The U.S. taxpayer-funded, U.S. government-run Voice of America has had a checkered history. In its early years, VOA helped to spread Kremlin propaganda lies and covered up evidence of Soviet acts of genocide, while at other times, it exposed the crimes of Marxist regimes, provided accurate news, and brought hope to audiences abroad by countering communist ideology.
Overall, in its later years, VOA had made a significant contribution to the fall of communism in East-Central Europe and to the fall of the Soviet “Evil Empire,” as President Reagan called the USSR. But America’s leading international broadcaster has not been a constant monument to moral or journalistic integrity, as some former VOA managers, who had opposed Reagan’s policies toward the Soviet Union, would like to present it.
As a former Voice of America broadcaster and manager in charge of successful VOA programs to Poland during the Solidarity independent trade union’s struggle for democracy in the 1980s during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, I should be satisfied with America’s historic victory over censorship and communist repression in Poland, the country I had left in 1970 as a refugee from communism. But as I learned, that victory did not come when it did without a constant struggle for the soul of the Voice of America.
I had a satisfying career and retired in 2006 from my last government position as a VOA acting associate director. But lately, I have been shocked by VOA’s English-language reporting on Ukraine that sometimes repeats the same disinformation claims used by Stalin against Poland during World War II. What worries me, even more, is the distortion of VOA’s early history. I see the erasing of the memory of Stalin’s crimes. I watch journalists who, in their reporting, show that they know very little about the millions of innocent men, women, and children who had perished under communism.
This collective amnesia allows for the same past mistakes to be repeated in U.S. foreign policy and at the Voice of America and its federal agency, previously known as the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), and since 2018, called the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM).
Americans who do corporate business in Putin’s Russia and in communist China became in recent years key advisors to candidates running for office in the United States. Some were appointed to be overseers or be in charge of U.S. international media outreach in the Broadcasting Board of Governors.
As the Voice of America observes its eightieth anniversary in 2022, it may also surprise Americans who know about its existence that in its first years during President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) administration, the U.S. taxpayer-funded broadcaster had a long period of intense fascination with Soviet communism—a historic failure, which for many decades has been hidden from Americans and from VOA’s global audiences.
Previously classified U.S. government documents show that following the start of Voice of America radio broadcasts in February 1942 responding to the dangers and the turmoil of the Second World War, the first group of VOA managers and journalists uncritically embraced and eagerly promoted various Soviet propaganda lies. Among them was perhaps the biggest and the most lasting communist lie of the 20th century. For several decades, the Kremlin’s propagandists and their supporters lied about the 1940 killing by the Soviet NKVD secret police of about 22,000 Polish military officers and government officials in what became known as the Katyn Forest massacre.
One prominent early VOA writer and editor, American-born communist Howard Fast, fully admitted in his memoir and in a radio interview in the 1990s to being deceived by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. 1 Fast’s association with the Voice of America or the fact that in 1953 he had received the Stalin International Peace Prize cannot be found in any of the most widely read books about VOA.
As part of the decades-long cover-up, many of the government officials and journalists who had promoted Soviet propaganda have disappeared from VOA’s official history. A few Voice of America broadcasters ended up working for communist regimes in Eastern Europe after the war. This fact has also been concealed and forgotten.
But this book is also about the VOA refugee broadcasters who had resisted communism and helped America win the Cold War. When the Voice of America had a fundamental mission of supporting basic human rights in nations almost completely deprived of freedom, free media, and free speech, it had large audiences and a significant impact abroad. It started to lose both when access to news became less restricted, due partly to the internet, but mainly when it changed its focus to nation-building and various radical ideological crusades—similar to its activities under the pro-Soviet leadership during the first years of its existence.
In Voice of America – 80 Years of Hidden History: VOA’s Soviet Sympathizers Who Spread Stalin’s Propaganda and Freedom Broadcasters Who Replaced Them, I write about officials and journalists who spread Stalin’s propaganda through Voice of America programs and about freedom broadcasters who are being erased from history while those who had helped Soviet Russia expand its empire are still presented today as paragons of truthful journalism.
