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By Richard H. Cummings

This article is adapted from the author's paper "Attacks from the East Against Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty," presented at the 5th Annual Meeting of the International Intelligence History Study Group 18-20 June 1999 Tutzing (near Munich)

From October 1951 to November 1956, the skies of Central Europe were filled with more than 350,000 balloons carrying over 300,000,000 leaflets, posters, books, and other printed matter that were sent from West Germany over the Iron Curtain to Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary.

This paper will trace the reasons for this balloon saturation.

The origins the CIA's covert radio station Radio Free Europe (RFE) (1) can be traced to years 1947-48. It was a time of the completion of Soviet domination of East Europe, the Berlin blockade and airlift, the Marshall Plan, and the Iron Curtain. Eastern, Central, and Western Europe were physically divided by barbed wire, armed patrols, land mines and guard towers. There was a Communist monopoly and censorship of media. The free flow of information was cut off, not only from the outside, but also internally. As we will read, RFE discovered an ingenious method of sending information to those trapped behind the Iron Curtain.


On 17 December 1947, the newly created U.S. National Security Council issued NSC 4-A, which directed the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency to:

"initiate and conduct covert psychological operations designed to counteract Soviet and Soviet-inspired activities which constitute a threat to world peace." (2)

One aim of this psychological-war campaign was to create surrogate radio stations (home service) that would broadcast to countries under the Soviet control yet not be officially connected with the United States government. These stations could broadcast programs and take positions for which the United States officially could deny responsibility.


In 1948, under code name Project ULTIMATE, the CIA's Special Procedures Group (SPG) had a printing press and stockpile of meteorological balloons to carry and deliver propaganda leaflets into East European countries in the event of war. In addition, the SPG had acquired from the American military small short-wave transmitters for broadcasting to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe from the U.S. Zone of Germany under code name "Project UMPIRE." (3)

Career diplomat George F. Kennan has been called the "Father of Containment." Perhaps, but as we will read, he was a firm proponent of "Liberation." In 1948 Kennan was then the director of the Department of State's Policy Planning Staff and the prime mover in creating Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. On May 3, 1948 he presented a State Department position paper to the National Security Council entitled "The Inauguration of Organized Political Warfare." Kennan proposed a program of support for "liberation committees, underground activities behind the Iron Curtain, and support of indigenous anti-Communist elements in threatened countries of the Free World." (4)

These Liberation Committees would "encourage the formation of a public American organization which will sponsor selected political refugee committees so that they may act as the focus of national hope and revive a sense of purpose among political refugees from the Soviet World; provide an inspiration for continuing popular resistance within the countries of the Soviet World; and serve as a potential nucleus for all-out liberation movements in the event of war." (5)

In June that year the Director of Central Intelligence, Rear Admiral Roscoe Hillenkoetter, sent a Top Secret memorandum to the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Denfeld, telling him that "the Central Intelligence Agency has developed an effective method of penetrating the Iron Curtain with the use of high level balloons." Hillenkoetter asked that Navy officers be used to assist in the project and added that because of the nature of this project this letter should be shown only to those Navy officers who "need to know." (6)

On 4 August 1948, Frank G. Wisner then the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Occupied Countries, telephoned Admiral Hillenkoetter and told him that the US State Department, "at the present time," disapproved of the idea of using balloons to carry propaganda from the then American-occupied Zone in Germany to East Europe and the Soviet Union. Wisner explained that he had discussed this with George Kennan, who said that the "time was not propitious." (7)

NSC 10/2

In June 1948, after a lengthy bureaucratic debate among various interested government agencies, the National Security Council superseded NSC 4-A with another directive, NSC 10/2. Kennan drafted this directive, which presented more details of planned upcoming psychological war with the Soviet Union:

The National Security Council, taking cognizance of the vicious covert activities of the USSR, its satellite countries and Communist groups to discredit and defeat the aims and activities of the United States and other Western powers, has determined that, in the interests of world peace and US national security, the overt foreign activities of the US Government must be supplemented by covert operations. (8)

