Exhibits The NAEB’s Cold War: The Ambitions and Tensions of “People Under Communism”
“Terror has become commonplace,” emphasizes Professor Merle Fainsod at the start of the first episode of the NAEB’s People Under Communism (1952). “A third of the world’s population lives in its shadow. If the men in the Kremlin have their way, there will be many others. If we are to prevent that from happening, we need to know how the Soviet secret police operates, how it developed, and where it appears to be going.”
Professor Fainsod speaks these lines in a measured yet confident reading voice, likely the same one his Harvard students would have heard in the postwar years as he stood at the lectern, occasionally glancing upward from his notes. “This program tells that story - in the authentic language of the historical record - without embroidery and without sensationalism,” promises Professor Fainsod. “The practitioners of terror speak in their own words; the voices of the victims which you will hear come from official documents and the reports of living witnesses.”
Next, and without a trace of intentional irony, the promise for an authentic and unsensationalized report is followed by a cascade of dramatic effects. First, a new announcer’s voice interjects, “And now - Terror as a System of Power!” Then comes the orchestra—horns, strings, timpani. “Woooooossshh” enters a sound effect that the program’s script classifies as “A NASTY WIND.” That wind blows us far away from the Harvard lecture hall into the world of radio drama. We hear the roll call at a gulag, performed by American actors attempting Eastern European accepts, playing a scene of Soviet cliches, with whimpering prisoners pleading with a deep voiced authoritarian commandant for more gruel.
This opening to “Terror as a System of Power” is an appropriate entry point for revisiting People Under Communism, the most ambitious and complicated series that the NAEB ever produced. These first few minutes of the program’s pilot episode set up the key themes, questions, and tensions that would play out across the 21-episode series that was produced and distributed between 1951 to 1953. How best to translate cutting-edge foreign policy research about the escalating Cold War to radio listeners? What sonic styles could best engage and inform? And most confounding of all, how to make sure the series was a work of education and not propaganda? Indeed, People Under Communism forcefully called out and criticized Soviet propaganda and thought control in nearly every episode. But the NAEB itself would never produce propaganda. Right?
The NAEB developed People Under Communism during the early-1950s, amidst the aftermath of World War II and escalating tensions between the US and the Soviet Union. The appropriate framework to understand the “Cold War,” a term that public intellectual Walter Lippman popularized in 1947, was subject to debate within the US.i Whereas some political voices framed the struggle in ideological terms (the incompatibility between communism vs. free market democracy), foreign policy “realists” viewed power and influence on the world stage as both the end and means.ii
These differences of opinion were significant, and the NAEB sought to represent them in its series. Yet nearly all the experts and political leaders agreed on the underlying assumption that that the US needed an active foreign policy agenda and to play a leading role in the future of world affairs. Also broadly agreed upon: greater investment in the university system would yield valuable scientific and foreign policy research, promote global understanding, and educate American citizens to participate in democracy and succeed in the postwar world.
Within this context, the leaders of the NAEB sought to make their mark and extend their own sphere of influence with an ambitious radio series. Prior to World War II, the NAEB had primarily been an advocacy organization and spent much of its effort playing defense, lobbying the federal government not to restrict educational broadcasting frequency allocations even more than it already had. During the postwar years, as funding for university extension programs increased and non-profit foundations expanded their grant programs, the NAEB went far beyond lobbying for spectrum space. The NAEB expanded its distribution “bicycle” network, which allowed member stations to share programs with one another (which Josh Shepperd discusses in his exhibit). And in 1951, the NAEB took a huge leap forward by becoming a producer itself. Thanks to a $300,000 Ford Foundation Grant for Adult Education, the NAEB gained the resources to embark on three series: Jeffersonian Heritage, Ways of Mankind, and People Under Communism. Whereas the first two would take a soft sell approach to the question of American democracy and the postwar global order, People Under Communism sought to address the Cold War head-on.
Production Challenges and Aesthetic Choices
Whereas the NAEB’s decentralized, cooperative structure was a natural fit for advocacy and distribution activities, it created immediate challenges for producing an ambitious, high budget radio series. For one thing, who was in charge? The NAEB created a five member special committee, comprised of managers from its leading stations, to oversee the development, production, and dissemination plans.
The committee hosted workshops with radio professionals and academics specializing in the USSR to develop the program series structure and scripts. The prompt for the development process was admirably clear and concise: “a) what should be said, and b) how can it be communicated most effectively ”?iii Yet this proved difficult in practice. In a January 1952 memo to the program’s consultants, the NAEB’s Committee Chair laid out and addressed the “problems which have developed in the program series on the USSR.”iv
The difficulty of translating political science research into a radio program with wide appeal had become evident. Any hope for a consistent stylistic approach across the series needed to be discarded. “Radio form follows content,” explained the NAEB Committee. “Factual accuracy and the integrity of the content come first, and the problem of a program’s being so-called ‘good radio is secondary.’”v
And yet, when it saw an opportunity for turning an expert’s research into “good radio,” the NAEB applied a disproportionate amount of its budgetary resources into those programs. This explains how the structure for the series ultimately took shape:
- Seven one-hour shows with high production values, combining narration, scripted performances, effects, and music.
- Thirteen half-hour or hour long episodes with much lower production values, consisting of simply lectures and scripted dialogue exchanges between experts.
- One British import—a thirty minute BBC documentary about the USSR’s attempts to block out Western broadcasting signals from reaching its populations.
