supporting socialist and progressive causes in a liberal democracy. He worked for the U.S. State Department from 1950 to 1954, where he wrote radio scripts for the Voice of America (VOA) international broadcasts on various topics dealing with Soviet and other communist abuses of human rights.

Bertram D. Wolfe Voice of America (VOA) script about the Katyn massacre. Starting in 1943, the Voice of America accepted and supported the Soviet propaganda lie that the mass murder of thousands of Polish military officers in Soviet captivity was committed by the Germans. VOA continued to distort and censor the Katyn story until the early 1950s.

The U.S. State Department hired Wolfe to change the content and tone of Voice of America radio broadcasts from being pro-Soviet and pro-communist, which they were during World War II and to some degree for a few years after the war. The Truman administration wanted the Voice of America to counter Soviet and communist propaganda. It also made plans to establish surrogate radio broadcasters, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberation (renamed later Radio Liberty). Truman administration officials assumed that by operating with secret U.S. government funding and initially managed by CIA personnel, these radio stations, staffed by refugee broadcasters, would be able to produce more hard-hitting programs. Their assumption proved correct.

On the other hand, many of VOA’s founding officials and broadcasters in the 1940s were pro-Soviet fellow travelers. Among them was VOA’s first chief news writer and editor, American novelist Howard Fast, who joined the Communist Party in 1943 while working for VOA, resigned in 1944, and in 1953 received the Stalin International Peace Prize. 

When Bertram Wolfe started working for the Voice of America in 1950, VOA still employed as managers and journalists some fellow travelers and deniers of Stalin’s crimes, but they were slowly being pushed out. The Truman administration replaced them with officials and broadcasters, including refugees from Eastern Europe, who had a better understanding of Soviet Russia. One of them was Bertram Wolfe, whom the State Department hired because of his extensive knowledge of Communism. His former membership in the Communist Party was not viewed as a problem since he had left the communist movement and became known as one of the outspoken critics of Soviet Russia.

When he joined the Voice of America, Wolfe discovered that VOA’s central English service journalists lacked the right background, education, and experience to report on the Soviet Union and the other Communist Bloc countries, especially on religion-related topics. He wrote about it in his autobiography, A Life in Two Centuries, published posthumously in 1981:

When I went to work for the Voice of America in the period from 1950 to 1954, religious leaders and believers were being framed, tortured, and sent to concentration camps in all the countries under Communist rule in Eastern Europe. After trying to get my script writers to write effective radio broadcasts to defend the religious freedom of the churchmen and devout believers who were being thus persecuted, I found that I had to write the scripts myself to get the requisite feeling into them. I did not believe what the persecuted believed, but I did believe in their right to freedom to harbor and practice their beliefs without interference.

Bertram D. Wolfe, A Life in Two Centuries: An Autobiography (New York: Stein and Day, 1981), p. 81.

The political director at the Voice of America thought Bertram Wolfe was “the most deeply religious man” at VOA, as did the director of VOA’s religious programming. Wolfe told them that “out of more than nineteen hundred people working for the Voice,” they “have picked on the one who is probably the least religious!”1 He was not affiliated with any religion and wrote that he did not believe in the existence of a personal God or any religious dogma. Wolfe’s description of them seems to suggest that they may have been somewhat too naive to help VOA respond appropriately to communist propaganda.

Wolfe observed that what they “have mistaken for religious feeling must be my compassion for the persecuted, my readiness to understand their feeling for their religion, and quite simply my deep concern with freedom, their freedom to believe, to practice their creed, to worship openly, to teach their children their beliefs and moral code.”2

Wolfe also wrote biographical studies of Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Leon Trotsky, and Diego Rivera. After his U.S. government career, he worked as a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and as a visiting professor at Columbia University and the University of California.

Not much has been written about religious programs during the Voice of America’s 80 years, but an excellent new book, Cold War Radio: The Russian Broadcasts of the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, by Mark G. Pomar, the former director of the USSR Division at the Voice of America, has a chapter on the coverage of religion by VOA and Radio Liberty.

  1. Bertram D. Wolfe, A Life in Two Centuries: An Autobiography (New York: Stein and Day, 1981), p. 81.
  2. Wolfe, A Life in Two Centuries, p. 81.