Covert operations were defined as "all activities ... conducted or sponsored ... against hostile foreign states or groups or in support of friendly foreign states or groups but which are so planned and executed that any US Government responsibility for them is not evident to unauthorized persons and that if uncovered the US Government can plausibly disclaim any responsibility for them." (9)

In June 1949, The National Committee for a Free Europe ostensibly was founded in New York with it's broadcast arm Radio Free Europe. RFE's purpose was, inter alia, "to put the voices of these exiled leaders on the air, addressed to their own peoples back in Europe, in their own languages, in the familiar tones. We shall help them also, if we can, to get their messages back by printed word." A little over a year later, on July 4, 1950, Radio Free Europe transmitted its first program, 30 minutes in length, to Czechoslovakia.

Balloons and Leaflets

The first balloons were launched in August 1951 in an open field only 3 miles from the Czechoslovak border, when the Free Europe Committee used the Free Europe Press (FEP) to print up millions of propaganda leaflets. This test operation was on a stand-alone basis, i.e., the balloons were not part of a coordinated programming effort with Radio Free Europe. The leaflets contained such slogans as "A new hope is stirring," and "Friends of Freedom in other lands have found a new way to reach you."

Famed American newspaper correspondent Drew Pearson was a major proponent of the balloon launching program in his US newspaper columns. He and C.D.Jackson, President of Free Europe Committee, and other prominent guests were in attendance. Weather research balloons, about four feet in diameter carrying "friendship" leaflets were launched into Czechoslovakia over a two week period. Each balloon carried about 3000 leaflets, and when the weather was favorable, about 2000 balloon were launched each night. In total, over 11,000,000 leaflets were dropped. (10) Both the regime and citizens seemingly ignored the leaflets.

Though not politically successful, the FEC (and the CIA) gained valuable practical experience in balloon launching. Ballooning had become a cost-effective means of delivering printed propaganda.

Balloon Technology

FEP used different types and sizes of helium filled balloons from round to pillow shaped. Pillow balloons, for example, used a remarkable timing device: dry ice. Cartons filled with leaflets were attached to the bottom of the hydrogen-filled balloons. The loosely-covered cartons were held upright through the use of envelopes containing dry ice. As the dry ice evaporated, the cartons tipped over, thus dropping the leaflets. To try and hit an intended population target, the balloon launchers developed an ingenious system that calculated the weight of the dry ice, the amount of hydrogen, weight of the leaflets, direction and velocity of the wind. FEP estimated that 500 balloons carrying 2 to 7 pounds of leaflets could be filled and launched hourly at the stations.

The balloon launching, with coordinated Radio Free Europe programming, operations that followed were called "PROSPERO, "VETO," "FOCUS," and "SPOTLIGHT." Three major launching sites were constructed in Bavaria to launch the balloons in round-the-clock operations in good weather. The balloon launching station at Freyung, Bavaria, for example, had a plaque that read, in part, "Free Europe Press...permitting the addition of the written word to Radio Free Europe's spoken communications with the people behind the Iron Curtain."

Operation PROSPERO

PROSPERO was the code name for the RFE balloon program in the summer 1953, when in a time span of only four days, 6,500 balloons with over 12,000,000 RFE leaflets were launched into Czechoslovakia. The balloon launching started approximately at midnight on 13 July in the small Bavarian town Tirschenreuth. RFE broadcast news of the launching during the first news broadcasts at 6:00 AM. This was the first time balloons were launched in conjunction with specific radio programs. RFE was critical of the regime's just installed currency reforms. Included in the leaflets were aluminum replicas of a newly-introduced Czechoslovak coin. The Freedom Bell and the inscription, "All Czechs and Slovaks for Freedom--all the Free World for Czechs and Slovaks" were stamped on the coin replicas.

