That Soviet agents successfully infiltrated the Roosevelt administration is a matter of historical fact. Among others, United States counterintelligence efforts identified Alger Hiss in the State Department and Harry Dexter White at Treasury. As I showed in my book, Stalin’s War (2021), their presence partly explains the administration’s bias toward Soviet interests in Europe and Asia. Equally important were the well-known personal sympathies of President Roosevelt and his adviser Harry Hopkins for the Soviet tyrant.
Nonetheless, it remains to be explained why Hopkins and Roosevelt came to hold such positive views about the blood-soaked Soviet dictator, whose crimes were hardly unknown at the time (even if less was known about them in the 1940s than today), or how it came about that hundreds of Soviet agents were able to work in the U.S. government during the war. As one of my more perceptive interviewers, Richard Hanania, pointed out on his podcast, propaganda works, and it helps create the “climate of opinion” in which statesmen and their bureaucratic underlings work.
This was certainly true of print journalism in the 1940s, when a single “Washington Merry-Go-Round” newspaper column by the influential syndicated columnist Drew Pearson could imperil a Cabinet member. When Pearson accused Secretary of State Cordell Hull in August 1943 of being an “anti-Russian,” Hull found himself compelled to contact the Soviet Embassy to deny that he was in any way unsympathetic to Stalin’s regime.
Significantly, Pearson had two American Communist Party members on his staff, who regularly provided him with Moscow-approved talking points. These included, for example, that Hull wanted to “see Russia bled white;” that Roosevelt and Churchill were failing Stalin and the Russian people by not opening a “second front” in 1943; that Chiang Kai-Shek and his wife were hopelessly corrupt and Mao’s Communist guerillas were doing the real fighting against Japan; and that the Polish government-in-exile in London was not to be trusted. Filtered through the authority of his nationally syndicated column (highlights of which Pearson would read on air to more than three million radio listeners), these talking points became conventional wisdom in Washington.
Soviet influence operations on the big screen were if anything even more effective, as they shaped opinion not only among contemporary moviegoers—nearly 75 percent of Americans attended the cinema at least once a week at the time—but among postwar generations hooked on wartime films. An obvious propaganda movie was Mission to Moscow (1943), based on the memoir of the former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, Joseph Davies, who made an appearance in the film to strengthen its pro-Soviet message. So over-the-top was this film’s defense of Stalin’s Great Terror-era show trials and so dismissive of Nazi-Soviet collaboration during the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact years (1939–1941) that its screenwriter, Howard Koch, was among the first targeted by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and blacklisted.
In the explicit nature of its pro-Soviet bias, however, Mission to Moscow is an outlier. For a sanitized wartime U.S. media environment which saw Stalin turned into benign old “Uncle Joe,” the film’s whitewashing of Stalin’s Terror went too far, raising eyebrows even in The New York Times, where one op-ed labeled it “totalitarian propaganda.”
Soviet influence operations in Hollywood worked far better when they were hidden. Not all Soviet-sympathizing screenwriters were, like Lillian Hellman, cheerleaders for Soviet Communism, but even Hellman camouflaged her Stalinist sympathies for the greater good of the anti-fascist cause against Hitler, as in The Watch on the Rhine (1943).
above: Bette Davis and Paul Lukas in the 1941 film Watch on the Rhine (Warner Bros.)
Howard Koch, likewise, performed his greatest service to the Soviet cause in a 1942 film ostensibly unrelated to the USSR. This was Casablanca, perhaps the greatest propaganda film ever made, which continues to shape popular views of the war. It follows the travails of Rick Blaine, a disillusioned American nightclub owner played by the legendary Humphrey Bogart, who in the course of the film is won back to the Allied cause, while also converting a cynical Vichy France collaborator. The original script by Julius and Philip Epstein was focused on a love triangle, and was jingoistic but relatively apolitical. Koch made certain his rewrite, as he recalled later, include “more political elements” while giving the film “political depth.”
The result was curious. Koch’s idea of political depth consisted of giving Blaine a backstory as a fallen idealist who “fought against the fascists in Spain” before his heart was broken in Paris. In keeping with the Communist “anti-fascist” agitprop of the 1930s, “anti-fascist” signifies the correct side in the Spanish Civil War waged against the “fascist” Franco—the correct side being financed, armed, and dominated by the USSR. Blaine’s recovery of morale at film’s end means that he has regained his faith in Soviet-style anti-fascism.
