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An American Tale

How Cold War officialdom made the world safe for propaganda

Since the 2016 presidential elections, Americans have been treated to a daily diet of news about the depth and breadth of Russian disinformation sloshing around on social media and dropped into the sweaty hands of various Trump campaign apparatchiks. In 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice forced the multimedia news service RT (formerly Russia Today) to register as a “foreign agent” due to its electoral interference. There seems little doubt that the Kremlin has actively deployed incendiary memes, misinformation, and rumors to manipulate targeted populations in the United States. 

But few realize the history of the United States’ own efforts to confuse, manipulate, or otherwise influence foreign populations in Russia and Eastern Europe throughout the forty-five-year history of the Cold War. Nimble free-market propagandists working with the United States Information Agency (USIA) placed a wide battery of materials into libraries maintained by federal officials throughout the world. They also, more famously, beamed a steady stream of pro-American and anticommunist broadsides to radio audiences in the USSR’s geopolitical orbit, via broadcasts on the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, and Radio Liberty networks. Over the long course of the American Cold War, such efforts amounted to a separate global information offensive, conducted at the expense of American taxpayers. And that massive publicly funded initiative ultimately created a receptive cultural and political climate for private American corporations which expanded into the new markets opened up by the collapse of state socialism in Eastern Europe—often trailing the fallout from oligarch-enabling “shock therapy” investment boondoggles in their wake. To really understand the spread of internet- enabled disinformation throughout the American mediasphere, in other words, it’s well worth revisiting the pioneering role that our own state-sponsored propaganda outlets played in the Cold War’s epic battles over the shadowy traffic in disinformation throughout the Soviet bloc and beyond.

The saga began humbly enough, with a congressionally sanctioned campaign to spread American-branded goodwill throughout the world. Peacetime American propaganda efforts in Eastern Europe were formally launched with the passage of the 1946 Fulbright Act, which established a Bureau for Educational and Cultural Affairs within the State Department to oversee exchange programs—though as we’ll see, there was a robust campaign from the measure’s eponymous sponsor, Democratic lawmaker William Fulbright of Arkansas, to quarantine his pet program from the mandates and messaging of state propaganda.

The official work of influencing foreign populations began in earnest, in deliberate and concentrated fashion, with the 1948 Smith-Mundt Act. This measure expanded the work of American soft-power diplomacy to encompass more than cultural exchanges; Smith-Mundt unloosed a manifold messaging campaign that included radio broadcasting, libraries sponsored by the United States Information Service—the overseas name of the USIA—and the publication and distribution of leaflets and other literature to counteract Soviet propaganda in Europe. The Voice of America’s roster of pro-American radio broadcasts had actually started in 1942 as part of the American war effort, but Cold Warriors revamped VOA programming under the Smith-Mundt regime to extend American influence and help win over the hearts and minds of Europeans who’d thrown in their political lot with the communists who helped them defeat the Nazis.

Going Underground

Around the same time that Congress passed the Smith-Mundt Act, the covert side of the American Cold War propaganda machine kicked into high gear. The National Security Council issued Directive 10/2, which gave the Central Intelligence Agency permission to conduct covert operations that included “propaganda.” The directive defined such operations as those “which are conducted or sponsored by this Government against hostile foreign states or groups” and further stipulated that propaganda campaigns could work through proxy cells within U.S. allied countries and political organizations—so long as, once they might be publicly exposed, “the U.S. Government can plausibly disclaim any responsibility for them.” Under this directive, the CIA formed and subsidized two “private” organizations of concerned American citizens, the National Committee for a Free Europe, later renamed the Free Europe Committee (FEC) and the American Committee for Liberation of the Peoples of Russia (AMCOMLIB). The CIA hoped, via such outreach efforts, to recruit disaffected Eastern European refugees and émigrés to work against the governments of the countries that fell behind the Iron Curtain. In 1950, the Free Europe Committee began broadcasting Radio Free Europe to Czechoslovakia, Romania, Hungary, Poland, and Bulgaria from transmitters based in West Germany. In 1953, Radio Liberation, later renamed Radio Liberty, beamed pro-American programming into the Soviet Union, both in Russian and in a wide variety of minority languages. According to one scholarly assessment of their influence, “An estimated one-third of the urban adult Soviet population and about one-half of East European adult populations listened to Western broadcasts after the 1950s.”

