Without Western broadcasting, totalitarian regimes would have survived much
longer. When it came to radio waves, the iron curtain was helpless. Nothing
could stop the news from coming through. The frontiers could be closed, the
words could not. From these broadcasting stations we gleaned our lessons of
independent thinking and solidarity action. The bloodless war on air ended with
the defeat of the regimes that tried so hard to suppress the truth.
-- Lech Walesa
The VOA and the Cold War
THE VOICE OF AMERICA was born in the midst of World War Two as a U.S. Government agency (initially part of the Department of State) to inform the world about the war and American life and policies. Its motto from its start in 1942 to today was embodied in the first words uttered in its very first broadcast, which was in German: "The news may be good or bad. We will tell you the truth."
The principal author of the American Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, said in that document, now enshrined for the ages: "A decent respect for the opinions of mankind requires ... that facts be submitted to a candid world." To which can be appended the statement of the famed American radio commentator, Edward R. Murrow, when he was the Director of the U.S. Information Agency (at the time the former parent agency of the Voice of America): To be persuasive, we must be believable; to be believable, we must be credible; to be credible, we must be truthful." These statements have guided VOA’s forty to fifty language services throughout their history.
In 1953, VOA was moved from New York to Washington to become the independent U.S. Information Agency. Especially during the Cold War, VOA was a major instrument of the free world’s struggle against communist tyranny. The Estonian Service was in the midst of that struggle and deserves credit, along with others, in helping to bring communism to its knees. It was a testimonial to the fact that despite relentless falsehoods and terror, truth and freedom triumph in the end. All those who took part in the work of VOA’s Estonian Service deserve to be remembered among the warrior heroes in the fight to end communism. And that is not an exaggeration. For the Cold War generation of VOA staffers, their work was not just a job, it was a dedication. There was no hesitation about hardships or longer hours, to remain in the offices during snow storms that would have prevented their return the next day. The information that the many loyal listeners longed for, had to go through.
It has to be made clear at the outset that VOA was and is the voice of the American people, that is, all the people, in whatever language. Along with USIA, it’s duty was to “tell America’s story to the world.” VOA’s one half or full hour programs were standard information formats: first, about ten minutes of news, followed by about five minutes of commentary and the rest a topical feature or interviews. For much of VOA’s history, except for less than the first decade, the only direct U.S. Government policy role was in a daily three-minute editorial, which was clearly labeled as official opinion.
Everyone, from the highest management down to the announcer at the microphone, was aware of the sensitivity of every word. It had to be the truth, unvarnished and untwisted. Errors could, and at times did, lead to international incidents. Even the travel plans of Yugoslav communist dictator Tito, when he called in the U.S. Ambassador in Belgrade (George Kennan
at the time) to tell him that he had no plans to travel to where VOA said he would travel! However, that’s where he did travel!
VOA news programs were sacrosanct. They were governed by the VOA Charter (Public Law 84-356) which said: 1. VOA will serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news. VOA news will be accurate, objective and comprehensive. 2. VOA will represent America, not any single segment of American society, and will therefore present a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions. 3. VOA will present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and will also present responsible discussion and opinion on these policies.
The news was written and its order of presentation decided by the particular regional desk in the central VOA newsroom and then translated in the language services. This was especially true of the top three news items. In special cases, changes were granted by the Regional News Editor. This was to ensure that VOA speaks with "one voice." Beyond the top news and the editorials, the language services had extensive leeway to tailor their programs to the tastes and interests of their particular vernacular listeners.
Portraying American Life Through Ethnicity
One of the most credible ways to convey life in America was through the lives, opinions and experiences of Americans who spoke the VOA’s languages. It heightened the listeners’ interest and desire to know about his compatriot’s life and work overseas. It enlarged the audience and helped it to understand the American experience. It also made clear to a nationality under oppression that their language, culture and literature is able to continue and flourish in a free and democratic society. Most important, that America respects and recognizes the importance of that country, regardless of size, its people and their language. That was a policy statement all by itself. The program’s effect, although unintentional in policy terms, was to contrast life in the free world with oppression under communism. There was no need for "propaganda" as practiced by the communists and the nazis. There was no need to enter into polemics. The facts and the truth spoke for themselves.