The 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. In fact on July 15, the FEP staff actually saw the military aircraft shooting down the balloons as they first crossed the border into Czechoslovakia. Police cars in Prague and elsewhere used loudspeakers ordering citizens to turn in all the leaflets. Both the Czechoslovak and Soviet media attacked this balloon program. Because of the violent reaction and the media attacks, RFE inadvertently discovered that the balloon program was more successful than first planned and paved the ground work for even greater balloon efforts with specific programming in the following years.

For the first time, PROSPERO proved the value of combining the spoken word of RFE and written word of FEP for effective propaganda (11).

Operation VETO: A Combined Political Warfare Operation

In April 1954, the FEC and the FEP started Operation VETO as an integrated balloon and broadcast campaign over the Voice of Free Czechoslovakia aimed at achieving eventual "liberation from Communism" in Czechoslovakia: RFE developed a strategic plan of integrating of the radio programming with the balloon-leaflet campaign. RFE's objectives were to build up the moral strength and action potential of an internal force that would lead to the liberation of Czechoslovakia. This would only occur when both external and international political developments would demonstrate to the Soviet Union that it would be more costly to intervene than not to intervene. This time would not come in 1968 with the Prague Spring but only in 1989 with the collapse of Communism in East Europe.

RFE spoke directly to the people of Czechoslovakia and told of the existence of an intangible People's Opposition movement. According to RFE, this was not a formal underground organization, and there was no headquarters or material basis. Every Czech and Slovak who was opposed to Soviet domination belonged to this spiritual movement.

RFE had spent months piecing together a picture of complaints collected from refugee statements and intensive review of the Czechoslovak media. The leaflets, for example, listed a nonviolent political program of Ten Demands including "Housing for Families, not the State; " and "Better Pay--Less Talk." Small decals were included that could be concealed in a closed hand and contained only the number 10. Later they were pasted on Communist Party posters as a symbol of opposition. From May to August, 1954, over 41,000,000 leaflets were sent into Czechoslovakia via balloons during Operation VETO. (12)


Radio Free Europe propaganda leaflet
Radio Free Europe propaganda leaflet

The leaflet illustrated is from 'Operation Veto'.
It and the following translation are courtesy of the Oakland Collection.



The harvesting has started. Farmers are reaping the fruits of their year's labour. At this time, we must all ask ourselves a question: "On whose table will our grain end up?" Will it be the children who will eat pastry baked from the wheat you cultivated, will it be your wife who will slice bread baked from the rye which you sowed, will it be your relatives and friends who will receive a share from your crops? Or will it be the insatiable throat of the Soviet Union and the short-weighing state trade who swallow up the labour of your caloused hands?


Today you will decide what it will be like in winter. Remember that the recent Party Congress confirmed beyond any doubt that the regime's agricultural policy ends up in a total breakdown. Siroky had to concede that the U.A.C.'s struggle for bare existence, yields per hectare do not measure up to pre-war standards, cultivated area decreased by half-a-million hectares, milk production is dropping, there is a shortage of meat, young cattle die in droves. What does it mean? It means that the looting of the countryside by obligatory deliveries will be worse this year than ever. The regime will try to steal from our mouths what it has wasted in its irresponsible economy.

It is up to us to upset the Government's plans for blackmail. Let us state: The harvest belongs to who has cultivated it. It does not belong to the blackmailing state apparatus which has led our agriculture into bankruptcy by nonsensical interventions. The People's Opposition must step in, it cannot wait for crumbs from the nobleman's table of the regime.

Last year, in June, the people proved that the power of a totalitarian state has its limits and that the regime must take public opinion into account. It forced upon the regime lower delivery duties, higher purchasing prices and cheaper credit. Encouraged by these results, the people's opposition will realize further demands.


Is it possible to fight the regime successfully in our field and meadows? True, an individual is helpless against tommy guns. But it is not necessary to run great risks. As you have, millions of harvesting farmers are finding this message, and millions of farmers are listening to the Radio Free Europe. Everybody knows that this is the HARVEST OF NATIONAL SELF-DEFENCE. The silent unity of our people is in action. What you will do, millions of farmers will do, and there is nothing the regime could undertake against such unity of the People's Opposition.


