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The Free Europe Committee and Radio Free Europe Encrypted Telex Communications: A New Curated Collection from the Open Society Archives

The Vera and Donald Blinken Open Society Archives at Central European University in Budapest (OSA) has made a new curated digital collection on the history of the Free Europe Committee and Radio Free Europe available online.

The Vera and Donald Blinken Open Society Archives at Central European University in Budapest (OSA) has made a new curated digital collection on the history of the Free Europe Committee and Radio Free Europe available online in cooperation with the Hoover Institution Library and Archives at Stanford University.

The aim of this project is to combine the archivist’s professional knowledge and work with the new possibilities offered by modern science and information technology to process, arrange, describe, manage, organize, interpret, contextualize, and visualize more than 20 years of intermingled history of the Free Europe Committee (FEC) and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) during the Cold War.[1]

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After World War II, the US government provided shelter for numerous political and other types of refugees fleeing the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe. After arriving in the United States, many Eastern Europeans organized national committees and looked to the FEC as their major umbrella organization. The national committees maintained contacts with their home countries via various channels in order to inform US agencies, politicians, and the public on the major political, social, and economic developments inside the Iron Curtain.

The US government felt the need to further coordinate their activities, first via the State Department and later by setting up the Committee for Free Europe in April 1949, which was renamed only one month later to the National Committee for Free Europe (NCFE). The organization was renamed again in March 1954 to the now familiar Free Europe Committee Inc.

The NCFE was established in New York by a group of prominent American businessmen, lawyers, and philanthropists, including Allen Dulles, who became director of CIA in 1953.  George F. Kennan of the State Department is considered to be the spiritual creator or founder of NCFE. Kennan urged the National Security Council to reorganize covert action planning and management, a proposal that led to the creation of the Office of Policy Coordination (OPC) with Frank G. Wisner as its chief. Kennan believed that the OPC should work through the “American Freedom Committee” to develop operations abroad. The idea was to finance the activities of selected émigrés in the US, who could work to counter information arriving from the newly established, Soviet styled regimes in Eastern Europe.

Radio Free Europe emerged as the most important broadcaster targeting listeners on the other side of the Iron Curtain. The NCFE, and later the FEC, established a unique information tool that directly helped the US Government to win the information war against the Soviet bloc. RFE began broadcasting in six Eastern European languages beginning on July 4, 1950, and quickly became a symbol of hope to the peoples in Eastern Europe who had lost access to the external world. Although financial support for the émigrés was gradually reduced by the mid-1960s, the CIA’s covert funding of RFE lasted until 1971, when it was replaced by open Congressional appropriations.

A collection of FEC and RFE papers came to the OSA in 2014 from the Hoover Institution Library and Archives, where it had been stored since the mid-1990s. A total of 101 microfilm reels were digitized and prepared for processing by OSA. The resulting 111,666 digital files were arranged thematically and chronologically.

There are two groups of historical corporate records. The first group of materials consists of the FEC Presidential Office documents, including correspondence form the 1960s and 1970s. Here one can find the encrypted daily messages from the period 1953-1973 exchanged between New York and Munich, West Germany. The second group of records is made up of charts, graphs, and reports from the Engineering Department on the technical aspects of transmission, including time and frequencies, and reports on the successful and unsuccessful transmission of programs.

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The daily exchange of encrypted telex communication between two headquarters covered a variety of themes ranging from administrative (finance, personnel, employment, etc.), technical (purchase of technical equipment, building transmitters in Europe, etc.), instructions and directives concerning the radio programming for a particular situation or country, to historical messages relating to general politics, military affairs, and extraordinary events such as the Hungarian 1956 revolution, the Cuban missile crisis, the shooting down of the US spy-plane over the Soviet Union, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and dissent in Eastern Europe.

With OSA’s limited human and financial resources, the processing of the FEC/RFE/RL digital collection proved to be a time consuming project. As the President’s Office documents seemed to be incomplete, OSA decided to start processing the encrypted telex communications. After all messages were arranged chronologically (day, month, and year) in digital folders, we decided to process, in the first phase, some 8,000 out of a total of 55,000 telex messages.

For the processing we had to select a firm set of metadata that could linearly and vertically connect all messages in a future integrated search. Concurrently with this, OSA’s IT experts created a database to where we could extract a given set of mandatory and optional metadata. On November 3, 2015, we uploaded the first 8,100 digital files from 1960-1964 to OSA’s Curated Collections. In the fall of 2016, another 13,000 messages from 1965 to 1974 were uploaded to Curated Collections. In the winter of 2017, OSA processed another batch of about 13,000 telex messages.  

The processing continued until the summer of 2020, when we finished the last set of telex messages. In the meantime, we switched from a classical Access database to a web based working platform and created a dedicated web site for this collection. Once processed, the messages cannot go immediately online as they need to be refined and cleared for publishing. As of October 2020, the FEC-RFE/RL dedicated web site contains 34,541 telex messages, while some 22,000 from 1953-1959 will soon be uploaded.

The uniqueness of this project lies not only in the fact that it aims to instigate discussions about the major political, social, and cultural narratives of that time, but also to show the entanglement of FEC/RFE activities in the Eastern European public and media space. OSA hopes that researchers from all around the world will find this archival material interesting and useful.


[1] Radio Free Europe was merged with Radio Liberty in 1976 as RFE/RL Inc.

About the Author

Robert Parnica

Robert Parnica is the Senior Reference Archivist at the Vera and Donald Blinken Open Society Archives, Central European University, Budapest.

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