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Additional Radio Liberty Documents Now Online

A. Ross Johnson

Shortly before his passing in February 2021, A. Ross Johnson shared with the History and Public Policy Program a set of about 70 documents created by the Radio Liberty Committee obtained by him from the CIA through Mandatory Declassification Review.

Shortly before his passing in February 2021, A. Ross Johnson shared with the History and Public Policy Program a set of about 70 documents created by the American Committee for Liberation (AMCOMLIB, renamed Radio Liberty or the RL Committee in 1964) that were released to him by the Central Intelligence Agency in response to his many Mandatory Declassification Review requests.

The History and Public Policy Program is now pleased to make these documents available through the Wilson Center Digital Archive, as Ross wanted, and to publish an introduction to the collection written by Ross.

- Christian Ostermann and Charles Kraus


Copies of unclassified Radio Liberty (RL) corporate records were routinely provided to the CIA during its years of sponsorship (1951-1971). While RL (now RFE/RL) copies were lost, CIA retained its copies. I located the present documents in the course of my historical research in CIA archives. Many are, as noted in the accompanying annotation, cited in my book, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty: The CIA Years and Beyond (Wilson Center Press and Stanford University Press, 2010).

The newly available RL documents supplement RFE/RL and related documents previously deposited in the Wilson Center Digital Archive, including e-dossier 32, a collection of declassified CIA and State Department documents about Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, and e-dossier 59, a collection of documents from formerly closed Soviet and East European archives about Cold War Broadcasting. (See also available in my book with R. Eugene Parta, Cold War Broadcasting: Impact on the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.)

This article provides an overview of the content and significance of the newly available documents. A first set consists of internal AMCOMLIB/RL correspondence and memoranda. A second set consists of AMCOMLIB/ RL “Policy Position Statements (PPS)” on topical issues intended to provide editorial guidelines for RL broadcasts. These PPSs were generally drafted by RL and then submitted to CIA (International Organization Division, later Covert Action Staff) and, through it, to the State Department for approval or revision. The “buy-in” of broadcasters was facilitated by inclusion of the RL Council of Editors—the émigré chiefs of all broadcast services—in the process.

Most PPSs contained situational analyses that (the title notwithstanding) only implied an editorial policy and were routinely endorsed by CIA and the State Department. A second category of PPSs conveyed “enlightened émigré” editorial perspectives on international affairs that sometimes departed from U.S. government policies and—RL’s U.S. government-approved charter notwithstanding— invariably led to State Department criticism and occasional revision of the document in question. This second category also includes material from RL policy manuals – general editorial guidelines for broadcasts. A third set of the newly available documents consists of correspondence between AMCOMLIB/RL and CIA officers, usually identified with pseudonyms.

Engaging Emigres

The documents illustrate the challenges faced by RL in drawing on the talents of Soviet emigres in the U.S. national interest, in setting editorial policies for broadcasts that could attract Soviet listeners, and in measuring the broadcast audience. A January 1953 memorandum by AMCOMLIB Chair Leslie Stevens outlined RL’s efforts to facilitate a more united Soviet emigration, which Stevens saw as a necessary sponsor of RL broadcasting. An Airgram that same month provided draft program guidelines agreed between RL and the émigré Coordinating Center for the anti-Bolshevik Struggle, which was intended to manage RL programming but soon disintegrated because of differences among its member émigré groups, leaving Americans in charge of broadcast policy. Howland Sargent, who succeeded Stevens as head of AMCOMLIB, provided guidance to RL staff on editorial policy in a May 1956 memorandum. A series of reports summarize RL broadcast content during and following the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. A 1956 AMCOMLIB memorandum reported on audience research and influence measurement as discussed at the Munich Radio Conference of RL, RFE, VOA, USIA, and State Department officials on U.S. international broadcasting.

Charges of Appeasement

A series of memoranda in 1957 and 1958 document Sargent’s efforts to counter the accusations of AMCOMLIB founders Eugene Lyons and Isaac Don Levine that RL broadcasts had become “appeasement of Red imperialism,” “leftish, Marxist, anti-Western and even pro-Soviet,” the result of “infiltration by elements set upon subverting from within the purposes and policies of Radio Liberation” (as Radio Liberty was called until 1959). Sargeant kept CIA informed of his efforts.

Host Country Concerns

Operating from Munich, and transmitting on shortwave from Germany and Spain, RL was necessarily attentive to the interests of its host countries. A 1957 memorandum reported the view of a German foreign office official that RL broadcasts corresponded to German policy and were in the interest of the Federal Republic. Changes in the Spanish government in 1962 led Sargeant to highlight new Spanish efforts to monitor RL broadcasts and pressure to share use of RL transmitters. CIA advised Sargeant that RL should avoid broadcasting on its Spanish transmitters anything about Spain that might be viewed adversely by Spanish officials and only broadcast any such content on its German transmitters. RL sensitivities about its situation in Spain were heightened by its concern about the content of Radio Madrid broadcasts. An RL staff memorandum viewed negatively the content of Radio Madrid broadcasts to the USSR and Eastern Europe, concluding they reflect “bad policy, bad journalism. . . the tone is on the whole inflammatory; the content represents reaction at its most extreme… the spirit which informs the broadcasts is a violation of the spirit and intent of U.S. policy.

