Disinformation governance by government propaganda experts can be dangerous, judging by the record of the early officials in charge of the Voice of America and journalists duped by Soviet propaganda.
USAGM Watch Commentary
By Ted Lipien
As the Voice of America (VOA), the United States government’s radio station for international audiences, observes its eightieth anniversary in 2022, it may surprise some Americans, assuming they have heard about its existence, that in its first years during the administration of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), the U.S. taxpayer-funded broadcaster had a period of intense fascination with Soviet Communism and an even longer period, extending into the early years of the Cold War, of being deceived and manipulated by Russian propaganda.
Not everyone wants to accept these facts, making Americans, both on the right and the left, vulnerable to being duped by Putin’s propagandists.
A Former Voice of America (VOA) director Sanford J. Ungar, who had served under President Clinton from 1999 to 2001, said in response to a question during a panel discussion on February 3, 2022, organized to commemorate the 80th anniversary of VOA’s first broadcast, that the news about Howard Fast, a World War II VOA chief English news writer and editor receiving the Stalin Peace Prize in 1953, was merely “amusing.”
Some East Europeans, including Ukrainians, who had lost their freedom after the end of World War II – a decades-long tragedy made easier for Russia by President Roosevelt’s Yalta Agreements with Stalin – may disagree that the fact of an American Communist activist and journalist working for VOA in a key position was utterly irrelevant. Still, Ungar, who is now the director of The Free Speech Project at Georgetown University, implied that even asking such a question could be proof of “McCarthyism” or “white supremacy.” Ungar also asserted that there were “no communist spies at the Voice of America” in the early years.
Several Soviet spies and many more agents of influence did indeed work at the Office of War Information (OWI) during World War II, some of them employed in OWI’s Voice of America foreign language services. The Voice of America management can’t even admit that the Hollywood actor John Houseman, the person who is described in official history as the first VOA director, although he was not in charge of program content and the Voice of America name was not yet used, was quietly forced by the already pro-Soviet Roosevelt administration to resign in 1943 because he was suspected of hiring Communists and excessive pro-Russian sympathies.
Only one piece of information in the attachment about John Houseman sent to the White House by Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles was false. Native Son, a 1940 novel by Richard Wright was not subversive or un-American. Wright, an African American writer, who joined the Communist Party, broke with it and condemned Communism in a 1949 collection of six essays, The God That Failed.
Another African American, Homer Smith, was one of the few journalists in Russia who did not join the large group of elite white Western correspondents in repeating Soviet propaganda lies about the Katyn massacre. Sumner Welles was one of the most liberal members of the Roosevelt administration and FDR’s close friend. Another piece of information about Houseman was only partly right. While he had a reputation of being a communist sympathizer, it is doubtful that he had formally joined the Communist Party.
But previously classified U.S. government documents show that following the start of Voice of America radio broadcasts in February 1942 in response 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 longest-lasting Russian deception 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 massacre.
In a repeat of history, reports of various types of war crimes in Ukraine, including rapes of Ukrainian women and killings of civilians by the Russian army sent there by President Vladimir Putin to crush the country’s independence and bring it under Russia’s control, also generate denials and lies from Moscow similar to the ones used by Soviet propaganda to hide Stalin’s murders and his plans for imperial conquests.
Recent successes of Russia’s propaganda, especially among right-leaning Americans, although the left-wing politicians and media are also manipulated, make the need for a better understanding of the hidden historic failure of VOA’s early pro-Soviet managers and broadcasters particularly urgent for today’s policymakers and journalists. This has become critical as Russia tries to conquer and occupy Ukraine while covering up Russian imperial ambitions and war crimes with classic Soviet-style disinformation.
20th-century American journalist Eugene Lyons, a long-time expert on Soviet Russia and Communism, would have been able to identify the early purveyors of Soviet propaganda at the Voice of America. Former communist sympathizers, like Lyons, and Communists, who later broke with Communism and Soviet Russia, were some of the most credible critics of Soviet influence over the early VOA broadcasts. Many of them remained lifelong progressives and lifelong opponents of Fascism, racism, white supremacy, and anti-immigrant movements in the United States. Lyons wrote a book in defense of immigrant anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti.
Unlike today, when some of those deceived by Russian disinformation are more likely to be ideologically right-wing Americans – non-government, private media figures like Tucker Carlson – almost all of VOA’s early pro-Soviet propagandists in the 1940s were radically left-wing U.S. federal government officials, employees, and contractors who were hired without extensive security and background checks.
Privately employed and independent journalists should have complete freedom to report whatever they want, as long their employers and their audiences are willing to pay for or tolerate their work. The work of Voice of America journalists who are government employees or contractors is, however, regulated by the VOA Charter. They can’t force their political and social viewpoints on the audience or exclude other responsible views, and they can’t hide the truth.
