In one of his last cables as the US Ambassador to the Soviet Union on January 20, 1946, Averell Harriman called for the development of a comprehensive US information strategy that would counter the growing Soviet disinformation campaigns aimed at discrediting Western policies and values.

Given the closed nature of the Soviet Union and its draconian censorship, Harriman concluded that “radio is the only medium through which the US can speak freely and directly to the Soviet people.”

Harriman’s clarion call, explicitly endorsed by the Truman administration, resulted in the introduction of Russian-language broadcasts on the Voice of America aimed at explaining US government policy as well as American life and culture.

Most important, US policymakers, principally Robert Kelley and George Kennan, conceived a new form of international media – “home services” (or surrogate broadcasts.) As General Lucius Clay, commanding general of US occupation forces in Europe, aptly noted, these radio stations “would speak to each country behind the Iron Curtain in their own language, and from the throats of their own people who fled for their lives because of their beliefs in freedom.” 

By 1950, Radio Free Europe (RFE) was broadcasting to all the principal Central and Eastern European countries under Soviet control, and in 1953 Radio Liberty (RL) went on the air in Russian and over 20 languages of the USSR. For the next 40 years, US broadcasters successfully confronted the communist regimes in a battle of values by supporting indigenous democratic movements, promoting universal human rights, explaining Western policies and values, and nurturing the independence of countries and nationalities under Soviet rule.

Now the West again confronts a highly authoritarian Russian regime that controls all domestic media, rejects universal human rights, and wages an aggressive war against Ukraine. Cold War broadcasting, embodied in RFE/RL, can provide useful lessons as the US embarks on developing and implementing a long-term global media strategy. Four core principles stand out as especially relevant.  

The first is research. RFE/RL was more than a news operation. It was a think tank, employing hundreds of researchers with PhD degrees from US and European universities who monitored television, radio, and the press throughout the Eastern bloc and produced timely analyses of political, social, economic, and cultural developments for the language services and the wider policy community. RFE/RL also housed the “Red Archives,” a unique collection of unofficial Soviet and East European documents as well as Arkhiv samizdata (self-published works).

A separate office, based in Paris, conducted audience research through interviews and focus groups with travelers and emigres. Taken together, the research operations allowed RFE/RL broadcasters to engage with their listeners on an intimate level unmatched by other major international media. 

The second element of Cold War broadcasting was the development of language services for the ethnic nationalities within the Soviet/Russian empire. Unlike most international media that had only small non-Russian language services, RFE/RL (and, to a lesser degree, VOA) devoted considerable airtime and research to many different national entities, ranging from the Baltic states and Ukraine to Armenia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan.

These unique language services nurtured independent national cultures at a time when the Soviet regime was engaging in “Russification” and imposing a standard Soviet culture. Over time, they contributed to the dissolution of the Russian empire along national lines.

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The third area dealt with Russian imperialism and nationalism. While the RFE Polish, Czech, or Romanian services could portray their countries as victims of Russian aggression and the Baltic states or Ukraine could advocate for national sovereignty, the RL Russian Service had to challenge Russian imperial practice and policies without alienating its listeners. This was tricky, and the lessons of Cold War history programming could be especially useful in shaping today’s Russian-language broadcasts.  

The fourth area — culture in the broadest sense — lies at the heart of the battle of values. News and current events represented roughly one-third of the airtime during the Cold War; the remainder consisted of programs ranging from music, literature, and popular culture to religion, history, and economics.

Central to non-current events programming was the focus on universal values – among them, the rule of law, free enterprise, protection of private property, and human rights. Through these programs, RFE/RL and VOA developed a symbiotic relationship with many indigenous human rights movements, including Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia, the Committee for Social Self-Defense (KOR) in Poland, and the Moscow Helsinki Group.

Proof of the successful strategy of RFE/RL came with the end of communism. Newly elected democratic leaders in East Europe and the former Soviet Union welcomed the two radios, encouraging them to open bureaus throughout the region and to broadcast on local frequencies. The Foreign Minister of Estonia, on behalf of Poland, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, even formally nominated RFE/RL for the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize.

But the true impact of RFE/RL was captured by President Lech Wałęsa in a congratulatory letter to the RFE Polish Service on its 40th anniversary: “When a democratic opposition emerged in Poland, RFE accompanied us every step of the way — during the explosion of August 1980, the unhappy days of December 1981, and all the subsequent months of our struggle. It was our radio station. But not only a radio station. Presenting works that were on the ‘red censorship list,’ it was our ministry of culture. Exposing absurd economic policies, it was our ministry of economics. Reacting to events promptly and pertinently, but above all, truthfully, it was our ministry of information.”

By drawing a direct line between the values embodied in RFE/RL programming and the democratic opposition to communism, Walesa celebrated the core mission of Cold War broadcasting as laid out by its founders in the 1940s.

Today we again face an authoritarian and expansionist regime in the Kremlin that is systematically inculcating traditional imperialist values while denouncing universal human rights and liberal democracy as alien “Anglo-Saxon political notions.”

Given Russia’s genocidal war in Ukraine and its belligerence on the world stage, it is incumbent for the US and its Western allies to reach Russians and other nationalities within the Russian Empire and explain who and what we are.

This task is just as critical today as it was during the heyday of the Cold War. But now it is so much more difficult. In the 1970s and 1980s, we were broadcasting to a growing audience that did not believe in communism, despised the Soviet system, and yearned to be part of the Western world. Now we are facing an upsurge of hard-core Russian nationalism and imperialism, stoked on traditional and social media and exhibiting its all-too-familiar manifestations of anti-Semitism, xenophobia, dictatorship, and violence.

RFE/RL and VOA continue to do an excellent job of reporting on the war against Ukraine, as well as on the economic and social problems facing Russia, but US-funded media need to do more.

We are again engaged in an existential battle of values with Russia and must be bold in developing the tools necessary to emerge victorious. News and current affairs reporting are important elements of that struggle, but they are not enough. We need to develop programming to reach and win over citizens of the Russian Federation.

By systematically examining how overt and covert US broadcasting functioned during the Cold War, as well as the new technologies available today, the Biden administration can develop and implement a comprehensive global media strategy. In the 1940s, US policymakers thought big and created new institutions to defeat the Soviet Union. Today’s challenges call for nothing less.

Mark G. Pomar, Clements Center for National Security, University of Texas, Austin.

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Europe's Edge
CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America.
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