Mark Pomar’s new book about the Cold War political radio could help American government officials unfamiliar with the history of U.S. international broadcasting.
Mark Pomar’s book Cold War Radio [Mark G. Pomar, Cold War Radio: The Russian Broadcasts of the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (Lincoln: Potomac Books, an imprint of the University of Nebraska Press, 2022), Amazon Link] is, in my view, the first serious attempt at an unbiased presentation of the World War II and Cold War-era history of the U.S. government-funded and managed Voice of America (VOA) radio broadcasting. While there have been other books on VOA’s early and more recent history, written primarily by the outlet’s former managers and journalists, almost all of them have major gaps or suffer from a strong partisan (mostly pro-Left) and institutional (pro-VOA) bias. Pomar’s book presents an unvarnished history, untainted by partisan bias. With the ex-KGB officer, Vladimir Putin, intensifying Soviet imperial propaganda in support of his aggressive wars, Pomar’s book is a timely and valuable resource for policymakers, scholars, and journalists.
The Voice of America’s early support of Soviet imperialism in Eastern Europe and the help from VOA’s officials and journalists in spreading Stalin’s propaganda lies during World War II, and, to a lesser extent, for a few more years after the war, were hidden or downplayed by previous writers of the organization’s history, largely because these events happened during the Democratic administration of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR’s betrayal of Eastern Europe at the wartime Big Three conferences in Tehran and Yalta became after the war too shameful for many Democrats and gave them a strong motive to hide this part of VOA’s history. Once the Voice of America started to counter Soviet communism in the early 1950s, albeit not yet very effectively, many Republicans, with the exception of Senator Joseph McCarthy and his extreme followers, were also reluctant to bring up VOA’s past mistakes. McCarthy’s delusional rantings, full of unsupported accusations against innocent individuals, helped to discredit legitimate accounts of the earlier Soviet influence within the Voice of America, which was already stamped out by President Truman’s administration.
Pomar describes how the Voice of America broadcasting was saved after the war from elimination by Congress thanks to the efforts of Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs William B. Benton and the 1948 Smith-Mundt Act, which made VOA part of the U.S. public diplomacy outreach abroad. While not dwelling on the failures in the earlier period, Pomar’s refreshingly honest book provides a much-needed introduction to develop an understanding of the pervasive journalistic and institutional problems in U.S. government broadcasting, many of which have reappeared in recent years almost as strongly as during VOA’s initial love affair with Soviet Russia and Soviet communism.
World War II radio broadcasting is not the primary focus of Pomar’s book. He concentrates on the Voice of America’s successes during the Reagan administration, when he served there as a VOA program manager, as well as some of the shortcomings and controversies in the later period of the Cold War, including those that occurred during the Nixon-Ford Republican administrations and during the Democratic administration of President Carter. Pomar’s book also covers in some depth the history of the Russian broadcasts of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), where he was a former assistant director of the Russian Service. Several objective accounts of RFE and RL broadcasting history already exist, but Pomar adds many new perspectives, again with his uncompromisingly honest and non-partisan scholarship.
Pomar’s book does not deal with…more recent controversies, but it can help those, who – undisturbed by the knowledge of history – are again duped by Soviet-type Russian disinformation.
During the Reagan years, Pomar was director of the USSR Division at the Voice of America. He states in Cold War Radio that “By formally ending détente as official U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union, the Reagan administration gave the VOA Russian broadcasters license to be investigative journalists and to shed the onerous burden of diplomacy.” This counters the narrative that Reagan and his appointees tried to turn VOA into a propaganda outlet and undermined its credibility. Pomar shows that they had lifted pro-détente diplomatic censorship rather than imposed their own. VOA’s audience in Poland increased nearly fivefold during the Reagan years when I led the Polish Service, and it also grew substantially in the Soviet Union when Pomar was in charge of the USSR Division. 1
Under Pomar’s watch, one of the most respected Soviet dissidents, Lyudmila Alexeyeva, a former critic of the VOA Russian Service, was invited to produce a weekly 45-minute program on human rights. Pomar also succeeded in ending the previous management’s ban on interviewing Soviet Nobel Prize-winning author Alexandr Solzhenitsyn and a ban on airing extensive excerpts from his books, including The Gulag Archipelago. 2 Pomar writes in Cold War Radio about his visit to Solzhenitsyn’s home in Vermont, where during three days in 1984, he recorded a lengthy interview with the Russian writer and 20 hours of excerpts from his novel August 1914, read for VOA by Solzhenitsyn.