In the early years of the Cold War, rivers of disinformation flowed both east and west across Europe.

On the great dividing line of first- and second-world influence, anticommunist émigrés living in Western Germany provided a reliable stream of local content. Since the Soviet propaganda machine worked overtime spreading anti-American rumors and disinformation, the broadcasters working for the various U.S.-sponsored “Radio” properties in the Eastern bloc often improvised material to combat the communist threat. Journalists working for Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty cherry-picked interviews with recent defectors or accepted unsubstantiated rumors as fact. Because travel to Eastern Europe was difficult in the 1950s, for example, RFE set up information bureaus in cities across Western Europe, and paid for reports based on interviews with recent exiles. The historian István Rév, the director of the Open Society Archive in Budapest which now contain RFE reports, notes that reporters for the network knew that unscrupulous researchers fabricated some reports in exchange for the fees the network paid for reports stressing the most dire features of Eastern bloc life, regardless of their empirical truth. Likewise, a close examination of the legitimate reports and the RFE broadcasts created from them shows a consistent pattern of downplaying or ignoring evidence that contradicted RFE’s vision of Eastern Europe as a totalitarian dystopia.

Under the watchful editorial regime at RL, meanwhile, broadcasters produced content for the Soviet Union in nine languages and packaged said content as the more-or-less spontaneously expressed dissident sentiment of the Soviet émigré community in Europe. But Soviet listeners and anyone who knew anything about internal Soviet politics knew that the different nationalities in the USSR shared a long history of heated disagreement among themselves on a vast array of political and cultural questions; the idea that they spoke with one unified voice against Soviet rule was ridiculous. Rutgers University historian Melissa Feinberg has shown that Radio Free Europe also created a strange “feedback loop” whereby the individuals most likely to listen to its broadcasts and believe its reports on the communist betrayals of their countries were also those most likely to defect to the West.

There was an elegantly hermetic quality to the generation of this self-ratifying ideological feedback. Once free, RFE émigré journalists—eager for news about the situation in their home country—would interview recent defectors. But the defectors would often parrot back the very same RFE assessments they had heard on the radio (even the fabricated ones)—thus reinforcing false perceptions of what was actually happening on the other side of the Iron Curtain. In the early 1950s, the transmission of American agitprop had become a sufficiently effective (if factually porous) obstacle to East European governments’ own mass persuasion campaigns that they began running countermeasures. Technicians in the Soviet bloc started jamming the American broadcasts while government officials launched their own anti-Western and anticapitalist propaganda offensives. In the early years of the Cold War, rivers of disinformation flowed both east and west across Europe—another reminder that digital-age “fake news” delivery systems are mainly more rapid-fire versions of age-old techniques to contaminate the flow of information from all ideological vantages.

Sweet Sounds of Liberty

As the fusillades of disinformation continued bursting throughout the Eastern bloc, President Dwight D. Eisenhower stepped up his own bid to upgrade what was euphemistically termed “public diplomacy” in Soviet-allied Europe. Shortly after his victory in 1952, Eisenhower convened a Committee on International Information Activities, which advocated a new strategy for U.S. propaganda efforts abroad, including more overt and covert “psychological warfare” against foreign populations. Under Eisenhower, all information activities were transferred from the State Department to a freestanding United States Information Agency in 1953. The international exchanges of the Fulbright program remained with State, largely at the request of William Fulbright, who didn’t want his beloved initiative tainted by the activities of what he considered a propaganda agency. The motto of the newly independent USIA, “Telling America’s Story to the World,” reflected an aptly sunny Ike-sponsored commitment to the production of more positive content about the United States and its culture rather than harping on the perfidy and unfreedom of Eastern European regimes. The USIA now reported directly to the commander-in-chief through the National Security Council to ensure strict oversight over how best to shape and relate the American story for mass consumption abroad. In the wake of the Korean War, two 1953 Eisenhower speeches—the “Chance for Peace” address on April 16 and the “Atoms for Peace” speech on December 8—aimed to counteract Soviet “peace offensives” that painted the United States as a murderous plutocracy responsible for crimes against humanity in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. USIA officials carefully coordinated their international and domestic public diplomacy efforts around the content of Ike’s addresses, which, in the broad strokes of all state-sponsored propaganda, merely reversed the polarities of the offending Soviet critique. In Eisenhower’s serenely reassuring narrative, the United States was the true advocate for global peace and orderly nuclear disarmament, and the Soviet Union was the war-mongering imperialist force hell-bent on global domination.