Every village dweller and everyone who has to do something with the harvest constitutes a link of the People's Opposition. You yourself know best what possibilities are open to you in your surroundings. Use every chance you have in your position.

Independent Farmers

The Sixth Demand of the People's Opposition says: "If the prescribed delivery target is not fulfilled, it means that the state misjudged the harvest." Satisfy the needs of your family first. If this means that you cannot fulfill the delivery, it is the duty of the National Committee to revise it downwards. Nobody, too, has the right to force you to harvest together with a U.A.C.

U.A.C. Members

Distribute your wages in kind right at the thrashing machine! Bitter experience have taught you already that the regime will never give you your due unless you make sure to get it. Your families come first, the purchasing apparatus afterwards.


Members of the Local National Committees!

In the spirit of the Ten Demands of the People's Opposition see to it that you always act as a representative of the citizens, not their prison guards. It is your duty to advocate bearable delivery assessment, and to protect those who cannot fulfil their delivery duties. Evade being the regime's gendarmes. Be solidaristic with your fellow-citizens, do not exclude yourselves from the community of the people. It is your only resort.

Employees in Purchasing!

Do only what you cannot evade! Buy only what is offered to you by the farmers! Do not insist on delivery dates! Grant classification of quality as high as possible! The regime is pauperizing the whole nation - and if the entire nation starves, you will starve, too!

Members of the National Security!

Every one of you is a thinking human being, not an execution machine. Remember that you, too, live from the proceeds of the farmer's labor. Your good relationship to the village is in your own interest. The regime is not omniscient. What the S.N.B. overlooks, hardly anybody else will notice.

Communist Party Members in Villages!

This year's harvest is an opportunity for you to show whether you side with the people or against it. Your position enables you to help others, and to prove for once and for all that you have detected the treason committed by the Government on the people, and that you disassociate yourself from it.


What are the People's Opposition's aims in this defence harvest? The aim is to protect the crops from the looting by the State. The protection of the foodstuffs is necessary because we do not have produce enough in our economy disorganized by the Communist rule. The protection of the foodstuffs is necessary because the State Trade is not able to guarantee a regular supply. The protection of the foodstuffs is necessary because the State is black-marketing with the produced aliments. Against the Communist slogan "Corn straight from the threshing machine to the State!", the People's Opposition organizes its self protecting action to secure the crops for who it rightly belongs to, i.e. to the Nation!


Operation FOCUS

FOCUS was the name of the balloon program for Hungary that started 1 October 1954. FOCUS was timed to coincide with local November elections in Hungary and was meant to "focus" the attention of Hungarian citizens on attainable goals.

The leaflets were copies of a "Manifesto and Twelve Demands (similar to the Ten Demands of VETO) of the National Opposition Movement." As with the VETO operations, small decals with the number 12 were included in the balloon operation and were later found on Communist Party posters. The balloons were launched in the south-east part of Germany close to the Austrian border. Thus in effect, the balloons had to travel over a neutral country to land in Hungary. With the launching of the balloons, RFE first began using it's transmitter in Lisbon, Portugal with 20 hours of programming each day on the Voice of Free Hungary as the RFE Hungarian language service was then called.

From the first broadcast in Hungarian in October 1951 to just before the FOCUS campaign in 1954, the Hungarian regime and other East European ignored RFE's Hungarian language broadcasts. In the three years preceeding FOCUS, RFE noted only 19 media attacks against the Voice of Free Hungary. In the first week after FOCUS started, 20 media attacks were noted in Hungary and other East European countries against FOCUS. By the time FOCUS stopped in early 1955, over 16,000,000 leaflets had been sent to Hungary. (13)


In December 1953, Jozef Swiatlo, a colonel in the Polish secret police, "defected" in Berlin. Whether or not he was a double agent already under control of the CIA or was a genuine defector is a matter of historical debate. For example, according to one report, Swiatlo had been sent to the West with the purpose of killing Mrs. Wanda Bronksa, a former Communist Party member and effective RFE Polish Service broadcaster. For the purpose of this article, we will examine only his importance to RFE's balloon-leaflet operations. (14)

