VOA Goes RED

 

Radio is the mechanism for true democracy—to make knowledge and information available to all. When radio has had its full growth, the minds of men will no longer be earthbound… [Though] we have only scratched the surface in this field, it is one real hope for peace and happiness in a world where today the instruments of destruction far surpass the tools of peace.

—Frieda B. Hennock, FCC Commissioner, circa June 1948[1]

Josef Stalin might have been in a good mood the morning of February 17th, 1947, enjoying his breakfast in whatever manner he was disposed, until he received the news, most assuredly from his inner circle, that the primarily Europe-operating Voice of America had begun broadcasting to Russia. In Russian.

 

Lenin help him.

Up to this point, the amount of western broadcasting was not exactly prolific or ubiquitous (yet) due to the still-limited number of receivers throughout the Soviet—less than two million, according to one study[2]—and very few apparently would risk Stalin’s wrath listening to enemy voices. BBC had begun their Russian broadcasting on March 24th, 1946 but as their primary goal was education, Stalin did not appear to view their scientific programs with much alarm. Apparently, discussions of “flower colors” and “mammoth rings” didn’t pique the dictator—though it is surprising that he didn’t read into these scientific droning-ons as capitalist subversions meant to undermine the revolution. Bloody MI-6. However, BBC somehow got away with their science broadcasts, sailing cleanly under and over the wire as it were, without so much as a snarl from the Kremlin.[3] America’s RFE/RL beasts were only ideas fomenting in the frontal lobe of George Kennan’s mind. Thus, Stalin had not had much to be concerned about. But VOA, an organization that before 1947 broadcast only to all of Europe but not Soviet Russia, crossing the red line now right after the war’s end served as a powerful alert to Stalin of America’s thinking and future course of action.

It is telling that VOA should expand its network in 1947, considering in 1945 Congress elected to slash budgets, all but killing off international broadcasting. During the war, VOA had belonged to the OWI (Office of War Information) and thus had a deal with the BBC to share the Brit’s medium-wave transmitters (the OWI cooperated a lot with the BBC for purposes of countering Nazi propaganda). Thus, by WWII’s end, VOA thrived in the military arena and had achieved a wide, powerful reach in a multiplicity of languages. But Congress said congratulations and good riddance. The logic then (as would again return right after the USSR’s dissolution) was that the threat of the major totalitarian power had been exterminated, what then was the point of wasting so much money on foreign endeavors?

 

In part, the American people receive the blame. They were behind efforts to continue broadcasting as long as Hitler reigned as a monster gobbling up Europe, but once he was gone, the public sentiment swung inward, discontented with any American propaganda organs—there was no longer need for these, they thought. Congress was all ready to put their outreach institutions to rest, but there was the not-so-small matter of the other superpower in the ring. America would have become isolationist again if not for Stalin and the Soviet Union. The USSR remained, as America remained. Two giants, one world. Dipolar was no good for either of them. Thus, despite funding issues, VOA went Red.

For Stalin, the problem was not pure entertainment but anti-Soviet information—the primary objection of the Soviets, though even here, ironically, the spoils of war brought back from Nazi Germany and distributed like trophies included western films and icons of their (comparatively) wealthy lifestyle and culture.[4] Thus, while stolen foreign entertainment was okay, foreign radio was not. The solution: jamming.

In 1932, the Soviet Komintern Radio purportedly jammed a station in Fascist Germany.[5]While the first incidence in Europe of purposeful signal interference according to some belongs to Romanians who jammed Soviet radio (also in 1932), Soviets had been testing their capabilities in this department, probably in Nizhny-Novgorod, where they even realized the technology for television. But aside from a few fits and spurts of jamming (some report Soviet interference with Spain in 1947), they had not found fiery reason before February of 1947 to use their jamming techniques at home. Now, they did.

On February 3, 1948, the USSR commenced their anti-western jamming program against VOA and, then a few months later, against the BBC, but this was the beginning of the end.[6]

By Michelle Daniel

 

[1] Appears in p. 25 “Madame Commissioner”. Broadcasting Telecasting: The Newsweekly of Radio and Television, July 12, 1948 issue (Denver, Colorado).

[2] Lisann, Broadcasting to the Soviet Union.

[3] Phrases are taken from the document “Summary of Science Broadcasts to the U.S.S.R.” found in the Dora Winifred Russell papers housed at the Internationaal Instituut voor Sociale Geschiedenis, Netherlands.

[4] Roth-Ey, Moscow Prime Time, 133-135.

[5] Who jammed whom (and did so first) seems to be a hard-to-nail-down issue. Some hold that this 1932 Soviet jamming of Nazi radio was the first incident in Europe, others (namely War of the Black Heavens by Nelson, p 20) that the Germans blocking “telegram traffic” from Paris to Russia during World War I was technically the first jamming of radio telecommunications. But Nelson does say specifically for broadcasting the Soviets under Lenin (post-1917) had complained of German “counter-waves” blocking Soviet information. It stands to reason that the Soviets responded in kind, hence the claim by some sources of the first broadcasting jamming executed by the Soviets—though I imagine it was earlier than 1932 because Nelson adds, “the first official protest against radio broadcasts was against Soviets by Germany.” And Maury Lisann attaches the date of 1930 to this event, which makes jamming during Lenin’s time likely (see Broadcasting to the Soviet Union and The Innovation of Soviet Radio Broadcasting and the Role of V.I. Lenin).

[6] Nelson, War of the Black Heavens, 20.

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