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The Beginning: An American Voice Greets the World

The Beginning: An American Voice Greets the World

The Voice of America went on the air on February 1, 1942, fifty-six days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the entry of the United States into WWII. The first broadcast was beamed to Europe via BBC transmitters.

From that moment, America had found its "voice" abroad, after entering the 1940s with no official presence on the international airwaves.

In mid-1941, prior to the U.S. entry into WWII, President Roosevelt established the U.S. Foreign Information Service (FIS) and named his speechwriter (and former playwright) Robert Sherwood as its first director. Driven by his belief in the power of ideas and the need to communicate America's views abroad, Sherwood rented space for his headquarters in New York City, recruited a staff of journalists, and began producing material for broadcast to Europe by privately-owned American shortwave stations.

With Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor and Germany's declaration of war against the United States, Sherwood moved into high gear. He asked John Houseman, the theatrical producer, author, and director, to take charge of FIS radio operations in New York City. Houseman was well known to the general public for his collaboration with Orson Welles on their radio adaptation of the War of the Worlds, a radio drama that created a nation-wide panic when it first aired in the 1930s.

The first VOA broadcasts were produced in rented studios in New York. Houseman later recalled those first broadcasts: “We went on the air…with no name, out of a cramped studio, on borrowed transmitters, with absolutely no direction from anyone as to what we should broadcast other than the truth.”

Let the Truth Be Told

From the beginning, VOA promised to tell its listeners the truth, regardless of whether the news was good or bad. "In reality, we had little choice. Inevitably the news that the Voice of America would carry to the world in the first half of 1942 was almost all bad, recalled John Houseman. "Only thus could we establish a reputation for honesty which we hoped would pay off on that distant but inevitable day when we would start reporting our own invasions and victories."

The first German programs accompanied broadcasts in French, Italian, and English. By June 1942, VOA was growing rapidly and had a new organizational home — the Office of War Information (OWI). Twenty-three transmitters had been constructed and 27 language services were on the air in January 1943 when the Allied summit took place in Casablanca. By 1944, VOA broadcast hundreds of hours of programming in over forty languages.