Radio Free Europe

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Radio Free Europe (RFE), established in 1949, and Radio Liberty (RL), established in 1951, were the most successful propaganda vehicles of American psychological warfare during the four decades of the Cold War. The radio stations run by the United States government contributed to a great extent to the survival of democratic values and desire for freedom among the people of the Soviet bloc countries.


Soon after the end of World War II, numerous signs indicated that the Soviet leaders intended to ignore the agreements reached between the Allies at the Yalta Conference and tighten their grasp over Eastern Europe, and in the longer run they aspired to dominate the western part of the Continent as well. During the war the Soviet regime accumulated a remarkable reputation in Europe. The Soviet Union tried to counterbalance its economic vulnerability by aggressive propaganda intended to construct an image of the moral and political superiority of the Soviet system. The Americans believed that despite their military and economic advantage, they could not stop Soviet expansion if they failed to place maximum strain on the Soviet imperial zone from inside. They feared the potential brainwashing impact of the totalitarian communist propaganda machinery. The task was to hamper consolidation of Soviet control over satellite countries, keep aspirations for national independence alive, and alter the view that the Soviets were on a track of successful expansion.

In June 1948 the National Security Council adopted George Kennan's proposal and created a new department within the CIA, the Office of Policy Coordination (OPC), for conducting covert operations. Kennan's draft stated that these operations should include propaganda, economic warfare, subversion, and assistance to underground resistance movements and refugee liberation groups. The actions had to be so planned and executed that the U.S. government could plausibly disclaim any responsibility for them. In a memorandum on 29 October 1948, Frank G. Wisner, the first head of the OPC, outlined four functional groups of the office, the first of which was in charge of "psychological warfare," including the use of the press and radio.

The communist takeover throughout the Eastern European region in 1948 accelerated the organizational work. The National Committee for a Free Europe (NCFE), created in early 1949, assembled prominent Eastern European émigré politicians and intellectuals and established a publishing division, Free Europe Press, and two broadcasting divisions. RFE targeted the Soviet satellites in Eastern and Central Europe. RL broadcast in Russian and in the languages of the republics of the Soviet Union. The recruitment of the editorial and research staff started in 1949.

Both the NCFE and RFE/RL, like Crusade for Freedom, their ostensible fund-raising organization, pretended to be civil initiatives without direct involvement of the U.S. government. RFE/RL had a unique ambition. Unlike traditional foreign radio services, the national desks of RFE/RL intended to become "domestic" radio stations of the target countries. Their mission was not limited to the promotion of American political and cultural values. Besides breaking the information monopoly of communist propaganda, RFE/RL also wanted to facilitate the liberation of the "captive nations." In order to achieve this task, RFE/RL employed émigré journalists and experts. To provide well-established inside information from the Soviet bloc, the research staff monitored the official communist press and national radios as well as Western media sources. In addition, RFE/RL worked with the CIA to set up "field offices" near the largest refugee camps around the Soviet bloc. RFE/RL agents interviewed refugees in order to collect intelligence data and unmanipulated information on the everyday reality of the communist orbit. By using this information in their programs, the stations were able to make the impression that they were indeed present in the everyday life of these countries. Moreover, as "nongovernmental" institutions representing Eastern European émigrés, RFE/RL programs and rhetoric could go beyond official American foreign policy claims.

The CIA involvement in the RFE/RL operations remains a debated and sensitive issue. Although Crusade for Freedom pursued a spectacular campaign among the American public, in fact RFE/RL received funds from the budget of the CIA until 1971, when RFE/RL funding and oversight responsibilities were transferred to the Board for International Broadcasting. The CIA used the information amassed by the radio and research staff as well as their expertise in evaluating the situation in the Soviet bloc. The State Department regularly issued policy guidelines for assuring that the broadcasts fit the framework of the American strategy. Although American supervisors at the stations worked under State Department/CIA mandate, accounts of RFE/RL history usually assert that direct political control or preliminary censorship of the programs was not exercised. RFE/RL also resisted attempts to use radio programs to convey coded messages to secret agents working in the region.

American Cold War policy had to face several dilemmas that also made an impact on RFE/RL programs. The programs had to follow a narrow path of maintaining the ideological and political pressure but not provoking "premature upheavals," as the subsequent National Security Council directives and RFE policy guidelines repeatedly stressed. A related issue was whether they should encourage splits within the communist parties and between Moscow and the satellites, thus promoting the "evolutional" disintegration of these regimes, or rather bet on the anticommunist resistance. The second option partially contradicted the first one. Finally, national sentiments were among the core elements of potential anti-Soviet resistance in the satellites, but RFE/RL had to avoid several pitfalls in exploiting those sentiments. The revival of extreme-right nationalism might have blocked the future democratic development of these societies. In addition, RFE/RL editorial desks represented nations that harbored traditional distrust and hostility toward each other. The handling of minority issues, therefore, required extreme caution. RFE/RL programs must not give the impression that American foreign policy was biased or bound to any of the particular national aspirations concerning the change of the existing borders.


