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Mediterranean Quarterly 15.1 (2004) 127-130

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Alan L. Heil Jr.: Voice of America: A History. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003. 499 pages. ISBN 0-231-12674-3. $37.50.

When Guglielmo Marconi developed wireless telegraphy, or radio, over a hundred years ago, he laid the seeds for a revolution in the conduct of diplomacy. A method became available by which one government could reach the people of another country by crossing frontiers without border controls. However, then and for decades thereafter, it was considered utterly undiplomatic in peacetime for a government to establish a direct connection with the citizens of another country. Diplomacy was confined to the relationship between two governments. In wartime, of course, these diplomatic rules did not apply; trying to affect the will of enemy warriors to continue fighting is as old as history.

The rules of diplomacy were broken after the Bolsheviks took power in what was to become the Soviet Union. For the first time in the modern era, a government urged the peoples of other countries, in peacetime, to rise against their own government, and radio was used as the main method to transmit the message—not only in Russian but also in other languages. [End Page 127]

The world was not prepared to follow the Soviet example. But when Nazi Germany adopted the same methods, indeed improved on them, other countries woke up. Britain, for instance, started the BBC World Service, first confining it to English but slowly branching out into other languages.

Of course, when World War II broke out, all diplomatic gloves were off. Radio became a major psychological warfare weapon. Within ten weeks after America's entry into the war, the United States created its own short-wave radio service, later officially named the Voice of America (VOA).

Alan Heil Jr.'s Voice of America: A History not only traces VOA's evolution from its beginnings in 1942 to the present but provides a highly readable account of accomplishments and problems in the organization's sixty-year history. Heil is an excellent writer and researcher who bases his book on his own observations as a VOA employee and executive for almost forty years as well as on an enormous amount of written material and interviews with nearly everyone who has had anything to do with the organization.

Although the book's subtitle is A History, its first chapter deals with Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989. Heil wishes to introduce the reader to one important event in VOA's more recent history to make the evolution of the Voice more understandable. He quotes from a VOA correspondent's report: "It's a sultry May evening and many of the demonstrators in the huge plaza are camping out. They've been here for days as their numbers have swelled to epochal proportions. . . . Suddenly there is a hush. . . . Scores of transistor radios [appear] . . . aerials pointed skyward . . . [and VOA's] signature tune 'Yankee Doodle' sounds from the radios. It's nine P.M. and the Voice of America China Branch is on the air."

The book is full of similar vignettes giving the reader a vivid picture of life in the VOA, an organization peopled by native-born Americans, naturalized Americans, and foreign citizens broadcasting on behalf of VOA to their native countries. Early in 1942 VOA broadcast in only four languages—English, German, French, and Italian—but the number increased over the years and depending on budgetary allocations hovered around fifty; at this time it is fifty-three.

VOA went through many crises—budgetary, organizational, and substantive. It started out as a part of the Coordinator of Information (1942), then became an important element of the Office of War Information (1942-45), was transferred to the Department of State (1945-53), thereafter became a division of the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) (1953-99), and now reports to the Broadcasting Board of Governors.

The term journalistic independence dominates the narrative throughout the book. Clearly, the employees of VOA from the director down have felt strongly on this issue. In the present organizational setup...


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