IN the early days of radio, some believed with General James J. Harbord that broadcasting was destined to become the greatest medium ever known for international understanding. "More than all the peace conferences of history," he said, "radio will serve to make the concept of 'Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward Men' a reality, and, taking the world by the hand, will lead it one big step further down that trail that ends in Utopia." The subsequent development of radio by the Axis nations into a viciously effective weapon for dividing and inflaming the people of the world made a mockery of this idea. But the potentialities of broadcasting as a means of bringing men together in peace and understanding are still great.

How can radio be harnessed to the colossal task of occupation of Germany and world reconstruction? What steps should be taken to bring this instrument of perversion and terror under effective control, or, even better, to make it into a powerful medium of international reconciliation? These are among the postwar questions which demand consideration now.

I

After Hitler has been defeated, Germany, according to present plans, will be occupied and administered by the victorious nations for a period of years. This task will be monumental. It will call for the most careful and intelligent preparation, an extensive knowledge of German psychology and of local conditions, and, in addition, great tact, patience and firmness.

In connection with every aspect of the problem radio can play a useful rôle. In Germany, as nowhere else in the world, radio has been developed into an all-pervading means of mass-persuasion. Under Hitler, the number of receiving sets increased from 4,307,700 in 1933 to 9,087,454 in 1938. In 1941, Germany was second to the United States in the number of homes with radio sets, there being approximately 29,000,000 in this country and 15,000,000 in Germany. Moreover, every factory, café and public square in the Reich has its loud speaker, and group listening is intensively organized. Each of 39 party regions has its leader in charge of radio, and another official is assigned to each of 1,000 radio districts. As a result, 75 percent of the population listens in to important broadcasts. Nowhere in the world are people so "radio conscious" as in Germany.

This unprecedented opportunity should not be neglected by the occupying authorities. In this connection, we can learn much from the Nazis. One of the first moves of the invading German Army was to seize the local radio stations, turning the "miracle of radio" into an efficient means of ending all opposition. When the Nazis marched into Vienna in March 1938, for example, they immediately broadcast programs which they had recorded in advance. Subsequently Hitler made the Austrian poor a gift of 25,000 receiving sets.

Will it be possible to deflate the Nazi ideology and to eradicate from the German youth the poison of ten years indoctrination? The present writer is skeptical about the feasibility of a "reëducation" program, in so far as it is imposed from the outside, although certain measures will be practicable and useful. For example, we must try to eradicate from the school curriculum those textbooks and courses which indoctrinate Nazi theories of race, blood and force. Teachers whose convictions make them unsuitable for the new Germany will have to be gradually eliminated. But the liquidation of Nazi doctrines, and the delicate and complicated task of preparing Germany for eventual independence, must be left mainly to the Germans themselves, although the United Nations, during the period of occupation, may accomplish much in encouraging and facilitating this movement. Much can be done as a natural consequence of the restoration of a free press. But the most beneficial results of all might follow the reëstablishment of a free radio. A free radio -- but naturally a radio free within the limits imposed by good taste, public morals, public order and the legitimate demands of the occupying forces. Radio will have a predominant rôle because the immediate problem in Germany is one of adult education.

The German people must eventually work out their destiny; no outside force can do it for them. Former statesmen, political scientists, and economic experts should meet with other outstanding leaders to deliberate on Germany's future polity, working in consultation with statesmen and scholars from the United Nations. Speakers chosen from among these could discuss the basic problems over the radio. Using as a model the system of open forums and "town meetings" so popular in the United States, discussions could be broadcast in the form of "round tables." This would be an excellent way to inform the people concerning the principles and processes of self-government.

