Stealing the Monopoly of Knowledge? Soviet Reactions to U.S. Cold War Broadcasting

By Mikkonen, Simo | Kritika, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

Stealing the Monopoly of Knowledge? Soviet Reactions to U.S. Cold War Broadcasting


Mikkonen, Simo, Kritika


A new era in international relations dawned after World War II: the Cold War was not a conventional war, but it was definitely not the peace people had been waiting for. It was a war that was waged in several arenas as the role of armed forces diminished and the battlefields moved elsewhere: to the United Nations, to the economic sphere, to sports events and concert halls, and to a great extent to international media. Indeed, the media played a decisive role in the development of the Cold War, and they significantly affected policies. The media also played an important role in bringing the Cold War to a relatively peaceful end. With the help of Western radio and television broadcasts, people under communist rule developed a certain image of the West, which arguably contributed to the fact that they did not defend their regimes at crucial moments in 1989-91. Although the media are commonly believed to have played an important part in the Cold War, the more than 40 years of foreign broadcasting after World War II remain a poorly researched area, despite the growing interest in the cultural side of the Cold War in general. The present study is part of the growing literature dealing with the cultural Cold War and addressing the impact of foreign radio broadcasting on the Soviet Union. (1)

The United States' radio broadcasting to the Soviet Union had a background that is anything but straightforward. Immediately after World War II, U.S. authorities found themselves with very little information about conditions in the USSR. The United States, therefore, tried to reach across the Iron Curtain to increase its knowledge while avoiding direct military conflict and making an effort to cultivate indirect methods of getting at its adversary. Men like Allen Dulles, George Kennan, and General Lucius Clay were prone to believe that the communist system was vulnerable to aggressive forms of psychological warfare. It was in this context that Radio Free Europe in 1950 and Radio Liberation in 1953 (later known as Radio Liberty [RL]) came into existence. (2) RL not only broadcast to the Soviet Union in Russian, but by 1954 it was using an arsenal of 17 Soviet languages in an attempt to appeal to non-Russian minorities. From the beginning, the ultimate objective of RL was to promote the collapse of the Soviet totalitarian government. It was an integral part of the U.S. Cold War strategy.

Subversive international broadcasting as such was not a new phenomenon. The Soviet Union had been a master of radio propaganda ever since the early 1920s. After the defeat of Nazi Germany, the Soviet leaders hardly expected to be seriously challenged by international propaganda, and especially not in their own territory. From the beginning to the end of the Cold War, however, Soviet leaders had to cope with hostile propaganda directed at Soviet citizens. Although Western broadcasting frequently violated international law, strong protests would have forced the Soviets to alter their own activities abroad. U.S. activities did not, however, merely follow the Soviet model; World War II in particular had given birth to several models for future subversive radio stations. Now, when there was no direct military confrontation with the target countries, these techniques were developed to a previously unprecedented level. This is especially well illustrated by the case of RL, a project designed primarily to influence the Soviet Union. I use it here as a case to illustrate the reactions and effects that followed the increase in foreign broadcasting to the USSR. The main objective of this article is to assess the impact of foreign broadcasting on the Soviet Union during the first decades of the Cold War. I propose that as a consequence of Western broadcasting, the Soviet authorities were forced to reorganize and rethink their own domestic propaganda policies, as the scope of foreign broadcasting activity turned out to be more extensive than they had previously anticipated. …

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