The CBC’s “International Service”: A weapon of Cold War propaganda

John Diefenbaker with Mike Starr

By Richard Sanders, Canada Files, April 22, 2021

Throughout the Cold War, Canada’s Department of External Affairs wielded the CBC’s International Service (CBC-IS)1 as a propaganda weapon in what it called "political warfare." The CBC-IS (aka "The Voice of Canada") was, Liberal Foreign Minister Lester Pearson boasted in 1951, "doing valuable work for Canada and playing a useful part in the psychological war against communism." As he explained to the House of Commons, this "psychological war" is "an important part of the total war against communism—the struggle or the battle for men’s minds."2

As Canada’s leading Cold Warrior, Pearson was key to orchestrating the psy-war operations of a top-secret interdepartmental group called the "Psychological Warfare Committee."3 Like others dedicated to fighting what he called the "total war against communism," Pearson’s dream was not only to collaborate in the subversion, breakup and eventual destruction of the Soviet Union, he also wanted to rid the entire world (including Canada) of all communists.

Although planning for the CBC’s international reach began in the late 1930s, not until 1942 did Prime Minister Mackenzie King issue an order-in-council to create it. Two years later, just as the Soviets were finishing the liberation of Eastern Europe, having forced the Nazi war machine back to Germany’s borders, the CBC-IS began broadcasting. It was Christmas Day, 1944. From head offices in a former Montreal brothel,4 the CBC-IS began its military mission to beam messages in English and French to Canadian soldiers, and in German to Nazi troops. But with the Allied victory almost complete, CBC-IS broadcasts soon made an about-face. Canada’s German-language transmissions quickly redirected their propaganda attacks against the citizens of East Germany, and communism across Eastern Europe became Canada’s prime target.

The first language to be added to CBC-IS broadcasts was Czech. This began in 1946 because Czechoslovakia’s communist party won that year’s democratic election. To anticommunists around the world, the communists’ election victory was an intolerable precedent to be nipped in the bud. Canada soon began a steady barrage of politically abusive Czech programming. Commenting on these broadcasts, an article in the Czechoslovak daily, National Liberation said "from Canada we hear nothing except large doses of anti-Soviet insults and a lot of slander against people’s democracies." This harsh critique of Canadian propaganda was later quoted by CBC-IS director Ira Dilworth as proof that Canada was doing an excellent job fighting the global war against communism.5

In 1946, after four years at Canada’s embassy in Washington, Pearson became the deputy minister of External Affairs and helped to oversee Canada’s proUS, Cold War agenda. This included ramping up CBC-IS propaganda. After adding Czech broadcasts, CBC-IS began programming in Dutch and three Scandinavian languages, as well as in English to the Caribbean, and in Portuguese and Spanish to Latin America.

CBC broadcasts to "America’s backyard" were in tune with US offensives assailing popular left-wing liberation movements. Besides using economic and propaganda weapons, the US pushed the West’s twisted ideas of "freedom" and "democracy" by rigging elections, fomenting coups, waging counterinsurgency wars and launching invasions to install brutal, far-right dictatorships. The US propped up its business-friendly client states, and their terrorist death squads, with money, military training, arms, diplomatic support and antiRed propaganda.6 Blatant US interference in Latin American politics was replicated around the world and has continued to this day, with much support from NATO allies like Canada.

In early 1947, Pearson initiated a policy group to provide guidelines for the DEA’s propaganda efforts. Canadian historian Gary Evans notes that according to these guidelines, the function of the Psychological Warfare Committee was

to undermine and disrupt by overt/covert means enemy morale and to ‘sustain and foster the morale and spirit of resistance of our friends in enemy-occupied countries.’7

Wenceslas' Square, Prague, Feb. 28, 1948. Watch a video here.

After a fascist plot to overthrow Czechoslovakia was thwarted in 1948, massive rallies and strikes involving millions of people supported the elected communist government in its effort to consolidate power.
This effort to oppose a fascist takeover was labeled a "coup" by the West. The CBC - International Service
was then wielded as a weapon of propaganda in Cold War Canada's "political warfare" against communism.

In 1948 the department increased Canada’s propaganda war against its communist enemies. The impetus for this came in February, when massive rallies and strikes involving millions of people, supported Czechoslovakia’s popularly elected communist government in an effort to consolidate its power. In March, Canadian Cold Warriors reacted to this "coup" by suggesting that the department "prepare recommendations ... to set up for wartime propaganda purposes."8 Pearson set up a special group to "report on the desirability and practicability of using the [CBC] International [Service] for political warfare."9 In April, he met with top department and CBC officials to escalate Canada’s psychological war against "countries dominated by Communist regimes."10

By July, the department produced a detailed report outlining its strict lines of authority and control over CBC-IS propaganda. This report was couched in extremist, Cold War language that divided the planet into two opposing camps: the "active, free, civilised nations" of the capitalist world, and their archenemies, the "totalitarian regimes" of the socialist world. Ironically, the department’s report concluded that it was important not to create "the impression in the minds of [CBC-IS] listeners that the service was an agency of propaganda,"11 even though it was explicitly designed, organized and funded to fulfil that very purpose.