Eugene Lyons had known many pro-Soviet fellow travelers before they started working for the U.S. government’s World War II propaganda agency. He had been a communist sympathizer before becoming a fervent critic of the Soviet Union, lecturing and publishing books on the dangers of communist totalitarianism for Western liberal democracies. Some of VOA’s “Founding Fathers” and some of its early journalists had been among his former colleagues in the American newspaper and media world.
With Voice of America experts in propaganda being in charge over the decades of writing the institution’s official history, it is no surprise that it is mainly composed of myths and half-truths designed to obscure VOA’s true origins and to hide old scandals.
The true history of the first ten years of the Voice of America is quite different from the official, sugared version promoted by the organization’s leaders and VOA’s public relations specialists. Books written by former VOA officials also present VOA’s history in an entirely different manner from how journalists like Eugene Lyons or members of Congress who had worked and served during those years would have seen it. Lyons had no doubts that some of the early Voice of America officials and employees were pro-Soviet Kremlin and pro-communist “subversives.” However, Lyons was able to write truthfully in Reader’s Digest in 1954 that these “subversives” were no longer employed by VOA:
Without doubt some “subversive” individuals formerly found their way into VOA, as into other agencies in Government. Fortunately the Voice has cleared house. Ardent anti-Communists on the inside are now convinced that no known Communists or Communist sympathizers remain.
Lyon’s view differs widely from the glorified and frequently repeated official version of the Voice of America’s early broadcasts, as presented in a November 27, 2018 Washington Post op-ed by the then-VOA Director Amanda Bennett:
Those broadcasts were lifelines to millions. Even more important, however, was the promise made right from the start: “The news may be good for us. The news may be bad,” said announcer William Harlan Hale. “But we shall tell you the truth.”
Bennett, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who may become the next CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media if she is confirmed by the U.S. Senate, also wrote:
“Truth is the best propaganda, and lies are the worst,” said Edward R. Murrow, who helped create VOA.
Eugene Lyons would have also approved of Edward R. Murrow’s journalism. Still, he would have known that Murrow had nothing to do with pro-Soviet Roosevelt administration officials and journalists put in charge of creating VOA during World War II. They got their propaganda news from Soviet Embassies in Washington and London. They listened to and believed in what Radio Moscow and their contacts within the Communist Party USA (some editors and broadcasters, including Howard Fast, were Communist Party members) were saying. They rejected news about Stalin’s atrocities as anti-Soviet propaganda and banned such information from VOA broadcasts. Fast condemned Stalin in 1956 and left the Communist Party, but he did not denounce Communism or the Soviet Union. He also did not return his Stalin Peace Prize.
Another famous 20th-century American journalist, Walter Lippmann, strongly objected in a 1953 Los Angeles Times article to giving the U.S. government a propaganda tool in the U.S. Information Agency (USIA), where the Voice of America was ultimately placed that year. He saw VOA being used by the Executive Branch for pro-administration journalism as dangerous for democracy. He also wrote that in any case, the Voice of America was not effective in winning the battle with communist propaganda, although VOA was by then already considerably more useful in this role than during the prior 10 years of its existence.
It will be said, I know, that if we abolish the Voice of America, if we limit our broadcasts to straight news, that we shall “lose the battle for men’s minds to the Communist [sic] who conduct incessant propaganda. I do not think there is any evidence that the Voice of America has been winning that battle. On the contrary, there are all sorts of reasons, I believe, for thinking that it does more harm than good to our influence abroad.”
Lippmann would have been right in his assessment several years earlier, but by 1953, there was already a new group of anti-communist journalists and experts, both American and foreign-born, working for VOA. Lippmann, however, did not trust them not to create their own propaganda. Still, they were subject to much stricter security checks and policy control at the State Department after the war than were the pro-Soviet VOA officials and journalists who had worked for the Office of War Information, where Voice of America broadcasts originated from 1942 until 1945.
Lippmann’s column, titled “Why the Voice of America Should Be Abolished” also appeared in the New York Herald Tribune and was condensed and reprinted in the August 1953 issue of Reader’s Digest. Lippmann wrote that “For ANY Government agency to call itself the Voice of America is an impertinence.”
The refusal to be honest about history always has consequences. One of them is taxpayer-funded biased Voice of America reporting when officials and journalists fail to observe the VOA Charter.
The Voice of America VOA News English report, titled “Castro: I May Die But Communism Will Live Forever,” was posted on April 20, 2016, two days after Amanda Bennett was sworn in as the new VOA Director during the Obama administration. There was not a single reference in the VOA News report, which included quotes from Fidel Castro, to hundreds of thousands of Cubans murdered or forced into exile by his communist regime.
Many Iranian Americans, scholars, journalists, and some members of Congress have been for years highly critical of VOA’s coverage of news from Iran. An independent study ordered by the Broadcasting Board of Governors in 2017 showed that the Voice of America broadcast Iranian regime propaganda without balance and violated the VOA Charter.
