Free Europe Committee

Providing Aid to Exiles and Cold War Propaganda for the United States

After World War II, the United States of America provided shelter to numerous émigrés from Central and Eastern Europe who fled the communist regimes that took hold in their countries of origin. The Czechoslovak, Polish, Hungarian, Bulgarian, and Estonian democratic exiles began to organize on U.S. soil into umbrella organizations and numerous national committees. Their activities consisted of lobbying U.S. government officials and compatriot associations of Eastern European immigrants in America in pursuit of exile interests. They also organized cultural, educational, and memorial events, and generally maintained informational campaigns in the press, alerting U.S. audiences to developments on the other side of the Iron Curtain. The exile communities formed a conglomerate of diverse political currents, and few were able to avoid internal strife or financial problems. The national committees maintained contacts with their homelands, informing U.S. politicians and the CIA of the latest developments. The American government felt the need to further coordinate these activities, at first via the State Department and then through a “proxy”: the National Committee for a Free Europe (NCFE)—later renamed and better known as the Free Europe Committee (FEC)—was established in June 1949. In the years that followed, the Committee stood behind a number of anti-communist campaigns and helped establish well-known institutions such as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and theAssembly of Captive European Nations.

Origins of the FEC

At its inception, the FEC was first and foremost an American creation, born out of U.S. concerns during the early Cold War. In December 1947 the newly-formed National Security Council (NSC) warned the American government that the Soviet Union was conducting an intense propaganda campaign directed primarily against the United States, employing coordinated psychological, political, and economic measures designed to undermine non-communist elements in Europe and elsewhere. One response available to weaken and to roll back this communist influence was to initiate a psychological offensive in return. The director of the policy planning staff at the State Department, George F. Kennan, presented the document “Inauguration of Organized Political Warfare” at an NSC meeting on May 4, 1948 in the presence of President Harry Truman. Kennan highlighted the importance of providing assistance for “liberation committees, underground activities behind the Iron Curtain, and the support of indigenous anti-Communist elements in threatened countries of the Free World.” (Cummings 2009, p.7)

Kennan proposed the formation of a public organization, which would sponsor selected political exile organizations, pursue anti-Soviet and anti-communist activities, support popular resistance directly within communist-led nations, and prepare liberation movements for the eventuality of an armed conflict between East and West. Kennan's proposal was summarized in NSC directive 10/2. Covert activities behind the Iron Curtain, information campaigns, the launching of new propaganda channels, and the uniting of political exiles through a common organizational platform—all these forms of political warfare were now sanctioned and were to be carried out by the anodyne-sounding Office of Policy Coordination (OPC).

Kennan, working together with the nascent CIA and OPC and drawing on the advice and support from former diplomats, businessmen, and public figures, outlined a plan for an anti-communist struggle that would proceed without official support, allowing the U.S. government to distance itself for the purpose of deniability and in order to maintain diplomatic relations with the East. Political and financial aid to exile leaders could then be presented as a public cause and not as an extension of U.S. foreign policy. In February 1949, Kennan first discussed these issues with Secretary of State Dean Acheson, who gave his assent and asked for the formation of a working committee representing leading political, social, economic, and religious figures that could then arrange contacts with the various exile organizations. This liaison would enable the American government to provide assistance and to ensure that all activities would remain in line with U.S. foreign policy objectives. Alongside Kennan, other prominent figures to contribute to the formation of the FEC were the former ambassador to Germany and Japan Joseph C. Grew, former diplomat to the Soviet Union DeWitt Clinton Poole, Lazard Frères New York chief and later General American Investors Company chairman Frank Altschul, Office of Strategic Services (OSS) veteran and director-to-be of the CIA Allen W. Dulles, and former diplomat Frederic R. Dolbeare.