The first rule to govern broadcasts to the German people during the period of occupation must be to tell the truth. That is the only way to gain the confidence of a people suspicious of everything heard from transmitters known to be under foreign direction. We shall have facts to offer, misstatements to correct, and it is proper that we should broadcast such information as compellingly as possible. But a campaign with the minimum of indoctrination will in the long run carry the most conviction. At all events, the contrary policy -- a campaign of pro-United Nations propaganda -- seems sure to fail. If a "nopropaganda" policy seems wisest, a policy of truth seems indispensable. Such a standard would gain tremendously through comparison with the Nazi tactics, in which truth is not an object. The only goal of Goebbels is persuasion. Lies are resorted to when they promise to be more effective. This appears from even a cursory study of the items reported from the Reich, the nature of the omissions, and from the tone of Nazi broadcasts. Zeitgeschehen -- discussions of political, economic and cultural problems of the day, including interviews with prominent Germans or even foreigners -- constitute seven percent of the broadcasting time on German stations, as compared with ten percent given to the news. The Zeitgeschehen, steeped in propaganda, are replete with misstatement, distortion and falsehood.

Current German radio programs, especially those directed to the home population, are extraordinarily one-sided. There is never an admission of any wrong, any error, on the part of the Reich. Whether the matter discussed be the origins of the war, war aims, or the bombing of cities, Germany is always in the right, the enemy always in the wrong. In Britain and in the United States the commentator, despite the censorship, often indulges in criticism of the war effort, both as to strategy and war production; but not the German speaker. The Nazi armed forces, for example, are invincible, an exalted body of men free from the ordinary human frailties, imbued with courage, chivalry and self-sacrificing patriotism. All this is contrasted with the alleged brutality and perfidy of the enemy. At the top is a military machine, smooth, elaborate, all-seeing, with a Supreme Command of godlike foresight and invincibility. Against such a background, the German propaganda chiefs have a happy time in victory; but in defeat they are hard pressed to explain. When the United Nations man the transmitters at Zeezen or Munich, a policy of truth, objectivity and fair-mindedness will stand out in convincing contrast with the former Nazi radio, and in the long run would be the surest instrument for delivering the death blow to Nazi doctrines and the myths of Nazi superiority.

The German radio has some admirable features which should be retained. Naturally we should keep intact the fine system of radio chains. Before the war, they were without a peer in technical efficiency and ingenuity, with the possible exception of the American system; and so far as foreign broadcasting was concerned, the Nazis far outstripped the United States. The United Nations would likewise do well to keep in office the army of trained personnel, with the exception of those in the higher positions who have been directly connected with policy-making and propaganda. The German listener is accustomed to pay a rather high annual license fee (24 marks), and it would be unwise to disturb this system, as the proceeds are used not only to meet the expense of radio services, but also to subsidize theaters and orchestras, frontier schools and popular libraries. Also, the present policy of issuing some 1,200,000 free licenses to families unable to pay the annual fee is worth continuing.

There is much in German radio technique, too, which should be retained. For instance, the Nazis have gone out of their way to make their programs dramatic, realizing that a dull radio yields few listeners. In this they have had considerable success, so much so that during the period of the Sitzkrieg numerous French and British listeners tuned in to the more dynamic German stations -- the hours of whose programs were obligingly inserted in British papers -- in preference to their own dull and uninspired offerings. Thus, while avoiding the hysterical and subversive features of the Nazi radio, the United Nations, dealing with a people accustomed to dynamic speakers and lively reporting, should avoid acquiring a reputation for dullness. Here is a challenging task -- to remain rigorously objective, and yet give the programs interest and appeal.

In this connection, certain other features of the Nazi radio could well be copied. For one thing, the Nazis avoided the outstanding fault of the French radio, which was too highbrow. The Nazi radio has provided something for every class. For the popular listener, they have had the spellbinder Herr Fritzsche, who assumed that the real desires of the German people were for peace and prosperity, although the new German youth was supposed to despise these ideals. At the same time, there was also Rear Admiral Luetzow, whose talks, containing much expert or even scientific material and abounding in classical illusions, appeal to a much higher intellectual class. High German or Low German, worker or scholar, people from all classes and all regions are given special attention. The United Nations radio, if it is to be effective, must have a similarly broad appeal.

II

Planners for the postwar order should prepare now to meet the dangers of radio propaganda as a peacetime weapon of perversion and terror.[i] Why take over the Luftwaffe, and force Krupps to return to the manufacture of typewriters and farm machinery, as was done in 1919, and yet do nothing about the instrument which, wrongly used, is no less deadly than cannon?

