Origins and Recollections
by Walter R. Roberts
A retired senior diplomat and distinguished scholar recalls the earliest days of United States international broadcasting efforts and how he found himself part of that early history.
On a gray day between the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and Christmas 1941, while a research assistant at the Harvard Law School, I was walking across Harvard Yard and was stopped by Professor William Langer, a professor of German History, who asked me: “Walter, you know German, don’t you”? I answered in the affirmative. “We need people like you”, he continued. “Would you like to work for the US Government”? I answered in the affirmative again. “OK, you will hear from us”, he said, and we both went on our way.
Early in the New Year 1942, I received a letter from the Coordinator of Information (COI) inviting me to come to Washington. Meanwhile, I heard that Professor Langer had signed up with U. S. intelligence. So I assumed that my interview in Washington would relate to a possible job in intelligence.
I remember taking the overnight train from Boston to Washington and seeing a number of people there but was told at the end of the day that a possible job would be in New York. The man I was supposed to see there was Edd Johnson. An appointment was arranged for the following day at 270 Madison Avenue.
It had become clear to me that the agency I was dealing with (COI) had both intelligence and information functions with the former apparently concentrated in Washington, while the latter were directed from New York.
Edd Johnson, who headed the Research and Analysis section, came across as a stern, no nonsense man who got to the point immediately stating that the COI was in the process of preparing broadcasts in German, and that it was essential for the writers to know the propaganda climate to which they would be broadcasting. Could I reconstruct the weekly internal propaganda directive of the German Ministry of Propaganda, he asked. I answered that I probably could, provided I had the necessary material, i.e. the most recent German newspapers and transcripts of German internal radio broadcasts. I recalled that while still living in Europe, I used to listen to a weekly broadcast by Hans Fritzsche (one of Dr. Goebbels’ senior assistants) who seemed to read the weekly propaganda directive directly to the German people every Friday evening. I wondered whether Fritzsche was still on the air. Johnson said that he would try to assemble the necessary material by asking the American Legation in Bern, Switzerland, to provide it. He told me that he would be in touch with me when the newspapers and radio transcripts arrived.
I returned to my job at Harvard. Within a couple of weeks, I was asked to come back to New York. All the material was there, including the weekly newspaper Das Reich that, in its editorial, practically duplicated the weekly broadcasts of Hans Fritzsche. In the next few hours, I tried to reconstruct, on the basis of the material received, the latest weekly directive that Goebbels and company had written, which was designed to keep the morale of the German people at its highest possible level.
Edd Johnson read it and asked me to come with him to see James Warburg, who he said, was in charge of policy. At the end of the meeting, I was told that they would let me know in a few days whether I would be offered a job.
The Dean of the Harvard Law School knew of my visits to Washington and New York. When the offer from the COI came, I suggested that I spend a day or two a week in New York and move there after the Harvard semester was over. Harvard found this arrangement acceptable, as did COI, which, in any event, needed some additional time to clear me for a civil service position, in that I was still an alien at that time.
Once on the job, I realized that foreign information work was a new activity for the United States Government. I also became aware that the vital wherewithal was lacking – the U. S. Government did not own a single short wave transmitter.
Some of what I will report in this article I knew when I worked at VOA. Other information I learned later and some I discovered only very recently while preparing this piece (with the help of research assistant Tijana Milosevic who recently earned her M.A. in Media and Public Affairs from The George Washington University).
Regarding the short wave transmitter situation, I knew at the time that the few American short wave transmitters were all privately owned and that there were only two ways our broadcasts could be transmitted to our target audiences, primarily German, French and Italian: Send the broadcasts via radiotelephone to London whence the BBC would transmit them on their own medium wave transmitters or lease the privately owned American short wave transmitters for direct broadcasts to the target area. At the time, I knew practically nothing about these transmitters owned by CBS (2), Crosley (1), General Electric (3), NBC (2), Westinghouse (2), and Worldwide Broadcasting Foundation (2).
Thanks to my good friend and long time associate George Jacobs, one of this country’s foremost broadcast engineers, I have learned a great deal about the origin and development of short wave broadcasting in America. Jacobs, who, over a period of seven decades, played a major role in the technical development of international broadcasting, both public and private, clarified the history. Why, I asked, did stations like General Electric or CBS build short wave transmitters when, as I learned, they did not broadcast to other countries and American radio sets at the time were unable to pick up short wave frequencies? Jacobs replied: “Although today we think of short wave broadcasting in terms of direct reception by its audience, at that point in time short wave broadcasting was considered as a relay to specially designed receiving stations for pickup and rebroadcast over medium wave stations in the desired audience area; network broadcasters experimented with such relays to link together the various cities in their network, until AT&T landline service became available.”