The first group of pro-Soviet Voice of America broadcasters was not directly responsible for the Soviet domination over East-Central Europe. The presence of the Red Army played a decisive role. But they made it easier for the Soviet communist dictator Joseph Stalin to enslave about 80 million new victims. For as long as they remained at VOA, they presented their work as a victory for peace, security, democracy, and social progress.
My book will also focus on the “Silenced Refugees,” including those who later worked for the Voice of America but could not always tell their stories. Fortunately, those refugees from communism who ended up working for Radio Free Europe (RFE) could speak freely.
I attempt to recover the voices of hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children arrested by the Soviets after the Red Army had invaded and occupied eastern Poland in 1939, while the Soviet regime was in alliance with Nazi Germany. Stalin later ordered an unprovoked attack on Finland, followed by the Soviet annexation of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. Many were executed.
Many more hundreds of thousands of Poles, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, Belarusians, Ukrainians, and Russians—Christians, Jews, Muslims, and members of other religions and nationalities—were deported from their homes in the middle of the night and sent in horrible conditions to forced labor camps and collective farms where countless died from hunger, illness, and maltreatment. Some Polish slave laborers managed to leave the Soviet Union in 1942 after Stalin had released them following Hitler’s attack on Russia. They became refugees in the West, but their stories still could not be fully told.
The U.S. administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, eager to preserve its military alliance with Stalin, used propaganda and disinformation in press releases and Voice of America radio broadcasts to paint a deceptive picture of refugees evacuated from the Soviet Union. After the war, the vast majority chose not to return to the Soviet-dominated and communist-ruled nations, where they would risk imprisonment and persecution. But the American and British authorities forced many refugees, who were Soviet citizens, and even some who were not, to return to the USSR against their will. The Voice of America failed to report on their fate, just as earlier it had ignored the Jewish Holocaust.
The effects of Soviet and Western wartime and post-war propaganda and censorship can be seen even today. I try to bring to light the real story of silenced refugees and the stories of many other victims of communist repressions.
The story of VOA’s participation in Soviet propaganda campaigns of World War II and extending into a few years after the war became a well-kept secret, protected by an informal conspiracy of silence and by now mostly unintentional disinformation. There were instances of censorship in VOA programs regarding the Katyn massacre story and the ban on interviewing Nobel Prize-winning anti-Soviet writer Alexandr Solzhenitsyn even in the late 1970s.
During World War II, the Voice of America was a mouthpiece of the Kremlin thanks to its pro-Soviet leadership and radical left-leaning broadcasters, including some Communist Party members. However, believers in conspiracy theories may be surprised that there were no notable communist spies working for VOA, contrary to many false and exaggerated claims made in the early 1950s by Senator Joseph McCarthy. Damage to the truth at the Voice of America was primarily done not by Soviet agents, but by ordinary U.S. government bureaucrats and journalists they employed.
Except for perhaps a few wartime VOA broadcasters and one researcher, these U.S. federal agency employees were not willful liars, nor were they formally recruited to become spies. Most of them were radical left-leaning idealists who were easily duped by Stalin’s propaganda. They were not traitors selling secrets or carrying out other tasks on direct orders from a foreign government. They acted rather at their own initiative as informal agents of influence for the Kremlin in line with their own strong political convictions. Some were, however, Communist Party members taking orders from their party bosses who were under the control of communist officials in Moscow or were in close contact with Soviet intelligence operatives in the United States. With very few exceptions, even they were not engaged in a conspiracy against their government. Still, they were easily manipulated into doing the Kremlin’s propaganda work, which harmed Americans and the Voice of America’s global audience.
Declassified U.S. government documents show that VOA had employed many pro-Soviet officials and communist-leaning editors in various management and broadcasting positions in its early years. It was not something to be proud of for the station funded by U.S. taxpayers, and it was easily and probably deliberately overlooked by successive writers of Voice of America’s official history until the false narrative became the accepted truth.