By 1950 the department had further tightened its grip on the CBC-IS. A declassified memo from undersecretary of state Arnold Heeney to CBC General Manager Augustin Frigon detailed the department’s "policy objectives." A key purpose of CBC-IS, he stated, was to "participate actively on behalf of Canada in the Cold War." This, Frigon said, meant that:

In prosecuting the Cold War...the CBC-IS...should...win over the waverers in countries where the battle is more clearly joined, bring over to our side the neutrals, and get the better of our opponents....12

While the CBC-IS promoted the delusion that the US-led "free world" was a beacon of democracy, it hypocritically waged propaganda wars that interfered in Western Europe’s elections. This subversion of democracy was most aggressive in countries where voters threatened to vote communists into power. To avoid such perceived disasters, the department dictated how CBC-IS propaganda warriors should tailor their broadcasts to swing the vote in "countries with large communist parties like France and Italy." CBC propaganda aimed at such countries, said Heeney, had to "show proud peoples what happens when native communists seize the reins of power and then immediately transfer them to the Kremlin’s iron grasp..." CBC-IS broadcasts to Italy and France, Heeney insisted, had to include messages that "strive constantly to identify communism as an instrument of Soviet imperialism" and "unmask the hypocrisy of communist ‘democracy’ in elections, trade unions, labour camps, religion, etc. and the hypocrisy of Soviet peace propaganda."13

In 1950, the US and UK asked Canada to join them in aiming Russian-language propaganda at the USSR. The Foreign Affair’s report (Psychological Warfare: CBC-IS Russian Service) said broadcasts would show "the good in our way of life and the evil in the Soviet way." The stated goal was "undermining the morale, faith and determination of the people of the Soviet Union who actively or passively support Soviet policies."

Another goal was to tell the war-weary USSR (which had just lost 27 million citizens in defeating Nazism) "that they cannot hope to win a new world war." If this threat was not enough, Foreign Affairs told CBC-IS to warn that "the Soviet regime (and its attendant satellite regimes)" would be "solely responsible for war should it come." Ironically, the department’s good-vs-evil tirades were also aimed at "convincing the Russians ... of our peaceful, unaggressive purpose."14

Foreign Affairs’ directives also linked Christianity to the other "general lines" of propaganda that the CBC-IS was told to follow. In a 1951 speech to parliament, Pearson, now Foreign Minister, quoted department guidelines that CBC-IS broadcasts should be

keeping alive and if possible increasing a knowledge of and appreciation of democracy, the code of ethics we have derived from Christianity and western civilization and thought.15

 

Using Ukraine as a wedge to divide and conquer the enemy

To promote their Cold War objectives, Foreign Affairs and CBC-IS worked closely with Canada’s anticommunist Ukrainian émigré groups which still revere Nazi collaborators as WWII heroes.

In 1951, to prepare for beaming Ukrainian-language propaganda at Soviet citizens, the CBC-IS sent Walter Schmolka to meet top officials at the Voice of America (VOA) in New York. Schmolka, who had overseen the CBC-IS’s Czech broadcasts since their inception, reported that the VOA stressed "the general fight for freedom and the struggle against Communism."16 Elbieta Olechowska, a media scholar at the University of Warsaw, noted that Schmolka assumed that the CBC-IS

should adopt holus-bolus the VOA program policy, without a single question being asked or a single doubt expressed about its suitability for Canada.17

In assessing how to wage a "political war" against the USSR, senior Foreign Affairs staffer Robert Mackay wrote that "Canada’s large Ukrainian community would provide good propaganda material." He also noted the suggestion of an age-old, divide-and-conquer tactic. "One of the best ways of working for and securing peace," he said, "would be to break up the Soviet Union into a large number of successor states; Ukrainian nationalism was deserving of support with this in mind."18

MacKay also noted the idea that an "effective means" of opposing the USSR was to "appeal to those Soviet minorities ... above all the Ukrainians, who were already conducting underground resistance to Muscovite Russian rule."19

Throughout this process, External Affairs was in touch with far-right Ukrainian groups eager to help the CBC-IS with antiSoviet broadcasts. Leading this charge was the Canadian League for the Liberation of Ukraine, renamed the League of Ukrainian Canadians (LUC) in 1991. It still represents Stepan Bandera’s faction of the fascist Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists within the Ukrainian Canadian Congress (UCC). The UCC is the umbrella group for anticommunist Ukrainians created by Mackenzie King’s government in 1940.

