Commentary Magazine

Broadcasting Freedom by Arch Puddington

Broadcasting Freedom: The Cold War Triumph of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty
by Arch Puddington
University Press of Kentucky. 382 pp. $27.50

One of the truly remarkable aspects of cold-war historiography is the degree to which “revisionists”—having been proved wrong by events, and also, increasingly, by newly declassified materials from both sides of the Iron Curtain—have nonetheless maintained their prestige and credibility. The most egregious recent example of this is in the bogus history that informs CNN’s Cold War series,1 but a visit to any serious bookstore will attest to the continued industry (and imperviousness) of the revisionist camp. In this context, Arch Puddington’s history of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty is especially welcome, for it reminds us that in the final analysis, the cold war was less about geopolitical rivalries than about ideas, and very fundamental ideas at that.

Broadcasting Freedom is an institutional history—Puddington served as deputy director of the New York bureau of the radios between 1985 and 1993—but none the worse for that It is long, detailed (at times to a fault), but conscientious and, I think, scrupulously fair. It reveals some surprising twists in postwar history, taking us back to those almost inconceivably remote days when anti-Communism was a respectable, even liberal, faith. And it brings us forward through the various ups and downs of cold-war policy from “containment” and “rollback” to “détente,” Ostpolitik, and, finally, the last act under President Ronald Reagan.



In speaking of “the radios,” one is really talking about two very different projects. Radio Free Europe (RFE) was essentially aimed at the captive nations of Eastern Europe—particularly Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland. Radio Liberty (RL), by contrast, was targeted to listeners within the Soviet Union itself. While in some ways both shared the same mission—to break through the curtain of lies, misrepresentations, and omissions that passed as “news” throughout the bloc—there were some important differences.

Thus, the Czech, Hungarian, and Polish frequencies were essentially alternative home services for countries that still possessed a fairly recent memory of democratic self-rule; as such, they could legitimately wrap the anti-Communist message within nationalist clothing. The frequencies aimed at the Soviet Union had a more difficult and more delicate task, which was to counteract official misrepresentations of Western societies, particularly the United States, while at the same time sidestepping the complicated question of Russian nationalism, which after World War II had fused to a degree with Soviet patriotism.

Puddington does an excellent job of reconstructing the enormous problems faced by the organizers of the radios. Financing had to be won; personnel had to be recruited, vetted, and monitored; allied countries (first, West Germany, later Spain and Portugal) had to be convinced to allow transmitters to be installed on their territory; technical troubles had to be overcome to enable programs originating in New York to be expeditiously relayed to venues close enough for broadcast to their intended audiences. As if all this were not enough, the radios had to contend with constant efforts by the Soviets, ranging from diplomatic pressure on Western allies to espionage and covert action, to shut them down.

The golden age of Radio Free Europe was the period between its establishment in 1950 and the Hungarian revolution of 1956. Ironically, in those years its adversaries on this side of the Iron Curtain came from the far Right As Puddington reminds us, “the real debate over American foreign policy [in the 1950’s] did not involve a division between Right and Left but pitted mainstream anti-Communists against ultra-anti-Communists.” The former camp numbered such supporters of the radios as Edward R. Murrow, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Drew Pearson; critics included Senators Bourke Hickenlooper and Herman Welker, as well as columnists like Fulton Lewis, Jr.

The bloody Soviet suppression of the Hungarian revolt marked a major turning point for RFE. In the aftermath, critics were able to claim that its broadcasts had incited a people to rebellion in the false anticipation of Western intervention. But the facts of the case, as Puddington shows, were far more complicated than that, and later investigations by independent parties (the United Nations, a congressional subcommittee, the West German government, and the Council of Europe) largely absolved RFE of blame. Nonetheless, after 1956 things were never quite the same. Radio Free Europe was placed under an unprecedented degree of U.S. government oversight, and some key staffers were purged.

Meanwhile, de-Stalinization had given rise to a new mood in East-West relations, one of whose products was a policy of “constructive engagement” with the Communist governments of Eastern Europe, particularly Poland and Romania. The resultant ideological confusion, which plagued the editorial staffs of both radios, was not resolved even by the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, and indeed continued well into the Nixon-Ford-Carter era, when detente with the Soviet Union became an objective to which all other priorities were often heedlessly sacrificed. During those years, frequencies were shut down at the request of the Soviets; several political programs were replaced with musical offerings; and broadcasts based on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago were canceled.

The war in Vietnam introduced a new wrinkle into the political environment. Senator J. William Fulbright, chairman of the foreign-relations committee, was emboldened to attack not merely our actions in Southeast Asia but the very idea of anti-Communism as an organizing principle of foreign policy, and the radios found themselves in his cross-hairs. For two years, he waged a relentless campaign to shut them down. But, somewhat surprisingly, Fulbright failed to enlist any important Democrats in his crusade, and no lesser a figure than George Ball, the former Undersecretary of State turned opponent of our Vietnam policy, headed up a citizens’ committee to save the radios.

The arrival of Ronald Reagan on the scene meant more money and a more assertive management; RFE director Frank Shakespeare selected George Urban, a Polish intellectual who had become a British citizen, to run the show. Urban was convinced that U.S. authorities—and, by extension, RFE itself—had become overly enamored of Eurocommunism, and even (at times) afflicted by the then-fashionable disease of “moral equivalence.” Although his muscular style of management created problems within the bureaucracy and to some extent with Congress, at least it put an end to the widespread complaint of many listeners in Eastern Europe that RFE’s programming had become hopelessly bland—or, as they tended to phrase it more bluntly, “something that’s inoffensive to the government isn’t likely to be worth tuning in.”

Throughout this entire period, Radio Liberty presented special problems of its own, ones that, in Puddington’s telling, were never fully resolved. The radio was staffed almost entirely by Russian emigrés, and, inasmuch as Russia had never known more than a few months of democratic government, this presented some formidable obstacles in the area of political culture. Some staff members favored the revival of the Romanov monarchy; others were openly skeptical of the value of democracy; still others were convinced of the superiority of Russian culture to all others. Another, even nastier twist: many believed that Jews (who in the 1970’s would make up a disproportionate number of new emigrés) could never qualify as authentic Russians. In Russia itself, of course, these are issues that have persisted well beyond the fall of the Communist state.



Still, problems and all, one cannot but be amazed, looking back at an extraordinary half-century, by the capacity of the radios to puncture the Iron Curtain, using even such apparently apolitical products of Western culture as rock ‘n’ roll to undermine the morale and self-confidence of the Communist order. Considering, too, how easily the stations might have fallen prey to the worst sort of revanchist or reactionary émigrés, it is remarkable that the tone of most broadcasts—especially on RFE—was set by social democrats and liberals, who kept alive a civic culture that had been harshly extinguished by the Nazis in 1939 and been kept extinguished by the Communists thereafter.

Perhaps most impressive of all was the capacity of the radios to survive the twists and turns of American policy, which—often in spite of itself—led, after a long day, to victory. We are in Arch Puddington’s debt for illustrating these and many other too-soon-forgotten matters in his finely balanced and definitive history.



1 See the critiques of Charles Krauthammer, Richard Pipes, Gabriel Schoenfeld, and others in Arnold Beichman, ed., CNN’s Cold War Documentary: Issues and Controversy. Hoover Institution Press, 173 pp., $17.95.


About the Author

Mark Falcoff is resident scholar emeritus at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

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