By Ted Lipien
Hillary Clinton seemed to have had some understanding of how Russian propaganda works when she made her critical comments about the Broadcasting Board of Governors in 2013 to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, calling the U.S. federal agency in charge of international media outreach “practically defunct.” But in 2009, she still had some hopes for U.S. international broadcasting when she addressed Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) employees in Prague, Czech Republic.
I also know that RFE/RL employees, journalists, and staff members have faced harassment, intimidation, kidnapping, arrests, and violence. But your steadfast commitment to your mission is a great message about the importance of this work. I am a big believer in smart power and in communications. We have a big job to do to reach out to get accurate information into the countries and societies that we are currently addressing, and we couldn’t do it without you.1
By 2013, Clinton’s hopes for RFE/RL and another Broadcasting Board of Governors’ media entity, the Voice of America (VOA), were all but gone when she told members of Congress, “we’re abdicating the ideological arena and we need to get back into it.”2
A few years earlier, Secretary Clinton had supported and tried to implement President Obama’s failed “Reset” with Russia as an important U.S. foreign policy goal of his administration. Obama initially seemed to have fully bought into the Kremlin’s propaganda of Russia being threatened by the West and by NATO. It has been a perennial pressure theme from Soviet and Russian propagandists, deceiving generations of American political leaders and journalists.
Obama was not the first one to fall for it. President Roosevelt supported and early Voice of America pro-Soviet officials and journalists facilitated Stalin’s domination over East Central Europe because they believed in Soviet propaganda. Both they and President Obama had ignored or forgotten the 1939 Hitler-Stalin Pact which led to the start of World War II. In The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn has several references to the arrests of the Poles following the Soviet invasion and annexation of eastern Poland in 1939, the Katyń massacre of thousands of Polish POW military officers and intellectual leaders, deportations of hundreds of thousands of Poles to Siberia, where many of them died, and arrivals of Polish prisoners in the Gulag after the communist regime supported by both Moscow and Washington was imposed on Poland in 1945.3
With poor timing and poor knowledge of history, President Obama announced in 2009 the cancellation of U.S. missile shield plans for Central Europe on the anniversary of the 1939 Soviet invasion of Poland. A day earlier in September 2009, I tried to warn the Obama White House about the public diplomacy disaster that would ensue because of the historical significance of the anniversary date, but the warning was ignored.4
Worse yet, none of U.S. public diplomacy experts at the State Department, the White House, the National Security Council, or officials at the Broadcasting Board of Governors helped to prevent this totally avoidable mistake. It’s doubtful that they had even tried. I noted this at the time in a Digital Journal op-ed.
People in the Obama White House may think there are no historical lessons to be drawn from their decision to scrap the missile defense system in Poland and Czech Republic, but any experienced public diplomacy expert or journalist would have told them that Central Europeans still remember World War II, Yalta, and the Cold War. At the very least, President Obama could have waited a day or two so that his missile defense announcement would not have been made on the Soviet attack anniversary.”5
WIRED headline on September 17, 2009 read: “Dear Poland, Happy Invasion Day. Love Uncle Sam.”6
I would not put it past the Kremlin’s propaganda experts that they had railroaded President Obama to make his missile shield announcement on the September 17 anniversary to create tensions between the United States and Poland, embarrass the U.S. President along with the United States and score propaganda points for the Kremlin by showing Poland and other Central European NATO members that they can’t rely on American promises and should reassess their relations with a now more powerful Russia.
“The Americans only cared about their interests. They used everybody else,” said Lech Wałęsa, the former Polish president and Solidarity labor union leader, in response to President Obama’s announcement. “It wasn’t that the shield was that important, but it’s about the way, the way of treating us,” Wałęsa explained.7
He and former Czech President, dissident and writer Vaclav Havel had sent earlier a letter to Obama warning him about Russian expansionism, destabilizing measures and propaganda in Central Europe. Obama ignored their letter, which was also signed by political leaders from Bulgaria, Hungary, Slovakia, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. Had he taken it seriously, the Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election might have been avoided, if the U.S. had strengthen its own anti-propaganda defenses.
We know from our own historical experience the difference between when the United States stood up for its liberal democratic values and when it did not. Our region suffered when the United States succumbed to “realism” at Yalta. And it benefited when the United States used its power to fight for principle. That was critical during the Cold War and in opening the doors of NATO. Had a “realist” view prevailed in the early 1990s, we would not be in NATO today and the idea of a Europe whole, free, and at peace would be a distant dream.8
The Central European leaders also warned President Obama about Russian propaganda and media manipulation.
