Monday, December 22, 2014

Walter Roberts: Early Years at VOA -- "You Had the Feeling That You Were in the Battle..."

Walter's observations about the early days of the Voice of America -- which coincided with the beginning, too, of the practice of modern U.S. public diplomacy -- are revealing.  He vividly recalls the frantic atmosphere of the war years, and the role of VOA's founding fathers -- Robert Sherwood and John Houseman -- in creating programming and laying the foundations for VOA's future.  He also describes how the British encouraged their U.S. counterparts -- including FDR himself -- to split genuine public diplomacy activities including VOA from any "gray" or "black" propaganda operations carried out by the Office of Strategic Services -- the OSS.    (Walter wrote at greater length about this same period in his 2009 article entitled The Voice of America:  Origins and Recollections.) 

"The Atmosphere was Warlike, as if You Were in the Middle of a Battle."

As far as both the leadership and the rank and file is concerned, I can best describe [the atmosphere at the VOA] by saying that these were people who were deeply dedicated to their jobs and regarded it as a very, very important adjunct to military operations.  These people worked 12, 16 hours a day.  For them, they lived through the war.  You had the feeling that you were in the battle, they were so excited.   I will tell you…on the day in February of 1943, when Stalingrad was finally rid of all Germans, I was in the news desk, and there were tickers there, the Reuters ticker, AP, UP and INS and I remember when the news came through on the ticker that Stalingrad had finally been liberated, the whole of the news desk got up and applauded.  That was later described by McCarthy, “there you are, those were all Communists. “  Because they applauded the Soviet victory.  That was not the case.  The Soviet Union was an ally of the United States, and when they won a battle, it was reducing pressure on American troops.  So you asked about the atmosphere.  The atmosphere was warlike, as if you were in the middle of a battle.  The only thing that didn’t happen you weren’t shot at.  That was the feeling of people they were excited, they were full of enthusiasm.  That goes from number one – Donovan and Sherwood – whom I did not know.  I mean I was, in 1942, twenty-five years old.  I was a very, very junior person.

"...And Don't Take the Train.  Fly!"

When war broke out, on December 7, 1941, the Coordinator of Information run by Colonel “Wild Bill” Donovan, later General Donovan, had a subsection called FIS, the Foreign Information Service, and it was headed by Robert Sherwood, who was Franklin Roosevelt’s speechwriter.  He was in Washington, of course.  He had the idea that whatever information program, external international information program was to be created, should be located in New York.   So one day Bob Sherwood took a train and went to New York and personally looked for quarters, and found four floors, on 270 Madison Ave. in New York.  And he rented it. 
Robert Sherwood

He asked one of his good friends, Joseph Barnes, a very, very intelligent person, had been Moscow correspondent of the New York Herald Tribune, which then still existed.  Went to Harvard at the age of 14.  As I remember him, and I had very little to do with him, a very, very nice person – he was asked to run the New York office.  But he was not a radio man.  It became very clear to Sherwood that what they could do best would be to start a radio operation, because all of other media, books and leaflets and so on was in some respects minor to having a strong radio voice from the United States.   So around Christmas 1941, he sent a telegram to John Houseman, who was a director and producer in Hollywood, who spoke several languages, was born in Romania of a British mother and an Alsatian father, and asked him whether he would like to join.  And to show you the sign of the times, he told him in the telegram: “and don’t take the train.  Fly!”  Because at that time, flying between the two coasts was an exception, very much of an exception.  If you had to go to Los Angeles from New York, or you had to go to San Francisco, you went by train.  Like the Trans-Siberian train.  [Laughs.]

John Houseman
So Houseman accepted, and flew to Washington, and in the early days of January 1942, went to New York and started a radio program.  And the first radio program – and the dates I am still working on, the exact dates.  But the first program in German – I think, and I say so in my article – went out on February the first, 1942.   Followed by French and Italian.  An English program was added on the eighth of March.  That date I think is firm, that is correct. 

…One of the things that came to my mind, and I’m sure to hundreds of other people who were involved in this – the United States we don’t have any transmitters.  Yes, we did have transmitters, but they belonged to private corporations.  NBC, CBS had shortwave transmitters.   Westinghouse, General Electric, Crosley Corporation -- they had broadcasting mostly in Spanish and Portuguese for Latin America.   But in the middle thirties, or I should say perhaps ‘37, they all started already doing some German broadcasts, and some Italian, and some French broadcasts.  And they continued.  But they were not United States governmental broadcasts.  And one thing for the record, and I’m happy to do this interview.  The term Voice of America was invented by Robert Sherwood.  There are lots of people who claim that they had invented it.  But I know it was Bob Sherwood.   And I think the term Voice of America was used in the second week of broadcasting.  Until then, and I have that from a BBC file, the programs are called “America Calling Europe.”  And that in the three languages:  German, Italian and French.

"You Can't Run a Program that Combines Intelligence and Information"

[The relationship with the British was] very close.  As soon as the war broke out, I remember two Britishers – one from the BBC, and the other one from the PWE, Political Warfare Executive.  After all, the British had already been in this business for two years.  War started in Europe on September 1, 1939, and this was December ’41 – so it’s two years and two months.  And they came over ostensibly to help.  And indeed they helped, beautifully.  But I cannot deny that the British at the beginning and throughout the war, tried to claim an advisory role to us, in both intelligence and information.  And I might add here that…the British were very helpful in dividing intelligence from information.  When they came over and found the Coordinator of Information, and Mr. Donovan was more interested in intelligence work, and particularly in black and gray operations in the field of radio, rather than white – what we hand in mind in the Voice of America – the British made it very clear, and even I think got to Roosevelt, saying “You can’t run a program that combines intelligence and information.”  So, in June 1942, Roosevelt divided the Coordinator of Information into the OWI and the OSS.  From then on the Office of War Information was clearly a white operation; and the OSS was clearly a gray and black operation.  And the OWI was later, via the State Department, transformed into the U.S. Information Agency; and OSS was later transformed into the Central Intelligency Agency.

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