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Propaganda warfare in Mexican Radio during Second World War
José Luis Ortiz Garza (Ph.D)

 (This is a translation by Theodore Wills from the Chapter 6 of the book «Mexico en guerra», by José Luis Ortiz Garza, Editorial Planeta, México, 1989. The bibliographic references marked within the parentheses -which are present in the book- are not included here. Since some of the quotations were translated by Theodore Wills directly from the book in Spanish, which in turn were translated by the author from the English, there may be slight differences when compared to the original versions. The idea, however is well covered)

6.1 From distant neighbors to instant neighbors

Radio was undoubtedly the most important means of information in the Second World War. It was able to overcome geographical barriers as well as the lack of rapid transportation which stymied the distribution of print media. The most remote corners of the Mexican sierras could tune into station XEW and other stations from Mexico City. At the time there were over three hundred thousand receivers in the country.(1) 

Radio had become the ideal vehicle for fast, cheap and systematic mass persuasion over a poorly educated populace that relied on its feelings more than its thoughts. From October, 1937, the U.S. government had been watching with alarm the steady growth of German radio programming in Latin America. The transmissions were so powerful that they oftentimes blocked out or interfered with North American transmissions. Little by little, the U.S. was getting eased off the radio dial.(2)

 In February, 1938, President Roosevelt convened a private session with representatives from the largest U.S. radio companies at the White House. The discussion had to do with alternative solutions to the German radio threat. One option was for the U.S. government to put up its own radio network alongside of the private chains. The businessmen in attendance resisted this intrusion by the state into their commercial domain. They made an argument that although short-wave radio was not a money-maker, if the U.S. government would revise the appropriate law, they would take on the consequent expense. Frank Mason, vice-president of the NBC Network, detailed their presence in Latin America as including seven hours a week of news in Spanish and Portuguese. NBC had 1,800 employees producing 54,531 programs or 19,842 hours of broadcasting time for the region. The other representatives made similar estimations. What they did not emphasize was the fact that a great percentage of their short-wave programs were also going out on commercial band.(3) 

The radio leaders agreed that the German influence on radio was increasing, but they did not see it as a serious threat to U.S. interests. The German programs were solely for promoting tourism. The networks concluded that the U.S. government would be best advised not to establish a short-wave station because it would be like copying "the tactics of the dictatorial countries wherein radio is an instrument of government power designed for the service of the ruling elite." These arguments appear to have convinced Roosevelt to channel his propaganda forces for short wave by means of privately-held stations. As a result, in the spring of 1939, the legislation governing the radio industry was modified so as to encourage advertising on short wave in Latin America. In return, the U.S. government had the radio networks increase the power of their transmissions and direct more antennaes southward. The U.S. propaganda machine was beginning to gear up for action.(4) 

Short-wave radio made distant and distinct neighbors into instant neighbors. Propaganda began to say in the very way it communicated that cross-cultural differences were easily surmountable. "Panamericanismo" had "Hispanoamericanismo" on the run. The difficulties of enlisting short-wave radio into government service were crowned by the challenge of a politically apathetic listening audience. From the very start of the war, the French propagandists had employed all their persuasive powers on the "Paris-Mondial" short-wave radio network. They were quickly disillusioned. A diplomatic report from 1940 stated that the Mexican listener was primarily interested in stations XEW, XEQ and XEB, while paying little attention to short-wave programming.(5) 

North American audience surveys had revealed that even though many Latin Americans could receive short-wave broadcasts, most preferred to listen to local programming. The Germans had previously taken note of this phenomenon. They decided to tape their short-wave broadcasts, then purchase local air-time for later re-broadcast on popular stations. Local sponsors could cut down the costs involved by means of advertising. All of this allowed for access to a broader segment of the radio public. Without giving up on the short-wave audience, the propagandists opened up a "second front" on local station listeners. The Mexico City station XEN had one thousand watts of power and was completely under the power of the German press office, according to the French legation in Mexico. It continually broadcast news and commentaries which were unfavorable to the Allied cause. As if to add insult to injury, these reports were usually accompanied by French music, such as the singing of La Madelon. The French had total power over station XEB, whose owners were of French background. According to Izthak Bar-Lewaw, other stations at the service of the Germans until mid-1940 were XERC in the capital and XEHV and XEU in Veracruz.(6) 

The North Americans copied the German strategy of duplicating the broadcast value of short-wave transmissions. They eventually took this system to its ultimate consequences. NBC and CBS both set up a vast network of Latin American affiliates who were charged with rebroadcasting the most important short-wave programs. 