[Russia] uses overt and covert means of economic warfare, ranging from energy blockades and politically motivated investments to bribery and media manipulation in order to advance its interests and to challenge the transatlantic orientation of Central and Eastern Europe.
In the 1970s, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was the ultimate proponent of Realpolitik and apparently an easy target for Soviet propaganda. Alexandr Solzhenitsyn was the leading voice calling for a moral compass in the West’s relations with the Soviet block. The KGB’s job was to eliminate Solzhenitsyn’s influence through a combination of smears and disinformation followed by pressure on U.S. officials not to meet with him or do anything that might increase his standing in the West. For Kissinger, it meant not inviting Solzhenitsyn to meet with President Ford at the White House. It also meant not allowing him to speak to the Russians through the Voice of America. During the 1970s era of détente, Nixon and Ford administrations failed to understand that Soviet propaganda against Solzhenitsyn was ultimately aimed at them, U.S. media and other opinion makers. They also failed to grasp the true nature of Russia’s communist regime, although their reasons for wanting to reduce tensions with the Soviet Union had a far stronger basis in 1974 than President Obama’s reasons for the “Reset” in 2009.
Instead of exposing and countering Soviet propaganda even while pursuing détente, Nixon, Ford, and Kissinger did what Soviet propagandists wanted them to do and played a part in the Kremlin’s disinformation campaign. They forced the Voice of America to censor one of the 20th century’s greatest advocates for truth and human rights. Their failure did not remain unnoticed on Capitol Hill and by some of the American media. Most Americans disagreed with the callous treatment of Solzhenitsyn by President Ford who was following closely the advice of his Secretary of State.
The scandal over the White House snub of Solzhenitsyn may have contributed in part to Ford’s defeat in the 1976 presidential election, which was won by Jimmy Carter. Carter’s main foreign policy advisor was Polish-born Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski who was later his National Security Advisor.
The Voice of America became a target of congressional and media criticism over its censorship of Solzhenitsyn. But the KGB campaign to discredit the writer in the United States through the use of propaganda and disinformation succeeded to a remarkable degree in the long run among many liberal journalists and intellectuals.
When it comes to direct pressure on VOA from the White House and the State Department, it does not happen as often now as it did in the past; it did happen in Solzhenitsyn’s case in the 1970s. Most of the censorship in recent years at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) has been internally generated by agency officials and some of the journalists. This type of censorship is now even more uncontrolled and even more dangerous. Rather than resulting from U.S. policy considerations, as in the past, frequent incidents of censorship at the Broadcasting Board of Governors have resulted from personal ideological bias of officials and journalists, their personal political causes, in some cases their business interests abroad, and commercial rather than mission-oriented considerations. These internal considerations could include wanting to obtain more travel visas for VOA and RFE/RL correspondents, maintaining news bureaus abroad, eliminating possible obstacles for BBG officials doing business in Russia and China, and getting local networks to rebroadcast programs by pre-censoring their content to eliminate any potential conflicts with foreign governments.
In the early 1970s, U.S. officials joined Soviet officials in an attempt to discredit and isolate a powerful advocate for freedom and human rights. At that time, VOA correspondents’ travel to Russia or China, a key leverage for blackmail in recent years, was not at issue; RL reporters were completely banned by the Soviet authorities from traveling to Russia, and VOA reporters were rarely given Soviet visas. What President Nixon and President Ford, and their Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, did not want was for Solzhenitsyn to spoil their policy of détente with the Kremlin because Soviet propaganda and disinformation convinced them that he could.
Détente had some bad results for VOA in the 1970s, as did President Obama’s “Reset” with Russia. There were, however, significant differences. In the 1970s, the leadership of the Voice of America was responsible for enforcing the anti-Solzhenitsyn censorship, most likely ordered by the White House, the State Department or at least the United States Information Agency (USIA), but it was opposed by many of VOA’s foreign language journalists and even some of VOA’s managers. During the Obama administration, some VOA reporters and managers, by then even in some foreign language services, often practiced self-censorship to promote the president’s foreign policy, instead of reporting on it objectively, as required by the VOA Charter.
Nixon’s, Ford’s, and Kissinger’s desire to restrict RL’s use of Solzhenitsyn’s books did not produce a positive response from RL’s management. But in one of the worst cases of betrayal of American values and free press, U.S. government officials in charge of the Voice of America submitted to pressure from Soviet propaganda, the White House, and the State Department. They banned Solzhenitsyn to prevent the whole truth of Soviet atrocities from reaching VOA’s foreign audiences that only he could provide at that time to VOA radio listeners in Russia. The ban, however, did not completely remove Solzhenitsyn’s name or some of this statements from VOA broadcasts. VOA still reported news about him; therefore, U.S. government’s censorship was only partially effective, especially since Radio Liberty continued to provide extensive readings from The Gulag Archipelago, his four-volume chronicle of communist crimes.
