(New Academia Publishing: Washington, DC, 2013), pp. 139 (incl. index). ISBN 978-0-9886376-8-9. [Buy this book]
James F. Brown, who held joint British-American citizenship and died in 2009, spent 27 years at the Munich home of Radio Free Europe (RFE), rising to the post of director in 1978. However, uncomfortable with the aggressive tone he was under pressure to adopt from ultra-conservatives in the Reagan administration, a tone he believed signalled a return to the bad old days of the radio preceding the Hungarian uprising in 1956, five years later he resigned and took up instead a university teaching career.
In this book, Brown begins by describing how RFE was brought to its ‘lowest ebb’ by its inept handling of the Hungarian uprising and then recovered during the 1960s with the help of more measured, professional broadcasting. Despite this, he reports, in the 1970s tensions between the radio (focused on societies) and the administration at home (more worried about states) became marked. At this juncture, Kissinger and the State Department (plus Willy Brandt and then Helmut Schmidt in Bonn) came to regard RFE’s basic hostility to the East European Communist governments as at odds with the policy of détente – and would like to have seen the radio’s demise. When, following exposure of the CIA link in 1971, RFE was placed under the supervision of the newly created Board for International Broadcasting, it was even proposed that its name be changed to ‘Radio Dialogue’ and the right of reply given to the East European governments – in RFE airtime – to any broadcasts to which they took exception. Now this would have been a venture in what later came to be known as ‘public diplomacy’ (a term which mercifully never once passes Brown’s lips in this book although ‘propaganda’ slips out on p. 97), and the suggestion ‘caused much concern, incredulity, and fury’; fortunately it was ‘soon forgotten’ (p. 50).
The author then nimbly knits into his narrative illuminating discussions of such subjects as the radio’s different target audiences, why it was so important to show its listeners what it was for (democracy) as well as what it was against, and the importance of grabbing their attention (for example by broadcasting rock music) and cultivating credibility in quiet times so it would be believed in a crisis. A particularly interesting section of the book is Brown’s 1977 memo reproduced between pages 58 and 68 in which, among other things, he expands on RFE’s ‘influence’, defined here well as ‘an ability to take part in the course of political development’ – so much for the alleged indistinctness of the concept of influence and the need for its replacement by the silly term ‘soft power’. In an epilogue Brown laments that, with the Cold War in Eastern Europe over by 1989, Radio Free Europe was not re-launched as ‘Radio New Europe’, a station that could have been devoted to the more difficult task of winning the peace, that is, attempting to forestall the rise of a demokratura (a facade of democracy without its spirit or substance) in too much of post-Communist Eastern Europe.
This book is another valuable contribution to the ADST-DACOR Diplomats and Diplomacy series so ably edited by Margery Boichel Thompson. How much is new in it I cannot say because a good number of books on RFE (and Radio Liberty) with which I am not familiar, both by other insiders and academics, have already been published. Nevertheless, there is bound to be something of interest here even to those specializing in ‘public diplomacy’; and to those without prior knowledge of US Cold War broadcasting to Eastern Europe this is an excellent introduction. In fact, it’s just the kind to fire the interest. It is fairly short and crisply written and is enlivened by sharp and sometimes entertaining personality portraits, together with first-hand accounts of the circumstances attending incidents such as the bombing in 1981 of RFE’s Munich headquarters, believed to have been inspired by Ceauşescu. I found it quite absorbing and read it in just two sittings. It’s a pity about its rather odd index, which lists only proper names plus three topics, thereby giving the reader no help in finding discussion of such interesting subjects as jamming, cross-reporting, two source rule, influence, and so on. But this is a minor blemish on a valuable and accessible book.
[9 January 2014]