Eisenhower also took a more active hand in the effort to professionalize and generally sanitize American propaganda efforts. In the midst of a McCarthyist purge that led to mass resignations and the suicide of a radio engineer, Voice of America recreated itself as a “news agency” that spoke as the official voice of the U.S. government. The strident propaganda that had characterized VOA during the Truman era Eisenhower now delegated to the covert (but still ostensibly private) operations at Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. Government officials assuaged the fears of corporate American broadcasters who chafed at the mobilization of publicly funded competition on the airwaves with a promise that U.S. propaganda radio would never be targeted at domestic audiences.

There was an elegantly hermetic quality to the generation of this self-ratifying ideological feedback.

Without a doubt, Music U.S.A. was the most successful of all VOA broadcasts in Eastern Europe and the USSR. After it launched in 1955, the show quickly became the most effective public diplomacy weapon of the entire Cold War. Willis Conover hosted two-hour broadcasts between five and seven nights a week. He played forty-five minutes of big band music and forty-five minutes of jazz, with each hour introduced with fifteen minutes of news or interviews in English. Although jazz enjoyed less popularity at home, Conover believed that it was its own unique form of propaganda and his broadcasts fit in nicely with the new USIA mission to produce more positive content to represent America to the world. In 1959, Conover told the New York Times, “Jazz is a cross between total discipline and anarchy. The musicians agree on tempo, key, and chord structure, but beyond this everyone is free to express himself. This is jazz. And this is America. That is what gives this music validity. . . . It’s a musical reflection of the way things happen in America. We’re not apt to recognize this over here but people in other countries can feel this element of freedom. They love jazz because they love freedom.”

The jazz hour captured huge audiences behind the Iron Curtain, and when Conover visited Poland in 1959 and Yugoslavia in 1960, listeners welcomed him as a prophet from the free world. Conover’s show also helped counter Soviet reports on the terrible legacies of American racism and the repressive face of Jim Crow segregation in the South. The Soviets lost no opportunity to tell the world that while the Americans championed human rights overseas, it violated the rights of its own minorities at home. Conover’s September 1959 profile in the New York Times appeared roughly six months after the infamous lynching of Mack Charles Parker, a twenty-three-year-old African American man who’d been accused of raping a white woman in Mississippi. Over against such brute reminders of the lethal racial caste system in the former Confederacy, Conover packaged his VOA broadcasts with a message of expressive cultural democracy that he strongly believed helped to counteract Soviet portrayals of the racist American state. “Jazz also helps them to believe that America is the kind of country that they want to believe it is,” he explained. “Jazz corrects the fiction that America is racist.”

This Is Radio Clash

While Conover wooed East Europeans with Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker, the émigrés over at Radio Free Europe fomented revolution. Apparently on their own initiative, RFE broadcasters encouraged the 1956 Hungarian uprising against the Soviet-sponsored government led by Matyas Rakosi by falsely claiming that Western countries would come to the aid of the Hungarians. At a time when most Americans and West Europeans still believed that RFE was privately funded, officials who helped produce the network’s broadcasts stoking the mass revolt were brought before Congress in 1957 to explain their actions. In short order, RFE adopted a new set of editorial policies to curb the activist enthusiasms of foreign-language broadcasters. After 1956, American journalists kept a tighter rein on the news and commentary beamed into Eastern Europe.

Also under Eisenhower, USIA sent hundreds of thousands of books overseas to USIS libraries, subsidizing the U.S. publishing industry in an effort to woo the world’s readers away from the lures of communism. USIA officials carefully vetted books to ensure that only those that supported official U.S. policy and met with positive reception among the American public were designated as “acceptable” to foreign cultures and ticketed for wide cultural export. While the CIA funded and organized a Russian language edition of Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago, USIA rejected Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, James Jones’s From Here to Eternity, and William Lederer’s The Ugly American as far too morally equivocal statements on U.S. participation in the Second Word War and (in Lederer’s case) the ensuing promotion of American-style freedom abroad.

