As previously noted, this is “Sunshine Week,” the annual commemoration of governmental transparency laws and a free press. During this time we have lauded the right to access the records of government. As members of a free society, we should expect no less.
Within this context, we are also keenly aware that other nations do not afford their citizens similar access. Throughout the 20th century those living in more closed societies have been forced to rely on external means — not just for the records of government — but for the free flow of basic news.
U.S. officials concerned about the growing Cold War recognized that information could be a valuable weapon in the struggle against encroaching communism. In June 1949, a group of prominent Americans, including Allen Dulles, the future director of the Central Intelligence Agency, launched the National Committee for Free Europe (NCFE) at a press release in New York.
While it was a closely guarded secret, NCFE was actually the public face of an innovative “psychological warfare” project undertaken by the CIA. This project in turn gave rise to Radio Free Europe, which would become one of the longest running and successful covert action campaigns ever mounted by the United States.
Credit for the broader program can be given to one man, George Keenan. Keenan pressed the National Security Council to reorganize covert action planning and management. His pressuring had two tangible results: The creation of the Office of Policy Coordination (OPC) at the CIA in September 1948, and the appointment of OSS veteran, Frank G. Wisner, as its chief.
According to CIA historical reports, “Kennan proposed that OPC work through an “American freedom committee” in dealing with anti-Communist émigré groups in the United States to develop operations abroad. The idea was to fund selected émigrés in their activities to demonstrate that the newly imposed Soviet-style dictatorships in Eastern Europe oppressed the aspirations of their people.”
As such, the NCFE became the American umbrella for these exiled European figures in the United States. It was responsible for raising private funds through Crusade for Freedom to supplement CIA budgeting as well as organizing exile activities for broadcast back to their home countries.
As the Cold War entered one of its most perilous eras, NCFE along with similar projects — namely the Congress for Cultural Freedom and Radio Liberty (which began broadcasts to the Soviet Union in 1953) — rallied anti-Communist intellectuals, politicians, and activists to fight the Soviets in a contest for the peoples’ “minds and loyalties.”
One of the most famous outgrowths of these efforts was Radio Free Europe, which began broadcasting behind the Iron Curtain on July 4, 1950. Radio Free Europe aired programs to Eastern Europe in six languages. The purpose of RFE was to provide tailored information to the oppressed populations of the Eastern Block and to quietly foment rebellion.
Historian Arch Puddington contends that this latter purpose was realized with a greatly increased audience following the failed Berlin riots of 1953 and the highly publicized defection of Józef Światło. In particular, the Hungarian service’s coverage of Poland’s Poznań riots in 1956 arguably propelled the Hungarian revolution.
Of course it hasn’t always been smooth sailing for RFE. Near to this day in 1958, the CBS television network suspended RFE’s free advertising because RFE didn’t reveal that it was backed by the CIA.
While both organizational structures and priorities have changed since the Cold War, RFE lives on today. In 1976, RFE merged with Radio Liberty (RL) to form a new non-profit corporation, RFE/RL Inc. Oversight was assumed in 1995 by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, responsible for all non-military U.S. international broadcasting. Today RFE/RL broadcasts to 21 countries in 28 languages, including Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Russia.
While we’re happy that the U. S. sponsors more open reporting in other lands, we’re more happy that our own laws guarantee that kind of program isn’t needed here.