Uncomfortable, but Invaluable

Uncomfortable, but Invaluable

Mini Teaser: Urban's is not a happy memoir. The subtitle, My War Within the Cold War, sums up his theme. The new policy involved years of often bitter struggle with both grotesque reactionaries and Western appeasers.

by Author(s): Peter Coleman

George R. Urban, Radio Free Europe and the Pursuit of Democracy: My War Within the Cold War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 322 pp., $35.

When the Venezuelan terrorist "Carlos" (Ilich Ramirez Sanchez) was run to earth in Khartoum four years ago and flown to Paris for trial, the charges against him included the blowing up of the Czechoslovak service of Radio Free Europe (RFE) in Munich in February 1981. Four people were seriously injured. A few months after the bombing, one of RFE's Romanian broadcasters was stabbed twenty-two times in his Munich home. He survived, but earlier in London a Bulgarian broadcaster for RFE had been killed when a "poison umbrella" injected a ricin pellet into his thigh.

Other weapons for intimidating RFE broadcasters and staff included parcel bombs, cancer-inducing radioactive material, and anonymous letters along the lines of: "Oh, Deformed One, if you don't shut your Jewish trap, you will be gripping clay underground. Be careful, viper, we will be cutting out your venomous tongue."

These attacks and threats were one measure of RFE's success in eroding communist legitimacy by providing a surrogate free press in the Eastern bloc. With Radio Liberty (RL), which broadcast to the Soviet Union, it reached twenty-five million listeners and played a major role in the peaceful ending of the Cold War. Launched in 1951, it took a few years to strike form. Beginning as a CIA "black radio" whose mission included disinformation and counter-revolution, the turning point was the Hungarian bloodbath in 1956. RFE was accused of having incited and maintained the Hungarian uprising by broadcasting promises of Western arms. Fifteen thousand Hungarians were killed. Relying on archives located in Budapest, George Urban concluded that the RFE's Hungarian service had not incited revolution or promised arms, although its maudlin and pugnacious rhetoric, drawn from the pre-war Horthy regime, had encouraged false hopes.

After this tragic fiasco, RFE was reorganized to become a basically non-government voice of national traditions within the Soviet bloc, pursuing policies of reform and liberalization while never accepting the permanence of Soviet rule. No one symbolized this new direction--and the problems it faced--better than George Urban, whose last book (he died in October 1997) is this memoir of RFE and, to some extent, RL.

Urban's is not a happy memoir. The subtitle, My War Within the Cold War, sums up his theme. The new policy involved years of often bitter struggle with both grotesque reactionaries and Western appeasers. Born in Hungary in 1921 to a family of some wealth and Magyar pride, Urban early in life absorbed a conservative aversion to communist vulgarity and fascist braggadocio. He found his first--and continuing--intellectual bearings in the gnostic poetry of Stefan George, a prophet of spiritual revival in a trivial age. Before his death in 1933 George asked to be buried in Switzerland with his head turned away from Nazi Germany. One of his disciples, Count von Stauffenberg, who had been at George's bedside as he died, led the plot to kill Hitler in July 1944.

As "a belated associate of the George circle", Urban published a study of its esoteric doctrines, Kinesis and Stasis, which was also his own response to the "barbaric rationalism and muddy populism that poured into Europe in the wake of the Red Army in 1944-45." After a couple of these postwar years in a "not very effective resistance movement", he left Hungary to settle in England. He sought work at the BBC but was turned down as "too hostile to the new facts of life in Eastern Europe." It was, he writes dryly, "not wholly beneficial for one's career or intellectual reputation to be known as an anticommunist." But he was later accepted in the Hungarian section of the BBC's European Service and his fifty-year career as a Cold War broadcaster began. The Cold War, he writes, gave "meaning to my life", so that even when rejoicing at the collapse of the Soviet system, "I felt a curious pang of loss."

Urban's move to RFE in 1960 followed his "insubordination" in opposing the BBC's support for "Britain's repressive policies" in Cyprus--policies he saw as incompatible with the libertarian messages the BBC was broadcasting to Hungary. His career at RFE traversed four periods. In the 1960s he ran its "intellectual bureau"; in the 1970s he was a contributing consultant; and in the 1980s he was its director, one of the "Reagan people." Finally, in retirement, he became a consultant again.

Throughout his RFE work, Urban was strongly influenced by the policy of the Congress for Cultural Freedom. He drew heavily on its apostates of the god-that-failed (Ignazio Silone, Arthur Koestler, John Strachey, Richard Lowenthal, Manes Sperber) to engage communist intellectuals "where it hurt most--in the area of moral conflict which we knew existed between their erstwhile idealism and their slavish yes-manship." Later he added new apostates to the list, a Milovan Djilas or an Andras Hegedus. They spoke powerfully as participants, not spectators, in communist debates.

