Commentary Magazine

Radio Free Europe and the Pursuit of Democracy by George R. Urban

Radio Free Europe and the Pursuit of Democracy: My War Within the Cold War
by George R. Urban
Yak. 256 pp. $35.00

On a chilly December day in the last decade of the cold war, Emil Georgescu, a defector from Communist Romania and an employee of Radio Free Europe (RFE) in Munich, received a letter in his morning mail.

“Oh, Deformed One,” the epistle began,

We have heard that you have begun to bark at us, you mangy Judas. While you were on the other side of the Iron Curtain, you devoured all you could. . . . Here you are howling against us; you have sold out to the Masons and the Jewish Mafia at RFE. . . .

If you don’t shut your Jewish trap, we’ll see to it that you will be gripping clay underground along with other contaminated monsters.

Be careful, viper, we’ll be cutting off your venomous tongue.

The threats contained in this missive from Romania’s secret police, the Securitate, were not idle. In July 1981, an attacker fell upon Georgescu on the staircase of his home, stabbing him 22 times. Georgescu (who as it happens was not Jewish) survived, only to succumb four years later to his injuries.

The Bulgarians, for their part, employed other lethal means—most notoriously, poison parasols. One victim was Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian defector and the author of scathing articles about political machinations in his homeland, where his broadcasts were heard regularly on RFE. In October 1978, as Markov was walking over Waterloo bridge in London, a stranger jostled him, poking him “accidentally” with an umbrella. He perished within days. When his body was exhumed weeks later for an autopsy, a pellet the size of a pinhead was found in his right thigh.

The USSR encouraged and assisted in the execution of such attacks, supplying, for example, the toxin—ricin—used against Markov and others. At the same time, it employed more pacific if not more subtle means. While infiltrating moles into the headquarters of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty (RL)1 to report back on internal deliberations and to stir dissension within the ranks, the Kremlin also spent millions jamming the airwaves in an effort to keep the proletariat from knowing up from down.



All this is powerful evidence of the extent to which the Soviet Union felt its grip jeopardized by Western broadcasting. But as we learn from this posthumously published memoir/analysis by the Hungarian-born intellectual George Urban, ill winds from the East were not the only foul weather the two radios were compelled to sail against. To Urban, who held a variety of posts at this key cold-war institution for over three decades, including a stint as RFE’s director from 1983 to 1986, the peril to the radios from their Communist adversaries was in some ways less formidable than that issuing from the country paying the bills and setting policy: namely, the United States.

The primary difficulty was not what many might suspect—the fact that the reputation of the radios was undermined by close association in their early years with the CIA. To be sure, when knowledge of the spy agency’s financial sponsorship became public in 1967, it did somewhat weaken support for them at home and diminish receptiveness abroad for their claim to be “surrogate stations,” broadcasting only the kind of information and opinions that free media would have provided if the Soviet clamp had not been fixed in place. By the same token, however, in some quarters the CIA connection bolstered the authority with which the radios spoke, for, as Urban observes, “many in the Soviet domains liked to feel that the ‘private’ voices heard on the Western airwaves were expressing more than the nostalgia of exiles or undisclosed factional interests.”

The more significant and persistent source of difficulties, in Urban’s view, was the willful inability of those running and funding the radios (both before and after they had been disconnected from the CIA and turned over to a quasi-private, congressionally-funded board) to understand what Communism was about and how best to combat it in a war of words.

This inability arose from disparate sources at different times. One such source was the “vacuous pragmatism” and unrefined anti-Communism of many American leaders. In his capacity as a middle-ranking executive at RFE in the early 1960’s, Urban wanted programming that would target the vacillating morale of Soviet and East European Communist elites. Through an on-air discussion of Marxist texts, he aimed to hit them “where it hurt”—in the zone “of moral conflict that we knew existed between their erstwhile idealism and their slavish yes-manship.”

But to General Rodney C. Smith, the retired American military officer then running the two stations with exemplary efficiency, this Kind of approach was unacceptable:

He felt the use of unfamiliar [verbal] compounds and longish quotations from Communist literature was a flaw in our anti-Soviet credentials. Couldn’t the unsuspecting listener take us for a Communist station through the jamming? Couldn’t we, he asked, design broadcasts without quoting so many Communists?