Role and Purpose during the early Cold War

Despite initial disagreements about the exact purpose and functions of the FEC, its founders laid out their general vision for the organization. It would not provide humanitarian aid to refugees from Eastern Europe or apply for U.S. visas on behalf of those still interned in refugee camps. Instead, it would focus on aiding a chosen group of non-fascist and non-communist leaders who had successfully made it to the United States in their efforts to find appropriate employment, while making use of their knowledge and abilities during their exile in “the land of the free.” The Committee's articles of association were signed in New York on May 17, 1949. At its first press conference, Joseph Grew introduced a four-point program:

1. Create an institution in which exiles from the Soviet satellite nations could
find employment, utilize their skills and, at the same time, document for the world at large the repressive actions of the satellite governments and Soviet Russia;

2. Utilize the political exiles as rallying points and as symbols of unified opposition to communism in the United States and abroad;

3. Relieve the Department of State of the need to deal with exiled political leaders—a delicate task because the U.S. government could not endorse the exiles as “governments in exile” at a time when the United States officially recognized the legitimacy of the satellite governments; and

4. Generally “aid the non-fascist, non-communist leaders in their peaceful effortsto prepare the way for the restoration in Eastern Europe of the social, political, and religious liberties, in which they and we believe.” (Cummings 2009, p.9)

At a press conference three weeks later, Secretary of State Acheson expressed his full support for the FEC. Altogether, its members numbered thirty-five, including generals Dwight D. Eisenhower and Lucius D. Clay, founder and head of the OSS William J. Donovan, labor leader James B. Carey, former governor of New York Herbert H. Lehman, and press magnate and publisher of Life magazine Henry R. Luce. By founding the FEC, the political, organizational, and operational groundwork for all forms of anti-Soviet and anti-communist propaganda was in place.

At the time of its creation, the FEC consisted of four basic divisions: the National Councils Division, responsible for supporting the exile political organizations and, in 1954, for the creation of the “exile parliament,” the Assembly of Captive European Nations (ACEN); the Middle European Studies Center for scholarly research; the American Contacts Division that provided the link between the exiles and American audiences, especially the trade unions; and finally, Radio Free Europe, the main broadcasting propaganda channel.

Big Brother of the Exiles

Financial aid for the FEC's activities was assured. While some donations came from private persons, the main sources of contribution were large corporations, foundations, and, above all, the behind-the-scenes support of the CIA. Soon after its foundation, the FEC began to bargain about the size and regularity of its contributions to the exile national committees. These negotiations were conducted primarily between Poole and Dolbeare on the one hand and prominent émigrés on the other. Among the most active exile figures with close connections to FEC were the Chairman of the Bulgarian National CommitteeGeorgi M. Dimitrov, the leading representative of the ACEN and the Polish Political Council Stefan Korboński, and the leader of the Hungarian National Council and former Prime Minister Ferenc Nagy. As it transpired, émigré hopes for institutional and financial support from the FEC were often exaggerated and, as a result, frequently ended in disappointment.

The émigrés envisioned more financial support, more opportunities to present their goals to wider public and, above all, a stronger impact of their actions on U.S. foreign policy and the relationship of Western countries to the Soviet bloc. The FEC undertook the provision of monthly subventions to each committee for administration, travel expenses, information, and social services. Being a generous but strict patron, the FEC became an effective instrument for exerting pressure. If, in subsequent years, any of the funded organizations did not respect the FEC’s recommendations, the Committee first appealed for and then strongly urged changes before ultimately cutting back financial assistance if it became clear that the desired results would not be forthcoming.

One example is the crisis within the Czechoslovak exile community in the United States at the beginning of 1950s that culminated in the break-up of their political umbrella organization, the Council of Free Czechoslovakia, in January 1951. While a faction of representatives split off, founding the National Committee for Free Czechoslovakia and declaring themselves to be the only legitimate voice of the émigré community, the FEC continued to support the original Council. Such “fratricidal” disputes weakened the efforts of the entire Czechoslovak exile community and the FEC expressed its frustration with the political infighting. Under the threat of a total withdrawal of financial support, the Americans coerced the two camps into an agreement. The Council of Free Czechoslovakia reunited after drawn-out negotiations—mediated and led by the FEC—in May of 1952. Subsequently, the FEC paid much more attention to the internal developments within the Council, intervened more frequently, and tried to prevent (though rarely with complete success) other quarrels.