Urban's distinctive contribution to the program of RFE was the creation of a journalistic genre he made his own, the long interview-dialogue with scholars and statesmen on the great political and cultural questions of the day. After refining these exchanges on RFE, he transcribed them into articles for Encounter and then into a series of books, from Détente in 1976 (with Leo Labedz, Adam Ulam, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Franois Bondy, Richard Pipes, Dean Rusk) to End of Empire: The Demise of the Soviet Union in 1992 (Sidney Hook, Hugh Trevor-Roper, Karl Popper, Otto von Habsburg, Elie Kedourie). He devotes a chapter of his memoir to this new form of journalism.

The Soviet bloc deployed some three thousand transmitters to jam all the broadcasters of RFE and RL. But Urban maintains that these were less successful in undermining RFE's mission than were the forces of appeasement in the West--especially "the ceaseless sneering, jeering, and outright hostility of progressivist American opinion-makers. . . . I will not forget that long and bitter domestic opposition or how close the West had come, through complacency, inattention and incomprehension, to appeasing the modern world's most complete despotism."

This "domestic opposition" also influenced RFE staff, especially after the "revelation" in the late 1960s of CIA funding of both RFE and of the Congress for Cultural Freedom. The subsequent publicity induced guilt among some members of both organizations, as well as leftist posturing to demonstrate their good intentions and pure hearts.

In the 1970s Western appeasers within the organization "black-listed or blue-pencilled" broadcasts by, among others, Bernard Levin, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and Lord Chalfont. At one stage a chairman of the Board for International Broadcasting, which took over direction of RFE/RL after the withdrawal of the CIA, proposed inviting Soviet bloc officials to the Munich studios to challenge RFE/RL whenever they thought the Radios were unfair. The idea was only narrowly overruled.

Even into the early 1980s many leading commentators were deemed unfit for rebroadcasting on RFE. "Offenders" included Milovan Djilas, George Will, Joseph Kraft, Robert Novak, Rowland Evans, Jr., Vladimir Bukovsky, and Patrick Buchanan. The usual tags pinned to their articles were: irresponsible, unbalanced, overwritten, oversimplified, overspeculative, unconfirmed. When Milovan Djilas, for example, predicted the spread of the Polish crisis in 1981, several passages from his article were deleted before being broadcast and tagged: "background information only." Patrick Buchanan's piece asking why RFE was not doing more to support Solidarity was labeled "irresponsible."

Appeasers were not the only influences undermining RFE. Urban was keenly aware of communist agents and sleepers within the organization: "I had handed down to me a number of editors and researchers with communist and left-socialist backgrounds and leanings. Some had come on board in the wake of the Prague Spring (1968) as a result of the Radio's support of reform communism and were so punctiliously protected by our unions and German labor law that they were virtually irremovable. Most of them had ceased to be communists in the narrow sense, but their loyalty was suspect. . . . They included members of various Eastern intelligence networks."

There was also another accommodating influence on RFE staff--"the pleasant life and good remuneration in Bavaria." Skiing grounds were close, tennis courts nearby, opera houses cheap. Salaries were generous, job security almost total. Housing and medical insurance were free, and there was a noncontributory pension plan. Absenteeism was tolerated, vacations were long and topped off with home leave. Many did not want to rock this boat. Fortunately, many others were willing to rock it--including Urban and the "Reagan people"--to the applause of their listeners in the Eastern bloc.

Urban's story ends with his retirement following a "polite but bitter row" over the censorship, in his absence, of one of his own anti-Soviet articles that was to be broadcast shortly before the Reagan-Gorbachev Geneva meeting in November 1985. Urban believes the White House was more than satisfied with his comments, but one of the joint presidents of the RFE/RL deleted six passages as untimely.

When it was all over and the Soviet Union collapsed, Urban was justly proud of RFE's role. The stakes were high: "the nonmaterialisation of Nineteen Eighty-Four", as he puts it in his often heavy prose, "constitutes the single most important psychopolitical event of our century." At the same time he also felt outraged by the failure of the West (apart from Germany) to make adequate efforts to help in the reconstruction of countries whose anti-communist revolutions RFE had encouraged. "I felt betrayed . . . a moral trespass was committed."

Urban's symbols of the post-communist world that the West (and RFE/RL) helped create include Sarajevo, genocide, Zhirinovsky, and a mafia economy. His direct criticisms of the United States are more muted and largely confined to its "East Coast intelligentsia" and one or two "vacuous pragmatists." The only index entry for the United Kingdom is: "Britain, social and political shortcomings." (These turn out to include complacency, indolence, under-education, and short-termism.) As for France, it has no power and no principles. Even when he concludes his memoir with an elegiac tribute to RFE/RL and its "nongovernmental surrogate broadcasting", he adds that the 1994 International Broadcasting Act has re-imposed government control and killed "the sophisticated formula of unofficial 'home service' radio across international boundaries."

It is as if in old age, contemplating his life's work, Urban returned to the Stefan George circle of his youth and its disdain for "the devastating triviality" of the world. That is his right. And even if in his last book close argument sometimes gives way to impatient intuition, Urban has written an uncomfortable but invaluable account of Radio Free Europe's internal tensions and external achievements.

Essay Types: Book Review