Kirk Douglas on Radio Free Europe and Voice of America
By Ted Lipien
As Putin’s propagandists are again spreading lies around the world and trying to undermine American democracy, it would have been useful for the Voice of America (VOA) to have mentioned in a short VOA obituary for Hollywood actor and producer Kirk Douglas his defense of free speech behind the Iron Curtain. Kirk Douglas, who died on February 5, 2020, also defended free speech in the United States by opposing in the late 1950s blacklisting by Hollywood of writers and actors suspected of communism. Some of them were Communist Party members but most were not. Even those who were Communist party members had the right to free speech. The VOA report mentioned that Kirk Douglas had helped to end the blacklisting of Dalton Trumbo who was the screenwriter for the Hollywood movie Spartacus, in which Douglas played the title role and was the executive producer. The report did not mention that the film was based on a bestselling book by Voice of America’s former chief news writer and editor Howard Fast who had worked on VOA broadcasts in 1943, left in 1944, and was later Communist Party USA member, editor of the Party’s newspaper The Daily Worker and winner of the 1953 Stalin International Peace Prize.
by Ted Lipien
February 16, 2020
The VOA report also failed to mention that in addition to his pro-free speech activism in the United States, Kirk Douglas participated during the Cold War in Radio Free Europe and Voice of America broadcasts. In both cases, he defended free speech and countered propaganda from Soviet Russia and the communist regime in Poland.
Even at the Voice of America, not everybody was in favor of the 1982 U.S. government-sponsored film about communism in Poland in which Kirk Douglas and other Hollywood actors voiced their support for freedom behind the Iron Curtain. A few Voice of America English newsroom correspondents and some VOA managers who profoundly disliked Ronald Reagan and his policies were greatly upset by the U.S. government-Hollywood television production of “Let Poland Be Poland.” VOA was ordered to broadcast its audio version on January 31, 1982 in response to the imposition of martial law in Poland a month and a half earlier, on December 13, 1981. To critics, “Let Poland Be Poland” amounted to U.S. government propaganda.
Voice of America’s foreign language broadcasters, including its Polish Service, however, were highly supportive of the special satellite TV and radio broadcast. They saw it as a completely natural U.S. counter to communist propaganda, which was the one that indeed employed lies, half-truths and other forms of deception. In their view, such propaganda from Warsaw and Moscow needed to be countered not only with news, but also with opinions and ideas presented using various forms of artistic expression.
“Let Poland Be Poland” was produced by the United States International Communications Agency (USICA) with Hollywood partners and other private entities. The agency, ran by President Reagan’s close friend Charles Z. Wick, was earlier known as the United States Information Agency (USIA). Later, its name was changed back to USIA. At that time, the Voice of America was one of the elements of USICA.
Radio Free Europe (RFE), which was also funded by the United States Congress, but was not part of the federal agency structure and enjoyed much more independence and creative freedom than VOA, had done similar programs with well-known artists and writers for years with enormous success. SEE: “How Kirk Douglas and Radio Free Europe countered Soviet propaganda“.
“Let Poland Be Poland” was highly popular in Poland. Even some imprisoned Solidarity activists were able to listen to it on radios smuggled into the internment camps. Ronald Reagan was their hero. SEE: Martial law prisoners in Poland praised Reagan, Voice of America and Radio Free Europe.
Voice of America never had larger audiences in Poland and in other East European countries than during the Reagan years. Radio Free Europe had even larger audiences and greater impact over a much longer period of time. Leadership from the White House, the right media strategy and ample funding made U.S. international broadcasting successful during the Reagan presidency in helping to drive a nail into the coffin of the Soviet empire.
The 90-minute 1982 “Let Poland Be Poland” program included statements of support from Henry Fonda, Charlton Heston, Glenda Jackson, Kirk Douglas, Paul McCartney, Bob Hope, President Ronald Reagan, Frank Sinatra, who performed the Polish folk song, “Ever Homeward” in both English and Polish, Czeslaw Milosz, Helmut Schmidt, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and others famous political leaders and artists. In total, 16 heads of state and government leaders made statements in support of Poland and of Solidarity. SEE: “How Frank Sinatra and Voice of America countered communist propaganda.”
In “Let Poland Be Poland,” actor Kirk Douglas talked about the connection between artistic and political freedom, and shared memories from his visit to the National Film School in Łódź in 1966.
Link to “Let Poland Be Poland – Kirk Douglas”
By Ted Lipien
Despite gasps of indignation from the Kremlin and quite a few Western fellow travelers who could not identify Soviet propaganda if they saw it right in front of them, Radio Free Europe (RFE) and later Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) always had broadcasters and analysts who responded to propaganda effectively and countered it without violating journalistic ethics.
As reported a few years ago by former RFE/RL security director Richard H. Cummings in his fascinating Cold War Radio Broadcasting And More Blog, Radio Free Europe got famed Hollywood actor Kirk Douglas to do a program in Russian, after he had been insulted by Radio Moscow.
In 1954, the Soviet propaganda station reported that Kirk Douglas, who had played the lead part in a movie based on Homer’s “Odyssey,” did not know who Homer was. Radio Moscow then praised the quality of superior Soviet education.
What Radio Moscow said about the American-born actor was a lie. Kirk Douglas, whose Jewish parents immigrated to the United States from Belorussia, responded in a May 6, 1954 Radio Free Europe broadcast in which he spoke Russian.
(In another post, Richard H. Cummings describes how the great American jazz musician Louis Armstrong introduced one of his songs in rehearsed Russian for a Radio Liberty program. Armstrong was also a quest on Voice of America programs hosted by Willis Conover. Both RFE/RL and VOA continue their multimedia programs for millions of Russian speakers in the Russian Federation and in former republics of the Soviet Union.)
READ MORE: Ulysses Fights Moscow: Kirk Douglas and RFE, Richard H. Cummings, Cold War Radio Broadcasting And More, December 26, 2010
Richard H. Cummings is also the author of “The Dangerous History of American Broadcasting in Europe, 1950–1989” and “Radio Free Europe’s ‘Crusade for Freedom’: Rallying Americans Behind Cold War Broadcasting, 1950–1960.”
Disclaimer: Ted Lipien, a former Voice of America acting associate director, is a co-founder and supporter of BBG Watch. He was in charge of VOA Polish Service in the 1980s during the martial law in Poland. These are his personal views.