Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Walter Roberts: The Impact of U.S. Cold War Public Diplomacy -- "The Most Effective Way of Influencing...Was the Voice of America"

At the end of my two 2010 interviews with Walter Roberts, I asked him which U.S. government public diplomacy programs had had the biggest impact during the Cold War.  His response was unequivocal.   As Walter reflected on the question, approaching it from his seventy-some years of professional involvement in the field of international information and cultural programs, his views carried a unique degree of credibility:

You have to divide the Soviet bloc, Yugoslavia and the West.  As far as the Soviet bloc is concerned, I have not the slightest doubt that the most effective way of influencing the Hungarian, the Romanian and the Soviet peoples was the Voice of America.   Far above everything else, because everything else was restricted and even though the Voice of America was jammed in the indigenous languages, it was not jammed in English. 

In 1959, when I visited the Sokolniki Park exhibit, I was also instructed to call on the Foreign Office to protest the jamming.  The Deputy Foreign Minister – I forget his name now -- who received me was obviously prepared that I would object to their jamming the Russian programs.  When I walked into his office, I immediately realized that he was going to play a trick here because he had on his desk a large Grundig radio receiver.   When I started talking, he said:  “Well, Mr. Roberts, we don’t jam the Voice of America.”   I said: “Well, of course you do.”   He said, no, and he turns and turns the radio on and there was the Voice of America in English coming in loud and clear.  I said, “Yeah, but that’s in English but you jam the Russian.”  He said:  “Mr. Roberts, is Russian your language?”  I said “No, but we broadcast in Russian in order to converse with the Russian people.”  He said:  “But that is an interference in our internal affairs.”  And so on and so on – a typical conversation.  But they did not jam the Voice of America in English. 

Jazz program host Willis Conover and Louis Armstrong on the VOA
I believe that the Voice of America – and Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe – made an enormous difference.   The Eastern European peoples and the Soviet Union peoples were ready for a change.  In my opinion, the enormous barrage from the West – VOA, Radio Liberty, BBC, Deutsche Welle, Radio France Internationale, the Vatican Radio and so on – made an enormous difference.  The cultural exchange programs, yes, of course, they had individual impressions – but that was a very individual, whereas the Voice was a mass appeal.  The libraries in Yugoslavia helped the cause but very frankly, the people who went to the library were people who already were in the American corner.  They were able to strengthen their beliefs, strengthen their arguments in conversations by what they read and what they saw in the libraries.  But the Voice of America and the other broadcasting organizations – they had a mass appeal.  I do not think that the approach to the Cold War of the information and cultural program changed very much except through the broadcasting media.  That’s at least my opinion.


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