RFE: Radio For Émigrés

“[T]here are only two sources of human vice—idleness and superstition, and only two virtues—activity and intelligence.”

      —Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace[1]

On August 26, 1948, a team of State Department officials led by none other than George Kennan met with the very first Director of Central Intelligence[2] to discuss the creation of an organization whose sole purpose would be to broadcast in numerous languages to the communist homelands of refugees and émigrés presently seeking asylum in West Germany. From this meeting, came a document riddled with fresh thought which stipulated several things, one of which was “the establishment of a democratic, philanthropic organization in New York… which in turn would organize a committee of responsible foreign language groups now in the western zone of Germany and provide them with facilities for communication with their homelands.” Along these lines, the document called for this committee to facilitate provision of “funds, radio equipment, and certain printing facilities” to refugee organizations in Germany and arrange for “émigré leaders now in Western Europe and the U.S. to participate in the informational activities of the refugee organization.”[3] But a critical component of this initiative was the directive for this operation to be staffed by the émigrés themselves. And so, under the administrative star of Harry Truman and guided by the cultural intelligence and innovative strategery of Kennan, Radio Free Europe came to life.

Kennan’s purpose was not, however, the liberation of Eastern Europe from Soviet clutches, but rather, in keeping with his Containment recommendation, the confuddling of matters for the Soviet government such that they would not have the ability to become greedy. In other words, fill their hands with trouble and they won’t be able to grab for land. Stalin’s expansionist muscles kept flexing and his paranoia continued growing, thereby giving the West something to broadcast about. The impetus and drive to get experimental projects into full operation grew substantially. Kennan prodded the American Eagle from the rear once more, urging for the powers that be to push the people to raise support and awareness of radio broadcasting to oppressed, captive nations. Columbia University’s president, then none other than the great General Eisenhower, delivered a spectacular radio address summoning the American citizens to the ideological battlefield. Riffing on his previous “Great Crusade” from World War II, Ike christened this call to arms a Crusade for Freedom.[4] He was aged but he hadn’t forgotten about radio’s significance.


On May 1, 1951, after its parent organization the National Committee for Free Europe filed for nonprofit incorporation, RFE officially added its voice to the airwaves of Europe, followed by Radio Liberty just two years later.[5] As a CIA memo admits much later in 1969, RFE/RL were extremely successful as a propaganda tool and as a “covert” operation though it was their most costly weapon paid for with government funds that were concealed by large private donations made to the nonprofit NCFE.[6] The river of opinion naturally forks over the inception and actions of RFE/RL. With the language of the paperwork concerning RFE stipulating no propaganda, it’s hard not to accuse the organization of equivocation or at least straying far from its professed albeit inchoate first intentions. Then, if the source of revenue is disregarded and murky origins cast to the side, RFE/RL provided, at great monetary cost, an invaluable alternative point of view to the events within their own borders that they otherwise might not have heard. It is this alternative view that carries with it the positive impact which patiently counteracted the trend of Sovietization of everything from literature to art to children’s education that emerged following World War II.

As William Benton, Assistant Secretary of State from 1945 to 1947 and then senator from 1949 and presidential hopeful for two election cycles, proposed to the 81st Congress in 1949 that there should be a “Marshall plan in the field of ideas.” The BBC would interestingly develop a similar idea decades later[7], but Benton was amongst those (he specifically calls on General Eisenhower as a champion of radio) to push for the utility of broadcasting to “meet and defeat the challenge of Communist propaganda.” But, he added to Congress, “it must do even more than that… it must offer hope to the peoples of the world, in their own terms, the hope of progress and well-being as the hope of freedom.”[8]