In 1931, American short wave went international when Walter Lemon who owned station WRUL in Boston launched a program promoting international culture. While the broadcasts were mostly in English, other languages, particularly Spanish and Portuguese intended for Latin America were added. Slowly, commercial short wave stations went international, too.
In May 1938, three companies that owned short wave transmitters– NBC, General Electric and Westinghouse –developed a cooperative operation of their programs and facilities. A broadcasting schedule of May 24, 1938 shows a service on the European Beam between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. While the programs were mostly in English, there were several German, French and Italian news programs included. From 5 p.m. until 9 p.m., the service was on the Latin American Beam, predominantly in Spanish and Portuguese, but also in English.
Why did these private broadcasters transmit programs in foreign languages when there was little or no financial benefit to them? Reading the literature of the time, it is evident that adopting a more cooperative attitude played a role. The private broadcasters had for years adamantly opposed the creation of a governmentally owned short wave broadcasting station and they wanted to prove that they could adequately represent the United States in the area of international broadcasting without any assistance from the U. S. Government.
The history of the American government’s attempts after World War I to establish a U. S. -owned broadcasting station had been unknown to me, and as I found out to many of my colleagues, as well. I learned about it from my good friend Bruce Gregory, highly respected teacher and former public diplomacy practitioner, who over thirty years ago as assistant historian of the U. S. Information Agency (USIA) wrote a study on that subject.
Gregory informs us that the United States Government began to get interested in playing an active role in international broadcasting as early as 1924 as a result of efforts by the Pan American Union to secure the allocation of short wave broadcasting frequencies for transmittal of American music to Latin America. Indeed, the United States Government’s original interest in short wave broadcasting was concentrated almost entirely on Latin America. The idea was that the Navy Department would operate such a station and that the U.S. Commissioner of Education would provide the programming.
In Franklin Roosevelt’s first term, with the emphasis still on Latin America, the discussions regarding establishment of a U. S. Government broadcasting station increased in intensity within the State Department and with the Navy. Yet, these discussions led nowhere.
Beginning in 1937, the failure of the Executive Branch to reach a decision regarding the establishment of a governmental radio station led to a shift in initiative from the Department of State to Congress. Gregory calls it “a change that was marked by the introduction in both the House and the Senate of several bills.” Their sponsors, in particular Congressman Emmanuel Celler (D- NY), argued that every other nation was prepared to see that the world understands its point of view – yet the U. S. was at the mercy of the propaganda of other countries without the ability to present its own position. The year was 1937 and German-Nazi and Italian-Fascist propaganda were in full swing.
The Congressional sponsors of a government short wave station found themselves fiercely opposed by the private broadcasters of this country. The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) passed a resolution in June 1937 opposing any governmental international radio station. Within the Executive Branch there was no unanimity and the President was not willing to support the establishment of a government radio station. The plan died in early 1940.
The State Department had previously shifted gears and began to contact WRUL in Boston. Speeches by Department officials were sent to WRUL for short wave transmission to Latin America. Other U. S. short wave stations were also encouraged to transmit American-friendly material to South and Central American countries.
By the end of spring 1940, President Roosevelt, after receiving a memorandum from Nelson Rockefeller regarding the fragile politico-social situation in Latin America, decided to create a new agency, later called Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs (CIAA) with Rockefeller in charge. The objective of this new government agency was to strengthen the bonds among the nations of the Western Hemisphere through various means, including radio.
The CIAA created an information department in New York. That department established contact with the private short wave broadcasters, sending
the broadcasters material, not only in English but also in Spanish and Portuguese that could be used, and indeed was used in their broadcasts beamed to Latin America.
German army victories in Western Europe and the continued heavy German propaganda barrage resulted in the State Department expanding its interest in broadcasting activities beyond Latin America. The Department suggested to the President in 1940 that the American private short wave broadcasters could play an important role in reaching European audiences. The Department encouraged these broadcasters to intensify their programming to European countries, such as Germany, France and Italy. It went even further. The State Department tried to persuade the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) to retransmit some of these broadcasts to Europe. Although the BBC at first liked the idea of bringing the neutral United States into the propaganda battle, it concluded that these broadcasts would not be as helpful as initially anticipated.
