Polish military officer, writer and artist Józef Czapski, who had made a futile search for thousands of missing Polish officers in Soviet Russia during World War II killed on the orders of Stalin in 1940, was censored by the Voice of America (VOA) during his visit to the United States in 1950. Later, under tremendous pressure from the U.S. Congress, VOA stopped its censorship of the Katyn story but resumed it partially later in the Cold War until the Reagan administration put a stop to all VOA censorship about Soviet crimes.
During World War II, overseas radio broadcasts of the U.S. Office of War Information (OWI), which only later became known as the Voice of America, repeated and promoted Soviet propaganda lies under VOA’s first so-called director but in reality the radio program production chief John Houseman. Houseman’s extreme pro-Soviet line resulted in him being forced to resign in 1943. But the real directors of these early “Voice of America” wartime broadcast and Soviet sympathizers hired by John Houseman continued their collusion with Soviet propagandists and covered up Stalin’s crimes well into the mid-1940s.
One of the early contributors to OWI information programs and later a volunteer in launching first VOA broadcasts in Russian in 1947 was Kathleen Harriman, daughter of President Roosevelt’s wartime ambassador to Moscow W. Averell Harriman. She had worked for OWI as a young reporter in London and later in Moscow, where she accompanied her father. It was Ambassador Harriman who in 1944 sent her 25-year-old daughter on a Soviet-organized propaganda trip to the Katyn forest near Smolensk, the site of the mass murder of thousands of Polish military officers and members of the Polish intelligentsia. After the trip, she produced a report for the State Department which supported the Soviet propaganda claim that the Germans were the perpetrators of the mass murder. The Polish prisoners of war in Soviet hands were in fact executed in the spring of 1940 by the NKVD secret police on the orders of Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Politburo. As Russia was then America’s military ally fighting Nazi Germany, President Roosevelt did not want to disclose Stalin’s genocidal crimes to Americans and foreign audiences.
When the Germans announced the discovery of the Katyn graves in April 1943, the Office of War Information immediately started to broadcast and promote the Soviet propaganda lie about Katyn, even though high-level State Department diplomats who earlier had warned the FDR White House of Soviet and communist influence at the agency in charge of “Voice of America” broadcasts, advised against fully accepting the Kremlin’s claims of innocence. Ambassador Harriman, his daughter, and OWI’s “Voice of America” propagandists helped to boost the Kremlin’s false propaganda claims. It was one of the most blatant Soviet propaganda lies, or what now would be called fake news, of the 20th century.
With so many high-level U.S. government officials and the Voice of America tainted by the Soviet lie, it is no surprise that VOA’s early history has been covered up, distorted, re-written and falsely presented by friendly historians with links to the agency, now called the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) and previously known as the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). They have ignored and most likely purposely obscured the early collusion between the Roosevelt administration and Soviet propagandists. They never mentioned VOA’s participation in the Katyn lie and the later cover-up of Soviet crimes, including mass deportations to the Gulag. Eventually, the Voice of America and State Department officials in charge of it were forced by Congress to change their programming policy in the early 1950s.The bipartisan Madden Committee of the House of Representatives blamed in 1952 the earlier pro-Soviet U.S. government propaganda on “a strange psychosis that military necessity required the sacrifice of loyal allies and out own principles in order to keep Soviet Russia from making a separate peace with the Nazis.” The committee pointed out that “this psychosis continued even after the conclusion of the war. In a warning about a corrupting effect of foreign and domestic propaganda combined with censorship, the Madden Committee noted that “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.”
John Houseman is still presented in VOA promotional materials (2018) not as an apologist for Stalin, but as a defender of truthful journalism. His biography posted online by the VOA Public Relations Office says nothing about the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Military Intelligence preventing Houseman from traveling abroad during World War II and his hiring of communists and pro-Soviet sympathizers to work on the early VOA Broadcasts.
One will not learn from many of the books, online articles and promotional brochures about Kathleen Harriman as one of the early contributors to the Voice of America programs and about her defense of the Katyn lie. Even in the late 1940s and in 1950, the Voice of America was censoring witnesses of Stalin’s crimes, including statements by Józef Czapski. In the 1970s, VOA limited extensive readings from books by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn in response to pressure from Moscow and directives from the Nixon and Ford administrations eager to promote the policy of detente with the Kremlin.