Orson Welles’ “The War of the Worlds” Radio Hoax was Inspired by Antifascist Foreign Propagandists in 1930’s Hollywood

Here’s a summary of a new research paper I am working on about the ‘mythical’ Orson Welles‘ “The War of the Worlds” Halloween broadcast of 1938 that I think a lot of people will find interesting. (Let me know if you have questions or would like a reference list.)

The book “The War of the Worlds” was published in late 1897 by H.G. Wells, a British author and political commentator. In the final months of World War I, H.G. Wells was was in charge of all British propaganda directed at Germany. Following the second World War (WWII), Sir William Stephenson, who headed up the British Security Coordination (BSC) which was a predecessor to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), and who was also a real life model for Ian Fleming’s James Bond said of Wells:

“H. G. Wells became a good friend and adviser. The public knew him as a historian and prophet in fiction. Few knew about his passionate belief that in the science-fiction wars to come, our first line of defense would be information, rapidly conveyed.”

Wells was also a passionate socialist, though he was not a Marxist. In addition to having been later revered by Sir William Stephenson, he also seems to have been influenced by high level Communist operatives such as Willi Munzenberg since the early 1930’s. Wells was much closer to Russia though than that. His long term lover and secretary, Moura Budberg, had known him since at least 1920 and potentially earlier. At times, Budberg had offered her services to both British and Tsarist intelligence and had been long suspected as a Soviet spy by the British. In 1920, she introduced H.G. Wells to Lenin and in 1934, to Stalin. (In fact, when she was interrogated by British Intelligence in the 1950s, the socialite Budberg was responsible for implicating Anthony Blunt as a member of the Cambridge Five, and she reported on Guy Burgess as well.)

In 1933, with Hitler’s war machine menacing Europe, Wells had written the antifascist story “The Shape of Things to Come” which included notable predictions for the start of WWII. In 1934-35, Moura Budberg facilitated a meeting between Wells and the film producer Sir Alexander Korda, who wanted to adapt an H.G. Wells property into a movie. Some sources suggest that Korda wanted to make a film of “The War of the Worlds” but this is not clear. However, he did purchase the rights to “The Shape of Things to Come” which he adapted as the 1936 film “Things to Come”. Today it is seen as an antifascist propaganda movie. (Later, Budberg would go on to be Korda’s secretary and even select many of his scripts for him.)

In 1934-35, “The War of the Worlds” had already been attempted to be made into a movie twice (first by Cecil B Demille and secondly in 1930 by Sergei Eisenstein who abandoned the project to make his unfinished “Que Viva Mexico” propaganda film). In addition to no longer owning the film rights to “The War of the Worlds” when he met Korda, H.G. Wells had reportedly grown frustrated with attempts to adapt his books into film and wanted to have creative control of “Things to Come” which Korda provided — and which ultimately also proved frustrating for the film’s director (Wm. Cameron Menzies) and disastrous for the scope/cost of the film.

Korda had been making antifascist propaganda of his own since 1933 (“The Private Life of Henry VIII”) and made WWII’s first English language propaganda movie in the film “The Lion Has Wings” (1939). Why this is key and important is that Korda’s film company had been financed by British Intelligence, and he had been working for the “Z Organization” since at least the mid 1930’s which was headed by the “utter shit” Claude Dansey (aka Colonel Z, who would even go to work for Korda around 1944). At times, Korda had been sent to Hollywood specifically for propaganda purposes, and was likely knighted in 1942 for actions related to this duty. Other members of the Z Organization included figures like playwright Sir Noel Coward, who like Korda, would go to work for the BSC and be knighted for their prewar service. By the 1940’s Korda’s BSC colleague H. Montgomery Hyde described his studio as a “clearinghouse for British intelligence”. 

In 1934-35 Orson Welles also made his first forays into Hollywood. He immediately made inroads with a clique headed by the cantankerous (leftist) Alexander Woollcott, who was the subject of the play “The Man who Came to Dinner”. Woollcott was also the figurehead of the notable “Algonquin Round Table” which was a literary society known for their pranks and practical jokes, and had operated in the 1920’s (dissolving somewhat officially by 1929). Members of this clique included popular front devotees like Dorothy Parker (who founded the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League with influence from Willi Munzenberg’s deputy Otto Katz), Donald Ogden Stewart (who married Katz’ known spy Ella Winter), and Walter Duranty (a known apologist for Stalin). It also included Noel Coward. Herman Mankiewicz — Orson Welles co-writer for Citizen Kane was a member. It also included Robert Sherwood as a founding member, who would be an influential speechwriter for Roosevelt and head up the Foreign Information Service.