The next several Cold War Radio Museum articles will examine these events and provide a historical perspective and rich documentation from the Congressional Record and from previously classified U.S. government documents on how the censorship of Solzhenitsyn by the Voice of America was part of a larger pattern of Soviet propaganda influence going back to World War II. Hopefully, they will also offer some lessons for today’s propaganda wars being waged against the United States by Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, and ISIS.
Main article for “How Voice of America Censored Solzhenitsyn” Cold War Radio Museum Exhibit in November 2017:
Solzhenitsyn – Target of Red Propaganda
Censorship at the Voice of America – A Historical Background
Decision to Ban Solzhenitsyn from VOA
Political Fallout for President Ford
Fallout for VOA Managers During Reagan Years
Criticism in Congress
VOA Foreign Broadcasters Against Institutional Censorship
Solzhenitsyn Criticizes VOA and Radio Liberty in 1982
A Partial Reconciliation with VOA
Solzhenitsyn Records for VOA
KGB, Solzhenitsyn and U.S. Media
Another Solzhenitsyn Reading on VOA
Photos: (Top) Alexandr Solzhenitsyn and his wife Natalia Dmitriyevna Solzhenitsyn exiting from Alaska Airlines plane upon their arrival on May 27, 1994 in Vladivostok as they returned from exile in the United States.
Gulag Museum in Magadan 1994
(Bottom) Local Russian officials and VOA reporter Ted Lipien awaiting the arrival of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn in Vladivostok on May 27, 1994. VOA had no plans for on-the-ground coverage of Solzhenitsyn’s arrival in Russia, but Ted Lipien and VOA Russian Branch Chief Sherwood Demitz who were in Vladivostok on a marketing trip to promote rebroadcasting of VOA programs by local radio stations sent in a report to Washington.
Disclosure: Ted Lipien was VOA acting associate director in charge of central news programs before his retirement in 2006. In the 1970s, he worked as a broadcaster in the VOA Polish Service and was a reporter and service chief in the 1980s during Solidarity’s struggle for democracy in Poland. He is one of the co-founders and supporters of BBG Watch whose volunteers monitor management and performance of taxpayer-funded Voice of America and other U.S. government-run media operations within the Broadcasting Board of Governors.
- “Hillary Clinton: ‘RFE/RL Is Smart Power’,” RFE/RL Press Release, April 8, 2009, accessed November 1, 2017, https://pressroom.rferl.org/a/1604641.html. ↩
- Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, January 23, 2013, Testimony to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. HILLARY CLINTON: “Our Broadcasting Board of Governors is practically defunct in terms of its capacity to tell a message around the world. So we’re abdicating the ideological arena and we need to get back into it. We have the best values. We have the best narrative. Most people in the world just want to have a good decent life that is supported by a good decent job and raise their families and we’re letting the Jihadist narrative fill a void. We have to get in there and compete and we can do it successfully.” ↩
- “A certain number of Poles, members of the [anti-Nazi] Home Army, followers of Mikolajczyk [Polish Government in Exile leader] arrived in Gulag in 1945 via our prisons.” Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation I-II (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), 86. ↩
- Ted Lipien, “September 17 could be a new date in US-Polish relations,” TedLipien.com, accessed October 27, 2017, http://tedlipien.com/blog/2009/09/16/september-17-could-be-a-new-date-in-us-polish-relations/. ↩
- Ted Lipien, “Op-Ed: Obama chose wrong day to abandon missile defence shield in Europe,” Digital Journal, September 17, 2009, accessed October 27, 2017, http://www.digitaljournal.com/article/279349. ↩
- “Dear Poland, Happy Invasion Day. Love Uncle Sam.”, Nathan Hodge, WIRED, September 17, 2009, accessed October 27, 2017, https://www.wired.com/2009/09/dear-poland-happy-soviet-invasion-day-love-uncle-sam/. ↩
- Ian Traynor, “Europe reacts to Obama dropping missile defense shield,” The Guardian, September 17, 2009, accessed October 27, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2009/sep/17/poland-czech-missile-defence-shield. ↩
- “An Open Letter to the Obama Administration from Central and Eastern Europe,” Free Media Online, accessed October 27, 2017,http://freemediaonline.org/freemediaonlineblog/2009/07/18/an-open-letter-to-the-obama-administration-from-central-and-eastern-europe-calls-for-resisting-russias-threatening-power/ ↩