But the concept may have given the British an idea. Ever since England had entered the war in 1939, Winston Churchill had been eager to draw the United States closer to the British war effort. Once he became Prime Minister in the spring of 1940, he pursued his aim with passion. He appointed a Canadian friend William Stephenson (also known as “Intrepid”) as head of the British Security Coordination (BSC), with offices in New York’s Rockefeller Plaza. BSC’s aim was not only to establish close links with American intelligence but also to present the British point of view as forcefully to the American public as possible. According to Nicholas Cull’s Selling War, the BSC went even further. It contracted with WRUL for the transmission of foreign language short wave broadcasts in several European languages. BSC recruited foreign language news editors and announcers to work at WRUL and also supplied scripts .The British embassy press office funded the daily German and French broadcasts; the BSC added a $400 monthly subsidy to WRUL.
For all intents and purposes, from 1940 to late in 1941, WRUL broadcast to Europe ostensibly as an American station but in effect was a station under British editorial control. While at Harvard in 1941,
I met a graduate student, Bill Tyler, who told me that he worked for a Boston short wave station and that he broadcast in French to France. Tyler was born in France of American parents and spoke impeccable French. He later became a career foreign service officer and reached ambassadorial and assistant secretary rank. At the time I knew him at Harvard I had, of course, no idea that he worked for the British in Boston; indeed I am not sure whether he knew.
In the spring of 1941,with Western Europe under Nazi-Germany occupation and German General Rommel winning battle after battle in North Africa, President Roosevelt became deeply concerned, particularly after listening to two trusted advisors: One was General William (Wild Bill) Donovan, a Republican friend of many years who suggested to the President that the US should engage in covert operations and psychological warfare, and playwright Robert Sherwood, FDR’s speech writer. The latter’s ideas were similar to Donovan’s, except that he was more interested in the open transmission of news. He urged the President to create a radio agency that would carry news about America, its people and its policies to the outside world, and thus would serve as an effective answer to German radio propaganda.
As a result of his consultations with several people, particularly Donovan and Sherwood, the President did, in fact, create a new agency. On July 11, 1941, the Coordinator of Information (COI) was established with Donovan as its head. As Donovan perceived the new agency, it would more closely resemble a couple of British intelligence groups than an information agency per se.
On the day after the COI was created, Sherwood, with the President’s approval, founded the Foreign Information Service (FIS) and, after several discussions with Donovan, FIS became an integral part of the COI. While Donovan concentrated the COI in Washington, Sherwood built up the FIS in New York at 270 Madison Avenue. The Nelson Rockefeller Latin American CIAA had also established its information activities in New York at 444 Madison Avenue. The COI responsibilities were global but specifically excluded Latin America, which came under the umbrella of the CIAA.
Sherwood wasted no time. In the summer of 1941, several months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he assembled a high level group headed by Joseph Barnes, foreign news editor of the New York Herald Tribune, Edd Johnson, a well regarded journalist who had last worked at CBS and James Warburg, a banker and expert on Germany. These three people hastened to gather a staff of newsmen, feature writers and foreign language experts as well as radio technical personnel. Indeed, in a relatively short time, the COI had a news desk, a feature desk and several foreign language sections – not only German, French and Italian but also Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Greek, Turkish, Arabic and several others.
A San Francisco office was also created and sections of Far Eastern languages were established, including Mandarin, Cantonese, Amoy, Japanese and others. That office reported to the COI office in New York.
The lack of governmental short wave transmitters was considered by the COI management to be the greatest impediment, particularly because the relationship with the private broadcasters soon turned sour. These broadcasters had established good working relations with the State Department and they resented what they considered an aggressive posture on the part of the COI. But as the months in 1941 went by, the COI increasingly succeeded in placing its material on the schedules of the private broadcasters in both English and, later, also in foreign languages. It was slugged: “The following from the Coordinator of Information is for your use if desired.” However, actual voice broadcasts were not prepared by the COI until after Pearl Harbor brought America into the war. Since the COI was a governmental organization and hence could not hire non- U.S. citizens, an organization called “Short wave Research, Inc.” was created in order to bring non-citizens on board. (The non-citizen civil service clause was relaxed after America was at war.)
After December 7, 1941, there was no need to create a wartime information agency –the COI was already in place.
As early as December 15, 1941, the General Electric transmitter on the West Coast was leased to transmit programs in English (and later also in Tagalog) to the Philippines from where medium and long wave transmitters relayed them. For all intents and purposes, these broadcasts were the first U. S. governmental international broadcasts – eight days after US entry into the war and six weeks before such broadcasts were launched from New York to Europe. Chinese dialects and later also Japanese language programs followed. That stopped once Corregidor fell to the Japanese on May 6, 1942. From then on, the programs were carried directly by the leased (GE) short wave transmitters with studios domiciled in San Francisco’s Fairmont hotel. The programs in Japanese originated from studios in the University of California Press Building. (I owe this information to Robert William Pirsein’s Ph.D. dissertation entitled “The Voice of America.”)
