BBG – USAGM Watch Commentary
August 1, 2020 marks the 76th anniversary of the start of the Warsaw Uprising launched by the anti-Nazi Polish underground army, Armia Krajowa AK (Home Army) against the Germans. Former Voice of America (VOA) Polish Service chief Ted (Tadeusz) Lipien has updated his 2015 article about the silent treatment of the Warsaw Uprising by the wartime U.S. government international broadcaster which still exists and operates today funded by American taxpayers and is again mired in controversy over management failures and suspicions of foreign influence.
Several former AK Warsaw Uprising fighters worked for the Voice of America in New York and in Washington after the war, including anti-Nazi resistance hero Zofia Korbońska. They replaced some of the Soviet sympathizers and radical leftists who were in charge of the VOA Polish Service during World War II when VOA broadcast Soviet communist propaganda, covered up Josef Stalin’s crimes, and in line with Moscow’s wishes ignored the Warsaw Uprising.
By Ted Lipien
As the Voice of America (VOA) became partisan and politicized at the hands of activist journalists watched over by holdover executives, some of them remaining in their jobs until mid-2020, it it is worth remembering that in its early years VOA was run by pro-Soviet idealists and employed Communists, including Howard Fast, a future Stalin Peace Prize recipient (1953), as VOA’s chief news writer and news director. This communist activist and best-selling American author claimed to have proposed Yankee Doodle as VOA’s signature tune. In his 1990 memoir tilted Being Red he called it a “silly little jingle.” Howard Fast and other pro-Kremlin early Voice of America officials and journalists were responsible for broadcasting Soviet propaganda and disinformation about the Polish anti-Nazi Warsaw Uprising which started on August 1, 1944.
The most damning assessment of the Voice of America during World War II came from a radio journalist who had worked in London for the Polish-language radio station Świt, a surrogate broadcaster based in Britain but targeting Poland. He reported in a 1953 article in the Polish intellectual journal Kultura published in Paris of being horrified and depressed by the lack of news from Warsaw in Voice of America Polish programs as “AK” Polish underground Home Army fighters were being rounded up by the Nazis and the city burned. At that time, the Red Army stopped its fast-moving offensive and allowed the uprising to fail. Stalin hoped that the Germans would finish off anti-Communist Poles who might resist his takeover of Poland after the war.
Czesław Straszewicz described his impressions of VOA’s dismal performance:
With genuine horror we listened to what the Polish language programs of the Voice of America (or whatever name they had then), in which in line with what [the Soviet news agency] TASS was communicating, the Warsaw Uprising was being completely ignored.
I remember as if it were today when the (Warsaw) Old Town fell [to the Nazis] and our spirits sank, the Voice of America was broadcasting to the allied nations describing for listeners in Poland in a happy tone how a woman named Magda from the village Ptysie made a fool of a Gestapo man named Mueller.
Unlike the Voice of America which was part of the mega propaganda agency in Washington, the Office of War Information (OWI), Świt and BBC had much more independence and and their British management showed much greater sophistication in dealing with sensitive news stories. According to Czesław Straszewicz, the British authorities gave Świt practically unlimited independence.
“During the Warsaw Uprising, Świt could broadcast anything we wanted under the disapproving glances of the Brits,” Czesław Straszewicz wrote in his Kultura article. 1
The good news is that VOA was eventually saved by other journalists hired after World War II, against whom Fast, his patron, first VOA director John Houseman, and other radical left-leaning and communist activists directed their pro-Soviet wartime propaganda. Some of the journalists who had helped to save VOA’s reputation after the war were former Warsaw Uprising anti-Nazi fighters. The 1948 Smith-Mundt Act and the 1976 VOA Charter, were passed by Congress in bipartisan votes to ensure that the Voice of America would not be partisan, neither left-wing nor right-wing. According to some recent media reports, these laws are being now ignored.
The Voice of America, which during World War II was in the hands of Soviet sympathizers, betrayed the democratic Poles and aired Soviet propaganda while being largely silent about the uprising in Warsaw because it was criticized and downplayed by Radio Moscow. It was a betrayal of American values and a betrayal of journalistic principles. Voice of America programs had no effect on the actual fighting in Warsaw because the uprising was doomed due to Stalin’s wish to have it fail and to see as many democratic and anti-communist Poles killed by the Nazis to make taking control over Poland easier for the Kremlin after the war. The main focus of VOA broadcasts during World War II was anti-Nazi and anti-Japan propaganda, to which no one objected. What many Americans, including members of both parties in the U.S. Congress, did not like was the hijacking of U.S. government broadcasts by pro-Soviet propagandists, including both American and foreign Communists and communist sympathizers, some of them working at the wartime Voice of America Polish Service.