Former and current VOA officials and reporters present the first VOA director, Oscar-winning Hollywood actor John Houseman, as a defender of truthful journalism. Yet, he openly bragged about enjoying being a U.S. government propagandist and was quietly forced to resign by the Roosevelt administration in 1943 after being correctly suspected of hiring Communists.
During the war, VOA’s radio propaganda was not nearly as pure or as successful as Houseman had claimed or as some of its officials present it today. The Office of War Information propaganda justified the illegal internment of Japanese American U.S. citizens and residents.
VOA also did not contribute significantly to the shortening of the war. The Germans and the Japanese fought nearly to the bitter end. In carrying out their propaganda mandate, the station’s management and some of its early broadcasters betrayed American interests and values at a critical moment in history.
The concealment of past mistakes continued even as the Voice of America later made its contribution to the winning of the Cold War thanks to a new group of refugee broadcasters hired after the war. Most American-born writers of official VOA history paid minimal attention to the work of these foreign-born, anti-communist Voice of America journalists. The station’s management took advantage of the work of their immigrant employees during the Cold War for public relations campaigns, but for decades practiced anti-immigrant discrimination and severely limited original reporting and commentary by VOA’s foreign language services.
Treated for decades as second-class citizens, these VOA immigrant broadcasters, some of them outstanding women journalists who spent time in communist prisons, did their best to win the propaganda war with the Soviet Union and its satellite regimes. Native-born, mostly white, mostly left-leaning, and mostly male Voice of America managers and editors denied them direct access to wire services. Voice of America immigrant broadcasters working in the United States who avoided or escaped life under communism knew VOA managers marginalized them. Still, most of them did not complain publicly because they believed in VOA’s mission.
Refugee Voice of America journalists raising families and rebuilding their lives in America, in most cases, could not afford to jeopardize their U.S. government employment. They also knew that they could do much more for the people behind the Iron Curtain if they continued to work for VOA, even with all the restrictions and obstacles put in their way. They knew that they were doing something good and important, even under very restrictive conditions.
During budget debates in Congress, the Voice of America management took credit for the work of their anti-communist foreign-born broadcasters. Still, afterward, it did not provide them with resources and freedom to do their job to achieve full impact until President Reagan took office and his appointed officials carried out management reforms at VOA.
The Voice of America is now managed by the $800 million (average annual budget) federal U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM). The agency and the Voice of America have been ridden by scandals and severely criticized by dissident journalists in foreign countries and immigrant communities in the United States. Its current problems are similar to those in its early years when its radical left-wing leaders and journalists turned VOA into a propaganda arm of the Kremlin and a supporter of communist causes.
My book reveals the hidden historic failure of VOA’s early pro-Soviet managers and broadcasters. It also describes the efforts of many émigrés hired to work for the Voice of America after the war. Despite many obstacles, they had succeeded later in saving VOA from Soviet influence and emerged as the winners in the Cold War.
I try to preserve the knowledge of the vital work of these anti-communist refugee journalists from being ignored and forgotten. The Reagan administration finally removed the small remainders of communist propaganda imprint in VOA programs in the early 1980s. But the danger of it returning has already reappeared, partly because the Voice of America has never come to grips with its early history of collusion with Soviet Russia.
I was during the Reagan years in charge of VOA broadcasts to Poland, where the Solidarity independent trade union movement was fighting to restore democracy and the country’s independence from the Soviet Union. I witnessed in the late 1980s and the early 1990s the final triumph of the battle for the truth in Voice of America broadcasts.
Still, contrary to some experts’ expectations, the fall of the Berlin War did not mean the end of history or the end of propaganda in international journalism and in international relations.
Knowing the true history of the U.S. government’s transnational broadcasting is particularly important today because Russia’s President and ex-KGB officer Vladimir Putin is waging a new propaganda war against the United States and other democratic nations to create confusion and conflict.
After spending almost my entire journalistic career bringing uncensored news to countries behind the Iron Curtain, I was shocked to see some of VOA’s journalists once again glorifying communists as heroic fighters for social justice in the last several years.
