Monday, May 12, 2014

The VOA and the Holocaust

JB - The value of this brief review is to bring attention to an important article, agree with it or not.

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"The Voice of America, U.S. Propaganda and the Holocaust: 'I would have remembered'" by Holly Cowan Shulman (appearing in the Historical Journal of Film, Radio & Television, Vol. 17, No. 1, 1997)

Reviewed by Jerry Berg,

The author of the reviewed article is the co-director of the College Park Scholars Program in Science, Technology and Society at the University of Maryland, and the author of the book, "The Voice of America: Propaganda and Democracy, 1941-1945 (Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1990). (Ontheshortwaves will review Professor Shulman's book at another time.)

The article begins with the interesting observation that her father, Louis G. Cowan, worked for the Office of War Information in 1942 "and directed both the Voice of America and the overseas branch of the OWI by 1944." Her personal interest in the subject adds a very nice touch to this element of the continuing exploration, this time in the context of the VOA, of America's actions with regard to the Jews of Europe during World War II. After spending two years searching through VOA archival boxes, Shulman poses the question: what did the VOA do with regard to the treatment of Holocaust news, and concludes, not very much.

There is little direct proof of anti-Semitism in the State Department. Indeed, there appears to have been a good deal of sympathy for the plight of the Jews there, notwithstanding an overall anti-alien, conservative bent. OWI and VOA were even more attuned to this issue, Robert E. Sherwood, first director of the Foreign Information Service and then the overseas branch of the OWI, being a well-known liberal with a fierce moral commitment, and with a liberal presence in various places of leadership.

While VOA's output expreseed [sic - JB] a knowledge of the Holocaust, it offered no particular response. Shulman attributes this to an overall VOA upbeat, almost euphoric view of what the future held in store, emphasizing hope, confidence and determination to win the war. This approach grew as Allied success in the war effort became more and more assured. Within increasingly optimistic military forecasts, the ordeal of the Jews was out of place. The Allies were coming, and problems could be addressed once victory was at hand. (There was also the concern that news about the persecution of the Jews was a "trick[y] matter," anti-Jewish feeling in some quarters, like France, being not too far from the surface, and the tendency of some one worlders to disfavor the suffering of one group over another.)

The article ends with the author's description of her interview with Michel Gordey in Paris in 1985. Gordey was a well bred (and well married) Russian-turned-German-turned-Frenchman who had been a member (and later head) of the VOA French desk. Asked how the French desk dealt with the Holocaust, he said he did not know about how bad the persecution was. "I would have remembered," he said. Shulman does not doubt his sincerity, but concludes that all of the VOA leadership, even to the desk level, knew about the death camps, but simply had not absorbed it or integrated it. It was a mechanism for avoiding utter despair. "We might well ask ourselves," says Shulman, "what we would have done in such tragic circumstances."

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