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A Case of Localitis?

A. Ross Johnson

State Department Criticism of RFE Polish Broadcasts in the 1960s and 1970s

RFE station directors including Jan Nowak, second from right (

State Department Criticism of RFE Polish Broadcasts in the 1960s and 1970s 

In early 1957 Frank Wisner, CIA Deputy Director for Plans, penned a memorandum on the implications of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution for Radio Free Europe (RFE) broadcasts to Poland. He wrote that Soviet communism was on the defensive, and RFE broadcasts to Poland should discourage violence while supporting communist party leader Władysław Gomułka’s efforts to gain autonomy from the Soviet Union.

Wisner was preaching to the choir. This was in fact the policy approach set by RFE Polish Service chief Jan Nowak in mid-1956, who counseled gradualism to his listeners after October 1956 and initially endorsed Gomułka’s efforts to liberalize the communist system and assert Polish interests vis-à-vis Moscow.

In 1957, however, the Gomułka regime began to reverse the liberal reforms of the 1956 Polish October. Tensions soon arose between the State Department and RFE officials.

RFE saw its job as a “surrogate” free media to expose and critique the shortcomings and increasing repression of the Polish regime. That was in fact its charter, as codified in policy documents also approved by the State Department, for the highly autonomous organization overseen and principally funded by CIA until 1971.

In contrast, the US Embassy in Warsaw, headed by Ambassador Jacob Beam after mid-1957, continued to view Gomułka’s reforms more positively and sought to engage and influence Polish communist elites. It viewed RFE’s Polish broadcasts as hampering Embassy efforts to that end. Beam questioned “whether RFE has outlived its usefulness in relation to our national policies” and advised Washington in February 1959 that “a good case could be made that RFE should be dispensed with in favor of a modified Voice of America program.”

The tension between RFE (usually backed by the CIA) and the State Department over broadcasts to Poland was emblematic of the tension between the two strands of US policy toward Eastern Europe after the 1950s. Both strands sought to promote internal liberalization and external autonomy from Moscow. Tactics differed. US diplomacy sought to engage East European regime elites through cultural, educational, and economic ties and visitor exchanges. US information programs and especially RFE broadcasts sought to influence East European populations at large by providing information denied to them in official censored media and critiquing the shortcoming and repression of those regimes.

By the mid-1960s it had become apparent to all observers that RFE’s more pessimistic appraisal of Polish internal developments was correct. In mid-1962, the Warsaw Embassy, headed by Ambassador John Cabot , reversed course and came to see RFE not as in impediment to State Department policy but as “doing an effective job” in Poland. In April 1967, the Embassy, then led by Ambassador John Gronouski, reported to Washington an even more positive appraisal of RFE broadcasts:

RFE provides effective support for US policy objectives in Poland. It keeps the Polish audience informed of continuing US interest in the Polish people; RFE gives a fuller view of developments which are often treated in a simplistic, heavy-handed and biased manner by the Polish public media; and RFE provides information about significant events in Poland that often go unmentioned here …RFE is not inflammatory; it skillfully encouraged evolutionary changes and sows a realistic understanding of the situation in Poland today.

But rapprochement between the Warsaw Embassy and RFE was short-lived. Five years later, the tide turned again, and RFE Polish commentaries on Edward Gierek (who replaced Gomułka as Party leader in 1970) and other Polish leaders were criticized by the Embassy for “make[ing] it more difficult to promote US interests in Poland.” CIA officials reviewed broadcasts and countered that RFE’s coverage of Polish events, including its treatment of Polish leaders, was professional and responsible (though with occasional lapses of tone). “We are struck,” wrote the CIA officials,” that Polish ‘sensitivities’ are given such weight by Ambassador Stoessel.”

RFE Polish broadcasts would face continued criticism from the Warsaw Embassy (headed by Ambassador Richard Davies from 1973 to 1978) and the West German government of Helmut Schmidt throughout the 1970s.

During those years Jacob Beam, who as Ambassador had been so critical of RFE in the late 1950s, served as Chairman of RFE’s oversight board and became one of RFE’s strongest defenders against Ambassador Davies’ criticism. RFE, he wrote in early 1975, “serves us well under present conditions and continues to do us credit.” Asked by RFE Vice President Ralph Walter to explain Davies’ critique, Beam attributed it (how ironically, we do not know) to “localitis,” or the tendency to be more sympathetic to the interests of one's host country than to those of one's own government.[1] This line of embassy criticism ended only in the early 1980s, when RFE was praised for coverage of the birth of Solidarity, its suppression under martial law, and its victory in 1989.

[1] “Report on a Trip to Europe, January 23–February 1, 1975” by Jacob D. Beam; Walter interview with the author.

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
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