In 1935, a less known radio hoax than the one that would happen in 1938 occurred, but this one was targeted at Alexander Woollcott. Woollcott was the radio announcer and someone had sent him emotional letters from two dying sisters who he fruitlessly tracked down for some time. While a perpetrator for the hoax was never identified, the hoax on Woollcott fit closely in the tradition of the Algonquins, and Orson Welles almost certainly would have known of it, since Woollcott was his mentor who gave him his first film role around this time. (Also in precedence of the Halloween 1938 broadcast to come, in 1926, another radio panic had happened at the BBC, in 1937 Orson Welles had dabbled in intervening news bulletins on his “The Shadow” radio program, and earlier in 1938, Algonquin-connected Archibald MacLeish had developed the fake news bulletin format in his show “Air Raid”.)

In 1937, Orson Welles worked on the Joris Ivens film “The Spanish Earth” which had been written by (Algonquin-connected) Ernest Hemingway, one of Welles’ long-time friends (who was incidentally the inspiration for “The Other Side of the Wind” which will be released soon by Netflix), and is today regarded as antifascist propaganda. The documentary-style film focused on the Spanish Civil War which was a popular issue for the Popular Front in Hollywood. The support for antifascist forces in Spain was important for the Comintern, and Otto Katz was an influential figure in directing the Hollywood elite to the plight. Katz would have a direct role in recruiting Hemingway as a willing Soviet agent later by 1940, but can be seen to already have an influence on him by then, as well as influencing others connected to the Algonquins like Dorothy Parker. (Noel Coward even recruited Katz at one point to British intelligence.)

Welles also made the play “Julius Caesar” in 1937 which interpreted the classic Shakespeare play as one set in a 1930’s fascist Italy of the dictator Benito Mussolini. This was actually within the context of early British propaganda causes by the “British Council” which sought to use tools like Shakespeare to fight fascism (there is no clear connection here to an influence agent with Welles, but it was in fact a contemporary strategy of the British and Welles’ “Julius Caesar” could be seen as an archetypal example of the concept). Here we can again see, that prior to 1938’s Halloween broadcast of “The War of the Worlds”, Orson Welles was working with antifascist propaganda causes driven by both Russian and British operatives. Even Welles’ co-author of the 1938 broadcast, Howard Koch was an avowed antifascist who based his Victor Laszlo character in Casablanca on Otto Katz. Welles’ producer of the Mercury Theater on the Air radio show: John Houseman was an antifascist who had worked with Welles for years on Marxist-inspired plays and would also go to work with Robert Sherwood as the first director of Voice of America radio.

The bottom line is that all of the elements for “The War of the Worlds” to be considered not a “spontaneous prank”, but rather as a piece of pre-war propaganda were all there, from the radio prank on Woollcott to MacLeish and Welles’ own prior radio work which pioneered the format; not to mention the 1926 BBC “Father Knox” panic, which I believe would have been known to some members of the Algonquin Round Table. In September 1938, the Foreign Agents Registration Act was passed which would have mandated that the foreign propagandists operating in Hollywood have disclosed themselves. Many of these figures were working with the tacit approval of the Roosevelt Administration who wanted to get America into the war on Britain’s side. At the same time, Nazis were promoting “America First” and other isolationist propaganda to keep America out of the war. The British and the Russians had a remit to get America into the war at any cost — regardless of ethics — as evidenced by the actions of the BSC transparently in the 1940’s, attempts which included poll manipulation — which was a clear focus of the famous social psychological studies by Hadley Cantril into the 1938 broadcast which would follow. Some of the distinct effects of the broadcast were that people thought Nazis were invading, perhaps because America was so tense with those palpable war fears in 1938.

To boot, H.G. Wells was a proven national British propagandist with compromised lifestyle by Russia, a pattern which appears similar in Alexander Korda. Both of these men were making antifascist propaganda around this time, and both were very fond of Orson Welles. Orson Welles, going on to meet H.G.Wells in 1940 (while Wells was still in correspondence with Budberg), and then being tracked down by the Kordas so he could star as Harry Lime in 1949s “The Third Man”, a film inspired by the Cambridge Five members Kim Philby and H.P. Smolka. (Another of Welles’ mentors, Louis Dolivet – also a disciple of Willi Munzenberg was married to Beatrice Straight, sister of Michael Straight in the early 1940’s and introduced Orson Welles to Michael. Michael was of course supposedly the only “American” member of the Cambridge Five. Dolivet also seems to have emulated himself on Alexander Korda, being Welles’ financier and producer for the “sympathetic” Stalin metaphor which was the 50’s film “Mr. Arkadin” which was a pseudosequel of sorts to the “Third Man”.)

Ironically, as you can tell, many of the British espionage assets in this story — Alexander Korda, William Stephenson, and Noel Coward were knighted for their services as propagandists. Conversely, both Willi Munzenberg and Otto Katz were executed by Stalin. Orson Welles and Howard Koch were blacklisted by Hollywood, and Welles went on to live for a while as a sort of self-imposed exile in Europe. Also perhaps ironically, “The War of the Worlds” was in fact only first released as a film in 1953 by Paramount Pictures (who’d had the rights since the mid 20’s) and it was a notably anti-Communist film metaphor versus an antifascist one.