'Voices of Hope' exhibit and conference reflect on Cold War radio broadcasts

Courtesy of the Hoover Institution rfeshow

Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was one of many prominent figures who gave interviews to Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty.

"Stabbings, bombings, umbrellas armed with poison pellets—the media called it a Cold War, but in the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty complex in Munich, the war could get downright hot."

Exhibits coordinator Cissie Dore Hill prefaces an article in the Hoover Digest with this description of "Voices of Hope: The Story of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty." The show in Hoover Memorial Pavilion, which closes Dec. 17, takes a visitor through the dark days of the Cold War and explains how East European and Soviet refugees, initially with covert support from the CIA, helped build Radio Free Europe (RFE), directed at audiences in Eastern Europe, and Radio Liberty (RL), aimed at the Soviet Union, into powerful ideological weapons that broadcast uncensored news daily behind the Iron Curtain.

Despite the murders of several broadcasters, attempts to poison radio staff, the bombing of the station's complex in Munich, Germany, and efforts by communist authorities to jam radio frequencies, RFE/RL successfully weakened authoritarian control over information and contributed to the regimes' ultimate collapse by the early 1990s.

"Voices of Hope," which originally opened in 2001 to mark the 50th anniversary of RFE's first broadcasts into Czechoslovakia, was reinstalled this fall to coincide with an international conference that assessed the impact of Western broadcasting during the Cold War.

In 2000, the Hoover Institution received RFE/RL's vast broadcast archives and corporate records covering the period from the stations' creation in the early 1950s to 1995, when the operation moved from Munich to Prague. (The two corporations merged in 1976.) In an ironic twist, then Czech President Vaclav Havel invited RFE/RL to move, rent free, into the building of the former communist parliament, from which it broadcasts today.

In a videotaped address Oct. 14, Havel welcomed participants to the conference organized by Hoover and the Cold War International History Project of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. The onetime dissident said RFE/RL's "influence and significance [has] been great and profound."

Participants at the three-day conference presented research on the goals, content and impact of Western broadcasts, and the effect of jamming and counter-jamming. The papers, which will be published in an edited volume, were based on research in previously inaccessible East European and Soviet communist archives that included, for example, secret police plans to penetrate RFE/RL, and internal secret audience surveys.

Thomas Dine, president of RFE/RL, insisted that the broadcast operation is "not a Cold War relic, but a modern media organization communicating to the world's most unstable hotspots." He described how RFE/RL broadcasts to 19 countries in 28 languages today, and that 19 of the language services are directed at majority-Muslim populations. Today, he said, programming is broadcast to the southern Balkans, most of the former Soviet Union, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq. "Today we cannot know what the next Afghanistan will be—just as we can't know where the next Srebrenica massacre will occur or where the next militant Islamic revolution will erupt," he said in a statement. "But the likelihood is that many people there are listening to RFE/RL."

However, Elena Bonner, a former Soviet dissident and widow of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Andrei Sakharov, was more critical of RFE/RL. "It seems to me as a listener that Radio Liberty is somehow lost in time," she said in Russian that was translated into English. "Radio Liberty now somewhat resembles Russian TV," broadcasting talk shows on culture and beauty. "I demand that Radio Liberty … present another alternative view," she said. "You have to help your listeners, 'not to lose their way in broad daylight,' in other words, to differentiate between good and evil."

Bonner and Dine agreed that the Soviet Union no longer exists, but real freedom and democracy have yet to take root in the region. Bonner pointed out that Ekho Moskvy, the Voice of Moscow, is more popular today than Radio Liberty. "Nevertheless, I remain faithful to Liberty—to this sweet word and to this radio," she said.