USIA also got into the business of directly bankrolling the publication of books that would promote a positive image of America. Authors suspected of harboring leftist sympathies or being insufficiently laudatory of U.S. foreign policies had little chance of participating in the telling of America’s story to the world. Publishers Weekly reported in 1969 that the USIA rejected a wide range of titles for foreign export. In the case of Henry Steele Commager’s Freedom and Order, for example, the esteemed Harvard intellectual historian was made to seem a scurrilous pinko: “the value of the rest of the book does not begin to overcome the liability of the 30-plus pages condemning American politics in Vietnam,” agency officials declared. Somewhat more predictably, Michael Harrington’s The Accidental Century was excised for contending that “the Western capitalistic world is in the death throes of spiritual decadence.” Henry Miller’s Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch didn’t draw disapproval on grounds of graphic content and vulgarity, as was Miller’s usual wont—rather, it was de-listed on account of the author’s deeply suspect “anti-American civilization attitude.” James Baldwin’s Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, meanwhile, got dinged because of a passing characterization of Baldwin’s fellow Americans as “the emptiest and most unattractive people in the world.” Such ideologically blinkered reviews from USIA’s culture desk showed, among other things, that a single-minded critical metric of propaganda messaging made for extremely tedious interpretations of literary and intellectual debate. What’s more, despite such ultra-rigorous filtering for anti-American messaging in American literary work, the onslaught of appropriate books wasn’t fooling anyone. Their intended foreign readerships so well understood the propaganda function of USIS libraries that they were often vandalized and physically attacked as emblems of American imperialism.


two men pose in front of a chalkboard superimposed with an ad noting "Invest a Truth Dollar in Radio Free Europe"
© Lindsay Ballant

A Voice in the Wilderness

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy brought a measure of independence and integrity to the conduct of journalism as public diplomacy by other means with the appointment of the renowned journalist Edward R. Murrow to head USIA. Although Eisenhower’s VOA had tried to move away from overt propaganda, a 1962 New York Times article complained that “the Voice still betrays a tone of stridency not too dissimilar from that of Radio Moscow or Radio Cairo.” Murrow insisted that the VOA should become a neutral news agency, providing content independent from the strategic foreign policy goals of the State Department. “Truth is the best propaganda and lies are the worst,” Murrow proclaimed. “To be persuasive we must be believable; to be believable we must be credible; to be credible we must be truthful.”

Under Murrow’s stewardship, VOA strove to emulate the neutrality of the British Broadcasting Corporation—a state-subsidized journalism operation with a well-deserved reputation for independence and fairness. But because taxpayers directly funded VOA, Congress insisted that USIA’s truthful public diplomacy should still promote U.S. interests abroad. Murrow convinced the skeptics that VOA would be a more valuable asset if it stayed out of Cold War machinations entirely; he concentrated instead on bringing quality news and programming to the media-starved populations of Eastern Europe. In 1963, Murrow told a congressional hearing “No cash register rings when somebody changes his mind,” but the tension between maintaining editorial independence while relying on congressional funding haunted both VOA and USIA in the decades to come.

As VOA strove for independence, the U.S. government continued to tighten its control over the content of USIS libraries. After the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Kennedy assassination, and the beginning of the Vietnam War, USIA more strictly vetted the flow of American-published books sent overseas. Officials blocked books by prominent American intellectuals, including a book by a former U.S. Ambassador to Japan, because it candidly discussed American foreign policy blunders in Southeast Asia. Instead, USIA circulated lists of recommended conservative authors like William F. Buckley, Friedrich August von Hayek, and others who championed free market capitalism and U.S. efforts to fight the spread of communism, no matter how contradictory those efforts might be with the promotion of democratic values.

The late 1960s and 1970s saw America’s international image take a battering, and its public diplomacy could not keep up with the negative global opinion on U.S. government interventions in countries such as Vietnam and Chile. Third World liberation movements increasingly painted the United States as Enemy Number One and drifted toward various forms of socialism. The Soviet propaganda machine no longer had to heavily rely on lies and distortions. The social upheavals and citizen unrest of the anti-Vietnam War movements exposed America’s internal fissures for all to see. Soviet claims about American racism were exonerated in the court of global public opinion as leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X demanded civil rights for African Americans.