Long before the war broke out, much effort had been devoted to this problem. Beginning in 1925, when the potential dangers of broadcasting first became apparent, numerous resolutions urging action were passed by international organizations, and the matter was dealt with by the International Broadcasting Union and the League of Nations. The result was the conclusion of numerous bilateral and multilateral treaties dealing with the proper use of radio.

At the first meeting of the International Juridical Radio Congress, held at Paris in 1925, it was resolved that while "the ether is free," the exercise of this liberty "should not result in disturbing the public order" or "in inflicting injury to the security of states." In the same year the Council of the International Broadcasting Union recommended that its members do everything possible to avoid diffusing beyond their frontiers any propaganda susceptible of provoking political difficulties in other countries and all programs interfering with internal affairs of other countries.

These were typical of many similar resolutions voted between 1925 and 1939 by general peace conferences, or by specific congresses on matters such as the press, radio, international law and penal law. Specially prominent are resolutions condemning the publication of false news and matter likely to promote a war of aggression. The International Conference for the Unification of Penal Law, held at Paris in 1927, urged each state to pass laws for the punishment of individuals attempting to exacerbate public opinion in favor of an aggressive war. Later on a new idea appeared, namely provision for a right of reply. At Budapest in 1931, the International Federation of League of Nations Societies proposed "to establish, on behalf of any State about which a newspaper or a wireless broadcasting station shall have imputed a fact which is either inexact or calculated to disturb international relations, an international right of reply."

The rise of Hitler brought two major problems to the fore -- first, how to harmonize the necessary restrictions with the right of free speech; [ii] and second, how to prevent harmful broadcasting, not by individual radio chains, but by the government itself utilizing radio as a weapon of an aggressive foreign policy.

The grave, indeed terrible, menace presented by the perversion of radio which occurred under Hitler was foreseen by two international organizations in particular, and their persistent efforts finally produced the important Geneva Convention of 1936. These two organizations were the International Broadcasting Union (IBU) and the League of Nations, the latter aided by its associate at Paris, the International Institute of Intellectual Coöperation (IIIC).

The IBU was created in April 1925 by the representatives of government, semiofficial and private broadcasting undertakings from nine European countries.[iii] Its work was done through the main office at Geneva, four committees of specialists entrusted with the study of technical problems, programs and relays, as well as legal and budgetary problems, and an International Checking Center at Brussels. The Checking Center was set up in 1927 to measure and control frequencies and to watch the stability of transmitters, a work which enabled it to suppress promptly interferences affecting millions of listeners. The IBU did not have any official status, its authority resting on voluntary coöperation and good will. While the major activities of the Union were along technical lines, notably the allocation of wave lengths, it likewise gave much attention to the problems of broadcasting and peace. From the positive angle, the Union encouraged the use of radio as a medium of interstate understanding, arranged for exchange broadcasts and for relays of important events and has organized world concerts. It mediated conflicts over the misuse of radio and fostered treaties for the control of propaganda. As early as 1926 the Union induced its members to sign a gentleman's agreement promising to see that their broadcasts should contain nothing, whether political, denominational, economic, intellectual or artistic, "to prejudice the spirit of good international understanding which is indisputably necessary for the international development of broadcasting."

These efforts brought results in 1931. On the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the plebiscite in Upper Silesia, both German and Polish stations indulged in broadcasts which were resented by the other side. An agreement inspired by the IBU settled the dispute. Both parties promised to refrain thenceforth from programs calculated to "compromise in any way the spirit of coöperation and good understanding which is necessary if broadcasting is to fulfill its mission of drawing the nations together." Needless to say, this fragile plant could not survive in the torrid atmosphere of Lebensraum.

It is highly significant that after Hitler came to power and organized the German radio into a single, all-pervading instrument of mass persuasion, the IBU relaxed its efforts to curb objectionable broadcasting. It had to choose between such activities and the loss of one of its leading members. But the fight against propaganda was continued by the League of Nations. This body was aided by the IIIC which, even before the Nazis came to power, had begun the study of the matter upon the request of the Eleventh Assembly. After making a series of studies, the Institute convoked a committee of experts which made its report and recommendations in 1933.[iv] Thus was the road prepared for a world non-aggression pact in the field of psychological warfare.

