The “Other” Radio Free Asia: 1951 to 1953

Most people probably know or have at least heard of Radio Free Asia, the station that was established in the mid-1990s under the Clinton administration as part of the reorientation of the USIA in a post Cold War world before it was ultimately disbanded in 1999. Fewer people may know about the “first” Radio Free Asia, a US propaganda outlet which broadcasted programs between 1951 and 1953, much like Radio Free Europe did in Europe. Unlike its European counterpart, however, Radio Free Asia ceased broadcasting in the 1950s and bears no relationship to the current Radio Free Asia launched in 1996.

While going through old source material I collected several years ago, I came across an interesting declassified (though partially redacted) CIA report obtained from the Declassified Documents Reference System,*  also available in full text here, which discusses the purpose and activities of the earlier Radio Free Asia, as well as its problems as seen by the CIA. Furthermore, the document opens up some potentially interesting research questions about broadcasting initiatives that succeeded the station in East Asia which I would pursue right away if I lived in an ideal world with unlimited time. Because of its short history, much less research appears to have been done on Radio Free Asia, compared to Radio Free Europe or other Cold War propaganda initiatives. So below, I will sum up a few key points from the document that seem noteworthy. I might expand on them at a later point in time or if I come across other related documents from either the US, the Taiwanese or the Chinese side.

Radio Free Asia (henceforth: RFA) was officially run by the Committee for a Free Asia (CFA) out of San Francisco between September 1951 and 1953. Programs were broadcasted in “three Chinese dialects and in English” and comprised of “principally anti-Communist propaganda, except for news and music.” For the origins and details of the CFA and RFA and its development in 1951 and 1952, see Cold War CIA Broadcasting: The Crusade for Freedom & the Birth of Radio Free Asia by Richard H. Cummings, former director of security for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

The study behind the 1953 Report, briefly mentioned by Cummings, was conducted to “determine the future course of international radio broadcasting by Radio Free Asia” and communicated in a memorandum dated April 1, 1953. Needless to say the document primarily portrays the position of the CIA: While RFA was clearly fighting for its survival, the intelligence agency opposed the continuation of the station and ultimately prevailed. Nonetheless, the document sheds light on the overall US propaganda strategy in East Asia, the problems RFA encountered as well as the reasons why it was decided to discontinue the station rather than expand it and try to solve its problems.

So what were the CIA’s arguments, and why was RFA disbanded? In short, the Report determined that broadcasts did not reach their audience, the CFA failed to obtain feasible Asian sponsorship for the program, presumably both to alleviate costs and to distinguish RFA from other outlets, and the CIA (citing local US embassies to back up its point of view) preferred local broadcasts targeted at specific groups over the one-size-fits-all programs produced by the CFA.

Even during its two years of operation, RFA was more of a test project without wide reach, whose only tangible outcome, according to the 1953 Report, was the building of “an especially efficient staff, about half of it Chinese.” The programs were relayed through Manila, but on a very weak signal of only 10 k.w., “which cannot regularly be heard anywhere in Asia.” After negotiations with CFA, the State Department had agreed to establish a 100 k.w. shortwave relay station on Manila, but on the condition that CFA obtain Asian sponsorship to cover the costs.

The CFA, however, concluded that such sponsorship was not feasable because Chinese in the Philippines already had a difficult standing and would take political risks sponsoring such a station. Furthermore, if locals provided the bulk of the money, they might actually gain significant control over editorial content and open up possibilities for KMT or even Communist infiltration. Finally, the Report concluded that if Chinese based in the Philippines were to be sponsors in name only,

it is inevitable that the American (even though “unofficial”) character of the operation will become well known, exposing the U.S. to ridicule (for an unsuccessful attempt at deception) and intensifying Asian suspicions of U.S. interference in the affairs of free nations [emphasis in the original].

