U.S. Responses to WWII Soviet Propaganda Against Poland — Lessons for Confronting Putin’s Propaganda
By Ted Lipien
Aggressive propaganda in support of territorial claims against other, almost always smaller and weaker nations, has been a constant feature in Soviet history. There are many similarities between Soviet propaganda and propaganda currently employed by the Kremlin against Ukraine and the West. Soviet propaganda portrayed Russia as a victim or a potential victim of aggression, made Soviet aggression appear as self-defense, and labeled all those who opposed the Kremlin in any way as Fascists. The Communist regime in Russia also fabricated and promoted false evidence to cover up Soviet crimes. The very same themes are being used and constantly repeated today by President Putin’s propaganda and disinformation machine to justify his military aggression in Ukraine and other aggressive foreign policy moves. President Putin and his media are also engaged in a propaganda campaign to distort World War II history and to whitewash some of Stalin’s most hideous crimes.
August 1, 2019 is the 75 anniversary of the start of the Warsaw Uprising, a 63-day unsuccessful operation by the Polish resistance Home Army (Polish: Armia Krajowa) 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.
Some of Soviet sympathizers and Communists were hired by VOA’s first director John Houseman, a future Hollywood Oscar-winning actor. 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.
But a different view of early Voice of America radio broadcasts was presented by current VOA director Amanda Bennett in a recent Washington Postop-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. 1
It took Zofia Korbońska, Irene Broni (Irena Radwańska), Zdzisław Dziekoński, Jan Grużewski, Wacław Bniński 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. Another VOA Polish Service broadcaster, my deputy Marek Walicki, witnessed the Warsaw Uprising as a young boy. Eventually, with the help of these journalists, 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. President Ronald Reagan paid tribute to former anti-Nazi Warsaw Uprising fighters, including those who later worked in the VOA Polish Service. 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 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.” 2
This article, originally written in 2015, was updated for the 75th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising.
Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles April 6, 1943 memorandum to Marvin H. McIntyre, Secretary to the President with enclosures, Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum Website, Box 77, State – Welles, Sumner, 1943-1944; version date 2013. State – Welles, Sumner, 1943-1944, From Collection: FDR-FDRPSF Departmental Correspondence, Series: Departmental Correspondence, 1933 – 1945 Collection: President’s Secretary’s File (Franklin D. Roosevelt Administration), 1933 – 1945, National Archives Identifier: 16619284. ↩