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The CIA and the Committee for Free Asia under Project DTPILLAR

EDITOR'S NOTE: This essay by Richard Cummings describes the origin story of a short-lived CIA operation that began in 1951. Although bearing the name "Radio Free Asia," the initiative described here has no connection to the present day Radio Free Asia.

Today, Radio Free Asia operates under a 1994 Congressional mandate known as the International Broadcasting Act (IBA) to “deliver uncensored, domestic news and information to China, Tibet, North Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Burma, among other places in Asia … All broadcasts are solely in local languages and dialects, which include Mandarin, Tibetan, Cantonese, Uyghur, Vietnamese, Lao, Khmer, Burmese, and Korean.” The RFA began broadcasts in the fall of 1996 with a mandate to provide uncensored news and information to populations living in oppressive places, and provide people there with a platform to express their perspectives and opinions freely. It bears no connection to the operations referred to in the article below. For more information, see

In February 1951, the Central Intelligence Agency’s Office of Policy Coordination (OPC) initiated a proprietary project to establish a committee “similar to the National Committee for Free Europe body in organization and aims but oriented toward Asia rather than Europe.”

A 1990 Secret CIA Report gave some insight into Radio Free Asia’s establishment as a “private body”:

"The Committee for a Free Asia’ in 1951, sanctioned by the National Security Council and with the knowledge of Congressional Oversight Committees, supported by covert indirect CIA funding, the Committee had been created to help find ways to contain and expand private U.S. contact and communication with people of Asia following the establishment of Communist regimes in China and North Korea. The emphasis was on a private instrumentality that would be privately governed and have the freedom and flexibility to do things the government would like to see done but which it chose not to do or could not do directly."

CIA assigned DTPILLAR as the Committee for a Free Asia project cryptonym.

Committee for a Free Asia and Radio Free Asia Established

On March 12, 1951, the articles of incorporation of the Committee for a Free Asia (CFA) were filed with the California Office of the Secretary of State. Brayton Wilbur, an import-export executive in San Francisco, was its first chairman. In announcing the creation of the Committee for a Free Asia, Wilbur said, "The people of Asia must have more of the facts about the suffering that follows Communist aggression. They must also be shown alternative to Communism."           

In the forward to CFA's "Prospectus," issued in May 1951, Brayton Wilbur wrote that:

"This Committee aims to establish channels of direct communication between the people of Asia and the people of the free world everywhere. Through those channels, an exchange of thoughts, the hopes, and the inspirations of the people of Asia with the people of America and Europe can weld a union of free men that will roll back the dark forces of Soviet imperialism."

Committee for Free Asia offices were set up in San Francisco and New York. Similar to the National Committee for a Free Europe, the Committee for a Free Asia would not “engage in carrying or propaganda or otherwise attempting to influence legislation.”  

One internal CIA memorandum included this analysis:

"The question has been asked: 'Why a Radio Free Asia?' It is proposed to answer that question in terms of our objectives in the Far East and the effectiveness of radio in accomplishing them … Apart from its covert propaganda usefulness to the United States, RFA proposes to speak to Asia in the vernacular of Asia and about the things with which Asians are most concerned. It proposes to assist and encourage Asians in fighting Communism and establishing or recovering their dependence by spreading the truth in Asia about Asians. … It will tell the Chinese of the hopes and promises that a free and peaceful China holds for them, of the benefits of an independent, responsible, peaceful government recognized and accepted by the other free nations of the world and not dominated or influenced by foreign ideology or pressure."

In 1952, syndicated newspaper columnist John Anderson described the Committee for a Free Asia as a "Free Asia Group Headache to Communists. Working as private citizens and financed by the people and not the government in America and Asia, they attack Communism on its battleground in the Far East, publishing and broadcasting truth where it may be hidden or distorted and exposing the myth of the Communist Utopian dogma."

Alan Valentine became president of the Committee for Free Asia in December 1951. He previously had been the president of the University of Rochester, ECA Chief in the Netherlands in 1949-1949, and Director of the Economic Stabilization Agency 1950-1951.

