War of the Black Heavens: The Battles of Western Broadcasting in the Cold War

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Why did the West win the Cold War?   Not by use of arms.   Weapons did not breach the Iron Curtain.   The Western invasion was by Radio, which was mightier than the sword.

War of the Black Heavens: The Battles of Western Broadcasting in the Cold War tells for the first time the full story of Western Broadcasting to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.  Radio, it will be seen, proved to be a major factor in the defeat of Communism.   The broadcasters who fought against the Communist regimes, were the same who also had to fight political opposition in their own home countries, which in some cases wanted to shut down the stations.   The victory was a triumph of the American and British peoples, their broadcasters and their Intelligence communities.

The Radios were an unequalled force for good in the fight against totalitarianism and changed the history of the twentieth century.

The three principal broadcasters were Radio Free Europe (RFE) and Radio Liberty (RL), eventually merged as RFE/RL, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and the Voice of America (VOA).   Their characters were very different.  RFE and RL were founded by the CIA as surrogate domestic broadcasters, designed to be like local radio stations of the target countries, with lots of local news.   The BBC and VOA did not pretend to be local radio stations.   They were national broadcasters, speaking for their home countries, but with strong international content.   The international services of the BBC were provided by the independent Corporation, but paid for by the British Foreign Office.  The Voice of America was part of the American government and for most of the Cold War was a section of the United States Information Agency (USIA).

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The Russians Started It

The irony of the history of international broadcasting is that what had been started by the Soviet Union ultimately became a significant factor in the regime’s very downfall.   A further irony is that in order to reach its citizens across its great land mass the Soviet Union used short-wave radio; and it was those same short-wave receivers made so freely available that were eventually also tuned into the anti-communist broadcasts of the Western powers.

The Bolsheviks’ broadcasting began at the start of the Revolution on November 7, 1917, when the cruiser Aurora broadcast in morsecode from St Petersburg a message to the citizens of Russia written by Lenin.   Lenin recognised the importance of radio in reaching the largely illiterate population of Russia and was personally involved in its development.   He also saw its international importance.  On November 12, 1917 under the call-sign “To everyone … to everyone … to everyone,” the Council of the People’s Commissars’ Radio transmitted Lenin’s historic message announcing that Kerensky’s government had fallen and that all official institutions were in the hands of the Soviet Government.

Radio telegraphy had been used for propaganda from 1915 when Germany transmitted regular news bulletins to neutral countries. But it was the Soviet Union that started international radio broadcasting as we know it today, in voice and intended for listeners with their own radio sets.   That started in 1924, although it was initially only spasmodic. Broadcasts began daily in January 1930 with the governing principle of a “great and holy hatred of capitalism.”

The BBC started an Empire Service in English only in 1932 with the needs of the Briton overseas very much in mind.  The broadcasts were aimed for “the lonely listener in the bush.”   The BBC’s transmissions to Europe during World War II established its high reputation, which stood it in good stead in Eastern Europe when the Cold War began not long thereafter.  The VOA started broadcasting in February 1942.  Not until March 24, 1946 did the BBC start broadcasting in Russian to the Soviet Union.   Almost a year later the Americans did likewise;  on February 17, 1947 the VOA inaugurated its broadcasts in Russian.   Averell Harriman, when United States Ambassador to the Soviet Union, had pressed for the start of broadcasting, saying that Soviet rulers had consistently sought to represent to the Soviet people a distorted and unfavourable picture of the United States.   He was incensed that the Russians had been told that three million women in the United States had been discharged from war work to become housemaids, prostitutes or live mannequins in shop windows.

RFE was founded in 1950 to broadcast to Eastern Europe and RL in 1953 to transmit to the Soviet Union.   The paradox of RFE and RL was that organisations dedicated to truth were founded on a lie.   The lie was that they were independent of the American government, when in fact they were part of the CIA.

The Attacks at Home

From the end of the Second World War those far-sighted Americans and Britons who believed that the West had to talk to the people of the communist East had to contend in the West with widespread disillusionment with the past.  Orwell dismissed capitalism as a failed system, which manifestly had no future.   Even as late as 1975 Senator Daniel P. Moynihan wrote that liberal democracy on the American model had no relevance to the future.   The intellectuals with whom the Radios had to battle after the War were not in the Soviet Union, since they had almost all died in the gulags: they were in the West and it was they who were legitimising the Communist regimes.

Their view of the Soviet Union was formed because they either did not know, or did not want to know, the communist attitude to truth, that Lenin believed that socialist realism meant reporting “not what is, but what should be.”   He was convinced that a true bolshevik would be ready to believe that black was white and white was black, if the party required it.    Four decades of Western broadcasting exposed those lies.