Within this proportional context of American experience and freedom, the language services especially targeted what might be termed "ethnic programming" to their particular audiences. In addition to helping convey what life was like in the United States, the services provided interviews with native speakers and cultural, social, religious as well as political events.
The solemn occasions to mark Estonian Independence Day, the ESTO festivals, new Estonian-language books by exiled Estonian authors, folk dancing and singing and conferences of special interest to the audience were all carried on VOA. Special attention was given to meetings with U.S. congressmen, senators and U.S. Government officials, to remind them of the struggles and fate of the Estonian people under occupation. The intent always was to convey truthful information, never to give false hope or incite.
As the United States never recognized the military occupation and forced incorporation of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania into the Soviet Union, it was in the national policy interest of the U.S. to have VOA Baltic and other European area services carry interviews with the legal, recognized Baltic diplomatic representatives in the U.S. and to convey the State Department declarations of non-recognition policy on a regular basis. The VOA Estonian Service aired frequent statements by the leaders of the private Estonian American National Council, especially its longtime President, Juhan Simonson and his predecessors such as Ilmar Pleer. It broadcast declarations of U.S. policy on the Baltic countries by the President and members of Congress and cited commentaries in the press.
The Estonian Service
The Estonian Service of the Voice of America went on the air from VOA’s New York City studios on June 3, 1951. As VOA was initially part of the Department of State, its responsible and accountable employees had to be American citizens. Therefore, others had to take the lead in groundwork and recruitment for the three Baltic services. Thus, we have to give initial credit to erstwhile officials of the U.S. Foreign Information Service, as the founding agency was called, before someone uttered "The Voice of America" and it stuck. Among the most prominent in founding the Baltic services were Robert Bauer and John Albert. An Estonian-speaking U.S. citizen working for the Library of Congress, Ludmilla Floss, was named Acting Chief of the Service. However, she returned to her old job in slightly more than a year.
The very first recruit in the Estonian Service was well-known literary critic Harald Parrest, who was the Chief Editor until his sudden death about four years later. The next in terms of seniority was Asta Rice Türner, a graduate of the Tartu University Law School, who was hired initially as the service secretary, but later became its producer.
In rapid succession came exiled journalists Arvo Kalbus, Elmar Simm and Jaan Kitzberg, novelist Pedro Krusten and literary critic Mall Jürma. All had established their professional credentials in independent Estonia. They were joined part time by actress Kadi Tekkel-Taniloo and singer Erik Tônisson. These staffers formed the core of the first VOA daily half-hour programs in Estonian.
The next recruit, U.S. Army officer and citizen, Karl Robert Pusta, Jr., the son of the famed Estonian diplomat, was named Chief. But shortly thereafter, the VOA management decided to create a parallel broadcasting unit in Munich. The German city was already the home of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, although they did not broadcast in Baltic languages at the time. Another recruit, prominent former Estonian journalist, Voldemar Veedam, was sent to Munich along with Arvo Kalbus and K.R. Pusta, Jr. There they were joined by Heinrich Pullerits, Renate Blodow, Karl Kesa, Aleksander Terras, Aksel Kristjan and by pastors Konrad Veem and Eduard Soosaar. Later by Ilmar Vainu and Ilmar Mikiver. Thus there were two VOA Estonian originations daily, one from New York (later Washington) and one from Munich. However, the Munich Bureau was closed in 1958. Of the staffers, Arvo Kalbus and Voldemar Veedam returned to Washington. Ilmar Mikiver returned to VOA in Washington later.
When USIA was created, VOA became centered in Washington, with its headquarters and studios in the shadow of the Capitol. Some of the more freewheeling commentaries poking fun at life under communism, that were the staple from New York, were brought under control with general guidance (but not censorship!) to all VOA’s language services as well as its Worldwide English. The purpose was to make sure that the central political message of the United States was identical, but supplemented by regionalized material targeted to specific audiences.