Swiatlo was born in Poland in 1915 and attend public school for only seven years. He joined the Communist movement in 1933 for "political reasons and his youthful inexperience" and was twice arrested for his political activities. In 1938, he was drafted into the Polish army. After the German invasion of Poland, he was captured by the German army, escaped, and fled to the Eastern Section of Poland then under Soviet army control. He joined a Soviet-backed army and marched westward with the army as a political officer in the Kosciuszko Division that remained in a Warsaw suburb during the Uprising in 1944. Afterwards, he joined the University of Public Security and became a Polish Security Service officer in 1945. He rose to the rank of Deputy Chief of Department 10. Department 10 was responsible for protecting the Communist Party from non-Party subversive forces and protecting "the purity of the Party from within the Party" by screening all appointments and conducting surveillance of Party and Government officials.

After his arrival in the United States, Jozef Swiatlo made his first public statements in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in carefully controlled testimony before a Congressional Committee on 21 and 22 October 1954, and again a few weeks later in Washington, D.C. His testimony was recorded and broadcast over RFE. RFE had started broadcasting about Swiatlo on 28 September, and until 31 December he was a constant figure on RFE's Polish Service broadcasts: RFE broadcast over one hundred taped programs and almost 150 news items. These programs were called, "a brilliant tactical decision that brought unforseeable strategic gains," and "one of the most successful pieces of radio propaganda ever." (15).

Swiatlo's name is translated as "light," and since listening to RFE was considered a crime, listeners would refer to his programs, for example, by asking "will there be any light at your house tonight?" Over the months, his revelations were used by RFE's other language services as well as by Radio Liberty, which broadcast to the Soviet Union.

Based on experiences in the previous balloon programs, and to continue the propaganda barrage, on 12 February 1955, FEP started sending a forty-page compilation of his testimony and other information into Poland in the balloon program known as "Operation SPOTLIGHT." (16) FEP's purpose was to weaken the Communist control apparatus, and through detailed exposure of Communist techniques, to enable the Polish people better to defend themselves against the Communists. By adding a new medium to the existing radio facilities for communicating with the Polish people, it was hoped to strengthen their awareness of Western interest in their fate. (17)

Swiatlo's revelations over RFE reportedly caused a major chain reaction in Poland with the dismissal, transfer, and worse, of thousands of Communist Party members and government officials. Perhaps as many as 150,000 party members, according to one estimate, were affected by RFE's programming. (18)

From February through May 1955, over 260,000 leaflets were launched into Poland. The number would have been greater but for the weather: in April no launches took place because of the East to West winds. Operation SPOTLIGHT stopped only because RFE needed the launch sites for the renewal of balloon launching into Hungary.

By the 1960s, Jozef Swiatlo, once called "the most successful Western agent in the history of the Cold War," effectively had become a nonperson. Former CIA Director Allen Dulles' book, The Craft of Intelligence, published in 1963, contained only a two-sentence and incorrect reference to Jozef Swiatlo saying that he had defected in Berlin in 1954, not 1953. There has never been a public appearance or obituary notice of Swiatlo's death since this last broadcast over RFE.


RFE stopped the balloon-leaflet campaigns primarily because it had finally constructed huge antennas and powerful transmitters in Portugal to more efficiently reach its East Europe audience. A second reason might have been that, possibly, the balloons were the cause of a fatal crash of a Czechoslovak airliner in 1956. An airliner did crash as the balloons floated near its traffic pattern. Though it was not proven to be true, East European propaganda played heavily on the theme, and this might have helped convince the FEC to stop the balloon operations.


End Notes

(1) The last and only book to make a full study of both Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, published in 1983, was "America's Other Voices," by Sig Mickelson, former RFE/RL President. While this book is a good general treatment of the history of the radios, it was published in 1983 so the book does not cover the exciting period leading up to and including the fall of the Berlin Wall and the breakup of the Communist bloc in East Europe and the Soviet Union. Two early Cold-War books were written that dealt only with Radio Free Europe: "Voices Through the Iron Curtain," by Alan Mitchie and published in 1963, and "Radio Free Europe," by Robert T. Holt, published in 1959. Both of these books are incomplete inside accounts because they were written while RFE was still a CIA covert operation, and the books contain no references to that connection.