Despite the name Radio Free Asia, the choice of broadcasting languages already indicates that RFA was primarily targeted at the People’s Republic of China and Chinese-speaking audiences in Southeast Asia because other countries and groups were covered by other programs. Because of public listening centers, the PRC did not have a sufficient number of home-owned radio devices, so there was no chance that a substantial portion of the population would secretely listen to RFA on their home radios. The 1953 CIA Report estimates fewer than 20,000 radio receivers were produced per year, possibly not even all of these functional. People who owned a radio had to register it, making “listening to Western broadcasts very risky business.” This meant that the target audience was limited to “short-wave radio broadcast monitors” as well as military and civilian officials who were officially allowed to listen to all types of broadcasts. Since they often used headphones, the Report concluded, “the opportunity for clandestine listening does exist to some extent” and “it cannot be determined that… the listening audience has necessarily decreased since July of last year” [i.e. July 1952, when the fate of RFA had already been up for debate].

In order to understand one important reason why RFA was discontinued nevertheless, one needs to understand the difference between white propaganda outlets, openly broadcasting the official US government position and black outlets which were officially presented as independent. Both RFA and Radio Free Europe fell into the latter category (hence the concern about being discovered and exposed to ridicule). By contrast, the Voice of America (VOA) was acknowledged as an official outlet for the US government, communicating official US policy. At the time, the VOA was preparing to install two 1000 k.w. transmitters in the Asia-Pacific, and the Report concluded that it was

quite clear that there is little which RFA can say to the Mainland… which cannot be said by the VOA or by Formosa. The line which Stalin’s death makes most applicable to the PRC — that Malenkov has succeeded to a position of influence over the Communist movement to which not he, but Mao alone is entitled — can as well be used by VOA as by RFA.

In fact, the CIA Report continues, it would be better for VOA to broadcast these statements so that they would be clearly recognized as official US policy. (At the time, it needs to be added, some within the US government were apparently hoping that Mao might “defect”, something that is also mentioned in the CIA Report, though whether from China or from the Socialist bloc is not immediately clear to me at this point. Perhaps someone with more information can help me out or point me to a source that sheds some light on US aspirations for China’s and Mao’s future right after Stalin’s death.)

Overseas Chinese, the Report assessed, continued to be an important potential target audience for RFA, and also possessed radios to listen to broadcasts, but both the VOA and the KMT (“Formosa”) were working on locally produced programs. In general, local programs for very specific local audiences were a better choice for the region than broadly distributed international programs such as RFA. The CFA, the CIA concluded, should therefore work with local radio in various countries, while RFA would be discontinued. The idea that local programs would be more efficient wasn’t new, of course. It had been brought up by the CIA in discussions with RFA as early as in November 1951. By 1953, the Report argued, the CFA had started a sufficient number of new initiatives, including local cooperation, so that it was no longer necessary to maintain RFA simply to keep up the morale of the organization.

As Overseas Chinese became increasingly wary of the PRC, it became easier for Taiwan to get its messages heard: Stations such as RFA were no longer needed as an “in-between” in Southeast Asia. Moreover, Taiwan-based Radio Free China had contacted the CFA and offered to air “CFA-influenced broadcasts to South China.” These broadcasts would not be attributed to the CFA, so that the organization would not become associated with the KMT, which could endanger its operation in other countries. It also made it possible to broadcast “dark grey or black” content that the CFA, something the CFA did not want to do in its attributed programs.

As the CIA Report elaborates,

phrases such as “Down with Mao Tse-tung, Long live Chou En-lai” could be broadcast from Radio Free China on the same frequency as Radio Peiping during pauses by the Peiping commentator. Radio Free China’s signal into South China would probably be strong enough to override Radio Peiping

Radio Free China of course refers to the Taiwanese radio station and should not be confused with RFA.Were these or similar broadcasts actually realized? I haven’t had the chance to look further into these initiatives and to research whether and to what extent they had an effect on the PRC, but I suspect this could be a potential research topic that might yield some interesting results. If anyone knows more about these initiatives or can point me towards other sources or literature, please drop me a line or leave a comment.


*Memorandum for: Special Assistant to the President. Subject: International Broadcasting by Radio Free Asia. April 1, 1953. Document no. CK3100139128. Unless indicated otherwise, the information and quotes in this article are from the Memorandum and the attached report.