On May 2, 1951, General Lucius D. Clay, National Chairman of the Crusade for Freedom, announced two goals for the second annual Crusade campaign: enrollment of 25 million Americans and public contributions of $3,500,00 to build two more “freedom” stations in Europe and begin the construction of Radio Free Asia.  The Advertising Council put out a Crusade for Freedom fact sheet for the American media, in which Radio Free Asia was mentioned in some detail: “Although it is patterned generally after the National Committee for a Free Europe, there are substantial differences because of the more complex pattern of national viewpoints across the Pacific, and because of the different pattern of Red Aggression in Asia. For one thing, CFA is not only engaged in fighting Communism where it has already seized control but is also waging a preventive battle to keep Kremlin doctrine from spreading to other Eastern nations.”

Radio Free Asia Begins Broadcasting

On September 4, 1951, at 6:30 a.m. local time, Radio Free Asia began live broadcasting on a test basis from a rented studio in the commercial radio station KNBC in downtown San Francisco (it was 10:30 p.m. in China). After the sound of a bronze gong being struck three times and music from Mahler’s “Song of the Earth,” the first broadcast began with these words in Mandarin Chinese: “This is Radio Free Asia...the voice of free men speaking to the people of Asia.”           

The initial news and commentary programs were at first 90 minutes long and divided into three segments in Mandarin, Cantonese, and English languages. The programs were broadcast via a leased wire RCA short-wave to Manila, Philippines, and from there to China via a directional short-wave antenna.

John W. Elwood, the first director of Radio Free Asia, was quoted by Time magazine on September 17, 1951, as saying, "Because we have no government ties, we can say anything we damn please." Time told its readers, “Like its sister organization, Radio Free Europe, R.F.A. was founded by a group of private U.S. citizens who feel that the Voice of America, though effective in its way, is sometimes hampered because of "good & sufficient reasons of national policy."

The symbol chosen for Radio Free Asia was a replica of a wooden Asian bell with the slogan "Let Freedom Ring." Radio Free Asia broadcasts were expanded to three hours in December 1951, and a third Chinese dialect, Hakka, was added to the broadcast languages.

There was an extraordinary meeting of CIA and the U.S. State Department leadership on November 21, 1951, in the home of State Department official Edward W. Barrett, Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs and an early National Committee for Free Europe member. Allen Dulles, Frank Wisner, Selwyn Lloyd, Deputy Chief of the Psychological Staff Division, and Tom Braden, Chief of the International Branch, Psychological Division OPC, represented the CIA.

One of the items on which the attendees agreed was that “Radio Free Asia would undergo no further expansion until the future course of the Committee for Free Asia had been settled in a manner satisfactory to both CIA and State.”  The CIA’s Tom Braden said, “RFA is staying right there where it is until they are given further orders.”

In March 1953, the Central Intelligence Agency reviewed Radio Free Asia’s broadcasting operation and decided to stop broadcasting, writing that:

"Present broadcasts are on a weak (10 k.w.) signal, which cannot regularly be heard anywhere in Asia. Although the broadcasts are not heard, they have served a real purpose in that their production of them has enabled RFA to build an especially efficient staff, about half of it Chinese. However, CFA has proposed for some time that it be equipped with facilities, which provide a stronger signal and is now urging that this be done or the broadcasts be terminated. It is clear that further expenditures for programs that are not heard can no longer be justified simply in terms of training."

"RFA’s international broadcasts to Mainland China and the Chinese in Southeast Asia is not now reaching the target areas. Either sufficiently powerful transmitting facilities should be provided, or the broadcasts should cease."

The decision was made to cancel Radio Free Asia. On April 15, Brayton Wilbur told the press that on April 30, 1953, Radio Free Asia broadcasts were to be replaced with “other means of communicating with Asian people.” Wilbur explained that:

“The committee feels that short-wave broadcasting is less effective than other committee activities that have been developed. The Committee planned to concentrate on assisting national radio stations in Far East Countries rather than doing the broadcasting from San Francisco.”

Wilbur added that “the committee’s operations in the Far East include opening anti-Communist bookstores, producing films, books, and magazines, establishing youth centers, and helping Oriental youths to get an education.”


About the Author

Richard H. Cummings

Richard H. Cummings, a graduate of Boston University, was a Criminal Investigator for the U.S. Government, a Russian Linguist for the U.S. Air Force, and Director of Security at Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty in Munich. He is also the author of three books on early Cold War history.

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