Improving Broadcasts

Evaluation and improvement of RL broadcast content was a constant challenge. Professor George Kline provided an evaluation of RL broadcasts for February 1959, concluding that they were of “high quality—solid, informative and interesting. They meet the standards set by the RL Policy Manual, with certain exceptions.” A July 1960 report by RL policy advisor Robert Tuck reviewed strengths and weaknesses of RL programming, concluding that “coverage of major breaking developments in the world news has been first class” and “feature and commentaries continue to be filled with interesting and provocative scripts,” but “the only weakness, although a fundamental one, remains the basically negative approach of our commentaries on internal Soviet affairs.”

In 1962 Tuck suggested that RL’s task was to “offer [Soviet listeners] constructive encouragement and relevant, meaningful alternatives which they can use in their own way to weaken the regime and better their condition.” CIA urged Sargeant to exert additional editorial control of problematic broadcasts, expressing disappointment with a draft Policy Position Statement, “Radio Liberty’s Task and Tone,” calling for “much greater emphasis on positive versus negative programming; . . . our task is to stimulate and exploit evolutionary changes within the USSR which will make the regime less onerous to its subjects and less of a threat to world peace.”

CIA and State Department Role

Periodic editorial advice notwithstanding, CIA did not approve broadcasts in advance. A rare exception was an April 1962 RL program “U.S. Scientists and Public Discuss Nuclear Testswhich was pre-approved (and in fact improved) by CIA.) CIA did advise RL to delay broadcasting the full text of Boris Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago. RL policy guidelines were regularly criticized by the State Department. Documents in this category included PPS’s on Military Technical Achievements, criticized by the State Department for understating the Soviet threat; on Poland, criticized by the State Department for downplaying reforms under Gomulka; and on Latin America, criticized by the State Department for guidelines on coverage of developments contrary to as well as supportive of U.S. interests.

Russians and Others

RL faced a constant challenge in balancing the content of its broadcasts for the USSR in Russian for Russians and its broadcasts for non-Russians in their own languages. It espoused a policy that it termed “nonpredeterminism.” A 1960 PPS “Captive Nations” directed that “Radio liberty does not espouse nor seek to promote the independence of constituent parts of the USSR specified in any such [U.S. Congress] resolutions, because Radio Liberty … will not attempt to predetermine the choice which the peoples concerned will have to make for themselves on the basis of free self-determination.”

In May 1965 policy advisor Tuck outlined changes in a new RL Policy Manual in response to concerns of RL nationality service editors: “Nor does RL depart from the principle that it is the right of the peoples of the Soviet Union themselves to determine their future state structure when they are free to do so.” The 1968 Annex on Ukrainian Broadcasts to the Radio Liberty Policy Manual defined the role of the RL Ukrainian Service role as to “preserve and stimulate the growth of Ukrainian cultural values and national identity … to “stimulate Ukrainians to think about their national problems and provide them with information which may assist them in finding their own solutions.”

Although the State Department did not object to this annex, and similar annexes to the Policy Manual for the other RL nationality services (see a comparable document for the Uzbek Service), Department of State officers remained critical of what they viewed as excessive attention to non-Russian nationalism in RL broadcasts based on these editorial documents. They were critical of a 1970 PPS on The Nationality Question, writing that:

”our long-standing policy has not included encouragement of national separatism to the extent of independence for the many and varied groupings within the USSR. In order to be entirely clear on this matter the proposed Annex should include a specific disclaimer along the following lines: In its output, Radio Liberty takes care not to be identified with a program of separatism and dismemberment of the USSR, which can only alienate and unite all Great Russians, who still constitute the dominant and ruling element in the USSR and the primary target of RL broadcasts.”

RL officials viewed such language as accusatory and excessively Russo-centric, and it was evidently never incorporated into a revised PPS.

Baltic Broadcasts

Radio Free Europe had originally planned broadcasts to the Baltic States but abandoned the idea in the face of opposition from the State Department, citing just-launched VOA broadcasts. RL occasionally raised the possibility and was urged to initiate Baltic broadcasts by prominent Baltic-Americans. (Broadcasts to the Baltic states began in 1976 as part of RL and were transferred to RFE in 1983).

Beyond Covert Funding

Anticipating an end to covert CIA funding in the wake of publicity in 1967 to various CIA covert projects (even though RL was never mentioned), Sargeant summarized the three major RL Committee operations -- Radio Liberty, the Institute for the Study of the USSR, and the Soviet “book program.” He outlined alternative organizational and funding possibilities for RL, including a publicly-funded National Council for Freedom of Information: “The American Government should now provide the authorization and the means to continue such broadcasting to areas where the effectiveness of the concept of peoples speaking to peoples has been so clearly demonstrated…” He subsequently provided CIA with a statement of his views.

About the Author

A. Ross Johnson

A. Ross Johnson

History and Public Policy Program Fellow;
Senior Adviser, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty; former Director, Radio Free Europe

Before his passing in February 2021, A. Ross Johnson was a Wilson Center History and Public Policy Fellow and Senior Advisor for Archives at RFE/RL. He was a former director of Radio Free Europe. 

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