Dependency on American leadership and funding was cause for a long-running debate within the exile committees and the exile press: to what extent did the FEC's support obligate them to espouse specific political aims and limit them to the pursuit of U.S. interests? Some critics viewed the committees as being at the mercy of FEC, whose concern for oppressed European nations and the thousands of refugees in the camps only extended as far as U.S. foreign policy and political strategy necessitated. Exile leaders often had to defend themselves against accusations that by receiving money from the Americans, they had abandoned the principles of an autonomous and sovereign exile community.

The FEC pursued several strategies to place qualified, experienced, and well-known exile leaders at the center of the public and political dialogue. The Middle European Studies Center, for example, became an academic setting in which former diplomats and political leaders like Dimitrov and Korboński could write memoirs, essays, analyses, and situation reports about their home countries. The topics of the resulting publications varied widely, from land reform, mining, and the oil industry, to freedom of speech, international relations, and the Sovietization of agricultural policies. Similarly, the Free Europe Press was created to distribute the reports and it issued the monthly magazine News from Behind the Iron Curtain. Most important for the purposes of disseminating the FEC was the involvement of prominent exiles in radio broadcasts to their home countries. Besides making appearances on the programs of Voice of America, this led directly to the first broadcasts of Radio Free Europe (RFE) in May 1951. The editors of the RFE’s Czechoslovak desk were, among others, well-known journalists Ferdinand Peroutka and Julius Firt, while former diplomat Leslaw Bodenski represented the Polish desk, journalist Mihail Farcasanu the Romanian desk, lawyer Dimitri Matzankieff the Bulgarian desk, and journalist Pal Vajda the Hungarian desk.

Public support for the East European exiles in the United States came from carefully supervised propaganda campaigns such as the Crusade for Freedom. Its goal was to collect donations for Radio Free Europe from American citizens as well as from industrial and financial giants (including Chevrolet, Ford Motor Company, General Electric, and Chase National Bank), and to generally raise domestic support for Cold War policies. However, the changing atmosphere in international relations—the sinking possibility of an armed conflict between Western and Eastern bloc countries and the détente in U.S.-Soviet tensions—caused the FEC to decline in importance in the 1960s. The revelation by New Jersey senator Clifford P. Case that the FEC had been receiving long-term covert financial assistance, uncontrolled by the U.S. Congress, effectively spelled the end of CIA subsidies for the Committee. The inevitable political upheaval and media coverage that followed led to the termination of the majority of the FEC’s activities in 1971.

Looking back at the FEC as a shelter for prominent émigrés who used its resources and facilities to fight communism from abroad, the Committee can be considered a very unique organization with a specific role in the Cold War history. The number of people involved, the expenses incurred, and the efforts to get the FEC into the U.S. public awareness all serve as evidence of this. The émigrés relied on their “American friends” in the early Cold War years, believing in the possibility of defeating communism in Europe. However, after the failed Hungarian uprising in the fall 1956 that was violently suppressed by Soviet tanks, the mood among East-European exile communities dramatically changed. The émigrés realized that the West would not intervene directly in favor of an opposition group in a country within the Soviet sphere of influence. As a result, their expectations, along with the Free Europe Committee’s importance, gradually diminished.

Nevertheless, the legacy of the organization, sometimes called the “unofficial Department of U.S. propaganda” is not entirely forgotten. More than two decades after the fall of the Iron Curtain, Radio Free Europe still broadcasts in twenty-one countries, and Captive Nations Week—marked every year in July—serves as a reminder of the suffering of many nations still living in undemocratic conditions.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Free Europe Committee
  • Author
  • Keywords Free Europe Committee, Eastern Europe, Cold War, Propaganda, National Security Council, Iron Curtain, George F. Kennan, FEC
  • Website Name Transatlantic Perspectives
  • URL
  • Access Date May 26, 2024
  • Publisher German Historical Institute
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update July 29, 2018