Friday, 14 August 2015

International Communications in the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Today, 14 August 2015, John Kerry became the first US Secretary of State to visit Cuba in 70 years. He reopened the American embassy, and watched the US flag rise in the presence of the same marines who lowered it in 1961.

Cuba played an important part in my life over twenty years ago. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 was a case-study in my PhD thesis on international radio broadcasting in the Cold War, and you can read the chapter in my first book, Radio Diplomacy and Propaganda (Macmillan, 1996). The chapter studied how international radio broadcasting, specifically Radio Moscow and the Voice of America, played an important role in not only projecting propaganda, but also in resolving the crisis. At the  core of what I called 'media diplomacy' was the ever wonderful BBC Monitoring Service, located at Caversham Park near Reading in the UK, which has helped to gather open intelligence from the world's broadcast media since before World War Two. Below are my abridged conclusions. I cringe a little now when I read them, but please remember I wrote this at some point between the age of 21 and 23.

In the context of the Cold War, the defusing of the Cuban missile crisis represented a step of progress in the conduct of international relations: it had been the first real crisis of nuclear proportions; it provided the pretext for further negotiations between the Superpowers that paved the way to an eventual, but short-lived, detente; and it facilitated their relationship in that the need for a direct line of communication between the White House and the Kremlin - the so-called 'Hot Line' - was recognised and accepted. More importantly for the purposes of this study, while Kennedy and Khrushchev conversed with each other through traditional channels, radio had been explicitly used as an integral part of the diplomatic procedure, marking watershed in global broadcasting on a series of levels. The Soviet Union was forced by circumstances to recognise that the value of radio was no longer rooted merely in propaganda, the importance of the monitoring service was acknowledged, and public opinion was accorded a position as a contributory factor in the formulation of political foreign policy. At the start of the crisis, the British Ambassador in Havana, Sir Herbert Marchant, had advocated the launch of a 'really serious propaganda exercise' by the US. 'I mean, really serious and probably expensive, but still cheaper than a war.' (1) Such an observation implies recognition that propaganda can often be a substitute for military conflict, as the missile crisis vividly illustrated.
                 Together the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban missile crisis had confirmed the importance of harmonising government action with propaganda and broadcasting policy. It had not been easy; the gravity of the crisis had forced the USIA into supervising VoA broadcasts to a degree that had so far been avoided. The crisis also opened up deep wounds between the VoA and its parent agency, USIA. The Director of the VoA, Henry Loomis, told Ed Murrow [Director of USIA] that the station 'failed to sound convincing because of our monolithic tone. ... During the ... crisis,' he said, 'we were required to distort and concentrate our programme at the expense of credibility and relevance to our audience.' Loomis believed that by broadcasting Presidential and State Department announcements, the Voice suffered from a markedly dull output and at the same time revealed itself to be a propaganda station. [2]  However, given the scope and nature of the crisis, this comment is unjustified. At a time when the political risks were incredibly high, when the future of the whole world was at stake, audiences for foreign broadcasts (which inevitably increase at times of major crises) were more interested in government pronouncements of intentions rather than often wild speculation. As America's role in the Vietnam war continued to escalate, this dichotomy posed by VoA's dual purpose was exacerbated, and the relationship which the government enjoyed with its propaganda agencies was to prove crucial.


1.  FO371/162347/AK1051/11, 22 October 1962 (Public Record Office, Kew Gardens)
2.  Sorenson, Thomas (1968), The Word War: The Story of American Propaganda (New York: Harper & Row), p. 238

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