As for the film’s geopolitics, while the negative caricatures of Germans (Major Strasser) and Italians (the slimy profiteer “Ugarte”) are unremarkable, the identities of “resistance” heroes may be more interesting. Viewers are told that the greatest anti-Nazi resistance hero in Europe (Victor Laszlo) is “Czechoslovakian,” a fake composite nationality; Laszlo’s wife and key collaborators are from Norway. True, Czechoslovakia and Norway were under German occupation in 1942, but neither was a hotbed of resistance; Norway was famous for its collaborator Vidkun Quisling. Stranger still, “Laszlo” is a Hungarian name, and Hungary was a member of the Axis in 1942. (The actor who played Laszlo, Paul Henreid, was an Austrian and a member of the “National Council of American-Soviet Friendship.”)
Two more sympathetic characters are Bulgarians—hailing from a country, like Hungary, allied to Nazi Germany in 1942, whose troops were then occupying Yugoslavia. Others are vaguely leftist French or Russian exiles functioning as stand-ins for the French Communist resistance or the heroic Red Army. We never learn the reasons that the Russian in the movie left the USSR, nor anything about the history of Soviet collaboration with Hitler from 1939 to 1941, nor Moscow’s instructions to French Communists not to resist the German invasion of France in 1940. The group to which this improbable assortment of heroes is said to belong is not the actual French Resistance, but a kind of hierarchical multinational organization that bears a striking resemblance to the Communist International.
Significantly, not a single resistance figure in Casablanca hails from Poland, the first country to fight back against Nazi Germany, and which boasted in 1942 by far the largest underground army in Europe, the Armia Krajowa, or “Home Army.” This fighting force numbered hundreds of thousands of members—but belonged to a country that inconveniently for Koch and Soviet sympathizers, had been invaded and occupied by the USSR in September 1939.
Nor are there any royalist-nationalist Serbian exiles in Casablanca, despite their anti-Nazi resistance organization in Yugoslavia. These royalist anti-Nazi “Chetniks,” were one of the earliest and best organized resistance forces in Europe. Unlike the fictitious Comintern-style resistance organization in Casablanca, both the Polish and Serbian underground armies answered to and communicated with real governments-in-exile, hosted in London. Oblivious to all this, the casual viewer of Casablanca, whether in 1942 or today, gets the impression that it was “Czechoslovakian,” Hungarian, Bulgarian, and other European leftists (read: Communists or fashionable “anti-fascist” sympathizers) who were the most eager to fight the Nazis.
The Polish slight in Casablanca was not unusual. In a provocative 2010 study, Hollywood’s War with Poland, M.B.B. Biskupski observes that Poland, despite being invaded from two directions in September 1939 and furnishing the Allies with a reason to go to war, is almost invisible in wartime films. Moreover, Poles are usually depicted viciously when they do appear.
A striking example is In Our Time, a 1944 film set in Poland as the war breaks out in 1939. Here too Soviet sympathizer Howard Koch helped shape the script to assuage Stalin’s sensibilities. Not only is the Soviet invasion of Poland ignored, but the Orvid family at the center of the story are portrayed as vain, ignorant aristocrats. Some members of this family are plainly meant to be Nazi sympathizers, who flee like cowards from the German invasion. Captivated by the plot, the Communist newspaper Daily Worker praised the film because it “exposed the reactionary forces represented by the Polish government-in-exile”—a government Stalin and Communist propagandists were then smearing as pro-Nazi because it had dared to demand a Red Cross investigation into the Soviet mass murder of Polish officers at Katyn in spring 1940.
above: Ida Lupino and Paul Henreid in the 1944 film In Our Time (Warner Bros.)
Oblivious to the irony, Koch later boasted that In Our Time was “an anti-fascist film set in the Mannerheim, pro-Nazi regime before the war broke out”—suggesting that he saw Polish aristocrats as pro-Nazi “fascists.” Koch also confounded the pre-war Polish government, which went down fighting against the brutal dual invasion by Nazi Germany and the USSR, with Field Marshal Gustav Mannerheim of Finland. In 1939, Mannerheim was Chairman of the Finnish Red Cross but would soon be named Commander-in-Chief of the Finnish armies after Stalin’s no less brutal invasion of Finland that same year.