Benton put forward a resolution in 1951 to the Committee on Foreign Relations, describing several key points and explicitly referring to Russian propaganda as a “weapon of aggression” by the Kremlin “designed to subvert, to confuse, and to divide the free world” and inspire the satellite states with loathing for America and “free institutions”. But his main strength was invoking the power of the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers in Europe—Eisenhower—and citing his report to Congress that the “security of the free world requires not only military and economic strength but a psychological offensive in behalf of our democratic principles and aspirations; therefore, he called for “a great expansion in our campaign of truth which would give enormous moral strength to all other phases of our foreign policy.” But Benton’s resolution went even further to suggest that democracy was America’s weapon now, like a gaseous substance that should be propagated internationally and this, over military might, should be the supreme instrument of national policy. Therefore, he called on the Committee on Foreign Relations to:

…conduct a full and complete study and investigation with respect to—

(A) The objectives, operations, and effectiveness of existing foreign information programs conducted by the Department of State and other agencies of the United States.

(B) The prompt development of techniques, methods, and programs for greatly expanded and far more effective operations in this vital area of foreign policy, including the following, among others: (1) Maximum utilization of radio broadcasting, by medium wave as well as shortwave, to overcome barriers of language, censorship, distance, and other obstacles to reaching the minds of the peoples of the world. (2) Development of a comprehensive world-wide program to produce and exhibit documentary and educational motion pictures. (3) Significant and immediate expansion of our program for people-to-people diplomacy… (4) Use of all other practicable techniques and media to reach and inform people who are shut off from the free world… (5) Promotion of democratic education abroad… (7) Maintenance, through the United Nations and through our own diplomacy of a steady and steadily increasing pressure in behalf of world-wide freedom of information.

Senator Benton was pushing the U.S. out of its comfort zone and raising the importance of Voice of America in the eyes of Congress, lobbying for independent status which would free the State Department of the burden of running the organization. “Today the importance of the program is almost universally conceded, and it seems inevitable that it is due for a great further expansion… Even the Russians, I understand, carry on their foreign broadcasts through a broadcasting agency separate from their foreign office.” His primary point was that in making VOA an independent organ, there would be more opportunity to attract the “brains and talent in the country.” Benton’s long, long… long speech did not fall on deaf ears as it turned out. In 1953, once Dwight D. came into the White House, he straight away established the United States Information Agency which was the largest public service organization in the world. And VOA waved goodbye to the State Department—happily. In telling synchronicity, on March 1, 1953, RFE’s Russian sister Radio Liberty (Radio Svoboda) begins her first broadcast to the heart of the motherland.[9]

Now, Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and BBC have their swords aimed at the double-headed eagle. And the real battle for the souls of the Soviet people begins.

By Michelle Daniel

[1] Canterbury Classics edition, (2011) p. 72.

[3] “Memorandum of Conversation,” 26 August 1948, Woodrow Wilson Center, Digital Archive, http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/114321, accessed 20 November 2018.

[4] Dwight D. Eisenhower, “Crusade for Freedom,” Denver, Colorado, 4 September 1950, http://www.eisenhower/archives/gov/all_about_ike/speeches/pre_presidential_speeches.pdf, 290

[5] Allen Dulles, the brother of John Foster Dulles, actually filed the paperwork. Allen would become the committee’s president eventually and then resign to join the CIA, becoming its director from there, which not so surprisingly led to the suspicion in Eastern Europe that RFE was one of the CIA’s arms. See Sosin’s Sparks of Liberty.

[6] “Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, Memorandum for the 303 Committee,” 27 January 1969, in Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969-1976, ed. Edward C. Keefer, vol. 29, Eastern Europe; Eastern Mediterranean, 1969-1972, ed. James E. Miller, Douglas E. Selvage, and Laurie Van Hook (Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office, 2008), document 28, 81. (LOOK IT UP!)

[7] The similarly-christened BBC Marshall Plan of the Mind went into effect after the fall of the USSR.

[8] Remarks by Mr. Benton printed in Congressional Record—Senate. 1951. Government Publishing Office.

[9] As listed on the electronic RFE/RL Broadcasting Records of the Open Source Archives of Budapest.

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