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The East: RFE Director's Book Focuses On His 'War Within the Cold War'

  • Joel Blocker



Prague, 20 January 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The name of George Urban will surely be familiar to many veteran listeners of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty broadcasts -- although it may evoke little resonance among younger people.

Hungarian-born but with British university education and citizenship, Urban was a BBC programmer in both the British radio's Hungarian and European services before joining RFE in the mid-1960s. At RFE, Urban created its so-called Third Program, broadcasting a series of pithy interviews --"dialogues" would be a more appropriate description -- with prominent Western and Eastern intellectuals on ideological and philosophical questions.

Urban's interview subjects ranged from the British historian Arnold Toynbee through the Hungarian-born writer Arthur Koestler to former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick.

They attracted an influential elite group of East European intellectuals and dissidents to broadcasts. Many of them were later published in the influential -- and now defunct -- British monthly "Encounter" and compiled by Urban in nine collections published in his lifetime.

Later, for three years, Urban was RFE director, retiring from that post in 1986. But he continued to conduct, broadcast and publish his interviews for five more years.

Urban's last book, titled "Radio Free Europe and the Pursuit of Democracy: My War Within the Cold War" has just been published in the U.S. and Britain (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 322 pages, $35). Because it is both history and memoir, the book constitutes a summing up of his life -- and sadly, if appropriately, its publication came two months after Urban succumbed to a heart attack at the age of 76.

Urban believed that the Cold War was really World War Three, fought without bullets, but nonetheless bellicose for that. Urban's "participation in the Cold War," he writes, "was driven by principle rather than any prospect of a career-promoting international conflagration."

What may be surprising is that he judges the most difficult battles not to be those with his lifetime Communist opponents but with avowed former or "reformed" communists, whom he suspected of still harboring discredited views and attitudes, and, most of all, with U.S. and British politicians, bureaucrats and diplomats who often made his life at the BBC and RFE difficult and sometimes miserable.

Early on in the book, Urban writes: "(Western) politicians and diplomats alike suffered from a familiar 'deformation professionelle' (a French expression meaning professional miseducation). They found it hard to think away from Western models and political experience ... Their insight (into communist mentality) was weak --their will to gain access to the inner states of their opponents nonexistent ... Our governments' understanding of what was actually happening in the East, and how communist weaknesses might best be exploited, suffered accordingly."

For Urban, the word "propaganda" was not a dishonorable one, but had "acquired deeply pejorative connotations" principally because of communist and fascist corruption of it to misrepresent reality. In its basic uncorrupted sense, propaganda for Urban was a suitable description of the role of Western radios broadcasting to communist lands -- far more accurate than the official euphemism, "public diplomacy."

He believed this was particularly true of RFE and RL, both then as now funded by the U.S. Government but retaining editorial independence in their broadcasts. The two institutions, aired in more than 20 languages, were conceived to act as surrogate radios for informing oppressed peoples subject to endless communist brainwashing of their real situation.

For Urban, producing such "propaganda" was an honorable vocation, given that it involved nothing more than telling the truth skillfully and at the right time.

Concluding one chapter on what he calls "High Communism," Urban writes: "The one fundamental and political challenge of our time --communism of the totalitarian brand -- has suffered defeat. That is no small event to enter in the annals of our century. I am content to leave it to the judgment of the reader how much Western psychological warfare (in which Urban includes RFE/RL's work) had to do with it."

The U.S. scholar and intellectual Michael Novak worked with George Urban when he was RFE director and with his RL counterpart, George Bailey, as a member of the government-appointed board that oversaw RFE/RL. In a blurb for Urban's book, Novak writes: "(Urban) has written the best autobiographical account of what the war of ideas felt like, and how it was fought out."

In general, Urban believed that the Radios did largely fulfill their mission of informing Easterners of the real conditions in communist nations and of what he calls "keeping (Eastern) national cultures and identities in good working condition" throughout the communist era. He cites a speech made last year at RFE/RL's current Prague headquarters by Romanian President Emil Constantinescu: "Communism could not be defeated by the power of arms, but only by the power of words and profound convictions. That is why Radio Free Europe was much more important for us than armies, rockets, or even the most sophisticated equipment. The 'rockets' that destroyed Communism were launched by Radio Free Europe. This was America's most important investment in the Cold War."

Urban's quotation of Constantinescu's remarks ends with these words: "I don't know whether Americans themselves realize this now, seven years after the event, but we understand it well ... The trial of communism is not finished."

Urban's last book, like his entire adult life, restores some dignity to the discredited figure of the contemporary Western intellectual. In Urban's lifetime, Western intellectuals too frequently corrupted themselves with allegiances to false -- notably, Marxist -- ideological idols or concessions to the temptations of political and bureaucratic power. Unlike them, Urban remained his own man and never compromised his ideas.
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