I’m fortunate to have found and bought a rare autographed copy of Black Man in Red Russia by African American journalist Homer Smith Jr. He was a 20th-century fighter for freedom and human dignity who deserves to be admired and remembered by more people, as I wrote about him in a newspaper article. There is more information about Homer Smith in a Minnesota Alumni article, “Homeland Insecurity,” by Jack El-Hai.
During World War II, elite Western reporters almost all repeated Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s lies about the massacre of thousands of Polish military officers and intellectual leaders who were prisoners in the Soviet Union, as did Voice of America (VOA) U.S. government’s radio broadcasts. But Homer Smith, who at that time lived in Russia, chose not to participate in the Kremlin’s propaganda charade.
Here is the full text of my Washington Examiner op-ed about his remarkable man:
February 28, 2022
As a Polish American journalist and a media freedom advocate, I would like to end Black History Month by honoring an African American news reporter and writer. Homer Smith, Jr. (1909-1972) was a 20th-century fighter for freedom and human dignity who deserves to be admired and remembered by more people.
During World War II, elite Western reporters almost all repeated Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s lies about the massacre of thousands of Polish military officers and intellectual leaders who were prisoners in the Soviet Union. But Homer Smith, who at that time lived in Russia, chose not to participate in the Kremlin’s propaganda charade. He later wrote about the Katyn massacre after escaping from the cradle of communism:
“I happen to be one of the few foreigners, and the only Negro, to have visited the scene of the macabre murder of some eleven thousand Polish Army officers, and still have vivid memories of the scene of the savage slaughter in the dreamy spruce forest of Katyn near Smolensk.”
Smith should be recognized for his principled refusal to contribute to the manipulation of the Western media by the Soviets, as well as for his struggle against racism in America.
As Russia’s President Vladimir Putin now intensifies his aggressive war against Ukraine, it is especially critical for journalists to be on guard against propaganda lies, domestic and foreign, similar to those Smith was exposed to during his professional life. Initially fooled by communist propaganda, he became wise as he gained firsthand knowledge and worked as a reporter in Soviet Russia during World War II.
At the time he saw it, Smith chose simply not to write anything about the Katyn massacre. This was actually a courageous stance. It was the only way he could avoid either repeating Soviet lies about what had happened or being expelled from the country or arrested by Stalin’s secret police. Many other journalists, much more privileged than Smith, repeated the lies in order to protect themselves. Some would later claim that they had been duped, but a few admitted privately that they knowingly chose not to question the Soviet version of the genocide. It was a monumental Soviet lie — not dissimilar to the lies being spread today about Ukraine by Putin’s propagandists.
The Katyn massacre played an important part in my own life, as it did in the lives of many Poles over several decades under Communist rule. The Iron Curtain was erected to isolate them and other East-Central European nations at the end of World War II after the Yalta Conference betrayal by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who acted with support from much of the left-leaning Western media. Roosevelt was himself duped, both by Stalin and by his own Office of War Information — pro-Soviet American propagandists who produced wartime Voice of America broadcasts. VOA, where I later worked together with many brave anti-Communist journalists, was during the war dominated by pro-Kremlin fellow travelers.
Before I came to America, I was in the late 1960s a teenager in Poland, then under the thumb of Soviet Russia and local communists. Regardless of what the Roosevelt administration had done to sell Eastern Europe down the river to Stalin, America was still, to me, the land of freedom. It was because of Katyn that I made my decision to try to go to the United States, study history, and become either a Radio Free Europe or a Voice of America broadcaster.
I much preferred RFE but ended up working for VOA, because RFE was based in West Germany, whereas I went to college in Chicago. What made me realize earlier that there was no place for me in Poland was my discovery, mostly from Radio Free Europe and BBC broadcasts, that the Communist Party, its journalists, and regime-friendly teachers were all lying about the Katyn massacre.
The communists claimed that the murders of about 22,000 Polish military officers and intelligentsia in Katyn and other locations were committed by the Nazis in 1941. But it wasn’t so. The Polish POWs had been secretly murdered a year earlier by the Soviet secret police, on orders of Stalin and the Communist Party Politburo. The Soviets denied their responsibility for the murders for nearly five decades.
I also learned the truth about Katyn because we talked about it at home, and some of my teachers took risks to teach us historical facts outside of the Communist school system. I knew, however, that living under oppression and official lies would be demeaning and, for me, intolerable. I was lucky to be able to emigrate to the U.S. in the post-Stalin thaw in Poland. It was possible because my uncle, who, a slave laborer in Nazi Germany during the war, was liberated by the U.S. Army and migrated to Chicago. He arranged for our family to join him.
In the 1930s, Homer Smith, Jr. made a similar decision in his life, and without any help. He was an African-American victim of oppression and lies of a different kind in the U.S. He saw the prevailing racism and violence against African-Americans, and he hoped that the Soviet Union would offer him freedom from racial hatred and discrimination. Desperate for freedom and dignity, he decided to abandon his life in America, hoping to find those things under Communism.
Before traveling to Russia in 1932, he studied journalism at the University of Minnesota and worked for the U.S. Postal Service. In Russia, he found work for Moscow’s postal service. He later started writing reports about life in the Soviet Union for the African-American press, some under the pen name “Chatwood Hall.” He married a Russian woman and started a family, which accounted for his decision to seek Russian citizenship and stay in Russia, even after he noticed that foreign Communists, including his African-American friend, Lovett Fort-Whiteman, were being arrested and dying in Soviet prison camps.