Schools for Scandal

Ramparts magazine struck a decisive blow against the continuation of U.S. covert operations in March 1967 when it exposed CIA funding to the National Student Association, which had fronted itself as an advocacy group made up of concerned and freedom-loving private citizens. Among other things, the CIA’s backing of the group violated the Cold War directive to refrain from carrying out propaganda on American citizens.

In the aftermath of the Ramparts exposé, journalists followed the money trails that led from the CIA directly to Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. Once these operations were exposed as government agitprop outlets, Senator Fulbright, still stridently opposed to propaganda, argued that they both should be dissolved. But Congress transferred the operations—known as “the Radios” in government jargon—to full public funding under the auspices of the Board for International Broadcasting. Public Law 93-129 merged RFE and RL into one organization in 1973, and stipulated that the Radios would support the “broad foreign policy objectives of the United States.” With the merged operations now openly funded by the U.S. government, VOA enshrined its editorial independence in a formal charter to ensure that its news would be “accurate, objective, and comprehensive.”

Neoconservatives demanded that VOA promote voices aligned with Reagan’s hard-line anticommunist agenda.

Throughout the 1970s, VOA honestly covered American politics, reporting about Vietnam, Watergate, and various CIA operations. Its commitment to truth increased its integrity with foreign listeners, and VOA expanded its reach across the globe. When Jimmy Carter became president, he shared Senator Fulbright’s distaste for psychological warfare and oversaw a dramatic reorganization of USIA. The agency took a new name: the U.S. International Communication Agency (USICA), and Carter explained that during his presidency USICA would “undertake no activities which are covert, manipulative, or propagandistic. The agency can assume—as our founding fathers did—that a great and free society is its own best witness, and can put its faith in the power of ideas.” He also felt that USIA’s work had been too unidirectional, and that the United States needed to listen to the stories of other nations rather than merely telling its own. USIA’s flagship journal, Problems of Communism, reduced its circulation, and the U.S. government briefly supported the voices of writers and intellectuals from the global south.

Prop Comedy

But the election of Ronald Reagan turned up the heat in the Cold War—spurring a renaissance in propaganda overtures aimed squarely at regime change in the Soviet bloc. After 1981, USIA restored its original name and reversed course. New political appointees despised the “mush” promoted during the Carter era and attempted to harness U.S. public diplomacy to the new president’s hardball anticommunist agenda. Reagan appointed his close personal friend Charles Z. Wick to head USIA, and together they launched “Project Truth” and “Project Democracy” to counter the increasing traction of the Soviet rumor mill in the developing world—particularly the claim that the United States had manufactured the AIDS virus as a biological weapon against African overpopulation.

From the outset of his USIA tenure, Wick began making editorial demands that challenged VOA’s continued independence. Wick objected to critical coverage of the Reagan administration, and insisted that VOA broadcasts should work in support of U.S. foreign policies. The mujahideen in Afghanistan, for instance, were not to be referred to as “rebels” or “anti-government guerillas,” but as “freedom fighters.” Neoconservatives also attacked what they perceived as a liberal bias and demanded that VOA promote more editorial voices that aligned with Reagan’s hard-line anticommunist agenda.

Wick appointed James Conkling to head VOA, who in turn asked the conservative journalist, speech writer, and former advertising executive Philip Nicolaides to review VOA’s activities and make some policy recommendations for changes. Nicolaides’s memo to Conkling caused a furor when he suggested that VOA should embrace its role as a propaganda agency. “The professor at Tufts who dreamed up the expression ‘Public Diplomacy’ was looking for a bland, sanitized substitute for propaganda, ” Nicolaides wrote. “But the fact is that propaganda has more in common with advertising and public relations than with ‘diplomacy.’”

Thus freed of the surly bonds of conventional newsgathering, Nicolaides suggested that VOA should use its broadcasts to actively undermine the countries of the Eastern Bloc.

We must strive to “destabilize” the Soviet Union and its satellites by promoting disaffection between people and rulers . . . We should seek to drive wedges of resentment and suspicion between the leadership of the various communist bloc nations. We should fan the flames of nationalism with the puppet states controlled by the USSR. We should encourage religious revivals behind the Iron Curtain.

Conkling’s subsequent appointment of Nicolaides as a full-time first deputy program director for commentary and news analysis precipitated outrage among longtime VOA staffers. An internal petition tried to block the appointment and the brewing conflict led the Washington Post to wonder whether VOA would soon be “imitating Radio Moscow.”