Soviet influence was sometimes both blatant and almost undetectable, as in 1944’s Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, made to glorify the Doolittle Raid of April 1942. As Diana West pointed out in her study, American Betrayal (2013), the Hollywood version—directed by Dalton Trumbo, a notorious blacklisted Communist Party member of the “Hollywood Ten”—left out the most dramatic part of the actual story. Five crew members from a B-25 bomber that raided Tokyo bailed out on Soviet soil near Vladivostok, after which they were interned in Soviet camps in Central Asia for over a year. They eventually escaped and bribed their way across the desert into Iran.
above: Robert Mitchum, Van Johnson, Don DeFore, John R. Reilly, Robert Walker, and Tim Murdock in the 1944 film Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (Warner Bros.)
Far from a one-off, the Doolittle B-25 crew members, as I discovered while researching Stalin’s War, were the first of hundreds of American pilots interned by the NKVD as prisoners of war after crashlanding on Soviet Far Eastern soil. Although the NKVD later allowed 60 Americans to “escape” into Iran to avoid embarrassment during the Teheran conference, they were all, as the U.S. military attaché to Moscow John R. Deane later recalled, “pledged to secrecy until the end of the war”—pledged, that is, on Soviet instructions since the U.S. government, like Hollywood, was devoted to protecting Stalin’s public image.
Not every Hollywood wartime production was as exuberantly Stalinist as Mission to Moscow or In Our Time, but the cumulative effect of pro-Soviet and anti-Polish messaging was powerful. As Biskupski writes in Hollywood’s War on Poland, the American public, having been deeply sympathetic to Poland in 1939, had come by the end of the war, as demonstrated in numerous national opinion polls, to have a far more favorable view of the Soviet Union and to view Poles as troublemakers “threatening to wreck their wartime alliance.” This last theme became a key Soviet talking point after the Katyn story broke in 1943 and Stalin broke off relations with the Polish government-in-exile in London. The sharply anti-Polish and pro-Soviet American mood of 1943–45 dissipated during the early Cold War—though not before Stalin had exploited this mood to expand his empire in Eastern Europe and Northern Asia. This was not only aided by Washington but carried out by a Red Army literally financed, fueled, armed, and fed by the U.S. taxpayer.
Still, popular memory of the war has been shaped by the Hollywood films of the era. Everyone today knows about Germany’s invasions of Poland, Norway, and France; the Battle of Britain; the German invasion of the USSR and the Holocaust; the Japanese invasion of China and Pearl Harbor. These events were seared into the public imagination in film after film. But, as I discovered after mentioning this fact in a Wall Street Journal op-ed in 2019 and being deluged with flabbergasted queries, almost no one knows about the Soviet invasion of Poland on Sept. 17, 1939, an event that never made it onto the big screen—for good reason.
The omission of the Soviet imprisonment of the Doolittle crew in Trumbo’s Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, likewise, helped hide another fact equally embarrassing for Soviet apologists in the media: Stalin was collaborating with Imperial Japan while the U.S. was at war in the Pacific. Hollywood never revealed the extent of Soviet-Japanese cooperation following the Neutrality Pact of April 13, 1941.
This pact may have eased the way for the Japanese decision to attack Pearl Harbor. It also allowed 8.244 million tons of American Lend-Lease war matériel and petroleum shipped to Vladivostok to move straight through Japanese territorial waters, unmolested, while the U.S. was at war with Japan. These were the arms and fuel that Stalin’s armies used to conquer Northern Asia in August 1945 after he opportunistically tore up the Neutrality Pact. So sensitive, so completely unknown to the public, are these matters, that I was denounced by the Russian Foreign Ministry for causing a diplomatic incident after I discussed them in The Wall Street Journal last April.
Trumbo, Koch, and other pro-Soviet Hollywood screenwriters did their work well. While many of them faced hostile postwar questioning by HUAC, the blacklist, and a few served short prison sentences, in the long run that persecution only enhanced their reputations. Unfortunately, Stalin and his apologists won the propaganda war perhaps most dramatically on America’s own movie screens.