In 1951, the League collected 12,000 signatures on a petition and urged readers of its pro-Bandera Ukrainian Echo to lobby government officials to fund Ukrainian-language programs attacking the USSR. The CBC-IS asked LUC and similar Ukrainian émigré groups and their churches to suggest who should run the new Ukrainian-language division. For input, Pearson consulted John Decore, a far-right Ukrainian-Canadian Member of Parliament.20

In his 1981 MA thesis on the CBC-IS "as a psychological instrument of Canadian foreign policy," lawyer and law professor Bernard Hibbitts noted that his research focused on the influence which East European ethnic groups in Canada especially the Ukrainians exercised over policy, and shows how, in the end, they made of [CBC] IS a ‘twisted arm’ of Canadian statecraft.21

That this arm was twisted was clear from the extreme Cold War polemics of its first Ukrainian broadcast. The July 1, 1952, program had Canada Day messages from Pearson, two Ukrainian priests and two Progressive Conservative MPs of Ukrainian heritage: John Decore and Mike Starr. In this opening salvo of Canada’s CBC-IS propaganda war against Soviet Ukraine, Starr launched a full-throttle McCarthyesque rant. After telling Soviet citizens in Ukraine not to "lose courage" because "the free world has not forgotten you," Starr said:

Canadian Ukrainians deplore that you our brother Ukrainians in Ukraine, do not have the right to a full political, national and personal life such as we enjoy in Canada .... The time will come when the spirit of freedom penetrates the Iron Curtain of oppression, the prison of nations crumbles and the regime of terror disintegrates under the blows of victorious forces of freedom and democracy.22

As a cabinet minister under Prime Minister John Diefenbaker in 1958, Starr was a key speaker at the Canadian conference of the Anti-Bolshevik Bloc of Nations (ABN).23  In 1967, Starr spoke in New York, NY, at the First World Congress of Free Ukrainians24 which united Banderite émigré groups around the world and was a central force within the ABN.

 

Purging "pinkos" from Canada and the world

At home in the "free world," where Starr said all Canadians enjoyed "full political, national and personal" freedoms, External Affairs was purging CBC-IS staff who sympathized with leftist politics, cleansing the service of those who did not fit their right-wing mould. In 1952, the department put a hardened Cold Warrior, Jean Désy, in charge of CBC-IS. It also created a "Political Coordination Section" to keep CBC-IS propaganda in sync with the department’s stringent demands for psy-war programming.25 When Désy, a career diplomat who had been a Canadian ambassador in Europe and Brazil, took the reigns he "ruthlessly ‘purged’ the service of all suspicion of leftist bias,"26 said media scholar Olechowska.

A magazine published by the Canadian ministry of foreign affairs in 2000 praised Désy for having "set a standard unsurpassed for service to his country." The department’s puff piece described Désy’s command over the CBC-IS by saying:

The voice of Canada ... was then facing criticism for supposedly being "too pinko [sic] on communists." Changing the tone was among the tasks awaiting Désy .... He succeeded, making the [CBC International] Service "frank and critical of the evils of communism to the point of combativeness."27

When Jean Desy, was put in charge of CBC-IS, he "ruthlessly ‘purged’ the service of all suspicion of leftist bias," said scholar Elzbieta Olechowska.

Or, as the Department of Foreign Affairs put it in 2000, Desy: "succeeded [in]
making the [CBC International] Service "frank and critical of the evils
of communism to the point of combativeness."

The ministry also kept its propaganda in line with Cold War narratives used by Canada’s imperial masters, the US and UK. Discussing Canada’s propaganda efforts in early 1953, Pearson said it was "important to coordinate these activities so that we all say the same thing ... that we follow the same principles." For this purpose, he said,

we keep in very close touch with the Voice of America and the BBC... so that we do not contradict each other and so what we do in this field dovetails into a general scheme of propaganda.28

As Pearson further explained, "Mr Désy has been in New York more than once discussing with the Voice of America the line they follow.... So there is very close coordination."29 Canada’s subservient collaboration with the world’s imperialist powers on what Pearson called "psychological propaganda" for the "slaves behind the iron curtain," was, he admitted, "a very tricky business ... in a time of cold war."30

Pearson used Désy and other Cold Warriors to make sure that CBC-IS broadcasts followed the approved narrative. "We have men in our divisions," said Minister Pearson, who "follow these broadcasts very carefully." A consummate propagandist, Pearson took a hands-on role in ensuring that Canada’s propaganda did not stray from its prescribed track. "[E]very month or so I get a great stack of texts of broadcasts to countries behind the iron curtain," Pearson said, "and I try to see the line being followed and to satisfy myself it is the right line."31

Just following orders, or leading the propaganda charge?

Thanks to Pearson’s careful management, Canadian domestic and foreign policies remained fixated on the political line established by the leading Cold War forces in the US and UK. Pearson was a product of his times, serving the dictates of his era’s political, military and economic powers.

