Stanford Report Online

Stanford Report, May 23, 2001
Radio Free Europe's history of intrigue and information explored in Hoover exhibit


Running an anti-Communist radio station during the Cold War could be a dangerous endeavor. Journalists at Radio Free Europe faced stealth attacks worthy of a James Bond movie -- such as the day in 1959 when a Czech diplomat put poison in the cafeteria's salt shakers.

But the station that broadcast news behind the Iron Curtain from the 1950s to the fall of Communism and beyond achieved milestones worth the risk. Listeners tuned in to hear everything from Soviet dissident writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's book The Gulag Archipelago being read aloud to Czech leader Vaclav Havel's live speeches. And when Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was held under house arrest by political enemies, he stayed informed by listening to the station's coverage of the attempted coup against him.

The ups and downs of Radio Free Europe (RFE) and its sister station Radio Liberty (RL) are chronicled in a new exhibit at the Herbert Hoover Memorial Exhibit Pavilion, "Voices of Hope: The Story of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty," which runs through Dec. 28. The exhibit focuses on two stations, funded by U.S. taxpayers, that brought news, the arts and popular music programming to Communist-controlled countries. While RFE served Eastern Europe, RL broadcast to the Soviet Union.

The exhibit ranges in scope from photos of journalists and political leaders to historic radios and other Cold War artifacts. In one display, for example, a flag flown during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 is set beside a photo of the director of Radio Free Europe, broadcasters' reports and leaflets distributed by revolutionaries on the streets of Budapest.

The exhibit celebrates a new alliance between Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the Hoover Institution, which makes Hoover's archives the depository of the stations' corporate and broadcasting records. The collection covers the broadcasters from their origins until June 1995, when the stations jointly moved from Munich, Germany, to Prague, in the Czech Republic. Its archives include 61,000 reels of broadcast tapes and 7.5 million pages of transcripts.

The display also commemorates the 50th anniversary of RFE's launch in 1951, when it began broadcasting 11 hours a day from Czechoslovakia. Secretly, it was funded by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), although even the U.S. public did not learn of this until the late 1960s.

While Communist regimes strictly controlled information, RFE and RL sought to cover a wide spectrum of news. Journalists interviewed recent refugees for stories, and some of them were hired to work for the stations. Government abuses were exposed. Subversive writers -- as well as rock 'n' roll music -- were featured on the air.

The broadcasts gave a voice to those opposing Communism -- so much so that some blamed RFE for fomenting the failed Hungarian Revolution that claimed 10,000 to 20,000 lives in 1956.

But the station persevered. And when Lech Walesa, leader of Poland's Solidarity movement, was not allowed to accept his Nobel Peace Prize in 1983 in person, he listened as RFE broadcast his wife's acceptance of the award.

Throughout the stations' history, Communist governments tried to suppress them by building a huge system of jamming equipment. Historians estimate the Soviets spent $35 million trying to jam the stations' signals -- double the cost of running both RFE and RL. Some politicians sent spies or even assassins: Romania's Nicolae Ceausescu succeeded in having his on-air critic Emil Georgescu murdered. A bomb tore through the Munich office in 1981, causing $2 million in damage. But the poison in the salt shaker scheme of 1959 failed, thanks to an alert counter-agent.

In 1988, under Gorbachev, the USSR finally stopped jamming the signals. RFE and RL continued to transmit news across Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union as uprisings pushed out Communist leadership. In the mid-1990s, Havel invited the merged stations to relocate to Prague, rent free. It seems Havel relished the irony of housing RFE/RL in the city's former Communist parliament building.

Although the United States considered ending funding for the station as the Iron Curtain fell, a number of current and former leaders of former Communist countries advised the radio to continue giving unbiased news. Both Gorbachev and former Russian President Boris Yeltsin supported its usefulness in Russia.

"There were many countries in which the institutions of a democratic state were still in their infancy, and the fact was a free press did not exist as of yet," said Hoover Exhibits Coordinator Cissie Dore Hill. The U.S. Congress has continued supporting RFE/RL.

While ceasing to exist in some countries with an active free press, such as Poland, the stations continue to provide news in languages such as Lithuanian, Georgian, Belarusian, Bosnian, Uzbek and Russian, with new services reaching out to Iran (Persian Language Service) and Iraq (Radio Free Iraq). It is estimated that 35 million listeners hear RFE/RL in countries throughout Eastern and Southeastern Europe, Russia, the Caucasus, Central Asia and the Middle East. "It's definitely fulfilling a fabulous purpose right now," Hill said.

Perhaps the most striking part of the exhibit is an old radio programmed to play a nine-minute set of selections from RFE and RL's historic broadcasts. Listening to Josef Stalin and Winston Churchill, with commentary in the languages of Eastern Europe, one can begin to understand what was at stake for the people behind the Iron Curtain, struggling to hear a different voice.

The exhibit is open Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.