(2) A photocopy of this directive can be found in Michael Warner, ed., CIA Cold War Records: The CIA under Harry Truman, "Psychological Operations, NSC 4-A," (Washington, DC: CIA, 1994) p. 175-177. Also, see Document 253, "Memorandum From the Executive Secretary (Souers) to the Members of the National Security Council. "NSC 4-A Washington, December 9, 1947, in "Emergence of the Intelligence Establishment," Department of State, Washington: Internet: http://www.state.gov/www/about_state/history/intel/index.html

(3) Memorandum From the Assistant Director for Policy Coordination (Wisner) to Director of Central Intelligence Hillenkoetter, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1945-1950, Document 306, "Emergence of the Intelligence Establishment."

(4) "Policy Planning Staff Memorandum," May 4, 1948, Document 269, "Emergence of the Intelligence Establishment."

(5) Ibid.

(6) Memorandum From Director of Central Intelligence Hillenkoetter to the Chief of Naval Operations (Denfeld) Washington, June 18, 1948. Document 293, "Emergence of the Intelligence Establishment."

(7) Michael Warner, ed., CIA Cold War Records: The CIA under Harry Truman, Washington, DC: CIA, 1994) p. 217

(8) National Security Council Directive on Office of Special Projects, NSC 10/2, Washington, June 18, 1948.The full text of this directive can be found in Michael Warner, ed., op. cit., pp. 213-216 and Document 292, "Emergence of the Intelligence Establishment."

(9) Ibid.

(10) Allan A. Michie, "Voice Through the Curtain: The Radio Free Europe Story," Dodd, Mead & Co., New York, 1963, pp. 137

(11) Ibid., pp. 136-141

(12) "Operation VETO. A Combined Political Warfare Operation: The Printed and Spoken Word," Free Europe Press, Free Europe Committee, New York, Sep. 17, 1954. Copies of the leaflets are included in this report.

(13) Operation FOCUS, Volume I, "Regime Reaction Through October 31, 1954" and Volume II, Progress Report, Nov. 1 - Nov. 30, 1954, "Operations and Program Summary, Regime Reaction, Refugee Reports, Leaflet Content," Free Europe Press, Free Europe Committee, New York. Copies of the leaflets are included.

(14) Full details of the Swiatlo case are in L. W. Gluchowski , "The Defection of Jozef Swialto and the Search for Jewish Scapegoats in the Polish United Workers' Party, 1953-1954," Intermarium, Columbia University electronic journal of modern East Central European postwar history, http://www.columbia.edu/cu/sipa/REGIONAL/ECE/intermar.html

(15) Quoted in Flora Lewis, "Red Pawn," Doubleday & Co., Garden City New Jersey, 1965, p. 239, and Stewart Steven, "Operation Splinter Factor," J.B. Lippincott Co., Philadelphia, 1974, p. 208. These books also offer different versions of the Swiatlo defection

(16) The Inside story of the Bezpieka and the Party: Jozef Swiatlo Reveals the Secrets of the Party, the Regime, and the Security Services, March 1955, Free Europe Committee files

(17) Operation SPOTLIGHT: Regime, Press and Radio, Western Press and Radio and Internal Reactions, Feb. 12 - Mar 13, 1955, Free Europe Committee, New York, March 1955, Free Europe Press, p. 3

(18) L.W. Gluchowski

The author, Richard Cummings, writes a regular column for Midcoast World News Exchange, entitled 'Ether War.' From 1980 to 1995 he was Director of Security for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Munich, Germany. After the radios moved to Prague in the summer of 1995, he became a security consultant for RFE/RL until he left for a new post in May 1998.

The Falling Leaf. No. 166. Autumn 1999.


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