October 14, 2017

1967. Voice of America Turns Twenty-Five

Marking Voice of America's Twenty-Fifth Anniversary
Robert Bauer doing a German-language broadcast in 1942 (source)
Bill Downs

ABC Washington

February 3, 1967

In one sense of the word, history for the past 150 years has been playing a dirty trick on the United States of America. And it's only in the last half-century that technological development and electronic communications are making it possible to set the record straight.

There are still places in the world where the single word "America" continues to conjure up an image of milk and honey, streets paved with gold, and every man his own king owning his personal crenulated castle.

The early immigrants who came to these shores hid their disappointment that New York's ghettos were not too unlike Europe, and that the hard winters on the Kansas prairies were substantially the same as the cruel cold of the Russian steppes. And that US citizens could be as evil or generous, as considerate or cantankerous, as any other society in the world.

The difference, of course, was and always has been that the New World offered even the lowliest of men opportunity; a chance to improve himself and his family's future in a climate of political freedom which still is alien to most parts of the globe.

But as these new citizens prospered they forgot the bad things and wrote letters back to their relatives in the old country extolling the virtues and gilding the myth of national perfection which has become both America's shining escutcheon and also a historic and damaging weight around her neck.

Which brings us to the point of this story, that this month marks the 25th anniversary of the Voice of America, the broadcasting network owned by the US taxpayer whose voice he seldom hears unless he travels overseas.

The VOA—or "Voice" as it's called here in Washington—was an early post-Pearl Harbor war baby. It was on February 24, 1942, that the US government went on the air to challenge Dr. Goebbels and Hitler's propaganda machine. The assignment was to explain America's policy and aims both for the war and for the peace to follow.

"Daily at this time," the VOA announcer said 25 years ago, "we shall speak to you about America. The news may be good or bad. We shall tell you the truth." That first broadcast, incidentally, was in German.

As a matter of fact, the Voice of America from the beginning had no other choice. The Nazis could get away with the so-called "big lie" technique because Hitler's dictatorship was absolute. But even then the truth leaked out.

In an open society such as ours, the truth cannot long be contained by anyone.

Thus the Voice of America, which now broadcasts around the clock in some 38 languages, has changed America's image in the world—and sometimes it has been painful. Both our friends and enemies overseas think of the United States in the glorious words of the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Gettysburg Address. Thus when news stories of racial violence, of scandal or immorality are reported, the disillusionment overseas is compounded many times than if the same news had come from another world capital.

But the VOA's contract with the truth still stands—to present the USA as she is, warts and all.

Fortunately there are more good things to report about the nation than bad. So to John Chancellor, head of VOA, to his predecessors and colleagues, we at ABC say congratulations on the first quarter-century.

This is Bill Downs for ABC in Washington.