For users of the “Unlocking the Airwaves” website, this aesthetic philosophy and structure for the series is helpful in making sense of why People Under Communism includes such a variety of sonic structures and styes. The NAEB devoted greater resources to topics that it believed it could render dramatically compelling in the radio format, such as Soviet factory conditions, approaches to art and culture, and the operations of the secret police. On the other hand, topics that likely had more currency in academic journals at this same time—such as diplomatic negotiating strategies and the future of communism within India and Japan—received the stripped down, unadorned radio treatment. In spite of its promises against “embroidery,” the NAEB’s approach to production very much resembled the work of a dressmaker, using large amounts of fabric and time on a gown that would appear in the shop window, while quickly churning out simpler dresses in the backroom.
Snowball, or the Propaganda Question
Out of the seven programs that received the high production value treatment, it is striking that three focus on areas of cultural production: “Drama to Order,” “Music to Order,” and “Literature to Order.” The other four polished productions also bring up the topics of censorship and propaganda.
The series’ emphasis on Soviet propaganda emerged from an overlap between the research of one of the series consultants, Dr. Ernest J. Simmons of Columbia University, and the NAEB’s assumptions about what they could effectively dramatize in a radio program with wide listener appeal. But this emphasis also speaks to a tension within the NAEB and the entire series between the nature of propaganda vs. education. “The convictions of the members of the Special Committee are that there is a difference between education and propaganda,” wrote the NAEB’s George E. Probst in the above-mentioned memorandum. “Our understanding and purpose in this project is to present materials about Russia that are so completely accurate and are so without any hidden purpose of manipulation that the resulting programs can be listened to and evaluated by a listener as being educational efforts with no ulterior motives.”
These were important goals and principles for the NAEB to articulate. But wasn’t the Soviet Union also fond of using committees to communicate what it deemed to be accurate information? And even if “People Under Communism” carefully avoided dehumanizing the Soviet people, could it really be said that this program—rooted in preparing citizens to participate in democracy and sustain the values of the free world—had no ulterior motives? The clear lines demarcating education and propaganda had a way of fading in and out, like listeners trying to tune their radios to a distant signal.
No installment of “People Under Communism” better illustrates the complicated propaganda vs. education tension than episode #4, “Drama to Order.” The episode laments the substitution of Soviet propaganda plays for the work of Chekov and other great Russian dramatists of an earlier era. The episode’s centerpiece, however, is the production of a work of Soviet children’s theatre called “Snowball”—remediated as an English-language radio play. Snowball is set in the American school system. The play dramatizes the righteous struggle of Principal Thompson against the efforts of the town’s millionaire businessman, Mr. Biddle. The racist millionaire wants to relegate Dick Dempsey (a Black child who the white students have given the belittling nickname “Snowball”) to the back of the classroom and prioritize the education of his daughter and the other white students.
The prevalence of racism and segregation in American schools during this time was an uncomfortable reality addressed, if minimized, in “Drama to Order.” In one of the segments of narration, Dr. Ernest J. Simmons remarks:
With clever propaganda skill, real abuses and weaknesses in American life are singled out as the themes: poor race relations, the oppression of minorities, political corruption, yellow journalism, red-baiting, violations of civil liberties. And these weaknesses and abuses are then misrepresented as being widely accepted and uncorrected in the United States, as in the play Snowball. The power of such propaganda should not be underestimated.
The power of the propaganda comes, in part then, from the truth of “real abuses and weaknesses” in America society. As Cold War historian Brenda Gayle Plummer has noted, one prominent line of argument in favor of Civil Rights was that the US needed to better internally model the democratic systems that it wanted foreign governments to adopt and implement.vi Because of the chasm between the ideals that America preached and the lived Black reality of racism, Soviet playwrights had plenty of material for plays, critical of America, that would be embraced by Party leaders and performed across the USSR.
Much like postwar mainstream US novels, plays, and movies dramatizing racism, the hero of Snowball is a white savior. Principal Thompson nobly stands up for Dick, opposing the town’s racism. He loses his job in the process, but he maintains his honor and integrity.
Careful listeners of “People Under Communism” will recognize the gruff, baritone voice of Principal Thompson. It is the same voice calling out the names of forced laborers and rationing food at the start of “Terror as a System of Power,” the series’ first episode, referenced above. The same voice actor also plays a short tempered factory engineer in the “Men Who Make the Migs” (episode #3).
Principal Thompson was supposed to exist in a dramatic work of propaganda. The gulag commandant and Soviet engineer were characters created for dramatic works of education. However, when the same voice actor plays all of these different characters, when all of the radio dramas are recorded over a matter of days in the same studio facilities, the lines between education and propaganda are obliterated. What we are finally left with is something more interesting than either propaganda or education: a layered, sonic expression of Cold War ambitions and contradictions.
Eric Hoyt is the Kahl Family Professor of Media Production at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the Director of the Wisconsin Center of Film and Theater Research and the Media History Digital Library. His books include Hollywood Vault: Film Libraries before Home Video and the co-edited anthologies Hollywood and the Law, The Arclight Guidebook to Media History and the Digital Humanities, and Saving New Sounds: Podcast Preservation and Historiography.
i Walter Lippmann, The Cold War: A Study in US Foreign Policy (New York: Harper, 1947).
ii Louis Menand, The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021).
iii “Appendix C: Statement of Educational Radio Program Development Plan Approved by Board of Directors of The Fund for Adult Education of The Ford Foundation April 5, 1951.
iv George E. Probst (NAEB Special Committee Chair) to “People Under Communism” Experts, January 10, 1952.
v George E. Probst (NAEB Special Committee Chair) to “People Under Communism” Experts, January 10, 1952.
vi Brenda Gayle Plummer, “Race and the Cold War,” in The Oxford Handbook of the Cold War, edited by Richard H. Immerman and Petra Goedde (New York: Oxford 2013), 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199236961.013.0029