Comment on: “The Voice of America: Origins and Recollections”
VOA and Armenia
The origins of the Voice of America, from its inception in 1942, were covered recently in these pages in an excellent article by Walter Roberts. This comment describes later aspects of VOA, with special emphasis on broadcasts to minority republics of the USSR, focusing on one, Armenian, which I headed in its first decade of operations. Begun in 1951, the Armenian programs were terminated in 2004 by the Broadcasting Board of Governors in a major shift in funds required for expanded broadcasts to the Muslim world.
Moscow, sensing its vulnerability, raised an uproar, interpreting the planned VOA broadcasts as signaling a foreign policy aimed at the eventual dismemberment of the Soviet Union. Washington ignored the Soviet protestations and proceeded with plans to organize the broadcasts.
In 1950, VOA was situated in New York City, broadcasting in several languages, foremost in English, German, French and Italian. I had been working in the cultural branch of VOA when one day a senior official of the State Department approached me and said that because he knew me to be ethnically Armenian and since I had all the necessary security clearances, would I consider recruiting personnel to prepare VOA broadcasts in Armenian to the USSR. Astonished and elated, I immediately accepted. He asked me to also find candidates for broadcasts in Azeri, Uzbek and Tatar, adding that a Georgian staff was already in tow.
Contacting organizations involved with newly arrived immigrants from the Soviet Union, I came across countless displaced persons, primarily Red Army veterans who had been captured by the Nazis and at war’s end had chosen to come to the United States rather than be repatriated to the Soviet Union. Speakers of Western Armenian in the United States were in the hundreds of thousands, but to establish and maintain credibility with our potential audience, my search was focused on native speakers of Eastern Armenian, especially those with education and political savvy. I found several, but none of them had any radio experience. In late 1950, I was given a budget and was instructed to begin training a staff. This consisted of two procedures: first, translating the English texts of news and commentary - prepared centrally by VOA for all languages - into straightforward pure Armenian, devoid of the many Russianisms that had crept into the language, and second, familiarizing them in broadcasting techniques through daily studio rehearsals in preparation for the day we would begin actual broadcasts.
On June 24, 1951, after some six months of rehearsals, VOA began broadcasting to the people of Soviet Armenia in their native language in a 15-minute program heard on six short-wave bands.
On that first day, the program began with a message from Secretary of State Dean Acheson, who said he welcomed this opportunity to greet the people of Soviet Armenia. The Armenians of the United States, he continued, represented a people of courage, of superb character and spirituality. He went on to speak of Armenian culture evoking names from the past and of the present, expressing his admiration for the strength of Armenians in the Soviet Union in sustaining their national character and individuality, their glorious past and their will in fighting for human rights. He said that Americans knew the Armenian people for their early acceptance of Christianity and defense of western civilization, and that Americans acknowledged Armenia as a staunch bastion against Soviet atheism and tyranny.
Moscow’s response was virtually immediate. Within hours, transmitters in the Soviet Union began a barrage of jamming of VOA Armenian and other minority language broadcasts, seeking to obliterate all news from outside the Soviet Union, fearful of any version of world events other than its own ever reaching its subject peoples. Yet, despite the crude and relentless attempts to drown out VOA, Armenians – and other peoples in the Soviet sphere – found ways to circumvent the jamming. As we were to learn later, Armenians gathered around their radios at 7 o’clock every evening to hear VOA’s news and commentary in their native language, which they did at the risk of imprisonment. For the first time in the history of both nations, a direct channel now existed between the American and Armenian people.
In the fifty-three years that followed, the Armenian programs expanded to 30 minutes and then a full hour that allowed for commentaries and features in greater scope and depth. Following an initial segment of national and world news, the programs included Presidential statements, Congressional debates, interviews that reflected democratic processes and equal opportunity for all, and – most relevant to the target audience – highlighted the role of Armenians in American government, society and culture.