6.2 Let loose the war of ether!

It was 3:15 a.m. on September 1, 1939, when the dormant teletypes came to life in the principal Mexican newspapers. The Germans had invaded Poland at a lightning pace. The news was shouted on every corner. The Second World War had begun! The news sped around the world in a flash. While Mexican stations were hooked up for the fifth State of the Union address of President Cardenas, short-wave listeners could receive the latest information directly from Europe via NBC and CBS correspondents. At the end of the presidential address, it seemed as if radio had assumed the seat of honor in Mexican homes. Following upon the North American model, programs would be interrupted for important news announcements.(7)

Radio had arrived. It was now about to begin some of the most brilliant chapters in communications history. It was no longer a luxury to reach out to the most remote counties by means of short-wave. The dramatic onset of world war proved an unbeatable justification for the extension of this media. None of the great international radio networks were prepared for a sudden event of such enormous consequences. Demand for information exceeded the supply/service capacity. Two years were to pass before this demand was satisfied, thanks in part to the work of propagandists. Using what scarce news that was available, XEW met the news demand as best they could. It must be said that did a better job than any other station in Mexico and all of Latin America. The "Voice of Latin America from Mexico" produced on September 1, 1939, a news program of such breadth that it is of historic magnitude. XEW had an information marathon which ran throughout the day and into the early hours of the night, keeping listeners abreast of events in Europe. The station secured an excellent reception of the BBC from London which was covering Parliamentary debate about entering the war. The anxious voice of the announcer was testimony enough of the drama unfolding. Nevertheless, a translation into Spanish was ready within two minutes time. Manuel Bernal and other announcers from the "W" took great pains to communicate in great detail the diverse aspects of the conflict, be they geographical, logistical, etc. One heard the opinions of Roosevelt, Chamberlain, the Queen of the Netherlands, King Leopold of Belgium, along with journalists reporting from Japan, French Indochina, etc. This was truly incredible! Daniel Morales remembered the day in these words: «Never had a radio station brought its audience so close to the very heartbeat of a major world event. With its long arm of ether able to wrap around the entire world, radio transported Mexico into a higher level of consciousness, the power to know the tremendous tragedy up to its most minute details.» (8)

Wehrmacht, Luftwaffe, Reich, Panzers, Blitzkrieg, Spitfire, Stuka, Fuhrer, Stalin, Roosevelt, Chamberlain, Daladier, Danzig, Warsaw...All of these names, terms and places had to be understood, explained, read, written about, put into context. On that first day of September, Mexico went out into the world to get a handle on war news. Few would have suspected that plans were already afoot to bring the war to Mexico. This was a war that respected no boundaries nor age-old conventions. This was the propaganda war. For the time being, one had to be ready for anything. What better way to follow the conflict than by radio from the comfort of one's home? Businesses took advantage of September to make their August. The outbreak of war coincided with an outbreak of ads for radios. It was 1939, but the 1940 models were now available! They had from five to sixteen bulbs and some were adaptable for television! (9) 

Home demonstrations were offered without prior commitment. Even ones old radio could be traded in as part of the purchase. The important thing was to be able to follow the war's progress almost minute by minute, since there was "nothing more interesting that could be received in a radio ... than the daily bulletins which the war powers send out, many times from the very fields of battle."(10) 

Never in the history of the world has the family had in its own home the miraculous power to listen clearly to voices of people who are many thousands of kilometers away from us.(11) 

Never had information coming from the exterior received such a forceful promotion and popular demand. Disguised by the cloak of information, foreign ideology would penetrate the country with a privileged visa to perform important political functions. All it took was a simple turn of the dial to open the home to the forces of propaganda. 