The communist authorities always regarded RFE/RL as the most dangerous "enemy" stations and responded to the programs, above all, by jamming—transmitting noise or other electronic sounds on the same frequencies. Because shortwave broadcasts could not be jammed directly from the target area, jamming required a common effort from the Soviet bloc countries. The intensity of the jamming varied from time to time and from country to country. The Soviet Union jammed broadcasts from 1953 to 1988.

The communist authorities also tried to intimidate the audience at home and the RFE/RL staff abroad. Listening to RFE/RL broadcasts was a criminal offense in most Soviet bloc countries, especially in the 1950s. Communist secret services repeatedly made criminal attempts against the stations. The most serious assault took place in February 1981, when a bomb exploded at the RFE/RL building in Munich.


The headquarters of RFE/RL was set up in Munich, in Englishcher Garten. The initial broadcasts started in July 1950, by shortwave transmitters at Lampertheim and Holzkirchen. On 1 May 1951, 11.5 hours of daily programming to Czechoslovakia marked the official inauguration of RFE. Later that year, regular programs to Romania, Hungary, Poland, and Bulgaria also aired. Radio Liberty started its services on 1 March 1953, a few days before Joseph Stalin's death.

In the first half of the 1950s, American policy-makers did not envision a decades-long commitment to defeat Soviet communism, and "rollback" strategy prevailed. RFE/RL programs and operations reflected the aims of this policy. The tone of the broadcasts was aggressive, highly emotional, and ideological. Numerous programs not only targeted the system and communist political practice in general but conveyed threatening and discrediting messages to individual members of the party and governmental apparatus. After Stalin's death in March 1953, the pressure increased. A major contribution to the programs came from the highest-ranked defector of those times, Josef Swiatlo, a former top commander of the Polish security forces. RFE programs were also supplemented by a joint operation with Free Europe Press. In Operation Prospero, Veto, and Focus, thousands of balloons dropped leaflets, booklets, and other propaganda materials (among them the early translations of George Orwell's Animal Farm) in order to increase the will to resist among the public in Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Hungary. Some leaflets carried messages in the name of "national resistance movements" that did not exist on ground.

The suppression of the Berlin uprising in 1953 and the events in Poland and Hungary in 1956 dispelled the illusion that the communist regimes would soon collapse. Many critics held RFE programs and operations responsible for the tragedies and human sacrifice in Eastern Europe between 1953 and 1956. In fact, none of the RFE programs called for upheavals or promised American military intervention either in 1953 or in 1956. However, RFE broadcasts and operations did give the impression that the United States was ready to help the "captive nations" liberate themselves. Therefore these tragedies gave credit to the concerns that the Eastern European nations might easily mis-interpret the liberation rhetoric of the American government. After 1956, RFE/RL broadcasting policy had to be accommodated to a long-term cohabitation with Soviet rule in Eastern Europe.


After the 1956 Hungarian revolution, President Eisenhower immediately stopped the balloon projects. An investigation into RFE programs discovered grave mistakes in the broadcasting policy. Some of the directors and editorial staff were removed. Throughout the years of détente, changes were implemented in the programs. Although the programs never overlooked the final goal and RFE remained critical, aggressive anticommunist propaganda became muted. Emphasis shifted to the promotion of internal evolution and gradual liberalization of the communist regimes. RFE gave moderate support to "liberals" and "autonomists" and encouraged political and economic reforms. In these years critics of RFE raised opposite objections than in the 1950s: it had become too "soft" and "compromising" toward the communists.

From the second half of the 1970s, the economic and political crisis became more serious all over the Soviet bloc. The Soviet intervention in Afghanistan and the emergence of the independent Polish trade union Solidarity indicated that the international environment had changed. Dissident movements and circles that opposed the regimes on the basis of human rights started to proliferate in the Soviet Union and its satellites, partly inspired by the human-rights provisions of the international Helsinki Accords of 1975. Samizdat (underground publishing) activities began to flourish. From January 1981 the new Reagan administration took a firmer stand against the Soviet Union. These developments brought changes in RFE/RL management and brodcasting policy as well. RFE/RL became an important disseminator of samizdat in the Soviet bloc. They ran regular programs on dissident activities and put on air the works of prominent dissident politicians and thinkers. With the help of RFE/RL, the samizdat publications could reach a much wider audience in their home-lands. The programs provided publicity, which gave a limited protection for dissident figures. Thus RFE/RL indeed contributed to the peaceful democratic transition that took place from 1989 onward in the former Soviet bloc.

During the first half of the 1990s the structure and mission of RFE/RL was reshaped. The headquarters was moved from Munich to Prague in 1995. RFE/RL continues to broadcast to the areas of the former Soviet Union, the Balkans, and critical areas of central Asia and the Middle East. In the meantime, the corporate records and the radio archives from the Cold War were transferred to the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. The Cold War archives of the former research units in Munich were deposited in the Open Society Archives at Central European University, Budapest, Hungary.

See alsoCold War; Dissidence; Eastern Bloc; Radio; Samizdat; Television.


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Andras Mink