But if such unvarnished anti-Communism could be troublesome, far more so was the well-polished anti-anti-Communism that increasingly came to the fore as the 60’s wore into the 1970’s. With distressing neatness, this soft-line orientation meshed with the hard-boiled strategic underpinnings of the Nixon’s administration’s attempt to forge a détente with the USSR. Where RFE and RL were concerned, the fusion of the two currents took the form of policy directives that kept distinguished opponents of Communism, including giants like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, off the air.

By the 1980’s, the restrictions hamstringing the radios had descended from the merely droll to the manifestly absurd. As Urban complained at the time in a private letter he reprints here, “Many of the ideas President [Ronald] Reagan and Secretary [of State George] Shultz regularly incorporate in their articulations cannot be uttered as our own”—i.e., broadcast—“because they, too, would violate our Guidelines.”



As ludicrous as all this may sound, the roots of the restrictions were not, it must be noted, exclusively ideological. A real question existed regarding the limits of what a government-funded institution should and should not say over the airwaves to the populace of a hostile power. This question was particularly acute for RFE because, as Urban explains at some length, a debacle in its early days had left a deep organizational scar. That debacle involved RFE’s possible complicity in the catastrophe that befell Hungary in 1956, when an abortive uprising was brutally crushed by Soviet tanks.

Though Urban was affiliated at the time with the BBC, not RFE, he offers his own inquest into that particularly searing chapter of the past. According to the standard indictment, RFE was guilty of having incited the Hungarian revolt and encouraged it once it was under way; most damning of all, the radio was accused of having held out an unfulfillable promise of armed assistance from the United States, in this way helping to lead thousands of Hungarian patriots to futile deaths.

Plowing ground he has tilled in a previous book but making use of material from newly opened archives, Urban here rejects some, but only some, of the old charges. RFE, he shows, had nothing to do with igniting the revolt and never directly pledged Western military help; nevertheless, it made mistakes, mistakes with consequences measurable in blood. In particular, it ignored the way the advice it provided to the insurgents might, in the confusion of events and through the Soviet jamming, be misinterpreted by desperate men and women eager to believe American help was on the way. Urban’s final judgment, harsh but convincing, is that in the midst of a great crisis, RFE’s management lost control and permitted some “highly irresponsible” broadcasts.



This blot on the radios’ history must, of course, be evaluated against the entire record of their works. Urban himself appraises that record highly. In support of his case, he notes, among other things, that the two European Communist countries to which RFE never broadcast during the cold war—Yugoslavia and Albania—were the only ones to descend into fratricidal violence when the old superstructure collapsed.

Whether or not Western radio broadcasts would have had a mellowing effect on the Balkans must remain an open question. What can be stated with certainty, however, is that RFE and RL did contribute mightily to the peaceful undoing of Communism in Eastern Europe and the USSR. As we know from countless testimonials, the stations, despite the jamming, were listened to by peasants and politburo members alike, and the truths they conveyed had a highly corrosive effect on a system built on lies, compulsory ignorance, and barbed wire.

If Radio Free Europe and the Pursuit of Democracy is not a complete or definitive history, it will prove indispensable for historians to come. George Urban, who died this past October at the age of seventy-six, deserves accolades for writing so engaging a book But Urban deserves to be remembered for other achievements as well, most notably the series of deep conversations he held with leading thinkers East and West that appeared over the years in the now-defunct British magazine Encounter.3 The “war within the cold war” in which Urban actively participated, a war in which words served as heavy weapons, contributed appreciably to the victorious outcome of our epic battle with a mighty and seemingly immutable tyranny.



1 The former broadcast to Eastern Europe, the latter to the Soviet Union.

2 The Nineteen Days (1957).

3 They have been gathered together in a number of volumes edited by Urban, including Detente (1976); Communist Reformation (1979); Stalinism: Its Impact on Russia and the World (1982); Can the Soviet System Survive Reform? (1989); and End of Empire: The Demise of the Soviet Union (1992).


About the Author

Gabriel Schoenfeld is senior editor of COMMENTARY.

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