6.3 The magnetic spider spins its web

On November 8, 1940, William Paley, president of CBS, began a tour of Latin America with the idea of attracting to his network a large number of affiliate stations. Paley was one of the most important men in the United States at the time. He had just met with President Roosevelt to discuss his business trip. Roosevelt had first offered Paley the Coordinator's job at OCIAA. Paley turned down the offer and recommended Rockefeller for the post since Rockefeller spoke Spanish, had business interests in the region and was generally very interested in its development.(12) Upon his return from Latin America, Paley had signed 64 of the most important radio stations there as CBS affiliates.(13) The terms of the contract were that the station would broadcast a minimum of one hour of CBS programming each day and that the contract was in force for five years. Paley emphasized the value of this transmitting time, this "penetration," which the United States would have in these countries. According to Paley, "This will give us a dominant position ... in comparison with any other nation. The Germans, of course, have been buying time on the radio but we still have the upper hand as a result of these contracts."(14) 

In July, 1941, John Royal, vice-president of the NBC network, made a trip to Latin America with the same objective as Paley and even better results. Among other things, Royal signed on station XEW, the most important station in the region. XEW also had the national network with the most listeners.(15) The entry of the United States into the war made short-wave radio efforts a high priority. North American radio networks found transmissions to Latin America to be a financial burden. In much the same way that it had handled the printed media, the U.S. government granted radio advertisers a tax deduction from the summer of 1942. In return, short-wave transmissions began to go for 24 hours a day. The time devoted to news coverage increased in some cases by 400%.(16) 

The stations owned by Emilio Azcarraga affiliated with both CBS and NBC. For example, XEQ, tied to CBS, was part of the "Chain of the Americas." In March of 1943, it headed up eighteen stations in the provinces. XEW and its twenty-one affiliates in Mexico were part of the "Panamerican Chain" of NBC. In addition, the Mexican stations maintained interchanges with 42 sister stations in Central and South America.(17) 

It is of note that in February of 1943, XEQ hired a North American by the name of Daniel Lundberg to be Assistant Manager of the station. Lundberg had previously worked for the CBS network.(18) 

Unable to sign up with either of the radio giants, XEOY went with the Mutual Broadcasting System(MBS) in June, 1942. XEOY was the thirteenth most powerful radio station in the region, though its coverage was only national. MBS agreed to work with XEOY on the condition that it expand transmissions to the wider Latin American audience.(19) 

The alignment of the Azcarraga stations with the most powerful radio networks in the world would have enormous consequences for the Azcarraga fortunes, as well as the "Golden Era" of radio in Mexico. Nevertheless, there were unforeseen problems. In the first months of 1942, few would have questioned the acumen of the Mexican magnate, yet fewer still would have been able to forecast his difficulties with the U.S. government. 

6.4 XEW on the black list

When the OCIAA decided to put in force the "black lists," it surveyed the opinion of many North American exporters who operated in Latin America. In many cases, the criteria for denouncing possible enemies to the United States was not that clear. Accusations would surface simply because an institution had not been enthusiastic enough towards the U.S. or because a company was more of a commercial enemy. No one who knew the biography of Emilio Azcarraga in 1940 could seriously contemplate that he was anti-North American. Nevertheless, between the end of 1941 and the middle of 1942, the FBI and the U.S. State Department were seriously wondering about Azcarraga and the loyalties of his stations. Based on reports from secret agents, the U.S. officials believed that Azcarraga and his stations were pro-Nazi and anti-U.S.(20) 

On April 5, 1941, the U.S. military attache in Mexico informed the State Department about German activities in Mexico. Hundreds of similar reports had been sent to Washington in the previous months but this list included something special: station XEW and its manager, Othon Velez. This report was based on information from an anti-Nazi German who in previous occasions had provided reliable data to U.S. intelligence. It was claimed that the station sent secret messages in code to be taped and deciphered in Berlin. The secret signals were allegedly inserted between musical numbers or commercials. The key to the code was to be found in the first, second, or some other letter of each word in the message. The presumed organizer of the scheme was Othon Velez, who was a well-known supporter of the German cause. According to the U.S. report, Velez had a powerful radio receiver in his house where messages from Berlin could be received and taped for the German legation in Mexico City.(21) 

In September, 1941, the "Coordinating Committee" in Mexico had been studying the possibility of how to make a big increase in U.S. radio programming. The decision involved a great deal of money, so before making it, the OCIAA convened twenty of the top U.S. businessmen in Mexico. The selected station had to be sympathetic to the democratic cause. Many of the men at the table knew Emilio Azcarraga and his sympathies. They voted XEW as the best vehicle for U.S. programming "without any doubt expressed by anyone present, on the contrary, the majority of the members spoke strongly in favor of Azcarraga and expressed their belief that he was pro-North American."(22) 

