Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Voice of America

Title: Jackie Robinson on Voice of America
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U.S. government global broadcasting service established in 1942. During the Cold War, the Voice of America (VOA) audience in the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact countries grew to an estimated 52 million listeners a week. Principal languages beamed to that region and the Balkans over the years were Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, and English. Others included Albanian, Armenian, Azerbaijani, Bulgarian, Belarusian, Czech, Estonian, Georgian, Hungarian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Romanian, Serbo-Croatian, Slovak, Slovene, Tatar, Turkmenistani, and Uzbek.

From its inception in 1942 until the advent of multimedia in the 1990s, most VOA broadcasts were sent via shortwave with some medium-wave, or the standard AM, frequencies. Other delivery means included long-wave and occasional placement of recordings for rebroadcast by local radio outlets.

VOA Russia, which peaked at seventeen-hour broadcast days late in the Cold War, began transmissions on 17 February 1947 under the leadership of VOA Director Charles Thayer, a prominent American diplomat and Soviet affairs specialist. Programming of VOA services to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe consisted of news, topical analyses, official U.S. policy statements, and a full range of features about life in America and the individual audience regions. A flagship program in Russian, Events and Opinions, was broadcast at the peak listening hour, midnight Moscow time. The offerings of it and other programs reflected American thought and ideas, democratic practices in a civil society, history, cultural developments, economic and scientific news, and music.

In English, VOA jazz impresario Willis Conover broadcast more than 10,000 programs (1955–1996). He inspired countless Russian and East European artists and others with what he called "the music of freedom."

Communist governments feared the impact of the two principal U.S. networks, VOA and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). The BBC estimated that the Soviet cost of jamming Western broadcasts was more than $900 million annually, considerably more than the combined budgets at the time of all American and British publicly funded international networks worldwide. The attempt to block incoming broadcasts, in any case, was only partially effective.

European communist governments' jamming of VOA shortwave varied with the ebb and flow of East-West tensions and crises, within and outside the target countries. Jamming ceased beginning in 1963 and commenced again after the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia in August 1968. Jamming was again curtailed in 1974 until shortly after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. Jamming of VOA finally ended in 1987 as glasnost and perestroika took hold. Other countries blocking U.S.-funded broadcasts included Bulgaria, the German Democratic Republic (GDR, East Germany), Poland, the People's Republic of China (PRC), and Cuba.

Polish President Lech Wałęsa, in assessing the influence of Western broadcasts, said in 1997: "When it comes to radio waves, the Iron Curtain was helpless. Nothing could stop the news from coming through—neither sputniks nor minefields, high walls or barbed wire. The frontiers could be closed; words could not."

Alan Heil


Further Reading
Heil, Alan L., Jr., and Barbara Schiele. "The Voice Past: VOA, the USSR and Communist Europe." Pp. 98–112 in Western Broadcasting over the Iron Curtain, edited by K. R. M. Short. Kent, UK: Croom Helm, 1986.; Mainland, Edward, Mark Pomar, and Kurt Carlson. "The Voice Present and Future." Pp. 113–136 in Western Broadcasting Over the Iron Curtain, edited by K. R. M. Short. Kent, UK: Croom Helm, 1986.; Nelson, Michael. War of the Black Heavens: The Battles of Western Broadcasting in the Cold War. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1997.
 

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