Wick, who moved in elite circles in both Hollywood and Washington, had many contacts in the private sector and wanted to integrate their views and opinions into the work of USIA. He found the perfect opportunity to mount a star-studded propaganda offensive when the Polish government imposed martial law in December 1981. The State Department declared a day of solidarity with Poland, and Wick helped dream up a ninety-minute television extravaganza to showcase before a global audience America’s support for freedom and democracy.

First broadcast on January 31, 1982, with special congressional approval to be aired in the United States, the variety show was produced by Marty Pasetta, famous for producing the Grammys, the Oscars, and Barry Manilow concerts. The program, “Let Poland Be Poland,” which could not actually be seen in Poland, was emceed by Charlton Heston and Max von Sydow, and featured brief appearances by Bob Hope, Orson Welles, Kirk Douglas, and Frank Sinatra, who sang a traditional Polish folk song in Polish and English. The exiled writer Czesław Miłosz read a bilingual poem, and clips were shown from the Solidarity rallies held around the world (despite lower than expected attendance). Clips of world leaders expressed their support of the Polish people, with Ronald Reagan announcing, “We, the people of the free world, stand as one with our Polish brothers and sisters,” and Margaret Thatcher proclaiming that the Polish struggle should remind those of “us in the West of the precious quality of our own freedom.”

The NATO Show

Few Western critics seemed stirred by the clumsily choreographed reminiscence. The Times of London claimed that the program was “almost as dull as an East European propaganda film and could have been called ‘the NATO show.’” A television commentator for the BBC dismissed the program as “the American propaganda machine in top gear,” and a French newspaper reported that the show had “the melodramatic tone of a propaganda broadcast.” One article in the Christian Science Monitor worried that the medium had undermined the message. The author argued that most Americans supported a firm statement of opposition to martial law in Poland but disliked “Let Poland Be Poland” because “a government-sponsored program, replete with Hollywood stars, risks criticism as a propagandistic and undignified vehicle for such a statement. The fact that the Poles cannot see it, that the West Europeans have shunned it, and that many American TV stations are also reluctant to show it suggests that the program serves domestic politics more than the needs of international diplomacy.”

And what were those domestic interests? American banking executives feared the declaration of martial law in Poland would lead the country to default on its $27 billion debt to Western banks, an event that would massively destabilize financial markets. After USIA won special approval for “Let Poland be Poland” to air in the United States, the Reagan administration used sympathy for the Polish people to authorize a payment of Poland’s debt; the government gave seventy million dollars of taxpayer monies to private American banks to prevent a Polish default. The language of freedom served as convenient cover for the protection and promotion of U.S. business interests—a public-private partnership that would be strengthened throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s in the wake of the Cold War’s collapse.

Wick increased the private participation of domestic and international business leaders in both the funding and programming of USIA, and continued to preside over broadcasts that, in defiance of the many Western critics of “Let Poland Be Poland,” maintained an aggressively propagandistic tone against the Soviet Union and its allies. In 1984, he came under fire for a USIA blacklist of eighty-four names of prominent Americans prevented from participating in a USIA overseas speaker’s program, including news anchor Walter Cronkite, consumer advocate Ralph Nader, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s widow, Coretta Scott King. Between 1986 and 1988, USIA also lost several court cases challenging the agency’s decision to limit the export of seven documentary films that expressed views critical of, or contrary to, the Reagan administration. But Wick survived all of the scandals, and by 1989, he was USIA’s longest-serving director. When Reagan left office, Wick resigned and accepted a position with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, which would launch Fox News in 1996. Not for the first time, America’s publicly funded forays into global propaganda had served as a prophetic training ground for similar distortions of newsgathering strictures in the private sector.

