History Book Reviews

Cold War Radio – Richard H Cummings

In a world where digital communication is king, where you can get the latest news on your mobile phone, it’s easy to forget the fact that for many years the humble radio was the only method in which many people received information on world affairs. The assumption – which still rings true today – was that if you can control communication, you can control the population. This of course was no more true than in the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War – state controlled media would broadcast only the information the state wanted you to see or hear, and more often than not this would be a straightforward propaganda exercise directed against the West.

The Unites States National Security Council recognised this, and decided that a response was required – albeit without official links to the U.S. government. The CIA was therefore tasked with generating this response. Richard Cumming’s “Cold War Radio: The Dangerous History of American Broadcasting in Europe, 1950 – 1989” is the story of the radio based facet of this response, which would take shape in Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. The Director of Security for Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty for 15 years from 1980 onwards, Cummings’ experience as a Russian linguist serving in the US Air Force in Berlin in the 1960’s places him in the perfect position to supply this examination.

The subtitle “The Dangerous History of American Broadcasting in Europe, 1950 – 1989” is no understatement. There can be little doubt that being involved with what was a major thorn to the Eastern Bloc was something of a health risk – particularly if you happened to be an émigré broadcasting an anti-state message to your countrymen. Cummings examines in great detail the cases of Georgi Markov (murdered in true James Bond style with ricin administered by a jab from the tip of an umbrella on Waterloo Bridge), and Emil Georgeseu (the recipient of various death threats, and extremely close shaves with assassination), and we hear stories of people being bundled into car boots or simply “disappearing”. This is old-school espionage at its very best, and Cummings’ presentation does not let it down.

As if he expects the reader not to believe that excuses offered included “the files have gone missing” or that taped conversations “have been recorded over”, he presents us with copies of the letters etc that conveniently do not manage to answer the questions posed.

Carlos the Jackal, and his role in the 1981 bombing of Radio Free Europe (Cummings was Director of Security at the time), also receives close attention. One of the world’s most infamous terrorists, Carlos positioned himself as an ally of the Eastern Bloc dictators. The bombing caused significant damage at RFE, and as if to underline the quality of his research, Cummings provides us with an extensive appendix which includes the plans Carlos’ group used for the bombing and copies of letters between Carlos and his fellow terrorist, Johannes Weinrich.

For anyone with even the slightest interest in the machinery of the Cold War, it’s safe to say that “Cold War Radio” deserves your attention – Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty played a pivotal psychological role during the Cold War which has perhaps not been given the credence – in the West anyway – that it deserves.

Jonny Mardling

Jonny Mardling

Jonny Mardling is the Editor of The History Herald. He has a keen interest in Second World War and Cold War history, and with a great grandfather who was killed during the Battle of the Somme, he also has a fascination with First World War history.

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