Smith soon realized that the USSR was not the paradise of progress and social justice he had hoped for. He had to find a way to leave Russia with his Russian family. He managed to get permission from the Soviet authorities after the war to work as a journalist in Ethiopia. He returned to the U.S. in 1963 and published his book, “Black Man in Red Russia.” This rare memoir can still be purchased on eBay for several hundred dollars.
While living in Poland during the Cold War, I did not know much about American blacks. But even before starting school, I learned a patronizing song about a young African boy, which the communist media promoted. When I came to the U.S., I was appalled by signs of racism among some Americans, especially in Southern states. This reminded me of the hatred the Communists and the Nazis had for those upon whom they looked down, or upon anybody who opposed them.
Still, over time I saw tremendous progress in race relations in America, thanks to strong democratic, liberal, and religious institutions and traditions. I joined the Voice of America in Washington, DC in 1973 and ended up being in charge of its Polish Service as the independent Solidarity trade union, led by Lech Wałęsa and supported by Pope John Paul II and President Ronald Reagan, made the final push to free Poland from Soviet control.
I did not learn about Homer Smith until much later in my life in the U.S. But I found out sooner, to my great disappointment, that during World War II and for some years after the war, radically left-leaning VOA officials and journalists had enthusiastically spread Soviet propaganda lies, including the lie about Katyn. These VOA employees, some of them Communist Party members, were helping smooth the way for Stalin to establish communist regimes in Eastern and Central Europe.
Some former VOA journalists ended up working for these communist regimes. They were all ideological and intellectual followers of the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty, who lied about Stalin’s orchestrated famine in Ukraine, which had killed millions in the 1930s. One of the Voice of America founders was Howard Fast, a future winner of the Stalin Peace Prize and a communist activist. In 1956, he finally condemned Stalin and the Communist Party, but not Marxism and the Soviet Union. Voice of America officials have for years tried to hide VOA’s early history of communist infiltration and support for Soviet propaganda.
The participants in spreading Soviet propaganda in the early VOA programs were some of the most celebrated American journalists, writers, and artists: FDR’s speechwriter and playwright Robert E. Sherwood ; notable journalists and media figures: Elmer Davis, Joseph Barnes, Wallace Carroll, and Nelson Poynter; writer, communist activist, and journalist, Howard Fast and his patron, the fake radio entertainment news pioneer and Hollywood actor, John Houseman, later somewhat erroneously declared the first VOA Director. Even the pro-Soviet Roosevelt Administration quietly forced Houseman and Fast to resign. Some of VOA’s founding fathers spread the same Soviet propaganda lies to Americans and influenced President Roosevelt’s decisions about Stalin and Russia.
However, the prevailing narrative later was that any suspicion of willful collusion with Soviet propagandists was a McCarthyite effort to discredit reputable progressives who merely opposed racism and fascism. If VOA officials were even willing to admit that a future Stalin Peace Prize winner had worked for VOA, they would try to make fun of it and dismiss it as trivial. But their amusement over Howard Fast’s Stalin Peace Prize would not amuse anyone who had lived under communism.
Millions had lost their lives because of Stalin, just as millions had lost their lives because of Hitler. The Voice of America was also severely deficient in reporting on the Jewish Holocaust during World War II. It was not something American and Soviet propagandists thought necessary for the war effort. VOA also did not broadcast in Russian during the war, because the Roosevelt Administration did not want to offend Stalin. The management has not apologized for any of VOA’s early failures and the decades of discrimination against its immigrant journalists, who later in the Cold War tried to undo the damage done by VOA’s first team of pro-Soviet fellow travelers.
The Kremlin’s manipulation of Western leaders and media shows that the effort to forget the past and distort the historical truth about the Voice of America and its early period under Soviet influence is backfiring. Officials in the U.S. Agency for Global Media and journalists find it difficult to cope with propaganda from the ex-KGB master, Vladimir Putin. As the Voice of America observed its 80th anniversary this month, some of its past and current figures were still promoting the misleading version of the U.S. station’s origins funded by U.S. taxpayers and managed by a federal agency.
Many of VOA’s early officials and broadcasters were well-meaning but easily duped, with tragic consequences for international radio audiences. They helped spread the lie that Stalin was a democrat who could be trusted. Later in his journalistic career, Homer Smith, Jr. was not among those so easily misled. He was a victim of racism. He was not part of the privileged elite. And he saw through Stalin’s lies much sooner than many of his White American and British colleagues.
Anti-Communist Voice of America refugee broadcasters, like the legendary anti-Nazi Polish resistance fighter Zofia Korbońska , were hired after the war by the Truman Administration to replace the fellow travelers. They tried to counter Soviet lies during the Cold War. Yet they still faced limited censorship and discrimination from the largely American-born and privileged management.
As the Ukrainian people bravely defend themselves against the Russian aggression and disinformation war launched by Vladimir Putin, it’s a reminder that America needs more journalists like Homer Smith and Zofia Korbońska and fewer Walter Durantys and Howard Fasts.
Ted Lipien is a journalist, writer, and media freedom advocate. He was Voice of America’s Polish Service chief during Poland’s struggle for democracy and VOA’s acting associate director. He served briefly in 2020-2021 as the president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.