But while Pearson clearly reflected the double standards, biases and fears of Western elites, he also rose to become a pioneering force of Cold War propaganda by using his abilities and connections to peddle that era’s most extreme political obsessions. Pearson, then, should not be seen merely as a casualty of the Cold War’s social psychoses. Although he was held captive by the extreme anticommunist rhetoric, beliefs and social orders of his time, this does not excuse his collaboration with the world’s most violent Cold Warriors. As the Nuremberg trials made clear, following the orders of superiors—whether in military, political, economic or social spheres—is not a legitimate excuse for criminal behaviour.

Pearson did not just repeat the Cold War’s hate-filled propaganda mantras like some victim of the Stockholm syndrome. He went far beyond following the social orders of the elite institutions to which he belonged; he rose to command those social orders.

As a pioneer of Cold War propaganda, Pearson used its most aggressive memes and tropes as psychological weapons in the West’s "total war" against communism. This war, which Pearson oversaw for Liberal PM Louis St. Laurent in the 1950s, was not limited to targeting the Soviet enemy. Pearson also crafted the political phobias of anti-Red propaganda for domestic use in Canada’s own McCarthyesque witchhunts. This was especially true of his attacks on peace activists, which is ironic considering his widespread status as a peace-movement cult hero.

Republished with permission from the Press for Conversion magazine.
 

References and notes

(Thanks to Eric Mills <erics@web.ca> for his work copyediting this article.)

1. In 1970, CBC-IS changed its name to Radio Canada International (RCI). Since the USSR’s destruction in the early 1990s, RCI has faced cutbacks and is now only available online. http://www.rcinet.ca/en/

2. Lester Pearson, Hansard, May 14, 1951, p.3003. http://bit.ly/PearsonPsyWar

3. Gary Evans, In the National Interest: A Chronicle of the NFB of Canada from 1949 to 1989, 1991, p.11. http://bit.ly/PsyWarCttee

4. Marc Montgomery, Canada history: Feb. 25, 1945: Canada’s Voice to the World, Feb.24, 2017. http://bit.ly/CBCIS-HQ

5. Letter, Ira Dilworth, Montreal Gazette, Mar. 22, 1951, p.8. http://bit.ly/Gaz1951

6. William Blum, Killing Hope: US Military and CIA Interventions since WWII, 2014. http://bit.ly/Blum-KH

7. Evans, op. cit.

8. Letter from Marcel Cadieux to Escott Reid, Mar.11, 1948, cited in Bernard Hibbitts, CBC International Service as a Psychological Instrument of Canadian Foreign Policy in the Cold War, 1948-1953, 1981, p.40. http://bit.ly/Hibbitts

9. John Hilliker and Donald Barry, Canada’s Department of External Affairs: Coming of age, 1946-1968, 1995, pp.73-74.  http://bit.ly/Hilliker-Barry

10. Hibbitts, op. cit.

11. Quoted in letter from A. Anderson to Under-Secretary, Oct. 28, 1949, cited by Hibbits, ibid., p.43.

12. Ibid., p.53.

13. Letter from ADP Heeney to August Frigon, May 27, 1950, cited by Hibbitts, ibid., p.53.

14. "Psychological Warfare: CBC-IS Russian Service," Oct. 27, 1950, cited by Hibbitts, ibid., pp.57-58.

15. Government "policy guidance paper" for the CBC-IS, cited by Pearson 1951, op. cit.

16. Elzbieta Olechowska, The Age of International Radio: Radio Canada International (1945-2007), 2007, p.80. http://bit.ly/Olechowska

17. Ibid., p.81.

18. Letter from RA MacKay to Charles Ritchie, Jul. 11, 1951, in Hibbits, ibid., pp.81-82.

19. Hibbitts, ibid.

20. Ibid., pp.79-87.

21. Ibid., p.iv.

22. Myron Momryk, Mike Starr of Oshawa: A Political Biography, 2017, p.43.  http://bit.ly/Momryk

23. ABN Correspondence, Nov/Dec 1958, p.11.  http://bit.ly/ABN1958

24. "Michael Starr, 89, Ukrainian Canadian political pioneer, dies," Ukrainian Weekly, April 2, 2000. http://bit.ly/Starr-Obit

25. Hilliker and Barry, op. cit., p.93.

26. Olechowska, op. cit.

27. "Jean Désy: Diplomat par excellence," World View, Sum. 2000, p.11. http://bit.ly/J-Desy

28. Lester Pearson, Standing Cttee., External Affairs, Feb.19, 1953, p.12. http://bit.ly/VOA-BBC

29. Ibid., p.13. http://bit.ly/PsyProp

30. Ibid. http://bit.ly/Right-Line

31. Ibid., p.14.