The Soviets abruptly dropped two big disarmament blockbusters this past week. One was Mikhail Gorbachev's announcement at the United Nations that the Soviet Union is reducing its forces in East Europe. The other was ending most jamming of two Western propaganda stations, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty.
The end of jamming in all but Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria came as an unexpected bold stroke. The Soviets have never taken kindly to Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, although they ended jamming of the Voice of America last year.The action could lower the pitch of the war of words that has poisoned the air between East and West since the end of World War II - if we reciprocate by de-escalating the tone of our broadcasts.
Commentary on our official broadcasts through Voice of America, including a new offshoot aimed at irritating Cuba, Radio Marti, has grown more aggressive in the Reagan years. So have Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, although technically they are not tied to official American policy.
-RADIO FREE EUROPE beams to what we used to call the captive nations of Eastern Europe in 21 languages, essentially as 21 stations, while Radio Liberty aims at the Soviet Union in a dozen languages.
Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty began as instruments of the Cold War in 1949, a year after the communist coup in Czechoslovakia and a period of anti-Red hysteria in the United States. In that year, all of Eastern Europe could properly be called part of the rigid Soviet hegemony.
The two stations were to be surrogate radio, that is, providing the kind of information about the country and the rest of the world those peoples would enjoy if they were free. In the early days, the broadcasts went further, however, urging resistance to communist rule and aiming unabashedly to prepare those people for liberation.
The stations were staffed, then as now, by emigres from Eastern European countries and had headquarters in Munich. But their level of militancy has moved up and down since the 1950s.
In 1956, Radio Free Europe broadcasts suggested to the Hungarians that if they revolted against their Soviet occupiers the West would come to their aid or, as Secretary of State John Foster Dulles put it: "The Hungarian people should not doubt that they have a sincere friend in the United States." The Hungarians had learned of the Polish liberalizations and the Khrushchev de-Stalinization movement through Radio Free Europe. They had set up their own clandestine stations whose signals were picked up and magnified and retransmitted by Radio Free Europe.
When the United States stood by helplessly as the Russian tanks put down the revolution and its leaders were slaughtered, Radio Free Europe lost credibility.
So also did Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty lose face when in 1967 it was revealed that rather than being funded by public donations, as they publicly advertised, they were covertly supported by the CIA. Congress then ended CIA support and since then has openly funded them through a semi-autonomous public board.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty are forbidden by the 1967 law from inciting revolt or supporting violent actions. During the congressional debate on that law, some congressmen argued that Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty ought to be dismantled because the programs merely worsened the Cold War without getting much in return.
-IN THE LATE 1960s, Radio Free Europe also recognized that Eastern Europe was changing. The bloc has become more an alliance of states with various degrees of autonomy and far less reliance on and allegiance to the Soviet Union. In the 1970s we were more interested in building bridges to those countries, and properly so. If we hadn't sought conciliation with them, the rest of the world would have anyway, as West Germany did through its "Ostpolitik." Radio Free Europe's role became more that of a constructive critic, with some occasional kind words for leaders of East European countries when their plans seemed to be working.
Meanwhile, the stations of the Eastern bloc, though government-operated and hardly free, have liberalized. Some even broadcast rock-and-roll, as do Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
-YET RADIO FREE EUROPE AND RADIO LIBERTY are still confrontational. New York's conservative former senator, James Buckley, then president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, argued on a Bonneville International Corp. special aired by KSL-TV three or four years ago, that detente had unfortunately "colored" the programs of the 1970s. He felt they should be free of any restraining official line and "more meaty" than in the '70s.
The stations take justifiable pride in the objectivity of their newscasts, which comprise about a sixth of their programming. But they also continue their subversive role of spotlighting unrest in neighboring countries and airing commentary by dissidents who have fled the East.
We really have no business trying to destabilize and harass friendly regimes, even when we find their political systems offensive. We also should cool the old inflammatory Cold War rhetoric. On the KSL broadcast, the narrator used the antiquated term "Iron Curtain" at least four times. (Bonneville's parent body, the LDS Church, scrupulously avoids that phrase in its increasingly successful attempts to reach people in Eastern Europe.)
Our international stations, official and quasi-official, ought to be a model of how a world's airwaves should be used. They should perform the role in which we take the most pride and do best and which best promotes peace. That role is providing objective news and commentary, loud and clear, without ulterior motives, suppressing propaganda that imperils international conciliation and understanding.