Reagan’s Man at VOA: Kenneth Tomlinson, RIP
Ken Tomlinson, who died last week, was one of Ronald Reagan’s key lieutenants in bringing about the collapse of Soviet communism. It’s much forgotten nowadays how vital the battle to disseminate information behind the Iron Curtain was to the cause of defeating communism. The Voice of America, which Ken ran early in Reagan’s term, and Radio Free Europe were the window for millions of East Europeans into the outside world. No young person today can conceive of the dearth of information inside Russia when millions listened to short wave radio for knowledge about the world.
When I first visited Moscow with a delegation of journalists in 1987, I brought along a radio and scanned for programs. In all of Moscow there was no FM at all, and only four AM stations. TV news was scarce and always pure propaganda. VOA and the BBC broadcast news about America and the world; Radio Free Europe broadcast news about what was happening inside the Eastern Bloc nations.
Tomlinson had hired me to debate leftists on a VOA program at the end of 1984. Only subsequently came the vast expansion of information as photocopy machines and VCRs were smuggled into Russia and East Europe by the thousands. Nearly every Russian diplomat would then take back 2 VCRs, one for himself and one to sell on the black market. The VCRs, whose tapes could be dubbed with translations, created havoc for the communists as more and more of their citizens citizens learned about the outside world, and their deprivation in the Soviet prison lands.
We met, and Tomlinson hired me, after I was quoted in a 1984 poll of conservative leaders in Richard Viguerie’s Conservative Digest. Asked about the best things Reagan had done, I replied, “His speeches and vitalizing the Voice of America.” Ken’s main assistant in his work was Ed Warner, a former Time editor, hired to oversee all the special programs. He was my direct boss. Tomlinson and Warner hired me and others who really understood communists’ psychology; we knew how to get inside their minds. I had been a long-time journalist in Latin America, and grew up the son of Freda Utley, who wrote several of the first books explaining Russian and Chinese communism.
Before Tomlinson, VOA had been pretty namby-pamby, mainly known for its Willis Conover jazz programs. Turning the Voice into a real weapon of information was not easy at all for Tomlinson and Warner. It had always been a prime target of infiltration for the Soviets, second only to the CIA. Over and over again Warner would tell me of some broadcaster who was surely procommunist, putting out the straight Soviet line as if it were also Washington’s. When I’d say, “can’t you remove him?” Ed would reply, “I can’t, his boss is a good guy, thinks like we do, but says he’s ok and protects him.” Later they would finally get rid of the man only to find the boss again sponsoring the same kind of programming. The boss, too, had been a communist supporter. That was how the communists protected their agents; it was done the same way in the CIA. To this day we still don’t know just how infiltrated the VOA had been.
In any case, the VOA under Tomlinson began to broadcast hard-hitting, real information and criticism. Reagan spoke about how private property owners cared for their land to produce profitably and for the long term, unlike government. After that, I hammered away at explaining why Americans were rich and Russians were poor, for this reason. Tomlinson also unleashed the East European refugees to broadcast. A Polish friend of mine even started a talk show for listeners inside Poland to call into.
His New York Times obituary doesn’t mention how Tomlinson reformed the VOA and made it into a dynamic force for freedom. Nor, of course, does it explain that Ken Tomlinson was one of the architects of the collapse of communism. Rather, it almost completely dwells on infighting and criticism of him in later years about his disputes with PBS and public television.
Ken had reported for Reader’s Digest as a foreign correspondent before becoming editor. He was one of the rare conservatives who knew and understood the outside world, having reported from Vietnam, Somalia, and Europe. That experience was what made him so effective, and so successful.
Jon Basil Utley is publisher of The American Conservative.