Americans distrusted propaganda and that distrust threatened the very existence of the VOA and RFE and RL.  A report for the Psychological Strategy Board described propaganda as “a horrid, sinister word, a really un-American word and activity.”    The respected American columnist, Walter Lippmann, wrote an article for Readers Digest advocating the abolition of the VOA.   As a way of stimulating an appetite for the American way of life he regarded VOA broadcasts as “… like serving castor oil as a cocktail before dinner.”   The State Department itself disdained the VOA.   The international information service was in the traditional role of “…the illegitimate child at the family reunion,” quipped one diplomat.  Richard Helms, the former Director of the CIA, has revealed to the author that President Johnson wanted the CIA to shut down RFE and RL and that he was dissuaded only with difficulty.   Even that great liberal, Senator Fulbright, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wanted to close them.   Fulbright told the Senate in 1972:   “I submit these radios should be given an opportunity to take their rightful place in the graveyard of cold war relics.”   RFE and RL narrowly escaped burial.

In Britain the External Services of the BBC were under almost continual budgetary attack from the government of the day.   “… the art of hobbling an organisation without entirely crippling it is one which is well understood in Whitehall,”  was the comment of one former head of the Foreign Office in a House of Lords debate on one of the many proposed cut-backs.

The Attacks from the Communist Regimes

Research in the archives of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union for this book shows that the communists believed that Western radio propaganda was the strongest and most effective weapon that existed for ideological intervention in the USSR.

The most important weapon in the external counter-attack against the Radios was jamming the signals – KGB jazz.   The BBC estimated that jamming cost as much as £628 million ($1 billion) a year.  Jamming was stepped up after a Russian school teacher, Mrs Anna Kasenkina, jumped out of a window in the Soviet consultate in New York in order to escape.   The Kremlin suppressed the news within both the Soviet Union and the satellites.   The Voice of America of course carried it and within a few hours diplomats in Moscow found it being talked about all over the city.   Twenty-four hours later the Soviet media admitted the episode, but the distorted versions caused plenty of muted horse laughs.

The communist regimes also resorted to violence.    The Bulgarian President, Todor Zhivkov, had the broadcaster, Georgi Markov, murdered because he felt his broadcasts were undermining the very foundations of his regime. The preparations for the murder were like something from a spoof spy-film.  The Bulgarians sent an agent to follow Markov on vacation to a seaside resort in Italy.   He was to bump into Markov on the beach and smear him with poisoned jelly.   But the agent reported back to his superiors that the weather was cold, the beach half-empty, Markov was clothed and he could not work out how to get at him to rub on the jelly.   The assassins then followed Markov to Germany and tried to poison his food.   That did not work either.   They succeeded at the third attempt.  Markov was hit by a tiny poisoned pellet from a gun fitted in an umbrella as he was crossing Waterloo Bridge in London.    He died four days later.

The KGB organised the bombing of the RFE/RL headquarters in Munich.   Some believe they used Carlos, “The Jackal” as the perpetrator.

The Impact

East Europeans and Russians had no doubt about the impact of the Radios:

Jerzy Urban, Polish government spokesman:

“If you would close your Radio Free Europe, the underground would completely cease to exist.”

Lev Timofeyev, Soviet leader of the human rights group, Press-Club Glasnost,:

  “…without Poland’s Solidarity, there would be no Gorbachev, nor Sakharov in Paris.”

Vaclev Havel:

“If my fellow citizens knew me before I became president, they did so because of these stations.”

Lech Walesa:

“When a democratic opposition emerged in Poland, the Polish Section of Radio Free Europe 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.”

The dissident movement in the Soviet Union also understood the central role the Radios could play in telling its story to the Soviet people and to the rest of the world.   Ludmilla Alexeyeva, a leading dissident, recalled how in the first break in the hearings of the Daniel and Sinyavski trial the wives of the accused came out of the courthouse and told the waiting dissidents what had happened.   The correspondents listened in, filed their stories and back they came on the radios to be heard, unjammed, across the whole vast country.   “Thus,” Ludmilla Alexeyeva explained, “future human rights activists discovered the only means available to them to spread ideas and information under Soviet conditions.”   Soon the dissidents were approaching the correspondents direct and on the last day of the trial took them off to a cafe to buy hot dumplings.

When Larisa, Daniel’s wife, visited him in prison as he started his five year sentence, she wanted to tell him of the international stir the judgments had created, which she had heard of on the Radios, without the guard understanding.   “Grandmother Lillian Hellman asked to me say hello.   Uncle Bert Russell also sends regards,   Your nephew, Guenter Grass, talks about you a lot, and so does his younger brother, little Norman Mailer.”  “It’s nice that you Jewish people have such large families,” said the guard.

The Radios were important to dissidents in prison.   Vladimir Bukovsky described how prison guards and officers twiddled the knobs of their radios at night to get Western Radio stations.   Their worry was that prison abuses would be reported by the BBC, RFE/RL and the VOA, who would be “kicking up a stink again.”   Then a commission would come from Moscow, which would be bound to find blemishes and blunders, reprimand the staff and sometimes even sack them.

In Poland the dissident, Alexander Malachowski, listened in prison to the Polish Service of the BBC on a small radio hidden under his long bushy beard.

Communism wanted to make everything and everyone the same.   But the Radios always emphasised individuality, variety, difference.

The Radios did not only convey information.   They helped convey the concept of a civil society and of basic human values; they preserved a sense of national identity and made the connection with the broader cultural movement of Europe.

