A. Ross Johnson, former Director of Radio Free Europe (1988-1991), present Senior Advisor to RFE/RL in Prague, Research Scholar at Hoover Institution and Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and author speaks in an interview for wolnaeuropa.org about Radio's uncompleted mission and incomplete studies about its role.
What were the most difficult and most enjoyable moments during your tenure as director of RFE?
The most enjoyable moment was my first visit from RFE/RL to Eastern Europe as the Communist system crumbled. That was to Poland in June 1989. I accompanied Peter Mroczyk, Board for International Broadcasting member Ken Tomlinson, and BIB staff director Bruce Porter. We flew first to Warsaw, where we met members of Prime Minister Mazowiecki’s government, and then took the train to Gdansk, where we met Walesa.
Poland and the world had changed dramatically since my previous visit to Poland in 1985, during martial law, when I still worked at an American think tank. And it had certainly changed since my first visit to Poland in 1965. Other highlights were when we opened our bureaus in Warsaw and Prague. It was my privilege to have been “present at the creation” of post-Communist Europe.
The most difficult moments involved personnel issues.
You are still professionaly (and I belive emotionaly) related to RFE. Could you tell what kind of relation is it precisely?
My last management position was RFE/RL Counselor. Since I retired in 2002 I have been a consultant, senior advisor to the president (first Tom Dine, and now Jeff Gedmin). Most of my work for RFE/RL has involved coordinating our many archive projects – at the Hoover Institution (where I am also a research fellow), the Open Society Archives, the Polish State Archives, the National Szechenyi Library in Budapest, and the National Museum in Prague. Much credit is due to Leszek Gawlikowski for his dedicated efforts to preserve these archives.
You are working on the book about RFE. What is the main subject of your studies in this book? When will it be published, will it appear in Polish?
I am writing a history with the working title: “Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty; The CIA Years and Beyond,” to be published next year by the Woodrow Wilson Center Press in cooperation with Stanford University Press. I hope some version of it will also appear in Polish.
Is there still interest in the RFE history and achivements in the USA, does it grow or decline?
Is the RFE story seen as somehow “instructive”? Some say the US policymakers have diminished or even neglected soft power policy instruments like foreign broadcasting which was so efficient during the cold war?
Scholars in the United States and other countries continue to work on the history of RFE and RL. Most recent studies of American foreign policy and the CIA in the early Cold War years do not, in my judgment, accurately present the role of RFE and RL. I am working in the CIA and other U.S. government archives and hope to correct this picture. Today American political leaders often praise RFE and RL as models for current American communications with foreign audiences. The praise is gratifying to all of us who worked at RFE/RL. But many of those who praise RFE and RL today do not understand how RFE and RL differed from the Voice of America, that they were substitute domestic services promoting liberty. And there is not enough financial support for “soft power” instruments.
You often indicate that there are still a lot of interesting topics to research about RFE. But what about accessibility to the documents – tapes, scripts, administration papers. How do you assess the state of sorting, description, listing and access to the documents in the main RFE archives places? Does it improve?
The RFE/RL corporate records are at the Hoover Institution, have been processed, and are in regular use by researchers. The broadcast archive is also at the Hoover Institution. The scripts have been processed and are in use; a Romanian researcher recently used the Romanian script collection for a study of a Romanian cultural figure. The reel tapes must be preserved before they can be used, given their deteriorating condition. The Polish State Archives has a copy of the RFE Polish broadcast archive (scripts and tapes), and these are in regular use. For example, Professor Paczkowski is preparing a biography of Jozef Swiatlo using RFE Polish Service materials at PSA. The RFE/RL research collection is in the custody of the Open Society Archive in Budapest and is in regular use. An overview of the RFE/RL archive collections, including the Web sites and contact information for their use, can be found at: http://www.rferl.org/info/archive/407.html
Some of the documents are still classified and available only to authorized persons. Is it usual practice in the USA, or belongs RFE to exceptions? Besides, one could be curious what is so secret about broadcasting?
The corporate records of RFE and RL were never classified and are available to everyone for research. The U.S. government has released many formerly classified documents from the CIA, the State Department, and the White House related to RFE and RL. They were originally classified because their connections with the U.S. Government were concealed and because all governments classify their internal communications. The State Department publications series, Foreign Relations of the United States, contains many of the declassified documents. Other declassified documents may be found on the CIA public web site. I have obtained additional declassified documents for my research, and once my book appears all these documents will be available at Hoover or other institutions for all.
In Poland one may still trace a kind of ambivalence about Radio, like “it made good job, however it was connected with CIA”, thus not independent, dubious. This is in part because of old myth but also because of fact that there is no scientific, profound, documented study in Polish describing the kind of relations between American authorities, Radio management and national sections. For deeper explanation waits also the idea and practice of “partnership”. I understand you belong to those authorized persons and unveil some secrets in your book. But how would you characterize shortly the structure and dependencies of RFE?
Read my book! I do not say that to dodge the question. I think my book will offer the facts that will let the reader draw his or her own conclusions about the role of the CIA, the role of the State Department, the role of the American management of RFE and RL, and the role of the national broadcasting services, including the Polish Service. None could have managed alone; all were partners in this remarkably successful effort.
Arch Puddington suggests in his book * that the Radio could and should broadcast some years longer till the democracy and media in EE countries become stronger. What is your opinion from today’s perspective? Was it possible and necessary?
It was more necessary than possible. With the end of the Cold War, we in the RFE/RL management thought that Radios could play a useful role as an alternative medium in countries transitioning to democracy and developing their own free media. That thought is reflected in the RFE/RL Mission Statement adopted in 1998. (see: http://www.rferl.org/info/mission/169.html)
I think we helped several countries with outside perspectives and as a model for objective journalism. We also tried to partner with local media in the Czech Republic, Poland, Bulgaria, and other countries; none of those efforts lasted. Looking back, we can see the need for outside assistance to the newly free local media. But neither the American Congress nor influential East Europeans were strong supporters of such an effort. The United States had other priorities. East European political leaders and media chiefs wanted to run their own countries and control their own media.
Today RFE/RL finds itself in a situation more like the 1980s than the 1990s. It has ended all broadcasting to Europe, except the Western Balkans. It still broadcasts to all parts of the former Soviet Union except the Baltic States. It broadcasts to Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan. With a few important exceptions such as Ukraine and Georgia, this is a region no longer (if it ever was) in transition to democracy. The RFE/RL broadcast region today consists mostly of states that are (using the definitions of Freedom House) either backsliding or unfree. I think RFE/RL can usefully serve the peoples of these countries as a traditional surrogate broadcaster, a substitute full-service free home station, as it did for Poland under Communism. I hope the United States Congress will adequately support these efforts.
Interviewed by Andrzej Borzym, March 2008
* Arch Puddington, Broadcasting Freedom. The Cold War Triumph of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, University Press of Kentucky, 2000.