Hot Books in the Cold War by Alfred A. Reisch, Central European University Press, 2013, ISBN-13: 978-6155225239, pp. 574, $63.00.
Those of us that served in the press and cultural sections of American embassies in Eastern Europe during the Cold War were well aware of the importance of books as part of our programs in communicating with our contacts and audiences in the intellectual, academic, media, cultural and even political fields. But what we did not know was that our relatively modest and overt book and publication initiatives at that time were being greatly and effectively amplified by a massive covert book distribution program run by the Central Intelligence Agency.
Alfred Reisch's meticulously researched book about the CIA's secretly funded book distribution program provides the first detailed account of the extraordinary "political warfare" effort conducted by the CIA to counter the Soviet global political and cultural offensive, as Mark Kramer points out in his superb introduction in the book. Each superpower, as he notes, sought "to affect the perceptions, attitudes, motives, and---ultimately---political behavior of the other side's organizations, groups, individuals, and government officials" by operating a wide array of programs that sought "to overcome (or at least diminish) the opposition of those who were most hostile, to gain the allegiance of those who were neutral or uncommitted (i.e., to "win the hearts and minds", to reinforce the loyalty of supporters, and, in wartime, to erode the enemies will to fight."
The 1952 "Seventh Semi-Annual Report on Educational Exchange Activities" of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Educational Exchange of the Department of State, reported that in 1950 alone the Soviet Union spent "almost a billion dollars on propaganda activities " (1) as part of an accelerated Soviet "peace" offensive. The report revealed that "under the new offensive"--- radio broadcasts, wide dissemination of publications, support for binational societies, and assistance to the Communist parties in in various countries were multiplied and accelerated. The Soviet press and publication program was "greatly stepped up." (2).
The U.S. Government responded with its own coordinated political and cultural counter-offensive with increased scholarly and cultural exchanges, film festival participation, sending abroad of performing artists and groups, and promoting fine arts and thematic exhibitions arranged and conducted by the State Department and the U.S. Information Agency. However those efforts are another story. Reisch 's focus is on the use of books and publications as part of the USG's counter-offensive.
Kramer in his introduction and Reisch in much greater detail in his chapter on the "Origins, Objectives, and Launching of the Book Project under Sam Walker, Jr." point out that these Soviet propaganda and cultural activities were already of great concern to elements of the U.S. government as early as 1948. Following a series of policy memoranda exchanged between the State Department and the CIA, the decision was made to have the CIA "initiate and conduct covert psychological operations to counteract Soviet and Soviet-inspired activities which constitute a threat to peace" consistent with the National Security Council directive authorizing the use of cover organizations. The result was the creation of Radio Free Europe (RFE) and Radio Liberty (RL) to use "radio to penetrate the Iron Curtain."
Both Kramer and Reisch indicate that until 1970, the CIA funding for book distribution in the Soviet Bloc countries was channeled through entities associated with RFE and RL. The Free Europe Committee (FEC) handled Poland, Hungary, Romania, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and the three Soviet Bloc Baltic countries (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) and Radio Liberty Committee's secret Bedford Publishing Company covered the Soviet Union except for the three Baltic states. After CIA's role in funding of RFE and RL was publicly revealed in 1970, a series of new front organizations were created to conduct the book publishing operations until the entire program was terminated in 1991 following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
And what started out as an idea to commence a "Publication Section" under the direction of the FEC Vice President Samuel S. Walker, Jr., in 1951, followed by the launching in 1953 of plastic balloons filled with a monthly letter-sized magazine to Czechoslovakia and the monthly mailing of 10,000 information packed letters to individuals randomly selected from telephone and/or population directories in Hungary and Poland, ended 40 years later in 1991 with an estimated 10 million books and publications having successfully penetrated the "cultural Iron Curtain."(3).
It was also "the highly inventive" Walker who initiated the covert book mailing program in April, 1956 and then helped manage the first "person-to-person" distribution system where visitors from Poland to Western Europe were given American and Western books. He had to overcome skeptics who felt that the books would never get past the Communist censors. Reisch, however, notes that Walker's idea of disseminating printed material to eager Soviet Bloc recipients was not unique and that it was common practice within East European emigre circles to mail letters and packages to friends and relatives behind the Iron Curtain. Reisch also cites a unsigned 1954 USIA "action plan" that outlined more effective ways to reach Soviet Bloc audiences, including "a Russian-language magazine, gifts of classical American books, the circulation of American motion pictures, and the distribution of printed materials to Soviet sailors and to Soviet soldiers in Austria." And Reisch notes that the same means would later be used by the FEP/IAC/ILC book distribution project. (4)
Kramer in the introduction also provides an excellent overview of the features of the book program, as revealed by Reisch, which evolved from a relatively modest, cautious and initial focus on select elitist audiences in the six target countries of Eastern Europe in 1956, to a much broader expansion of the distribution system to "cover young people, especially university students, as well as professors, teachers, clergy, writers, artists, doctors, and other key elites such as economists and journalists." And Kramer adds, by the mid-1970s, "students had become the largest single group of person-to-person book recipients, followed by professors and teachers."
The program was now operating in two parts. One which focused on key elites and the second which reached out to almost anyone in the Soviet Bloc who desperately wanted to get any kind of reading material or information from the West. According to Kramer, senior CIA officials "attached great importance to the two book distribution programs" which had a "special place" in "the world of covert propaganda." Basically, the distribution operation consisted of three parts (1) the mailing of books and publications directly to individuals and institutions; (2) under the "person-to-person" program handing books and printed material physically to Soviet and East European travelers able to travel to the West either individually or in groups (attending sporting events, conferences or...