Saturday, January 10, 2015

Walter Roberts: Cold War Origins -- "I Was Very Much Aware that We Were Going Into a Period of Some Great Tension"

Although Walter expected there would be no future in public diplomacy following the end of World War II, he in fact saw VOA strengthened, with a Russian language service being added -- belatedly -- as Cold War tensions mounted.  During this period prior to the creation of the U.S. Information Agency, the State Department took the lead in communicating with foreign publics.

In 1945, when the war ended, all of us at the Voice of America were convinced that what happened to the Creel Committee in 1919, in that it went out of existence, a wartime information program, would happen to us too.  As a matter of fact, I had already started correspondence with the Harvard Law School.  

And then, on September 1, 1945, something extraordinary happened.  President Harry Truman, despite several proposals that he had on his desk to discontinue OWI, decided to transfer the external division of OWI – OWI also had a domestic division which was abolished – but to transfer the overseas division of OWI to the Department of State.   And I have done some research, and what I have learned and which makes very good sense to me, was that when Harry Truman become President of the United States, suddenly, utterly detached in a way from the inner workings of foreign policy, he was suddenly thrust to go to an international conference with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin, the famous Potsdam Conference of July, 1945.  He brought along his own new Secretary of State, Jimmy Byrnes. 

Potsdam Conference:  Bohlen behind Truman and Stalin, Byrnes to Molotov's right

And I think at that conference, Harry Truman – who was a remarkably astute person – became aware that the postwar period will not be a hunky-dory situation.   And we are going to have a lot of problems with this guy Stalin.  And friends of mine who knew Harry Truman better than I – because I only met him once – are convinced that the experience of Harry Truman at the Potsdam Conference had a great deal to do with the external division of OWI being retained into the State Department.

You ask me how I became aware of this Cold War situation.  I don’t want to sound arrogant, but as a newscaster in 1945 – I did not go to the Potsdam Conference – I saw the problems that Truman and Churchill had with Stalin, and I became very much aware that this was going to be a very, very difficult period ahead.  Since my responsibility in the Voice of America was with the Austrian desk, I became very, very much aware of the day-to-day developments in Vienna.   When, for instance, Soviet troops had liberated, quote unquote, Vienna and gone a little bit further – not further than the occupation zones drawn in London in 1943.  But the Soviets did not let General Clark and his American troops come into Vienna until the fall, four or five months after Vienna was liberated.  And I knew all of this, and I knew what the Soviets did in Vienna, and of course what they did in Berlin.   And the way Germany was divided and Berlin was divided.  That the main radio stations in both Berlin and Vienna were in the Soviet zones.  I was very much aware that we are not only at the beginning, but much further ahead, in the Cold War.   I didn’t have to wait until 1948, Czechoslovakia, whatever it is.  I tell you very frankly, on the basis of the German and Austrian experience, and from how I read whatever was available to me, including classified telegrams that State Department people sent to the Department about the Potsdam Conference, I was very much aware that we were going into a period of some great tension.

And that brings us to one of the questions that we talked about before:  the beginning of the Russian Service.  Not until 1947 did it dawn on us – and we had,  I think, 42 languages in which we broadcast the Voice of America – we never had a Russian broadcast.  We broadcast in Allied languages, certainly in English, but also in French, whom we regarded as our allies and the Italians, whom we later regarded as our allies, and all sorts of European oppressed peoples, Czech, Slovak, Hungarian, in all of these languages.  But it never occurred to me, at least – it must have to others – why don’t we broadcast in Russian?  But that decision was made at the highest level of the State Department that we should start broadcasting in Russian. 

Charlie Thayer
Charlie Thayer was sent from Washington to New York to supervise that.  And it stayed in good hands, as I said before.  Foy Kohler succeeded Charlie Thayer – I’m not sure whether Charlie Thayer was ever appointed director of the Voice of America but Foy Kohler was.  He was director of the Voice of America.  At that time, you talked about basically four people [among U.S. government experts on Russia]:  George Kennan, Chip Bohlen, Foy Kohler, and Charlie Thayer.  Tommy Thompson came on the scene a little bit later.  But I think there was a personal relationship between Bohlen and Thayer.  I think Bohlen’s sister was married to Charlie Thayer, or the other way around; they were relatives.  And I think it was Bohlen who selected Thayer to come up to New York and do this.  Charlie Thayer, by the way, played a major role early on in postwar Yugoslavia in 1945.  He was the head of an OSS mission there.  And later, when I wrote my book, I saw him repeatedly and asked him for advice; he was always very kind.  He retired and lived in the woods, somewhere between Munich and Salzburg.

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