Of course, the United States went on to win the propaganda war.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty also took a hard-right turn during the 1980s. The Reagan administration increased its budget and decentralized content production to the networks’ foreign-language desks, a strategy largely abandoned in the wake of their botched handling of the 1956 Hungarian uprising. In 2003, Stephen Miller, a Reagan appointee who worked with RFE/RL beginning in 1983, recalled many internal problems with the Radios. Despite his own “Reaganite” foreign policy commitments, Miller disliked the strategy of Hungarian RFE director George Urban, who argued that the Radios should traffic in “a new genre of psychological and political warfare.” He also disagreed with the implied policy that the Radios should not broadcast negative views of the Reagan administration. Radio Liberty also came under attack for broadcasting content perceived to be anti-Semitic and ultra-nationalist into the USSR. Especially damning was a report to the human rights organization Helsinki Watch, written by one of Radio Liberty’s own Russian freelancers, that RL was pushing anti-democratic and anti-pluralist content into the Soviet Union, fomenting nationalist unrest just as the Nicolaides VOA memo had advised.

But RFE and RL also enjoyed some remarkable successes in the 1980s, supporting Poland’s Solidarity and other East European dissidents as well as broadcasting the truth about the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine, humiliating the Soviets. Under Wick’s tenure, the Americans also managed to convince Soviet leaders to cease their jamming of Western broadcasts, which fueled popular hunger for political change and helped spark the velvet revolutions of 1989. Historian A. Ross Johnson argued that the Radios’ longer-term victories in the Cold War’s redoubts of disinformation resulted from their history as more overt propaganda vehicles: “The Radios could not have had the impact they did in the 1970s and 1980s had not those institutions been shaped, and their policy and editorial course set, under the CIA in the 1950s and 1960s.”

Shock Values

Of course, the United States went on to win the propaganda war and celebrated the peaceful transitions of former Soviet client states into free-market democracies throughout Eastern Europe. And as is everywhere the case in the media industry, success bred a new generation of imitators: After 1989, the trends begun under Reagan came to dominate USIA’s mission. Rather than merely looking for partners in the private sector, USIA slowly transformed into a tool to promote private-sector interests in Eastern Europe using public funds. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union and its allies were part of an economic trading organization called the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance, which helped insulate socialist countries from the penetration of global capital. The Eastern bloc’s command economic system and political canons of central planning also limited the import of Western goods—which meant, come the nineties, that the collapse of state socialism opened a potential market of hundreds of millions of eager consumers. The eastward expansion of NATO likewise created a parallel boon for American arms manufactures. As East European countries implemented shock therapy policies to promote the free market, USIA championed American business interests overseas, spreading the gospel of neoliberal economic reform while racing to capture market share for American goods and services.

Reflecting on her time at USIA in the 1990s, former employee Nancy Snow argued that “USIA had morphed from a Cold War creation to America, Incorporated . . . [utilizing] psychological warfare to promote the superiority of American free enterprise, the expansion of U.S. business interests overseas, and the promotion of the U.S. economy as a model for how other market economies can succeed in the global economy.” The last USIA director, Joseph Duffey, retrospectively admitted that USIA’s new mission in the 1990s was “critical to serving very practical national interests—among them greater deregulation of trade and investment, protection of intellectual property rights, [and] the enactment of laws and agreements on transnational investment.” These were, as Duffey suggested, all policies that were virtually tailor made to benefit American corporations hoping to expand into the former Eastern Bloc.

In 1995, the headquarters of the merged Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty outlets moved from Germany to Prague, where the Radios continue to work unto this day, albeit with a significantly reduced budget. Although many of the network’s East European broadcasts were discontinued, it still beams content into more than twenty-five countries, including Russia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran. The State Department closed most stand-alone USIS libraries in 1999 and today the VOA produces content in forty-seven languages. It remains the largest American international broadcaster, with an estimated weekly audience of more than 236 million. In November 2017, after the Department of Justice designated RT as a “foreign agent,” the Russians retaliated and placed VOA and RFE/RL on their own foreign agents list, subjecting both organizations and their local affiliates to a variety of new oversight protocols at the hands of the Russian government.

Americans may justifiably feel outraged that the Russians interfered in the 2016 election to further their own political and economic interests. But historical context matters—and in this case, the relevant context is a steady overseas barrage of overt and covert propaganda campaigns sponsored and implemented by the United States government for the last seventy-five years. To a former KGB officer like Putin, the 2016 election interference likely recalls the Soviet propaganda counteroffensives of the Cold War—an effort to fight misleading fire with misleading fire. The tactics and technologies may have changed, but we are not, despite the refrains you’re apt to hear in any number of breathless cable news dispatches, in the middle of a new propaganda war. The old one just never went away.