In 1953, President Eisenhower signed into law the creation of the United States Information Agency (USIA), whose function it was, as the later plaque on its Pennsylvania Avenue building said – “to tell America’s story to the world,” a major consequence of which was the transfer of VOA and all its vast facilities from the State Department to the new agency. This necessitated the move of VOA from New York to Washington in the same year - a virtually miraculous undertaking without a single moment’s disruption in the broadcasts of VOA which, meanwhile, had expanded from its initial handful of languages to thirty-eight.
In 1959, USIA Director George Allen urged all native-born Americans in VOA to consider entering the Foreign Service, thereby enriching, he said, the public affairs capability of the embassy staffs. Having already served for ten years at VOA I was ready for a change and was sworn into the Foreign Service and a new life of diplomacy. My assignments sent me to West Berlin, Budapest, Athens and finally East Berlin, where as Public Affairs Officer I engaged in the multifaceted embassy function now known as Public Diplomacy.
It was only then that I began to fully grasp the huge potential of VOA to influence foreign publics in their views of the United States. My activities - and those of my colleagues engaged in like duties in some 155 embassies and consulates around the world – were supplemental to what VOA could accomplish to a much wider audience.
We met with editors of newspapers and magazines, directors of radio and TV stations, intellectuals in academia, the arts and sciences, promoted engagements for symphony orchestras and jazz combos, sponsored film festivals and theatre groups, circulated exhibits reflecting American life, showed films at our residences to select gatherings, chaired Fulbright Commissions and negotiated student exchanges and visits, in both directions, by influential political figures, and much more depending on the accessibility of the country to which we were assigned.
In those years that I engaged in Public Diplomacy, I continually looked back on my ten years at VOA when all we did was talk – even through the jamming – but the audience we reached far exceeded anything I could equal in my daily embassy activities.
On March 27, 2004, VOA broadcasts in Armenian were terminated. The reaction in Armenia was phenomenal, evoking an enormous outcry. With Armenia now free and an independent republic, VOA’s reporter in Armenia and its Washington office were deluged with letters and e-mails bemoaning the loss for the large audience in Armenia.
Public Affairs Officers in the field are often asked to report what is known as “evidence of effectiveness,” not an easily identifiable demonstration of the success of their efforts. But with the termination of Armenian broadcasts, the “evidence” was provided by the audience to which the broadcasts were aimed in countless tributes to the efficacy of VOA. Two of the messages best summarize the views of all.
The first read: “The powerful USA has heartened the Armenian nation more than once during its most difficult periods. The Voice of America has been an objective source of information in a critical time when the Karabagh problem and the Turkish blockade still exists.” The message was signed by 210 listeners in Armenia.
The second read: “We who are signed below (197) are citizens of the Republic of Armenia, permanent listeners to the Voice of America and admirers of American political freedom. With the elimination of Armenian broadcasts, you can be sure that that will negatively affect the Armenian democratic process,” and the message concluded, “a thousand signatures could be put here.”
VOA, after closing down its Armenian broadcasts and in view of the highly negative reaction in Armenia, somewhat remedied the situation by negotiating an agreement with the Armenian Government under which VOA would create a weekly 15-minute television program. Such a program was launched in 2004 and relayed to Yerevan on a weekly basis for airing every Saturday night on Armenian Television. Because of its burgeoning popularity, the VOA telecast has since been expanded to one-and-a-half hours and, according to an InterMedia Survey, is viewed by over one million Armenians, that is to say one-third of the entire population. (I am indebted to Alan Heil, former VOA Deputy Director, for this information.)
We of USIA’s Foreign Service have struggled tirelessly to circumvent the countless obstacles thrust in our path by oppressive regimes, especially by Soviet officials and their counterparts in East Europe. I shall, however, always be grateful for the responsibility given to me to initiate the Armenian Service of VOA to pierce the Iron Curtain erected by the Soviet Government between the American and Armenian people.