Broadcasting 20 hours of readings by an anti-Soviet Russian writer would not have been possible at the Voice of America before the Reagan administration. Many pre-Regan-era VOA managers, as well as a substantial majority in the VOA Central English newsroom, staffed mostly by U.S.-born journalists, regarded President Reagan with alarm and contempt. But Pomar correctly observes in his book that as a result of Reagan’s new policy toward Soviet Russia, “VOA produced many outstanding programs that dealt with individual freedom and human rights, especially in the area of culture, that retain relevance to this day.”
While the best and the most extensive accounts in Pomar’s book deal with the later Cold War period, he exposed some of the tabus around VOA’s early fascination with Soviet communism and the early acceptance of Soviet propaganda lies by VOA managers and journalists. Pomar noted that several of the Voice of America’s founding fathers, including John Houseman, who was later somewhat erroneously called the VOA’s first director, were radically pro-Soviet and easily duped by communist propaganda. Ironically, Western supporters of Russian imperialism are now found mostly among extreme right-wing-leaning politicians and journalists.
I have discovered in doing research for my forthcoming book about the Voice of America that Houseman’s forced resignation in 1943 was initiated by President Roosevelt’s personal friend, Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles. 3 He was the author of the 1940 Welles Declaration, which stated that the United States government would never accept the Soviet annexation of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.
Welles warned the FDR White House in 1943 that Houseman was hiring pro-Soviet Communists for VOA jobs. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, top wartime military leader and later U.S. president, supported the ousting of other pro-Soviet VOA managers and programmers because their radically leftist propaganda endangered the lives of American soldiers fighting the Nazi armies in North Africa and Italy. 4
Houseman’s protege in the position of the VOA’s first chief news writer and editor, novelist Howard Fast, was forced to resign in 1944. He later became a U.S. Communist Party activist and the recipient of the 1953 Stalin International Peace Prize.
The Roosevelt administration went to great lengths to appease Stalin but did not want pro-Soviet Russia activists to be in charge of the Voice of America. However, FDR was not opposed to VOA covering up Stalin’s genocidal crimes, such as the Katyn Forest massacre of thousands of Polish officers in Soviet captivity. The FDR administration saw such censorship and the acceptance of Soviet propaganda as necessary to protect the U.S.-Soviet military alliance against Nazi Germany.
Pomar does not go into the details of the early pro-Soviet Voice of America programs, but he mentions the key role of FDR’s speechwriter, Robert E. Sherwood, in the Office of War Information (OWI), where VOA broadcasts originated from 1942 to 1945. Sherwood was responsible for coordinating U.S. propaganda with Soviet propaganda during the war. I discovered in my research that Sherwood accepted at face value some of the Soviet propaganda lies and even became convinced and tried to convince others at the Voice of America that Joseph Stalin was in favor of religious freedom in the Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe.
There was strong bipartisan displeasure in Congress with the OWI activities, particularly its domestic propaganda, which Congress had almost completely defunded already in 1943. Most members of Congress, however, did not voice objections when the agency produced propaganda films in support of the illegal internment of American citizens of Japanese ancestry. The OWI also engaged in illegal domestic media censorship to protect Stalin and the Soviet Union from criticism, while at the same time the Voice of America largely ignored the Jewish Holocaust. 5
Protected by President Roosevelt, Sherwood was not fired but resigned from the Office of War Information in 1944 to work on FDR’s presidential campaign. 6 Almost all of the remaining Soviet sympathizers at VOA were forced out by the Truman administration. A few of them later worked for the pro-Soviet regimes in Eastern Europe, some as anti-U.S. propagandists. 7
Pomar’s book does not go into the stories of these early pro-communist VOA journalists, but he notes in his book that the FDR administration officials refrained from starting VOA Russian broadcasts out of fear of offending the Soviet dictator. VOA broadcasts in Russian were not launched until February 1947. Pomar describes how these early Russian broadcasts were still based on the naive premise that VOA could foster dialogue and build bridges with Soviet Russia before President Truman ordered a change in U.S. information policy with the so-called “Campaign of Truth.” 8
At the time Mark Pomar worked as the VOA’s USSR Division in the 1980s, I was in charge of VOA’s Polish broadcasts during the Solidarity independent trade union’s struggle for democracy. We both benefited from the leadership of the then-VOA Director, the late Kenneth Tomlinson, who understood the historic role of Pope John Paul II in helping to advance freedom in Poland and in other countries of East-Central Europe. In his book, Pomar comments on the lack of appreciation for religious programming from the pre-Reagan management, going back to the early VOA left-leaning leaders and journalists.
In my own research, I found a comment by an ex-Marxist and later anti-Communist, Bertram Wolfe, whom the Truman administration hired in the early 1950s to help reform the VOA programs and counter Soviet propaganda. Wolfe wrote that he could not find a single Voice of America writer capable of understanding the deep need for religious freedom among VOA audiences behind the Iron Curtain and had to write religious programs himself, even though he was an atheist.
