Re-examining propaganda years later

By Tibor Machan

PRAGUE, Czech Republic — In 1953 I was smuggled out of Hungary by a professional “flesh peddler” (as Time magazine called these extremely helpful people) and landed, for three years, in Munich, Germany. That’s because my father was working at Radio Free Europe (RFE) there, as a director of sports coverage.

My stepmother was doing some acting gigs there for the Hungarian sector, and even I got to do a few lines in various plays that had a character in his teens.

I used to hang out a lot at the facilities in the English Garden and befriended a lot of expatriates from the various Iron Curtain countries who helped the effort to inform listeners in those countries about what went on in the world and whatever else they were supposed to be doing.

Later, when I began to think more carefully about political matters, I had some trepidations about whether RFE and similar ventures carried out by the U.S. government could pass my libertarian test for what amounts to proper public policy.

Should American citizens be forced to fund this kind of undertaking, including Voice of America and, later, several others, beaming news and, let’s face it, propaganda to victims of Soviet-bloc oppression? Can this be construed as legitimate foreign policy for a bona fide free society? Why or why not?

But back in the mid-1950s I had no problem accepting RFE as a sound effort, seeing how little information the Soviet satellite countries would allow their citizens to gather from the state-run media.

There was little doubt in my mind the Americans and their Western allies were far better, freer countries than those under Soviet rule, and whatever reasonable effort was made to thwart the power of the USSR was OK by me.

Of course the big question for me turned out, later, to be what amounts to “reasonable” in such efforts.

In our time, it would appear to be clear enough there is no longer any plausible rationale for Radio Free Europe and its sister, Radio Liberty (RL).

On my recent visit to Prague, I was asked to give a short presentation to the staff about the situation in the mid-’50s and what I could recall about RFE then. Several folks argued there are still sound reasons to continue what RFE/RL had been and continues to be doing — “provide uncensored news and information to countries where a free press is either banned by the government or not fully established.”

As a dyed-in-the-wool “defensivist” on matters of public policy, I have my doubts that such efforts on the part of a government of a free country qualify as proper public policy. A defensivist, you see, holds that governments are instituted to secure our basic human rights.

They are, therefore, only justified in conducting defensive public policies, and it is unclear whether broadcasting propaganda, however honest and truthful, into “countries where a free press is either banned by the government or not fully established” qualifies as defensive public policy.

Arguably such an effort is more about defending the liberty of those in such countries, not of the citizens of the United States whom the government is sworn to serve.

Yet perhaps a more nuanced take on the foreign affairs of a free society would not so readily dismiss what RFE and RL are doing as overstepping the proper authority of a free government.

Educating people in countries where people have no chance to encounter discussions of the principles and policies of relatively free societies may arguably amount to an element of defense, given how ignorance about liberty can generate often deadly hostility toward free societies.

Tibor Machan advises Freedom Communications, parent company of this newspaper. E-mail him at
Machan@chapman.edu