The Negro in American Life (Guidance for the Voice of America)

What themes or topics does the Voice of America (VOA) emphasize in its coverage of African Americans? How does the VOA handle the topic of civil rights? Why do you think the VOA carries lots of statements by African Americans who are critical of communism? How does the VOA handle news of attacks and violence against African Americans?
Does this guidance show an early effort to present the United States as a nation committed to protecting human rights in the ways described by Jimmy Carter? How might VOA features on African Americans have advanced the purposes of containment as expressed by Kennan, Truman, Marshall, and NSC 68?

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During World War II, the United States government used international shortwave radio to broadcast to Europe and North Africa. Known as the Voice of America (VOA), the network promoted the war aims of the Allies, delivered news about the war, and offered features about life in the United States. The Cold War kept the VOA on the air, as the State Department recognized its potential to persuade listeners in other nations to support the United States and democracy. Public diplomacy – direct contact by a government with foreign populations – provided a way to explain and win supporters for containment and anti-communist policies. The Korean War (See Truman and MacArthur) especially highlighted the usefulness of speaking to a global audience. VOA content became more hard-hitting as it countered Soviet claims that the United States and its allies were the aggressors in Korea.

The Soviet Union, which also engaged in public diplomacy, relentlessly criticized the United States for its segregation of and discrimination against African Americans. (In the early postwar period, the term Negro was still commonly used to refer to African Americans.) Although Soviet reporting was one-sided, no one could truthfully deny that African Americans did not as yet have equal opportunity and full civil rights in the United States. This document shows how the VOA tried to strike a balance in its coverage of this issue.

How much the VOA’s calibrated coverage of African Americans affected foreign opinion is difficult to measure. The document is historically significant, though, because it reveals the growing importance of public diplomacy and mass media in the Cold War. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the United States and the Soviet Union both extensively used radio, print media, film, and television to reach and influence foreign populations. For another example of the importance of public diplomacy, (See The Kitchen Debate).

—David Krugler

Source: Record Group 59, Records of the Department of State, Records Relating to International Information Activities, 1938-1953, box 86, folder “Negroes,” National Archives, College Park, MD.

The VOA coverage of the Negro in American life falls into three categories:

  1. Features and News items dealing with the Negro in America
  2. The Negro and Politics
  3. The Negro and Art

Features and News

– By and large, American Negroes receive steady mention in VOA’s regular output of domestic news items. In fact, a check shows that at least once every three days Negro achievements and personalities are mentioned in our American Roundup circulated in all languages desks. Typical examples would be:

  1. The film made on the life of Jackie Robinson1
  2. Negro women in the news . . .
  3. Increasing Job Opportunities for Negro Women . . .
  4. Negro in International Relations . . .
  5. National awards to Dr. Ralph Bunche2

From time to time VOA prepares features and interviews dealing with the American Negro. See the INTERVIEW with Gladys Watts . . . retiring president, Illinois Assn. of Negro Women. Also, INTERVIEW with Eunice Carter, UN Observer for National Council of Negro Women . . . When the Howard University3 players visited Europe, VOA interviewed the group both when it left the country and when it returned.

The Negro and Politics – Although the United States is under steady attack by Moscow on the status of the American Negro, VOA has not attempted to answer these specifically, but wherever possi