Voice of America Begins Broadcasting Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Voice of America began broadcasting in German-occupied territories as a tool for the U.S. government to engage enemy propaganda broadcasts with counterpropaganda of their own. In later years, the Voice of America became a mainstay in the propaganda war against communist governments, and it remains the official international broadcasting system the United States.

Summary of Event

World War II sparked the development of the Voice of America (VOA), an international broadcasting system under the auspices of the U.S. government that began operation seventy-nine days after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The United States was one of the last major powers to establish such an international radio network, after Britain, France, Germany, and the Soviet Union. The government launched VOA as an information campaign to support American war interests and to counter anti-American propaganda. [kw]Voice of America Begins Broadcasting (Feb. 24, 1942) Voice of America World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];propaganda Propaganda;United States Radio;propaganda Voice of America World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];propaganda Propaganda;United States Radio;propaganda [g]North America;Feb. 24, 1942: Voice of America Begins Broadcasting[00470] [g]United States;Feb. 24, 1942: Voice of America Begins Broadcasting[00470] [c]Communications and media;Feb. 24, 1942: Voice of America Begins Broadcasting[00470] [c]Publishing and journalism;Feb. 24, 1942: Voice of America Begins Broadcasting[00470] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Feb. 24, 1942: Voice of America Begins Broadcasting[00470] [p]Houseman, John [p]Roosevelt, Franklin D.;propaganda [p]Sherwood, Robert E. [p]Davis, Elmer [p]Loomis, Henry [p]Murrow, Edward R.

The first VOA broadcast occurred February 24, 1942. However, even in mid-1941 the United States had already been preparing to launch an international radio broadcast system as part of the U.S. Foreign Information Service Foreign Information Service, U.S. (FIS). President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Robert E. Sherwood to direct the FIS. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December, 1941, forced the U.S. to rush the development of its international radio program, and Sherwood hired John Houseman to direct the newly formed international broadcast system. Houseman, a well-known Hollywood producer, director, and writer, directed the VOA from February, 1942 to July, 1943.

Houseman may have been a particularly effective director given his background in Hollywood, which gave him a flair for marketing or “spinning” the news to an audience, highly valuable assets in a propaganda war. Although the VOA began under the oversight of the FIS, the hierarchical structure of U.S. government agencies changed during the war, and in June, 1942, the VOA was put under the jurisdiction of the Office of War Information Office of War Information, U.S. (OWI) and its director, Elmer Davis.

The first broadcast to Europe lasted fifteen minutes and, according to VOA archives, used

…BBC medium and long-wave transmitters. Speaking from New York City in VOA’s inaugural broadcast, announcer William Harlan Hale sign[ed] on in German saying, “Here speaks a voice from America. Everyday at this time we will bring you the news of the war. The news may be good. The news may be bad. We shall tell you the truth.”

The first VOA broadcasts were transmitted to territories occupied by the Axis Powers, such as German-occupied Europe and North Africa, as well as Asia. The VOA newscasts told listeners what the American government wanted them to know about American policies, people, world events, and war efforts.

The first VOA programs were news programs, but veteran VOA employee Alan Heil [p]Heil, Alan notes that these programs “although dedicated to offering facts . . . reflected Houseman’s own creative production skills.” For example, one program that Houseman produced was called ACE: America Calling Europe ACE: America Calling Europe (radio program) , which was a half-hour show with one broadcaster reporting the news and other narrators inserting quotes and additional commentary, a multivoiced approach to international radio that was unique at the time. Every quarter hour, the newscast rotated to a different broadcaster who would give the news in a different language.

During the World War II era, the VOA grew quickly. In March, 1942, it broadcast for only six and one-quarter hours daily, but VOA airtime quickly increased to twenty-four hours a day by April, 1942. Initially, VOA programs were heard in four languages (English, German, French, and Italian), and the interval signal was a brass band playing “Yankee Doodle.” VOA services expanded to twenty-three languages and twenty-seven transmitters by June, 1942. To demonstrate the popularity of the VOA during the war years, one French listener wrote the following letter to VOA: “You in America cannot imagine how even a few minutes of news from America, heard by a Frenchman, is spread around. An hour after it is heard, hundreds, thousands know the truth.”