Showing a spirit of realism, the experts believed that only messages of real gravity could be prohibited. The worsening of international relations was reflected in their remark that broadcasts specially addressed to foreign peoples deserved particular attention, above all when intended for a minority group and of a nature to foment sedition and civil war. Recognizing that the main problem was to check governments, not individuals, the experts dropped proposals for invoking local law and relied on international law. They proposed that each state agree to prohibit the broadcasting of matter intentionally designed to provoke feelings of hostility between nations, to interfere in their internal affairs, or to spread false news. Nor did they favor the individual right of reply, already referred to: however appropriate this might be for the press, they considered it ill-adapted to radio. They recommended, however, that governments take measures promptly to rectify any inaccurate statements which have been broadcast. Another excellent suggestion was that when a program contains news about a foreign country, the source of this information should always be given by the broadcaster.[v]

As a consequence of this report, in September 1933 the Assembly of the League authorized the Committee on Intellectual Coöperation to prepare a draft convention. It was drawn up by a committee of experts under the chairmanship of Dr. Arnold Raestad of Norway, the leading authority on the subject, and submitted to all states, whether members or not of the League. On the basis of the replies received a conference was convoked in Geneva in September 1936. This conference drew up the "Convention Concerning the Use of Broadcasting in the Cause of Peace," consisting of 15 articles and 7 recommendations. It was signed by only 22 delegations, and later was ratified by only seven states, not including the United States. Those which ratified were in general states whose own broadcasting policy gave little cause for reproach.[vi] Very significantly, the signatures of Germany, Italy and Japan were absent.

The Geneva Convention purported to impose a number of obligations on each signatory state with respect to radio propaganda. These obligations were:

(1), to stop without delay the broadcasting within its borders of any transmissions of a nature to incite the population of any territory to acts "incompatible with the internal order or security" of any signatory state.

(2), to ensure that its transmissions should not constitute an incitement to war, or to acts likely to lead to war.

(3), to stop the transmission of false statements likely to harm good international understanding, and, in addition, to rectify such statements at the earliest possible moment.

(4), to ensure, in time of crisis, dealing with international relations, that only information whose accuracy had been properly verified should be broadcast.

This convention, although vague in many particulars, was nevertheless a notable accomplishment. But it had no effect on the states most in need of regulation. And even if Hitler and Mussolini had adhered to this treaty it is not likely that their subsequent policies would have been altered in any respect; they would have violated the convention as soon as deemed "necessary."

III

The use of propaganda as a weapon of aggression is as old as warfare itself. What is new is the frank recognition that it is a weapon of government and the establishment of formal governmental departments to devise and apply it. Now that states have discovered the lethal possibilities of radio we can anticipate that this type of propaganda -- the most dangerous of all because no frontier can halt it, and because it reaches into every home -- will be continued unless some means can be found to check it. In periods of tension the use of radio propaganda is as inevitable as resort to financial pressure or a show of force. What remedies have been proposed and how feasible are they?

Would it be possible to induce the states of the world to confine their broadcasting activities to the home population? This would avoid some of the most objectionable practices; but it would also end a great part of radio's usefulness for good. Broadcasting right around the earth, like transoceanic flying, has come to stay.

Should broadcasts be permitted only in the home language? This proposal, too, if implemented, would undoubtedly have beneficial results, but here again many technical difficulties stand in the way. London sends broadcasts in English to the four corners of the earth to reach the Dominions, a legitimate means of promoting the unity of the Commonwealth; but there is no way to prevent such programs from being heard elsewhere, for example, in the United States. Countries like Switzerland broadcast to the home population in three languages: these programs inevitably can be understood in many parts of the crowded Continent.

One striking fact emerges from the history of the use of radio, namely that there is almost no instance of objectionable propaganda issuing from a state in which broadcasting is carried on by private companies. The reasons are obvious: the private stations would gain little profit, either moral or material, from the transmission of attacks against another country. Furthermore, in most countries in which private companies control the radio, the conditions of their charter, and the rules imposed by the broadcasters on themselves, are of a nature to discourage such programs. One solution, therefore, would be to return radio to private control. Theoretically this suggestion is sound, but in practice it would accomplish little. An aggressive state bent on conquest would not neglect to take over such a ready weapon for implementing its foreign policy: it would either operate the radio chains itself or force them to accept government programs designed to "prepare" the home population or "work" some foreign peoples marked for conquest. Thus Hitler, once in power, took over the relatively free radio of the Weimar Republic. This particular proposal, if accepted, would merely work out to the detriment of peaceful states and to the advantage of the aggressive ones.

