Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty

U.S. government-sponsored international radio broadcasts transmitted to communist nations and other authoritarian regimes. During the Cold War, Radio Free Europe (RFE) and Radio Liberty (RL) broadcast uncensored news and information to audiences in the Soviet bloc in an attempt to weaken communist control over information and to foster internal opposition. RFE broadcast to Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, and Romania and, in the 1980s, to Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. RL transmitted in Russian and some fifteen other national languages of the Soviet Union.

Unlike other Western broadcasters, RFE and RL concentrated on developments within and about their target countries not covered by state-controlled domestic media. They acted as surrogate home services, reporting on actions of the authorities and relaying views of dissidents and opposition movements. Notwithstanding repeated technical interference (jamming, for example), broadcasts generally reached their intended audiences. Evidence of the impact of the broadcasts on the eventual collapse of the communist regimes has been corroborated in the testimony of leaders such as Czech President Václav Havel after 1989.

RFE and RL were conceived in 1949 by George F. Kennan of the U.S. Department of State and Frank G. Wisner, head of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Office of Policy Coordination, as instruments to utilize Soviet and East European émigrés in support of American foreign policy objectives. Founded as nonprofit corporations ostensibly supported with private funds, RFE and RL were in fact funded by the U.S. government through the CIA until 1972. The first official broadcast took place on 4 July 1950. RFE and RL initially adopted more confrontational editorial policies and used more aggressive language than other Western broadcasters. By the mid-1950s, however, as U.S. foreign policy toward the Soviet bloc became more conciliatory, the networks emphasized the need for liberalization and evolutionary system changes. In so doing, they broadcast news and information about domestic politics and economic issues as well as cultural and historical traditions normally suppressed by communist authorities. Over time, the networks evolved into saturation home services, seeking large audiences by broadcasting almost around the clock and by incorporating programs on Western music, religion, science, sports, youth, and labor issues.

The networks faced the considerable challenge of operating as surrogate home services in information-poor environments. They carefully monitored state-controlled print and electronic media and frequently interviewed travelers and defectors in field bureaus around the world. The networks cultivated ties with Western journalists and other visitors to communist countries and received information from regime opponents, often at great personal risk to the informants, within their target countries. This information was gathered to support broadcasts, but RFE and RL research reports also served many Western observers as their major source of information about the communist bloc.

RFE and RL programs were produced in Munich in the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG, West Germany) and were broadcast via shortwave transmitters operating on multiple frequencies and high power to overcome jamming and other frequency-disruption tactics. The networks enjoyed substantial operational autonomy and were highly decentralized in function. Émigré broadcast service directors with intimate knowledge of their audiences were responsible for most broadcast content, within broad policy guidelines and under American management oversight.

The communist authorities devoted major resources to countering RFE and RL broadcasts. In 1951, Soviet leader Josef Stalin personally ordered the establishment of local and long-distance jamming facilities to block Western broadcasts. Eastern bloc authorities also launched propaganda, diplomatic, and espionage campaigns intended to discredit the broadcasts. In addition, they jailed individuals providing information to either network. Ironically, the same authorities relied on secret transcripts of the broadcasts for information they could not obtain from local media that they themselves controlled.

After 1971, direct CIA involvement in the networks ended, and they were then openly funded by congressional appropriation through the Board for International Broadcasting. The network corporations were merged into a single entity, RFE/RL, Incorporated, in 1976.

The networks established intimate contact with their audiences during the 1970s and 1980s, when new waves of émigrés strengthened broadcast staffs and as dissidents and other regime opponents, emboldened by the Helsinki Final Act (1975), began to challenge the communist system. RFE and RL provided a "megaphone" through which independent figures, denied normal access to local media, could reach millions of their countrymen via uncensored writings. RFE and RL were able to document large audiences and acted as the leading international broadcaster in many target countries. After the Velvet Revolution of 1989, many East European and Russian leaders testified to the importance of RFE and RL broadcasts in ending the Cold War. Operating today from Prague in the Czech Republic, RFE/RL broadcasts to the southern Balkans, most of the former Soviet Union, Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq in support of democratic institutions and a transition to democracy.

A. Ross Johnson


Further Reading
Puddington, Arch. Broadcasting Freedom: The Cold War Triumph of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2000.
 

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