Despite these words of support, U.S. intelligence insisted that Azcarraga was continuing his subversive actvities at stations XEW and XEQ: «Azcarraga is a Mexican with strong anti-North American sentiments and pro-Nazi sympathies. At this time he is pressuring the Associated Press and the United Press to get exclusive rights for transmission of North American news while using the services of Transocean for free... There are reliable reports that Azcarraga receives approximately 20,000 pesos a month for North American advertising from both stations».(23) 

It was said that Azcarraga was aware that he was being watched and that he had cut back his activities. The accusation was renewed about Velez and a list of pro-Nazi employees of XEW was made including the Assistant Manager, the Artistic Director, the Technical Supervisor and many members of the technical crew. U.S. intelligence reported that the majority of the management and staff of XEQ were also pro-Nazi.(24) 

Much of the preceeding information had been supplied by H. J. Corson, a North American spy whose official job was representative of the American Association of Advertising Agencies.(25) He also worked as an "observer" for the "Oficina de Informacion para la Exportacion." Corson had been reporting since May of 1941 of the supposed pro-German and falangist tendencies of XEW. He claimed that within the commercial houses of the French and the British these attitudes were well-known. He reported that the Secretary of Communications had informed Azcarraga that members of his staff were "personas non gratas" who should be fired. For its part, the Allied Committee for Publicity, a Franco-British creation, also considered Emilio Azcarraga to be pro-Nazi.(26) The U.S. Department of State and the OCIAA considered this to be a controversy of the highest magnitude. Just the media power of Emilio Azcarraga would merit this consideration. But only in August, 1941, his stations had been joined with the "Panamerican Chain" to transmit U.S. programming. "Broadcasting" magazine had heralded the contract, calling XEW "the most powerful station in the Western Hemisphere."(27) Along the same lines, in August, 1940, "Time" magazine observed that while the most powerful stations in the U.S. were limited to 50,000 watts, XEW operated with 100,000 watts and had the authorization to go to 200,000 watts.(28) 

The superb management of the business had earned it an "Administrative Excellence" award from the magazine "Variety" in 1940. Given the magnitude of the interests involved, XEW and its staff were not publicly included in the "black lists." The bureaucratic traffic intensified. In December, 1941, people at the State Department began to complain that the Azcarraga investigation was becoming interminable. They suggested that the question be resolved by the embassy staff in Mexico, since they were closest to the facts. They also feared angering Azcarraga, a man who had enormous influence in the Mexican government. The chief of the OCIAA's Radio Division, Donald Francisco, suggested handling the matter discreetly. If necessary, XEW could be controlled by commercial pressures via the A.P., the U.P. and the NBC and CBS stations.(30) 

Having taken the matter into its own hands, the U.S. embassy in Mexico completely exonerated Emilio Azcarraga. Azcarraga had already cancelled all advertising from products included on the "black lists." He was even publicly ridiculed for serving as "advisor for radio at the U.S. embassy."(31) In a summary report sent in July, 1942, the U.S. embassy concluded that after a thorough investigation including interviews with figures in business and government, no evidence whatsoever had been unearthed to substantiate the charges that Azcarraga was pro-Nazi. Among the testimonies, there was one from John Royal, vice-president of NBC, who declared that he had known Azcarraga for ten years and that "I can't imagine anything more absurd than the accusation that Azcarraga was anti-American or pro-German."(32) 

For these reasons the embassy urged the State Department to close the investigation forthwith and to withdraw certain sanctions which had already gone into effect, such as delays in supplying bulbs and financing. The embassy summed up its case as follows: «The chain of radio stations controlled by Emilio Azcarraga is by far the most broad-based and powerful means of mass communication which now exists in Mexico. An unfavorable treatment towards this chain or its members would cause incredible harm to our cause. The embassy cannot employ stronger terms to urge that all the archives in Washington be corrected as soon as possible». ...(33) Although it would seem that the embassy's strong words had an effect, the State Department continued to follow very closely everything having to do with XEW. A sophisticated electronic listening post was established in the