Some authorities would leave it to the injured state to take measures to protect itself against foreign radio propaganda. This "solution" obviously abandons the problem altogether and merely approves of "radio wars" in advance, wars in which small states and those with non-totalitarian governments would be at a disadvantage from the start. "Self-help" also implies the attempt to blanket or "jam" the offending program, a tactic which is seldom effective and certain to deepen the "warfare."

Still another proposal is that an international treaty should set forth the obligation of each signatory state to prevent the broadcasting on or from its territory of any messages defined as harmful to good relations between states. This solution is represented by the IBU "Gentleman's Agreement" of 1926 and the Convention on the "Use of Broadcasting in the Cause of Peace," signed in 1936, mentioned above. This would seem to be the most promising approach. What is the outlook for exploiting it further?

The problem really is double, for two distinct kinds of radio propaganda are involved -- programs sent to the population at home and programs directed to foreign countries. With respect to the former, two categories of messages should be prohibited: first, false news of a nature to cause hatred of other nations or peoples, like the Nazi atrocity tales directed against the Czechs and Poles; and second, programs designed to incite the home people to war. Propaganda of the second type is hard to define but easy to recognize. In Germany, as a prelude to every Nazi conquest, the radio appealed to every base instinct and resorted to every argument, fair or foul, in the course of creating a frenzy of warlike spirit.

The bilateral treaty is not very promising, for it is easily by-passed when found to be incompatible with a dynamic national policy. The multilateral treaty, backed up by sanctions, seems to offer the only genuine solution. But it will be a solution only if all the major states, both victors and vanquished, both democratic and totalitarian, sign and ratify it. As in other parts of the field of postwar planning, any such effort is sure to fail without the effective collaboration of the United States. And here it seems likely that opposition will arise based on the fear of interference with freedom of speech. Many will contend that we cannot fulfill the obligations of such a treaty without censoring our programs. It might be mentioned, however, that several members of the British Commonwealth which are devoted to the principle of freedom of speech ratified the Geneva Convention. Furthermore, we already accept for our radio chains a degree of censorship which we have never applied, except in wartime, to the press. In fact, the power of the government, through the FCC, to license radio stations in the public interest has recently been upheld by the Supreme Court. Freedom of speech is not an end, but only a means. As Justice Holmes once remarked, the right does not justify crying "Fire" in a crowded theater.

The type of propaganda which amounts to intervention in the affairs of a foreign state, inciting inhabitants or minorities to revolt, is already prohibited by international law, provided that such pronouncements issue from the government itself. Thus when Goebbels incited Austrians to overthrow Schuschnigg, the broadcast constituted a violation of the law of nations; but if a speaker from a private French radio station did the same thing, the law would not cover the case. This is academic, for as we have already remarked, free radio chains rarely indulge in objectionable matter. Nevertheless, the law should be broadened, so that each state is under a legal duty to prevent within its territory activities tending to foment civil strife within the territory of any other state.

Provocative broadcasts sent across international frontiers might perhaps be limited with less protest from the upholders of freedom of speech than in the case of limitations on home programs. However, the radio is not in the same category as the press. It is physically possible to prevent libellous newspapers from leaving a country, and a state attacked in a foreign newspaper can shut out the offending periodical at the frontier. Not so with radio. By its very nature it crosses all frontiers. The right to prevent the sending abroad of messages likely to trouble foreign relations would seem to be a legitimate prerogative of government. Unfortunately, however, in the cases which matter most, the government does not want to prevent the message from leaving and is probably sending it itself. No solution which does not provide for some form of sanctions in the treaty would therefore seem really effective.

