In early 1943, top State Department officials led by Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles secretly advised the Roosevelt White House that some of those in charge of VOA could not be trusted not to promote Soviet Russia’s interests over the interests of the United States.
A secret memo to the FDR White House from the State Department included first VOA director John Houseman on the list of suspected Soviet sympathizers. Houseman was quietly forced to resign, but other supporters of Stalin stayed at VOA for the duration of the war. 1
Welles, who was a liberal Democrat in the Roosevelt administration and one of President Roosevelt’s closest advisors on foreign policy, warned that Soviet sympathizers in charge of originating and preparing VOA broadcasts and other OWI propaganda could be a national security risk. The attached memorandum from the State Department to the White House said:
The records of the men involved seem to indicate that should there be a divergence between the policy of the States and the policy of Soviet Russia, these men, with a large degree of control of the American machinery of war making, would probably follow the line taken by Russia, rather than the line taken by the United States.
Unlike Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles was not a promoter of conspiracy theories or prone to making false accusations for partisan reasons or to gain attention for himself. 2
Throughout the war, VOA broadcasters were covering up Stalin’s crimes and spreading Soviet propaganda lies in support of the Kremlin’s aggressive foreign policy moves to impose Russia’s control over East-Central Europe. VOA’s chief news writer recruited for his position by VOA director John Houseman was American Communist Howard Fast, a future winner of the Stalin International Peace Prize (1953). 3
Pro-Soviet officials and employees of the wartime Office of War Information, where VOA broadcasts originated, were also spreading Soviet propaganda in the United States through domestic newspapers and radio networks, but because of the Smith-Mundt Act, by 1948 VOA was no longer allowed to target domestic audiences with its radio broadcasts. The Smith-Mundt Act was largely focused on the State Department’s public diplomacy programs, including educational exchanges, but in addition to forbidding domestic distribution of VOA programs, it also put in place strict security clearances requirements for VOA personnel.
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The 1943 State Department memo is a timely warning about U.S. government officials and government-employed journalists who for either ideological, partisan or business reasons may be compromised in carrying out their duties. It includes one of the best descriptions of how Soviet propaganda and disinformation worked then, in an eerily similar fashion to how Russian propaganda and disinformation are employed now against democratic governments and democratic elections.
“The records of the men involved seem to indicate that should there be a divergence between the policy of the States and the policy of Soviet Russia, these men, with a large degree of control of the American machinery of war making, would probably follow the line taken by Russia, rather than the line taken by the United States.”
The 1943 State Department memo also warned:
“It has been the theory of this Department that, outside of Soviet Russia, most of the groups struggling for expression desire freedom and a chance to find their own way, and that they have looked to the United States, rather than to the Russian collectivism, as offering the hope of achieving both social advance and individual freedom. The concern which we have is that the men asked to state, represent and carry out American policy shall be men who both understand that policy, and will be loyal to it, rather than to any outside connection.”
The 1943 Sumner Welles’ State Department memo also included a prophetic warning in light of the 2016 Russian propaganda and disinformation campaign targeting American voters to change their views about American politicians disliked by the Kremlin.
“They have included a continued and bitter hostility to the Government of General Vargas in Brazil; to the present Peruvian Government; and to a considerable number of officials in the United States Government who are deemed inconvenient.”
The memo charged that Houseman was “Said to have been responsible for placing Communists in key position [sic] in foreign radio sections of OWI [Office of War Information].”
The memo also commented on the fascination of some American liberals for Soviet communism and urged finding other liberal individuals—not communist sympathizers—to be put in charge of U.S. government programs.
“If it is desired to give a distinctly liberal cast to these organisations, it would seem possible to find men who are liberal in the light of their own conviction, and of the American ideal, rather than men who have, for one reason or another, elected to give expression to their liberalism primarily by joining Communist front organizations, and apparently sacrificing their independence of thought and action to the direction of a distinctly European movement.”
While there was no proof that Houseman was a member of the Communist Party, the charge that Communists and Soviet sympathizers were preparing wartime Voice of America broadcasts under his direction and that some of OWI senior officials were Soviet sympathizers has been well documented. Not all VOA World War II broadcasts contained falsehoods–most did not, and VOA did not lie about U.S. military defeats in World War II–but many VOA wartime broadcasts were anti-journalistic, anti-democratic, and strongly pro-Soviet.
VOA programs at that time and after John Houseman’s resignation were viewed as particularly harmful by various governments-in-exile opposed to the Nazis. VOA either ignored these governments, by not reporting on their statements and explanations and refusing to interview their representatives, or repeated false Soviet charges against them. Non-communist resistance fighters and audiences throughout Europe found Soviet propaganda in VOA programs particularly offensive and complained about censorship.
Soviet propaganda influence over Voice of America programs did not stop immediately after the end of World War II. It lingered for several more years until President Truman and his administration carried out management reforms and launched the “Campaign of Truth” against Soviet disinformation.
- The memorandum about Soviet and communist influence within the wartime Voice of America, signed off with a cover memo by Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles, a distinguished career diplomat and a major foreign policy advisor to President Roosevelt and his personal friend, was forwarded to the White House with the date, April 6, 1943. The attached memorandum with the addendum listing names of individuals who had been denied U.S. passports for government travel abroad was dated April 5, 1943. The documents were declassified in the mid-1970s and have been accessible online for some time from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum Website and the National Archives. It appears, however, that they have never been widely disclosed and analyzed before now. They are presented for the first time with a historical analysis on the Cold War Radio Museum website. 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. 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. ↩
- 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/. ↩
- Ted Lipien, “Stalin Prize-winning Chief Writer of Voice of America News, Cold War Radio Museum, March 12, 2019, http://www.coldwarradiomuseum.com/stalin-prize-winning-former-chief-writer-of-voice-of-america-news/. ↩