Growing up in the affluence and safety of the post-Cold War world, they seem to know little about the murderous legacy of Soviet, East European, Chinese, Cuban, or North Korean communism. Voice of America reporters and editors were never told by their management about the history of Soviet agents of influence within their own organization during VOA’s early years. Such information has also been hidden from most Americans, making them more vulnerable to manipulation by Russian or Chinese propagandists.
In my book, I try to describe this unacknowledged failure of American propaganda during the Roosevelt administration and continuing into the early years of the Truman administration. It is one of the least studied and least understood categories of U.S. policy mistakes related to psychological warfare, international broadcasting, and other forms of public diplomacy. Experts who might have been expected to provide a thorough analysis of this problem were also experts in covering up their own propaganda failures and exaggerating their successes as they rotated in and out of government jobs.
I describe and analyze previously secret U.S. government documents showing the extent of Soviet influence over Voice of America broadcasting during World War II and in the early phases of the Cold War. I also describe the little-known but most significant President Truman’s reversal of President Roosevelt’s information policy and the creation of highly successful Radio Free Europe (RFE) and Radio Liberty (RL).
The focus on the changes in the U.S. government’s information policy between 1942 and 1952 offers what, I hope, are much-needed warnings and lessons about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s current propaganda offensive against Western liberal democracies and the best ways of resisting such interference.
I must admit, however, that the reluctance to acknowledge VOA’s pro-Soviet past initially made some sense, even to the station’s anti-communist broadcasters of the Cold War period like myself. We realized that publicizing earlier failures might have diminished our credibility and effectiveness in defending press freedom and democracy from communist attacks.
Labeling early VOA officials and journalists as pro-Soviet fellow travelers and “useful idiots,” to use the phrase attributed to Vladimir Lenin to describe naïve left-leaning Westerners, might have been morally satisfying to many of us who fled from communism and eventually discovered the truth about Soviet propaganda in early VOA broadcasts, but it would not have been constructive as we tried to report in our own programs on human rights abuses happening behind the Iron Curtain. We had bigger fish to fry, and we would not have been in any case granted such frankness by the senior management of our government agency.
But as communism in East-Central Europe and in the Soviet Union fell, no one was any longer interested in correcting the false history of the early Voice of America. Even slightly earlier, during the Ronald Reagan administration in the 1980s, the facts of VOA’s beginnings were already largely forgotten and replaced with false accounts publicized sincerely by the station’s managers.
Today’s Voice of America no longer has the technological program delivery monopoly or the impact it had on foreign audiences during the Cold War. But thanks to the internet and social media, it now reaches more and more Americans and shows a growing bias in favor of radical ideologies in violation of the 1976 VOA Charter, which remains U.S. law. The result of the ignorance and distortions of history is that VOA broadcasters, and many other journalists, are unprepared for the propaganda wars being waged against the United States and other Western democracies by multiple enemies of freedom.
Tadeusz (Ted) A. Lipien is an international media executive, journalist, writer, blogger, and press freedom advocate. He was Voice of America (VOA) Polish Service chief during Solidarity trade union’s struggle for democracy, acting VOA Associate Director, and served for a short time as President of Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). His articles on U.S. international broadcasting have been published in American Diplomacy Journal, National Review, The Washington Times, The Washington Examiner, and Digital Journal. He is the author of a book on feminism and Pope John Paul II, O-Books, UK and Świat Książki, Poland.￼
- Howard Fast, Being Red (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990), p. 350. In “Howard Fast: Interview With Howard Fast.” Democracy Now. Pacifica Radio, April 8, 1998. https://www.trussel.com/hf/democnow.htm, Fast said: “And we heard this speech [Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s 1956 speech to the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party revealing Josef Stalin’s crimes], and many of us [Communist Party USA members at the party’s newspaper the Daily Worker, where Howard Fast was a reporter and editor] wept. Because we did not know, and would not believe, the truth about the Soviet Union.” ↩