During the same time, some of the presidentially-appointed members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the pre-2018 name of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, had financial business interests in China and Russia, as did later the husband of a VOA director. While not illegal, business activities in China and in Russia by some of the past BBG Board Governors have worried human rights and media freedom activists because of their potential for conflicts of interest.
Communists in Cuba getting soft treatment under past and current VOA and USAGM leaders did not remain unnoticed by Senator Bob Menendez, the Democratic Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. When Fidel Castro died, the Voice of America Spanish Service honored him with a special graphic for its VOA Spanish Facebook Cover image. Few distinguished Americans or any foreign anti-communist figures who have died recently had such a special graphic produced by the Voice of America at U.S. taxpayers’ expense. The VOA English News service created a special photo gallery, “Fidel Castro: Through the Years,” posted on November 16, 2016. It did not include photographs of his tortured and murdered victims or Cubans who had lost their lives trying to escape from their communist paradise.
As the U.S. Agency for Global Media was becoming under recent officials more and more unaccountable in a manner similar to how the Office of War Information operated in the 1940s, it attracted unprecedented criticism from ethnic media in the United States. There have been thousands of posts on social media from Chinese Americans, Iranian Americans, Cuban Americans, and Tigrayan Americans highly critical of the Voice of America management. The mainstream U.S. media ignored most of these ethnic protests, and there have been few if any improvements. In 2021, a Russian opposition journalist and executive editor of Meduza, a Riga, Latvia-based independent online news site, harshly criticized the VOA Russian Service for reporting inaccurately that Meduza was closing down due to pressure from President Putin. One of her colleagues called this kind of VOA reporting “irresponsible and amazingly stupid.”
It is a common misconception that, throughout VOA’s history, directives from the White House and the State Department were responsible for most of VOA’s propaganda, censorship, and news reporting failures. In fact, under the Office of War Information in the 1940s, as well as today, VOA officials, editors, and reporters generated much of the propaganda on their own because of their strong ideological convictions, extreme partisanship, and naïveté, which made them susceptible to being duped by Soviet and now Russian propagandists.
The Voice of America’s management has for decades covered up the history of VOA’s early collusion with Soviet officials, including secret coordination of propaganda messages between Washington and Moscow, thus depriving new generations of VOA managers and journalists the opportunity to learn from these past mistakes.
Unsurprisingly, according to a report of the Working Group on Chinese Influence Activities in the United States prepared by the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and the Center on US-China Relations at Asia Society in New York, “starting in the first decade of the 2000s, the Chinese embassy in Washington, DC, and the leadership of VOA’s Mandarin service began an annual meeting to allow embassy officials to voice their opinions about VOA’s content.” The Hoover Institution and Asia Society report also said that “VOA personalities have hosted events at the embassy,” and one of VOA’s TV editors “even publicly pledged his allegiance to China at an embassy event.” The report cited an “interview with VOA staff” as a source of this information.
Poor recruiting choices and lax security contributed to these problems, both in the 1940s and recently. A few journalists who previously had worked for Putin’s Lukashenko’s media and were subsequently hired by VOA were openly proud of what they were doing for their former state employers in Russia and Belarus. Some kept their old Russian social media news videos, including disinformation about Ukraine and anti-U.S. propaganda conspiracy and antisemitic theories.
Still, a Facebook post attributed to a former Voice of America director questioned the need for requiring RT, Vladimir Putin’s propaganda channel, to register in the United States as a foreign agent.
However, the historical record of the Voice of America has been overall much more positive than negative, thanks mainly to its anti-communist refugee broadcasters. Unfortunately, after the end of the Cold War, they have been ignored in the organization’s official history.
Almost all of the damage to VOA’s credibility and journalism was done over the years by officials, editors, and reporters who were duped by radical leftist ideologies and disinformation from Russia, and in recent years, also from China, Iran, and Cuba. The fact that the Russians target both the left-leaning and the right-leaning Americans with different propaganda messages further complicates efforts to guard against such subversion. It is not surprising, but also frightening, how easily ignored history can repeat itself if government officials and journalists fail to seek facts and become blinded by partisanship and hateful ideologies.
In the conclusion of his 1954 Reader’s Digest article, Eugene Lyons wrote:
That the Voice has shortcomings is admitted. But the remedy is not to destroy this one official channel for reaching the freedom-loving peoples of the world. The remedy is to improve and strengthen the Voice.
Lyons dedicated his book Worker’s Paradise Lost, published in paperback in 1967, “to THE PEOPLE OF RUSSIA – the first and worst victims of communism.”
Some of the early Voice of America officials and broadcasters, who were indoctrinated by communist propaganda and duped by Stalin, can also count themselves among the many victims of Communism and subversion by Soviet Russia.