In order to create an effective broadcasting operation within the COI, Sherwood asked John Houseman, a well-known and respected Hollywood personality, to take charge of that task. Houseman agreed and, in January 1942, joined the Barnes-Johnson-Warburg triumvirate in running the COI in New York. Even before any broadcasts went on the air, Sherwood himself had decided that these broadcasts would carry the name “Voice of America”.
A few years ago, during VOA’s 60th anniversary, I became nostalgic and thought of those early days at VOA. Would it not be nice to listen to the first VOA broadcast, which I recalled was in German? I called the VOA and asked them whether they had a copy of the script or, better still, a recording of that broadcast.
To my delight, I was told that they had a recording and would send it to me.
The official anniversary date of VOA is the 24th of February. I therefore expected a recording of that day; yet the recording was from a broadcast of February 25. Within a minute of listening, I knew that the recording sent to me was not the first German VOA broadcast. The musical introduction was not the Battle Hymn of the Republic. There was only one announcer whereas I recalled there to have been four in the original broadcast: William Harlan Hale, Peter Kappel, Stefan Schnabel and Roland Winter. Of the four I knew Bill Hale best. Indeed, he and I were close personal friends till his untimely death in 1974.
Since the recording appeared to be a later rerecording, I asked whether VOA had the script of the first VOA broadcast. The answer was negative and I was directed to the National Archives in College Park, Md. A preliminary search there did not produce any VOA scripts of February 1942.
I recently read a book by John Houseman titled Front and Center. In it, Houseman describes in great detail the first German VOA broadcast and mentions February 11 as the date. He writes that one of his first decisions was to get away from the single-voice news reporting of the private stations and the BBC. The Voice of America would “in our broadcasts be represented by several voices of different quality and pitch carefully orchestrated to achieve a maximum of variety and energy.” He added: “I still have the production script of that first German broadcast. From its frayed yellow pages and fading purple mimeographed text it is possible…” Houseman then re-prints the text of the first couple of minutes of the February 11 broadcast:
Opening Music: The Battle Hymn of the Republic
Hale: This is the Voice of America.
Kappel: The Voice of America at War.
Schnabel: Our voices come to you from New York across the Atlantic Ocean.
Kappel: America is today in its sixty-sixth day of the war.
Hale: Today and every day from now on we shall be speaking to you about America and the War. Here in America we receive news from all over the world. This news may be favorable or unfavorable. Every day we shall bring you the news – The Truth.
Compared to the recording I received from VOA:
The Battle Hymn of the Republic is replaced in the recording by the National Anthem. “A Voice of America” replaces “The Voice of America” in the recording. In the recording the announcer says that the broadcast will be transmitted “Today and every day”, while in the Houseman text, Bill Hale says “Today and every day from now on” indicating it is a first broadcast.
Since I remembered that the first VOA broadcasts were sent via radiotelephone to the BBC in London from where they were retransmitted to Europe on BBC medium wave transmitters, I decided to ask the BBC whether their archives could ascertain the date of the first VOA broadcast. Thanks to the interest and kind assistance of the director of the BBC World Service, Peter Horrocks, and his assistant Hugh Saxby, I received a BBC internal memorandum dated January 27, 1942 that announced that beginning February 1, there would be daily 15 minute American transmissions in German, French and Italian and, beginning March 8, also in English. (There would be three trial dates: January 29, 30 and 31.) The memorandum further stated that the transmission from America would be via radiotelephone two hours before the actual medium wave broadcast from London. The German broadcast would be transmitted from London at 14:15 GMT, the French at 15:30 GMT and the Italian at 22:45 GMT. Incidentally, an article by Leonard Carlton, one of the original COI executives, in the Spring 1943 issue of Public Opinion Quarterly says that the first VOA broadcast went on the air on January 28, 1942, one day earlier than the first trial date mentioned in the BBC memorandum. He wrote: “On that day…BBC in London picked up special programs in German, French and Italian and rebroadcast them to the continent of Europe over seven of its transmitters.”
The time slots that the BBC assigned to VOA were not ideal – German and French in the middle of the afternoon and Italian too late in the evening. The VOA directorate, therefore, decided to lease as many private short wave transmitters as possible to assemble a powerful signal to reach the target areas directly at more suitable times.