Pomar understands the importance of religious traditions in Russia, which survived despite the persecution of religious believers and decades of communist rule. In this context, he comments on the conflict between Alexandr Solzhenitsyn and one of Reagan’s foreign policy advisors on the Soviet Union, Prof. Richard Pipes, who was instrumental in convincing Reagan to increase spending on U.S. international broadcasting. But Pipes disliked Solzhenitsyn, suspecting him, quite erroneously, of being a xenophobic, anti-Semitic Russian nationalist.
These false accusations against Solzhenitsyn were initially planted and promoted in the West by KGB propagandists. Pomar does not dispute Solzhenitsyn’s conservatism and some of his idealized views of Russia, but he successfully defended his decision to broadcast long excerpts from Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914 novel.
I agree with Pomar, that Pipes, despite his otherwise excellent scholarship and his contribution during the Regan administration to the fall of the Soviet empire, unfairly downplayed the positive aspects of Orthodox Christianity in Russia and the role of many outstanding Soviet dissidents, both religious and non-religious.
Poland, Rostropovich told VOA listeners, was a true catalyst for change in the Communist world because it had freedom of art and religion, and those essential freedoms laid the groundwork for independent movements such as Solidarity. “Of course, life is very difficult for Poland now, Rostropovich went on to say, but “heroic figures such as Walesa, Wyszynski, and Penderecki [Polish composer and conductor Krzysztof Penderecki] do appear. I don’t think Penderecki is a political activist any more than I am. We simply stand for truth. And the freedom to be what we are is what Walesa and Solidarity movement are fighting for.”
Pomar has a keen understanding of Russian history and culture. His book proves that under the right management, the station was finally able to contribute to the fall of Soviet communism. It also shows that without the right kind of presidential leadership and without non-partisan management, the Voice of America can easily become a platform for naive ideologues, who have little idea of what foreign audiences need and want.
Pomar book’s hints at how past errors may be repeated today but leaves it to readers to make direct connections. Placing VOA within the State Department (1945) and in 1953 in the United States Information Agency (USIA) allowed for interference with programming from U.S. diplomats. Fortunately, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, initially established under the secret CIA umbrella, were largely spared such interference because of their semi-private status, their sharp focus on surrogate (local news in foreign languages rather than English) broadcasting, superior management, and better hiring practices.
Pomar was able to improve the Voice of America’s USSR Division thanks to his expert knowledge of Russia and managerial skills, but he could not have succeeded without President Reagan’s leadership and his support for U.S. international broadcasting. VOA director Kenneth Tomlinson assured Pomar that the Reagan White House supported his decision to broadcast Solzhenitsyn. Before 1981, such programming would have been stopped by USIA diplomats or would be severely restricted by VOA’s own managers and editors who themselves were unwilling to challenge the Soviet regime and still believed in the convergence of Western free market democracy with Communist Bloc’s socialism.
The abolishment of USIA in 1999 and putting the Voice of America under the control of an independent government bureaucracy did not improve VOA. In my view, it merely replaced diplomatic censorship, which was already diminishing thanks to the VOA Charter, with ideological, partisan, and even foreign interference in the Voice of America programming due to the lack of accountability and poor management. Some of the officials in charge of the agency and VOA had business interests in China and Russia. They all happened to be Democrats but they could have also been Republicans. Most, although not all, were chosen on the basis of their partisan loyalties rather than any expert knowledge of foreign policy or foreign cultures.
The so-called “firewall” protected the Voice of America from most of the interference from U.S. government officials after VOA was made part of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, but it did not protect it from bad management, domestic partisan propaganda, and foreign propaganda. I was shocked when in 2014, several Voice of America reports from Crimea implied that the vast majority of the Crimean population was strongly in favor of joining Russia. These VOA reports failed to point out clearly and at length that any referenda conducted under foreign occupation are illegal and must be viewed as highly suspect and invalid.
The federal agency in charge of VOA, which was then called the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), went as far as to conduct a poll in the occupied and annexed Crimea to show popular support for Russia. The BBG-commissioned poll, which was carried out in violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty, was criticized by American, Ukrainian, and independent Russian experts.
The main message I got from Pomar’s book, which confirms some of my views, is that expert knowledge of history and foreign cultures is indispensable for shaping U.S. international broadcasting and that each country needs a different approach to programming. But such knowledge and skills may no longer exist among the agency’s and VOA’s leadership, as evidenced most dramatically in recent years by the debacle in Afghanistan, the loss of impact of the U.S. government-supported broadcasting worldwide, and the criticism from Iranian-American and Chinese-American leaders, as well as from foreign policy and information policy experts.