When World War II ended, the VOA lost much of its government funding. In an effort to regain funding, supporters of the agency, such as Columbia University professor Arthur McMahon [p]McMahon, Arthur[Macmahon, Arthur] , urged Congress to consider how other countries perceived America, suggesting that the VOA could be used as a tool for shaping these perceptions. Congress continued funding the VOA, and in 1947 the organization began transmitting broadcasts to the Soviet Union, denouncing the Soviet Union and Communist expansion. In 1948, the Smith-Mundt Act Smith-Mundt Act (1948)[Smith Mundt Act] , signed by President Harry S. Truman, prevented the VOA from broadcasting domestically to American citizens. Management of the VOA changed government offices again, and the network became part of the Office of International Information Office of International Information, U.S. at the State Department.

By the 1950’s, according to Nicholas Cull, the VOA had become a primary propaganda vehicle for the U.S. government’s Cold War campaign. Even so, in 1953 Senator Joseph McCarthy [p]McCarthy, Joseph[Maccarthy, Joseph] claimed the VOA was influenced by communism. These charges proved false, but the scandal nearly destroyed the network and led to weeks of Senate hearings, as well as a slash in the VOA budget from $21 million to $16 million. In August, 1953, the U.S. Information Agency United States Information Agency (USIA) was created, and the VOA became the USIA’s largest agency. The McCarthy hearings were a low period for the VOA, and by 1958, under the leadership of Henry Loomis, the VOA developed a charter to enforce the its mission as an objective news source on world events.

The VOA struggled to rebound for more than a decade after the McCarthy hearings, succeeding largely through Edward R. Murrow’s talents as a journalist and leader. Murrow is perhaps the best-known journalist associated with the VOA, appointed by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 to direct the United States Information Agency (USIA), which was the governing body of VOA during the Cold War years. He had also directly challenged Senator McCarthy’s persecution of supposed Communists within the government, adding more than a touch of irony to his appointment as USIA director.

The contradiction between telling just the truth and marketing American policy to the world became especially evident during Murrow’s tenure at the USIA. Murrow attempted to tone down the rhetoric of the VOA and to make the agency more like the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). At the VOA’s twentieth anniversary celebration, President Kennedy promoted a sharing of discourse, which seemed to support Murrow’s goals: “We welcome the views of others; we seek a free flow of information across national boundaries and oceans, across iron curtains and stonewalls.” During his tenure at the USIA, Murrow struggled over the role of the VOA and the conflict between journalistic independence and journalism as tool to promote American policy. During the 1960’s and 1970’s, the VOA continued to expand. More than 800 million listeners tuned in for VOA’s coverage of Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon.

Significance

Developing in response to the attacks on Pearl Harbor, VOA served as a tool for the United States to counter anti-American propaganda and to bolster support for American war efforts. Since VOA’s inception, the network has been controversial, at times perceived as an objective and credible news source while at other times viewed as a propaganda tool for the U.S. government. In an effort to distance the VOA from government influences, the parent organization of the VOA became the International Broadcasting Bureau International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), an intermediary agency whose mission is to promote public diplomacy. Even so, former directors of the VOA such as Sanford Ungar have questioned the continuing influence of the U.S. government on the VOA. Does the VOA have the same freedoms as other American news outlets, providing international audiences with objective news, or does the VOA’s connection to the U.S. government prevent unbiased accounts of American politics and global events? These questions remain relevant. Voice of America World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];propaganda Propaganda;United States Radio;propaganda

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cull, Nicholas J. “’The Man Who Invented Truth’: The Tenure of Edward R. Murrow as Director of the United States Information Agency During the Kennedy Years.” Cold War History 4, no. 1 (October, 2003): 23-48. Focuses on the three years Murrow spent as head of the USIA.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Edwards, Bob. Edward R. Murrow and the Birth of Broadcast Journalism. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons, 2004. Discusses the conflict between Murrow’s public and private views of Voice of America.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Heil, Alan Jr. The Voice of America: A History. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003. Provides a comprehensive account of the history of the agency, including Heil’s reflections that span a forty-year tenure at the VOA.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hilliard, Robert L., and Michael C. Keith. The Broadcast Century and Beyond: A Biography of American Broadcasting. 4th ed. Boston: Focal Press, 2005. Summarizes broadcasting from 1794 to 2003 and notes how the World Wars helped spark “the creation of new communication technologies for use by the Armed Forces.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morley, Patrick.“This Is the American Forces Network”: The Anglo-American Battle of the Air Waves in World War II. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2001. Gives a short summary of the role of VOA during World War II, contrasting VOA to the American Forces Network (AFN).
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ungar, Sanford J. “Pitch Imperfect.” Foreign Affairs 84, no. 3 (May/June 2005): 7-13. Argues that VOA has lost journalistic independence in recent years.

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