Fortunately for the United States and the Voice of America, after the war VOA’s Soviet agents of influence were replaced in some cases by Poles who had fought the Nazis in the Warsaw Uprising, including journalist Zofia Korbońska and former Radio Free Europe Polish Service broadcaster Irene Broni whose radio name was Irena Radwańska. Both of these brave women and outstanding radio personalities are no longer with us. Someone suggested that the great success of the Polish Service of Radio Free Europe, first led by Jan Nowak Jeziorański, was due to the fact that many of its early broadcasters were former Warsaw Uprising fighters. They were courageous and undeterred by adversities and criticism from communist propagandists and their Communist Party supporters and other left-wing radicals in the West. Other post-war VOA Polish Service staffers survived the Soviet Gulag and fought alongside American and British troops against the Nazis in General Władysław Anders’ Polish Army. These former soldiers and journalists were not going to be fooled by Soviet and pro-Soviet propaganda.
Last year, August 1, 2019, was the 75 anniversary of the start of the Warsaw Uprising, a 63-day unsuccessful operation by the Polish resistance Home Army (Polish: Armia Krajowa or AK) to liberate Warsaw from Nazi German occupation. About 16,000 Polish fighters were killed and between 150,000 and 200,000 Polish civilians died, mostly from mass executions. After the Home Army capitulation in Warsaw, the Germans expelled from the city the entire civilian population. Thousands of the evacuees were sent to Nazi concentration or labor camps. The city was almost completely destroyed during the fighting and after the uprising in a deliberate German action of blowing up buildings.
But in line with Stalin’s negative view of of Polish anti-Nazi fighters who were not pro-Soviet Communists, World War II U.S. Voice of America radio broadcasts largely ignored the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, while most Americans and even President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who caved in to nearly all of Stalin’s demands, expressed support for the Poles’ fight for freedom. VOA’s early news writers, including future Stalin Peace prize winner, American Communist Howard Fast, did not practice journalism in the style of CBS wartime radio reporter Edward R. Murrow. They followed in the footsteps of Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times Moscow correspondent Walter Duranty who, because of his pro-Soviet and pro-communist bias, shamelessly lied about the starvation and death of millions of people in Ukraine and in other parts of the Soviet Union under Stalin’s rule.
But a different view of early Voice of America radio broadcasts was presented by current VOA director Amanda Bennett [she resigned in 2020] in a November 27, 2018 Washington Post op-ed: “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 insisted that Edward R. Murrow helped to create VOA. Based in London and working for CBS, he had absolutely no role and no influence over wartime VOA dominated by admirers of Stalin and the Soviet Union. Unlike early VOA officials and broadcasters, Murrow was not a journalist to be easily fooled by Soviet propaganda.
The bipartisan Select Committee to Conduct an Investigation and Study of the Facts, Evidence and Circumstances of the Katyń Forest Massacre, also known as the Madden Committee, said in its final report issued in December 1952: “In submitting this final report to the House of Representatives, this committee has come to the conclusion that in those fateful days nearing the end of the Second World War there unfortunately existed in high governmental and military circles a strange psychosis that military necessity required the sacrifice of loyal allies and our own principles in order to keep Soviet Russia from making a separate peace with the Nazis.” The committee added: “For reasons less clear to this committee, this psychosis continued even after the conclusion of the war. Most of the witnesses testified that had they known then what they now know about Soviet Russia, they probably would not have pursued the course they did. It is undoubtedly true that hindsight is much easier to follow than foresight, but it is equally true that much of the material which this committee unearthed was or could have been available to those responsible for our foreign policy as early as 1942.” The Madden Committee also said in its final report in 1952: “This committee believes that if the Voice of America is to justify its existence, it must utilize material made available more forcefully and effectively.”
