Thursday, November 27, 2014


Communications / Off Mic

Using Balloons to Breach the Iron Curtain

Two RFE/RL employees prepare balloons which will carry leaflets into Czechoslovakia. (1951)
Two RFE/RL employees prepare balloons which will carry leaflets into Czechoslovakia. (1951)
With the upcoming 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, we thought it would be appropriate to take a look back at the efforts of Radio Free Europe to breach the "Iron Curtain" during the early years of the Cold War.

Herbert A. Friedman of psywarrior.com has written an extensive piece on Radio Free Europe's Cold War-era "leaflet campaign" over Central and Eastern Europe during the 1950s.

Friedman writes that the "leaflets were a major part of the post-WWII psychological warfare battle between East and West...the operation sent 590,415 balloons that carried 301,636,883 leaflets, posters, books, and other printed matter from West Germany over the Iron Curtain to Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland from August 1951 to November 1956."

Radio Free Europe Balloon Launch from an unknown location in Germany.
 


In an extensive propaganda campaign, the United States stuffed meteorological balloons with
The [Czech] regime responded to Prospero by using military aircraft and anti-aircraft weapons along the border to shoot down the balloons the day after the first launching...
leaflets and floated them into Eastern Europe. The nature of the leaflets varied -- including messages of support and encouragement to citizens suffering under communist oppression, satirical criticisms of communist regimes and leaders, information about dissident movements and human rights campaigns, and messages expressing the solidarity of the American people with the residents of Eastern European nations.

Some of the campaigns -- including one code-named "Prospero," which sent parody Czech banknotes with critical messages on them over the border -- were so effective that the communist regimes went to great lengths to try to disrupt them:

The [Czech] regime responded to Prospero by using military aircraft and anti-aircraft weapons along the border to shoot down the balloons the day after the first launching…Police cars in Prague and elsewhere used loudspeakers ordering citizens to turn in all the leaflets…Because of the violent reaction and the media attacks, RFE inadvertently discovered that the balloon program was more successful than first planned.
 
The Prospero propaganda banknote is a parody of the Czechoslovak State Bank one Koruna of 1953.
 


When those tactics failed, the communist regimes sent intelligence agents to sabotage the balloon launching sites in Germany:

In late 1954 a Czech agent was apprehended as he attempted to cross the border with forged papers. When questioned, he explained that he had been ordered to burn the balloon launching site at Tirschenreuth. When asked why he carried a weapon, he replied that his orders were to kill anyone who tried to stop him.

Check out the full article for many more examples of RFE leaflets and campaigns from the early years of the Cold War.

--Alex Mayer

Tags: Cold War Chronicles

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum yet. Be the first to add one.

Join the Conversation

The Off Mic Blog
Journalists In Trouble
Partner Media