U.S. Government propaganda photo: Young Polish refugee

U.S. Government Propaganda Photo (1943)

By Ted Lipien

This U.S. Government propaganda photo showing a healthy-looking Polish boy was taken by the Office of War Information (OWI) photographer in Iran in 1943. To protect Stalin and the anti-Germany military alliance with Moscow, pro-Soviet propagandists in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration did not publish photos of Polish children who were starved, ill and near death when they were evacuated from Soviet Russia to Iran in 1942. Likewise, OWI’s Voice of America (VOA) radio broadcasts did not mention mistreatment of Polish deportees, including women and children, in the Soviet Gulag camps and collective farms, to which they had been sent as slave laborers. VOA’s radio broadcasts for foreign audiences and a broadcast by OWI Director Elmer Davis targeting Americans spread instead Soviet propaganda lies that mass executions of Polish prisoners in Soviet Russia carried out by the NKVD secret police in 1940, known collectively as the Katyń Forest massacre, were carried out by the Germans after they had occupied the area in 1941. Americans and foreigners alike were misled by Roosevelt administration’s propaganda about Stalin and the Soviet regime — a point highlighted in bipartisan criticism after the war.

The bipartisan Madden Committee of the House of Representatives blamed it in 1952 on “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 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.”[efn_note]The bipartisan Select Committee to Conduct an Investigation and Study of the Facts, Evidence and Circumstances of the Katyn 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.” A major change in VOA programs occurred, with much more reporting being done on the investigation into the Katyń massacre and other Soviet atrocities, but later some of the censorship returned. Also U.S. funded Radio Free Europe (RFE), never resorted to such censorship, and provided full coverage of all communist human rights abuses. See: Select Committee to Conduct an Investigation and Study of the Facts, Evidence and Circumstances of the Katyn Forest Massacre, The Katyn Forest Massacre: Final Report (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1952), 10-12. The report is posted on the National Archives website: https://archive.org/details/KatynForestMassacreFinalReport.[/efn_note]

The congressional committee blamed OWI director Elmer Davis for bearing “the responsibility for accepting the Soviet propaganda version of the Katyn massacre without full investigation.” His broadcast reinforcing Soviet propaganda claims was aired repeatedly by the Voice of America. The committee also said that “the Voice of America—successor to the Office of War Information—had failed to utilize available information concerning the Katyn massacre until the creation of this committee.”[efn_note]Committee to Conduct an Investigation and Study of the Facts, Evidence and Circumstances of the Katyn Forest Massacre, The Katyn Forest Massacre: Final Report , 9-10.[/efn_note]

Some Roosevelt administration officials tried to justify their silencing of the accounts of Polish refugees about their treatment in Soviet Russia with arguments that telling the whole truth to Americans could undermine the support of the Polish-American community for the war effort. Some of the same officials and others in the Truman administration also argued that releasing such information by the United States government after the war could have provoked a bloody uprising in Poland against the communist regime and the Soviet occupiers. The Madden Committee rejected such arguments. The bipartisan committee said in its final report that it “was not impressed with statements that publication of facts concerning this crime, prior to 1951, would lead to an ill-fated uprising in Poland.” “Neither was it convinced” the committee added, “by the statements of OWI officials that for the Polish-Americans to hear or read about the Katyn massacre in 1943 would have resulted in a lessening of their cooperation in the Allied war effort.”[efn_note]Committee to Conduct an Investigation and Study of the Facts, Evidence and Circumstances of the Katyn Forest Massacre, The Katyn Forest Massacre: Final Report , 10.[/efn_note]

To prevent abuses similar to deceptive Office of War Information press releases and the Voice of America broadcasts about Stalin, war prisoners in Russia and Polish war refugees, the 1948 Smith-Mundt Act passed by the U.S. Congress significantly restricted use of tax dollars to target Americans with news and political commentary produced by the U.S. government. Some of these restrictions were later lifted. The Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012, which was contained within the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013 (section 1078 (a)) and signed by President Obama, amended the 1948 Smith-Mundt Act and subsequent legislation, allowing for materials produced by the State Department and the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which included the Voice America, to be made available within the United States.


Photo Credits

U.S. Government Propaganda Photo

U.S. Government propaganda photo. OWI, Tehran, Iran, 1943.
  • Title: Teheran, Iran. Young Polish refugee at an evacuation camp operated by the Red Cross
  • Creator(s): Parrino, Nick, photographer, U.S. Office of War Information (OWI)
  • Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540
  • Link 

Photos by Lt. Col. Henry I. Szymanski, U.S. Army

  • Twelve-year-old boy, Polish evacuee from Russia, August 1942
  • Six-year-old boy, Polish evacuee from Russia, August 1942
  • Three sisters, ages 7, 8, and 9, Polish evacuees from Russia, August 1942
  • Photos by: Lieutenant Colonel Henry I. Szymanski, U.S. Army
  • Source: The Katyn Forest Massacre: Hearings Before The Select Committee to Conduct An Investigation on The Facts, Evidence and Circumstances of the Katyn Forest Massacre; Eighty-Second Congress, Second Session On Investigation of The Murder of Thousands of Polish Officers in The Katyn Forest Near Smolensk, Russia; Part 3 (Chicago, Ill.); March 13 and 14, 1952 (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1952), pp. 459-461.
  • Link

Notes