Pomar argues for careful planning of handling controversial topics and for a greater diversity of programming rather than keeping potentially controversial figures off the air. Such expert knowledge and management skills are, however, hard to find in recent years. In 2017, the senior management of the Voice of America was caught unprepared for a highly sensitive interview with the Chinese anti-communist whistleblower Guo Wengui. The controversy led to VOA losing credibility in China and among Chinese-Americans.
Declining standards were the cause of multiple other programming scandals, including the airing of partisan U.S. presidential campaign videos that violated the VOA Charter. A few years ago, VOA also presented and promoted American Communist Angela Davis as a human rights activist. VOA editors probably did not know that during the Cold War, Solzhenitsyn and other pro-democracy dissidents condemned Angela Davis for supporting Soviet propaganda and refusing to intercede on behalf of imprisoned East European political prisoners. She was rewarded by the Soviet regime with the Lenin Peace Prize.
VOA also glorified Fidel Castro 10 after his death in 2016 without mentioning his countless victims, and openly advocated in support of the nuclear deal with the Iranian regime, again in violation of the VOA Charter.
The Voice of America and Broadcasting Board of Governors (as the USAGM was called until 2018) also failed to conduct thorough security clearances of their new hires and gave jobs to a few former Russian state media employees with a history of supporting anti-U.S. and anti-Ukraine propaganda. 11
Pomar’s book does not deal with these more recent controversies, but it can help those, who – undisturbed by the knowledge of history – are again duped by the Soviet-type Russian disinformation.
- “Martial Law Prisoners in Poland Praised Reagan, Voice of America and Radio Free Europe,” BBG and USAGM Watch(blog), December 4, 2013, https://bbgwatch.com/bbgwatch/martial-law-prisoners-in-poland-praised-reagan-voice-of-america-and-radio-free-europe/. ↩
- Ted Lipien, “SOLZHENITSYN Target of KGB Propaganda and Censorship by Voice of America,” Cold War Radio Museum (blog), November 7, 2017, http://www.coldwarradiomuseum.com/solzhenitsyn-target-of-kgb-propaganda-and-censorship-by-voice-of-america/. ↩
- Ted Lipien, “First VOA Director Was a Pro-Soviet Communist Sympathizer, State Dept. Warned FDR White House,” Cold War Radio Museum (blog), May 5, 2018, http://www.coldwarradiomuseum.com/state-department-warned-fdr-white-house-first-voice-of-america-director-was-hiring-communists/. ↩
- Ted Lipien, “General Eisenhower Accused WWII VOA of ‘Insubordination,’” Cold War Radio Museum (blog), May 14, 2018, https://www.coldwarradiomuseum.com/general-eisenhower-accused-wwii-voa-of-insubordination/. ↩
- Holly Cowan Shullman, “The Voice of America, US Propaganda and the Holocaust: ‘I Would Have Remembered’,” Historical Journal of Film, Radio & Television 17, no. 1 (March 1997), pp. 91-103. ↩
- “Sherwood Resigns His OWI Post To Aid Campaign for Roosevelt,” The New York Times, accessed July 8, 2021, http://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1944/09/26/86878373.html?pageNumber=14. ↩
- Ted Lipien, “Voice of America Polish Writer Listed As His Job Reference Stalin’s KGB Agent of Influence Who Duped President Roosevelt,” Cold War Radio Museum (blog), February 12, 2020, http://www.coldwarradiomuseum.com/voice-of-america-polish-editor-listed-stalins-kgb-agent-of-influence-as-job-reference/. ↩
- Ted Lipien, “Truman’s ‘Campaign of Truth’ at Voice of America Part I: Countering Soviet Propaganda Abroad and at Home,” Cold War Radio Museum (blog), March 25, 2021, http://www.coldwarradiomuseum.com/campaign-of-truth-at-voice-of-america-part-i/. ↩
- Mark G. Pomar, Cold War Radio: The Russian Broadcasts of the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty(Lincoln: Potomac Books, an imprint of the University of Nebraska Press, 2022), p. 120. ↩
- Ted Lipien, “Voice of America Report Favored Castro Regime in Cuba Protests,” Washington Examiner, July 14, 2021, https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/opinion/op-eds/voice-of-america-report-favored-castro-regime-in-cuba-protests. ↩
- Dan Robinson, “USAGM: Past Agency Leaders Ignored National Security Procedures, Failed to Adequately Vet Staff,” BBG and USAGM Watch (blog), August 4, 2020, https://bbgwatch.com/bbgwatch/usagm-past-agency-leaders-ignored-national-security-procedures-failed-to-adequately-vet-staff/. ↩