Events

The West's Secret Plan for the Mind: Book Distribution to East Europe during the Cold War

February 06, 2008 // 3:00pm5:00pm
Event Co-sponsors: 
History and Public Policy Program

On Wednesday 6 February 2008, Dr. Alfred Reisch, guest lecturer at Izmir University of Economics in Turkey, presented his ongoing research on his upcoming book: "The West's Secret Plan for the Mind: Book Distribution to East Europe during the Cold War."

Dr. Reisch, who participated in those activities from 1960 to 1974, gave an account of the mission and history of the US covert program carried out from 1956 to 1993. Initially part of the activity of the Free Europe Committee, the distribution program became a separate entity under the name International Advisory Council, later International Literary Centre, and was led by Romanian born George Minden.
Based on archival documents available at the Hoover Institution, Dr. Reisch has traced in detail every aspect of the program from 1956 to 1973.

One of the first Free Europe projects consisted of dropping leaflets or letter-sized magazines from balloons flying over Eastern Europe. This type of distribution elicited strong protests from the Soviet satellite governments. In the tragic aftermath of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, this program was abandoned, and a new strategy emerged. Books and periodicals were mailed to Eastern Europe under the cover of various sponsoring organizations, including publishing houses and universities. The program maintained its initial intent not to confront Soviet ideology overtly, but to educate a critical mass of intellectuals from select Soviet bloc countries and keep them informed about the values and culture of the free world.

The scope of distribution and the types of books sent varied by country, Reisch suggested. At the beginning, the main targets were Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria, but by the 1980s the Soviet Union received the greatest share (65%) of the mailings. Nearly 350 publishers mailed books, some of which written by émigrés residing in the West. The literature comprised 14 categories, ranging from religion, international relations, law, history, sociology, and economics to foreign language dictionaries and medical literature. In December of 1957, only 115 titles were sent. Total book distribution at that time reached 20,000 people. The detailed statistics, kept by Minden himself, indicated that 1968 was the most successful year, with over 300,000 books mailed to a total of 70,000 people and institutions.

Acknowledgement and request letters sent by the thousands from the intended recipients showed that the majority of the publications reached their destinations. By the time the program ended, some 10 million books and periodicals had been mailed or distributed directly to East European and Russian visitors to the West.
Taken in the broader context of the various Free Europe Committee programs, the covert book distribution owed its longevity and success to the fact that it was not publicized as a US government initiative.

Dr. A. Ross Johnson, an adviser to the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) Archive Project at the Hoover Institution and former director of RFE, commented on the strategy behind the project. Johnson pointed out that the various branches of the Free Europe Committee were not CIA puppets, despite the funding they received through the agency. The multi-faceted, and multi-dimensional programs that the Free Europe Committee carried out were devised thoughtfully and were executed with considerable autonomy. Not confronting the Soviet-controlled governments directly was the key to implementing these projects, Johnson argued. They depended on the cooperation of organizations and the toleration of foreign governments who insisted on no publicity. Under these circumstances, the secret book distribution could only develop and function as a covert operation. It would not have survived, had it been made public at the time.


Christian F. Ostermann, Director, History and Public Policy Program
Drafted by: Kristina Terzieva, Program Assistant, Cold War International History Project

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