If we did not go so far, we might at least try to strengthen the organization already set up, the International Broadcasting Union, which has acquired great experience and authority as a clearing house for all radio activities. Through its "Police Service of the Air" at Brussels it could not only check interferences but could likewise be on the lookout for objectionable broadcasting. It might organize a vast listening center, such as that already in operation in Washington, where the Foreign Broadcasting Listening Post of the FCC monitors programs from all over the world, in more than 40 languages. All programs from all states could be recorded, and transcripts made when any harmful material was detected. Then the IBU could bring the matter to the attention of the state guilty of the infraction, attempting through friendly mediation to obtain a rectification of the false statement or a withdrawal of the false charge, and a promise to desist from further similar practices. If the matter involved a dispute as to the proper interpretation of the Convention, it might be submitted to arbitration.

There is no need here to elaborate upon the difficulties of sanctions. We may note, however, that the peculiar nature of radio opens up certain possibilities which are quite unique. If, for example, in spite of all peaceful efforts, an aggressive state persisted in sending out objectionable radio messages, the International Broadcasting Union might be empowered to cancel the frequencies granted this state by the telecommunications conventions. The offending state would thus in a sense find itself outlawed from the air. If other states then used its frequencies, the state in question might find it so difficult to continue even broadcasts to its own people that in its own interest it might prefer to cease the forbidden practices. This type of sanction would work better when applied to a European state surrounded by nearby foreign stations than if attempted against a country as vast as Russia or the United States, or as isolated as Japan.

The possibilities of the fruitful uses of international radio, as contrasted with the problems of control, can only be hinted at in this discussion. But no man of imagination can have failed to perceive them. According to reliable estimates, the world's radio audience already numbers more than 400,000,000 listeners. For this vast audience there are no frontiers. As a consequence of the discoveries of Hertz and Marconi, these millions may learn at their own firesides of the lives of distant peoples, and come to understand the problems of nations on the other side of the world. Through foreign news bulletins, relayed or exchange broadcasts, and other devices already well advanced in some countries (particularly, for example, in prewar Norway) radio can unquestionably accomplish great things toward the clarification of misunderstandings between peoples and for the promotion of good will.

We may hope that the international organization that will come out of this war will create a great radio center, through whose manifold activities the gospel of peace rather than of war may, like the short-wave radio signal, circle the globe seven times in a single second.

[i] Cf. the author's "War by Radio," FOREIGN AFFAIRS, April 1941.

[ii] Such a restriction was proposed by the Polish delegation to the League of Nations in 1931. It would have required each state to take "severe measures . . . to deal with any person attempting to undermine the moral basis of world peace by a propaganda of hatred." At the Conference on the Reduction and Limitation of Armaments, held at Geneva in 1932, the Polish Government made further proposals for "moral disarmament" and among other suggestions favored national laws defining acts by individuals "incompatible with satisfactory international relations and dangerous to the peace of the world, such as the inciting of public opinion to warlike sentiments, propaganda aimed at inducing the State to violate international law, and the deliberate spreading of false or distorted reports or forged documents likely to embitter the relations between States."

[iii] On the eve of the war the IBU had 60 members, covering 900 stations reaching 300 million listeners. Cf. Huth, "Radio Today, the Present State of Broadcasting" (Geneva Studies, Vol. XII, No. 6, July 1942, p. 138 ff.).

[iv] The report of the experts is published in Broadcasting and Peace, Paris, 1933. See also Thomas Grandin, "The Political Use of Radio," Geneva Studies, Volume X, No. 3, August 1939, p. 88 ff.

[v] This, of course, is no panacea. Today Nazi broadcasters often give sources of news items, but these may be entirely fictitious. At other times the alleged source, upon being examined, will be found to contain no trace of the item broadcast.

[vi] United Kingdom, New Zealand, Australia, India, Brazil, Denmark, Luxembourg and France. This result had already been foreseen by the Finnish Government. When consulted before the Geneva Conference, it remarked that "it is extremely probable that the signatory States would be among those which, even without being committed by such a convention, do not adopt, in the matter of broadcasting, an attitude contrary to the proposed stipulation." L. O. N., Doc. C.L., 44, 1936. XII, Annex, p. 5, footnote 1.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • JOHN B. WHITTON, Associate Professor of Politics, Princeton University; founder of the Princeton Listening Center; joint editor of "Propaganda by Short Wave"
  • More By John B. Whitton