The task of the broadcasters would have been even more difficult if the Russians had not shot themselves in the foot.   Research in the archives of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union shows one of the great Russian snafus of the Cold War.  In 1953, a decree was passed by the Council of Ministers ordering the end of the mass production of shortwave receivers.    But instead of carrying out the order, production was increased.   In 1958 the Central Committee woke up to the fact that there were 20 million sets in homes across the country, mainly used for listening to Western propaganda.

Their Masters’ Voices?

The relationship between the British government and the BBC was clearly not as close as between the American broadcasters at various points in their histories and US Administrations.   The generally held view of the independence of the external services of the BBC has been largely induced by the stand the BBC took against the government at the time of the Suez crisis.   In fact the relationship with the Foreign Office was close and cosy, with senior BBC executives sometimes sitting on secret Foreign Office propaganda committees.  The BBC was heavily dependent for material on the secret Information Research Department (IRD).    The Foreign Office and the BBC made the remarkable admission that “much of the material and a great deal of the background for the BBC’s broadcasts to the Soviet Union, the satellites and China reaches the BBC from this department.   The liaison in this respect is both close and constant.”

This book reveals that the BBC passed letters from listeners behind the Iron Curtain to the Foreign Office, for use by MI6.

Strange use of VOA broadcasts to transmit messages via music during the USIA directorship of Charles Wick, the former music arranger, came to light in the nineties.   Nodar Djin claimed in a court hearing in a suit against VOA that in 1985 he had been fired because he complained about an order to broadcast a suspicious message.  The message, according to Djin, was to someone in the Soviet Union. Another VOA broadcaster, Alan Silverman, was ordered to play a song at a specific time from the Rod Stewart album, “Foolish Behavior.”

The Radios had their moments of shame.   Published for the first time in this book is the internal Radio Free Europe report for their CIA masters on what really happened in 1956 when the radio station was accused of inciting the Hungarian revolt against the Russians and causing the deaths of some insurgents.

Gorbachev Listens to the Voices

The Communists concluded the story of Western Broadcasting to the Soviet Union and its satellites with an elegance which history’s muse, Clio, has rarely demonstrated.   No historian could have asked for a neater denouement than that the Soviet President, Mikhail Gorbachev, the target of the failed coup which finally toppled Communism, should have depended on Western Radios, so long attacked by the Communists, for the information on which he staged his come-back.

“Seventy-two hours of total isolation,” Gorbachev told the Press Conference when he got back to Moscow, the coup plotters defeated.    “Everything was done, I think, in order to weaken me psychologically.”   The isolation and the attempt to weaken him psychologically may have been the intention, but it is not what happened.   As he himself described:

“Everything was turned off, but we found some old receivers in the service quarters and were able to set up antennas — the lads were able to figure out how to do that. 

We were able to catch some broadcasts and find out what was happening.   We got BBC, best of all –BBC best of all. They were the clearest signal.  Radio Liberty, then Voice of America — at least that is what I was told, based on the information they had.”

In the dacha Gorbachev would have heard Yeltsin broadcasting his appeal to the people and other interviews with opponents of the coup that would have given him an idea of the strength of the resistance.   He would have learned that the coup was not well organised.   He would have concluded that he was getting support from President George Bush and Prime Minister John Major, who had telephoned Yeltsin.   It would not have escaped Gorbachev’s notice that if he had not ended the jamming of Western Radios in 1988 and sold off jamming equipment to independent radio stations for use as transmitters he might not have learned what was happening. If it had not been for the Radios, his resolve might not have strengthened.   He might have signed away all his powers and changed the course of history.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn told the Wall Street Journal in 1981:

“American broadcasts are the mighty non-military force which resides in the airwaves and whose kindling power in the midst of Communist darkness cannot even be grasped by the Western imagination.”

Solzhenitsyn knew that the Western broadcasters were the unsung heroes of the Cold War, but that a prophet has no honour in his own country.

In Orwell’s 1984 the telescreen behind Winston Smith’s back babbled away about pig-iron and the overfulfillment of the Ninth Three-Year plan.   That, and the like, encouraged the view in the middle of this century that the technology available to governments meant that revolution would never again be possible.   So why bother with propaganda?   But the irony was that American and British propagandists saw that the technology of the radio could undermine totalitarian power.   Later, terrestial and satellite television, the copying machine, the tape recorder, the telephone and the fax became weapons in the war.   And after the Cold War was over and the communist regime in Russia had fallen, the rebels in Chechnya, who for nearly half a century had listened to Western Radios, exploited the latest technology and used the Internet to tell their story to the world.    As President Reagan said: “The biggest of Big Brothers is helpless against the technology of the Information Age.”

Michael Nelson has written five books – War of the Black Heavens: The Battles of Western Broadcasting in the Cold War (Syracuse University Press and Brasseys, London, 1997); Queen Victoria and the Discovery of the Riviera, (I.B. Tauris, 2001); Americans and the Making of the Riviera (McFarland, 2007) Castro and Stockmaster: A Life in Reuters (Matador, 2011); and The French Riviera: A History (Matador, 2016).

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