Houseman, in describing the VOA German broadcast of February 11, 1942 says that it “went out live on all the frequencies we possessed – over Long Island, Schenectady and Cincinnati transmitters,” in other words, over the NBC, General Electric and Crosley transmitters – six 50 KW transmitters with a total power of 300 KW. Houseman adds that on the next day “the British Ministry of Information rebroadcast it from England on several of their medium wave stations from an acetate recording flown over by bomber.” (He probably meant BBC rather than Ministry of Information and he does not say at what hours they were broadcast.)
Direct broadcasts were preferred over BBC transmissions for an additional reason other than the poor rebroadcast times from London. There were reports that the BBC occasionally assumed the role of censor by replacing a particular VOA broadcast they did not like with a stand-by record.
The BBC had sent representatives to New York who gave advice to VOA staffers, often reminding them that England had been involved in psychological warfare for over two years, since the outbreak of war in Europe. Nevertheless, their assistance was greatly appreciated by the VOA staff even though the BBC attitude sometimes appeared haughty – implying that they knew the answers while the VOA staffers were just learning.
On the broader level of aligning American propaganda with British efforts, the British invariably played a dominant role. Indeed, from a positive point of view, they affected the eventual reorganization of the COI by suggesting that it was counterproductive to combine intelligence and information functions in one agency, a position also shared by many COI officers. On June 13, 1942, the President separated these two functions with the intelligence side going to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) with Donovan in charge and the Information area of the COI plus a couple of other agencies (e.g. The Office of Facts and Figures) going to the Office of War Information (OWI) with newsman Elmer Davis as Director.
By that time, the most important problem of VOA – the lack of short wave transmitters – was being addressed by “persuading” all private owners to cooperate in leasing air time to VOA, reminding them that America was at war. As of November 1, 1942, all private short wave transmitters (by that time fourteen) were leased exclusively to the U. S. Government. In addition, VOA built its own transmitters, one (200 KW) in Bethany, Ohio, where the “National Voice of America Museum of Broadcasting” is near completion.
By the spring of 1942, VOA had established a pattern of around-the-clock fourteen and a half minutes transmissions in English, German, French and Italian. However, only two studios were available at 270 Madison Ave. One studio was reserved for the four main languages twenty-four hours a day. English was broadcast on the hour, German on the quarter hour, French on the half hour and Italian on the three-quarter hour. The announcers had only thirty seconds to leave the studio and make way for the incoming announcers. The second studio was reserved for other languages. These had increased at great speed. Czechoslovak, Polish, Hungarian, Romanian, Yugoslav, and Finnish desks were added. That was too much for the two studios on Madison Avenue; hence in late fall of 1942, the entire VOA staff moved to the General Motors building on the corner of Broadway and 57th Street where several studios had been constructed and office space was less constrained.
There is evidence that the first VOA broadcast was in German and that it was broadcast on February 1, 1942. That evidence is based not only on the previously cited BBC memorandum but also by Leonard Carlton’s 1943 article. The broadcast was sent via radiotelephone to London early in the morning New York time from whence it was broadcast by the BBC over seven medium wave transmitters at 14:15 GMT. (I am indebted to Martin Manning, research librarian in the State Department, for drawing my attention to Carleton’s article.)
John Houseman’s statement that the first VOA German broadcast occurred on February 11 could possibly be traced to the transmission method – that broadcast was not transmitted via radiotelephone to London and then placed on BBC transmitters, but sent directly over leased short wave transmitters. Further research into the Houseman papers stored at the University of California Los Angeles may clarify the situation.
The current Director of the Voice of America, Dan Austin and one of his assistants, Will Marsh, have very kindly offered to help resolve the mystery of VOA’s anniversary date. Who designated February 24 as VOA’s anniversary? When? On what basis? The available files have not answered these questions. Maybe a further search at the National Archives will help.
Reflecting on my work at the VOA, I was lucky to have encountered Professor Langer on Harvard Yard in December 1941. Had I not, my career would probably have been very different. My years with the Voice of America were defining ones. After transferring from VOA’s research and analysis section to its broadcasting division in 1943, I was able to write about and announce to possibly large audiences overseas pivotal developments of the war – Allied victories in North Africa, landings in Sicily, Stalingrad, the Normandy invasion, FDR’s death, victory in Europe, the Potsdam conference, the end of World War II and many other decisive events.
Next February first, I will raise my glass and toast: “Happy 68th Anniversary, VOA. You continue to play an important role in the conduct of America’s foreign policy. I wish you all the best.”
Dr. Walter R. Roberts started his government career with the Voice of America. He retired from the government after serving as Associate Director of the U.S. Information Agency. President George H. W. Bush appointed and President Bill Clinton reappointed him as member of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy. He is the author of Tito, Mihailovic and the Allies, 1941-1945 and numerous articles on foreign policy.