In the early sixties, some of the younger generation, educated in the U.S., joined VOA. However, for a variety of reasons, they did not stay long in the Estonian Service. Because of better command of English, they had more opportunities for advancement, whether within VOA or elsewhere. One problem was that the Estonian Service was fully staffed with a complement of eight, leaving no opportunities for promotion of others.
Among them, Gunnar Paabo was a regular announcer, but later moved to the Vietnamese Service as a producer, as its programs were expanded during the Vietnam War. Ilme-Anne Pagi moved on to become VOA’s Training Officer. For a short while, Ivo Meisner was part of the service. Imre Lipping went to fight in Vietnam and returning, joined the U.S. Foreign Service. Ilo-Mai Harding Soots moved to the parent USIA and Pia Salmre elsewhere within VOA. Vello Ederma moved to the central News Division, where he became the European Regional Editor and Managing Editor, before taking over as the Deputy Chief of the European Division.
Throughout its history, the Estonian Service Chiefs included, after the long stewardship of Jaan Kitzberg ended with retirement in 1974, Voldemar Veedam, Ilmar Mikiver, Karl Laantee, Jüri Täht and Markus Larsson.
Among the regular part-time announcers that the listeners heard daily were Mai-Kaja Kork, Tiina Ets and Tiiu Ling. As religion under communism was largely suppressed, clerics were regulars on Sundays, such as Rudolf Kiviranna and Uno Plank.
The late seventies and eighties inevitably brought changes through death and retirement. This meant the addition of two veteran journalists, Ilmar Külvet and Evald Roosaare. Other newcomers included opera-star Ive Patrasson, author Arvi Tinits (Kork), Wilhelmine Kusse, Aarand Roos, Tarmo Sepp, Heldia Estam, Esta Aavik, Nele Laanejärv and Maret Aronovich.
During the Singing Revolution in Estonia of the late Eighties, the Estonian Service included the very embodiment of its audience, former Soviet political prisoner Einar Komp. Another gulag prisoner had described a visit to the camp by a group of Estonian communist functionaries. As the communists left, Einar Komp gave their leader a bouquet, wrapped in white paper. As the functionary thanked him, he realized that he had received a "bouquet" of rusted barbed wire. For that, Einar Komp spent months in solitary, with barely anything to eat.
As Estonia regained its independence, Einar Komp said his job at VOA was done and returned to Estonia. It was only fitting!
The nineties brought major changes. As the Soviet Union imploded, Estonia became free again. The VOA’s Estonian Service underwent generational, professional, as well as political changes. There was a need to be more competitive with the newly free Estonian media.
Gone was the short wave that had been so important during the Cold War, but which was often jammed by the communist regime. People had used ingenuity to break through the electronic interference. They had listened in secret, daring arrest.
There were new challenges. The service had to deal with twenty-first century’s new information explosion and high technology, television and the Internet.
Leadership was passed from Jüri Täht to Markus Larsson, from the "old" to the "new." The staff was cut back, with Neeme Raud from New York and Ats Joorits and Marika Urb from Washington as the young, professional mainstays, the new generation of VOA staffers now (again) born in Estonia.
Among many who came to spend a year or two in the Service were Tiina Park, Mall Mälberg, Villu Tari and Harri Tiido.
There were structural changes as well. The U.S. Information Agency was abolished and its public diplomacy functions were transferred back to the Department of State, where the whole story of VOA began. The Voice of America, however, was declared independent, along with other U.S.-funded international radios, television and other media, under a separate Broadcasting Board of Governors.
Before long, the U.S. Government and Congress decided that it was no longer necessary to broadcast to countries that had regained independence and freedom. VOA’s original mission had been accomplished. VOA’s intent was not to broadcast to America’s NATO allies, where free media flourished. Therefore, VOA broadcast for the last time in the Estonian language on February 27, 2004. Estonia became a full member of the Atlantic Alliance a month later.
(Updated 2011) Original written for the Estonian-American Historical Commission.
Copyright Vello Ederma (VOA-USIA 1955-1994)
THE VOICE OF AMERICA AND ITS ESTONIAN SERVICE A CONCISE HISTORY (1951-2004) (1)