One of Stalin’s atrocities which early pro-Kremlin Voice of America officials and journalists helped to cover up with Soviet propaganda lies was the 1940 mass murder by the NKVD secret police of thousands of Polish POW military officers in the Katyń Forest and at other locations in the Soviet Union — a major war crime which the Soviets denied having committed and tried to blame it on the Germans. The Voice of America defended the false Soviet propaganda claim during World War II and for several years after the war VOA officials coverage of various attempts in the United States to expose the truth about Katyń.
It took Zofia Korbońska, Zdzisław Dziekoński and other VOA Polish Service Cold War era broadcasters and journalists who were former Warsaw Uprising fighters many years to undo the damage done by Soviet agents and sympathizers who had taken control of U.S. international broadcasting during World War II. Eventually, VOA was perceived in Poland as a symbol of America’s commitment to freedom and democracy, but it required a change of staff, a change of management and a new vision for the organization that previously had betrayed American values.
The 1944 Warsaw Uprising was doomed because Stalin halted the Red Army offensive to allow the Germans to kill and crush anti-Communist Poles. As a result of concessions made by Roosevelt to Stalin and the presence on the ground of Red Army troops Poland fell under Soviet domination and communist oppression for nearly five more decades. The early Voice of America did not only betray Warsaw Uprising fighters and Poland, it betrayed more than 80 million people in all the nations which fell under Soviet rule.
During the Cold War, the Voice America eventually redeemed itself and broadcast truthful news behind the Iron Curtain. In 1984 President Ronald Reagan paid tribute to former anti-Nazi Warsaw Uprising fighters, some of whom worked in the VOA Polish Service after the war. During World War II, however, VOA Polish radio broadcasts prepared by admirers of Stalin and Communism, were filled with Soviet propaganda and hostile toward those who did not want to accept Stalin’s rule. They were hired by VOA’s first director John Houseman, a future Hollywood actor who was a radical leftist. He was responsible for hiring or recruiting many of Voice of America’s early communist journalists. The U.S. State Department and the U.S. Military Intelligence quietly forced him to resign in 1943 with the approval from the FDR White House, but many of his Communist hires remained until at least 1945. Some stayed on for a few years longer. Some went back to Eastern Europe to work as propagandists and diplomats for Soviet-dominated communist regimes. While at VOA during the war, they even largely ignored the Holocaust because Soviet propaganda, which they promoted, focused on the suffering and sacrifices of Soviet soldiers and civilians rather than the plight of Jews or other groups and nationalities. Some of the early OWI journalists, including Stefan Arski, a.k.a. Artur Salman, and Adolf Hofmeister, went to work for communist regimes in East-Central Europe. Before they left, these Soviet sympathizers and agents of influence made the life of a few honest VOA journalists extremely difficult. A VOA Polish Service broadcaster Konstanty Broel Plater resigned in 1944 rather than be forced to read Stalin’s propaganda lies to German-occupied Poland. Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles, who was one of the most liberal members of President Roosevelt’s cabinet, in 1943 sent a secret memo to the White House with a warning that pro-Soviet fellow travelers and Communists employed in the Office of War Information have shown “bitter hostility” even toward “a considerable number of officials in the United States Government who are deemed inconvenient.”
This article, originally written in 2015, was updated for the 75th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising in 2019.
Zofia Korbońska, journalist and former Warsaw Uprising fighters, in VOA Polish Service photo taken circa 1974. Zofia Korbońska was in charge of coding radio messages sent from German-occupied Poland to the Polish Government-in-Exile in London. After she and her husband escaped from Poland in 1947 to avoid arrest by the communist regime, she started to work for the Voice of America Polish Service in 1948 at the recommendation of former U.S. Ambassador to Poland Arthur Bliss Lane. She died in Washington, DC in 2010.
Stefan Korboński, one of the leaders of the Polish Underground State during the Nazi occupation presenting President Ronald Reagan with the Polish Underground Armia Krajowa (Home Army) cross at the 40th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising observance at the White House in 1984. Stefan Korboński was the husband of Voice of America Polish Service broadcaster and editor Zofia Korbońska.
READ MORE: , TadeuszLipien.com, August 2, 2015. Updated July 28, 2019.
Disclosure: Ted Lipien is a former VOA acting associate director, former VOA Polish Service chief and co-founder and supporter of BBG – USAGM Watch.
- I am indebted to Polish historian of the Voice of America’s Polish Service Jarosław Jędrzejczak for finding this reference to VOA’s wartime role. ↩