Posts Tagged ‘Cold War’


The Everyday IRD: British Covert Information in the Early 1960s

March 21, 2019

The Information Research Department (IRD), the Foreign Office’s Cold War covert information agency, has been back in news this week as the latest release of material from the Public Records Office confirms the involvement of the IRD in the production and use of forgeries aimed at Soviet aligned fronts organizations.  This report provides some detail on an operation against the World Federation of Democratic Youth in 1963.

By coincidence I’ve been looking at a couple of pieces on the IRD in this era which really focus on the day to day to activities of the organization.  These are a top secret review of the IRD conducted by the former Permanent Under Secretary of the FO Lord Strang in 1963  that was been dug out of the archives and transcribed by  The second is a PhD Thesis by Simon Collins on the IRD in the Middle East and Africa between 1956 and 1963.  Strang’s report is redacted and is very much a Whitehall focused document while Collin’s thesis actually gives a pretty strong sense of what IRD was doing.

The Strang report seems to have been motivated by concerns over whether an expansion of IRD was providing value for money. The agency had been authorized to appoint up to 24 field officers who  could be sent overseas.  Part of the background here is that the IRD was largely funded by the ‘secret vote’ that financed the intelligence services and wasn’t subject to the same level of financial stringency that affected the overt overseas information services of the FO, the British Council and the BBC.  Neither was it subject to the same staffing policies as the FO.*  There’s a similarity with situation in the US during the early Cold War where the Marshall Plan information activities and those of the CIA had more money and more freedom than those of the State Department.  Although Strang accepts the argument that the IRD should be maintained as a covert organization I also get a sense in that part of the importance of the IRD  in this era is because of the additional resource it brings to the overall information effort.

At this point the IRD is the largest department in the FO and is several times the size of the overt information departments.   Strang gives a figure of 288 whereas the total staff of the Information Policy Department, Information Executive Department and the Cultural Relations Department is 83.  The key to the difference is that IRD is producing its own content and has its own people in the field.  I would assume that information officers at overseas posts did not count as part of the IPD establishment somewhat reducing the discrepancy.

I think Collins gives a good sense of what is happening with the IRD at this point.  From 1955 the IRD is  tasked against Nasserite Arab Nationalism as well as Communism.  This continues to be a priority well after the Suez Crisis.  Egypt’s external communications are attacking the British position in Africa not just  conservative Arab regimes.  In the late 1950s Britain wants to rebuild diplomatic relations with Egypt while containing the Nasserite influence.  The result is Transmission X; a sort of asymmetrical rebuttal service to Egypt’s radio broadcasting.  Instead of a classic mid-20th century radio war with competing radio stations directly attacking each other – which might have undermined the goal of repairing diplomatic relations – Transmission X used near real-time reports on Cairo’s broadcasts from BBC Monitoring Service as a basis to produce materials: opinion pieces, scripts that could be rapidly circulated to posts and to their contacts in government and media in the Middle East and North Africa.  The initial concept was to undermine the credibility of the Egyptian broadcasts by pointing out flaws and inconsistencies. Collins sees some success with this activity.  But from an organizational point of view  the consequences are bigger.  IRD is no longer just producing background materials but is now also operating as a full time information service.  The content and scope of Transmission X expanded beyond the narrow agenda of countering Egyptian broadcasts to take in anti-Communist material and even non-political ‘projection of Britain’ fare.   Certainly one gets the impression from the two studies here that one of the consequences of the expanding IRD field presence was for it to be used to fill gaps in the official information services.

The idea that 1955-65 represents a ‘golden age’ for Western public diplomacies crops up  in discussions of the  France and the US as well as the UK.  In this era public diplomacies are expanding as colonial countries gain their independence, public diplomacies are also pressed into service to fill gaps in national media systems and commercial international news services.  From the mid-60s the costs of this start to become apparent, the Soviet and Chinese threats in Africa seem less immediate and gaps in media systems are being filled in so that the scope of these information activities can be scaled back.

The main point is that while the involvement of the IRD in black activities will always be of interest the bulk of what they were doing was much more mundane.  In making sense of British Cold War information activities the covert and the overt need to put into context.

*I’m wondering if the exemption from the normal staff regulations meant that there were more women in IRD. The field staff were carefully selected and included at least three women, at least two of whom had intelligence connections going back the Second World War.


Collins, Simon MW (2013). “Countering Communist and Nasserite Propaganda: The Foreign Office Information Research Department in the Middle East and Africa, 1954-1963.” PhD, University of Hertfordshire.

Strang, Lord (1963). The Unavowable Information Services of Her Majesty’s Government Overseas. CAB 301/399.


90 Years of Russian Public Diplomacy

December 2, 2015

This year Russian cultural centres have been holding events to mark 90 years of ‘Russian public diplomacy’. April 1925 marked the formation of the All Union Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries frequently usually referred to, even in the West by its Russian acronym, VOKS. Rossotrudnichestvo (Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, Compatriots Living Abroad, and International Humanitarian Cooperation), which has responsibility for what are now known as Russian Scientific and Cultural Centres, is making the explicit connection back to the Soviet era.  In the West we tend to treat Soviet external outreach in terms of Communist Parties, propaganda the KGB and the Bolshoi, but there was also a substantial component that followed the practices of  other nation-state cultural relations.   In Egypt or India the anniversary is being used as a reminder of the 40-50 year history of the cultural centres in the country. The important point is, as Tobias Rupprecht emphasizes in relation to Latin America, the the Soviet Union ‘looked fundamentally different from the South than from the West’ and this was as much about government perceptions as those of would be revolutionaries.

As far as I can tell there has been no attempt to track the development of the Soviet Cultural Centres networks, we don’t know how very much about how they were managed or what they did.*  There are good reasons for neglect of this in term of access to archives, language skills etc but the neglect of Soviet public diplomacies during the Cold War is signficant gap in our knowledge of the period.

*If you know different I’d really like to know what I’ve missed.


West Germany and the Global Anti-Communist Network, 1956-65:

March 16, 2015

In recent years quite a lot has been written about American backing for ‘state-private networks’   (eg Saunders 1999, Scott-Smith and Krabbendam 2003, Laville and Wilford, 2006, Wilford 2008) during the Cold War so I was intrigued to come across a new working paper from the Cold War International History Project on the West German supported Comité International d’Information et d’Action Sociale (CIAS). This was network of mostly European organizations that came into being in 1956 as an effort to adapt the earlier Paix et Liberté network to the post Stalin evolution of the Cold War. The German Volksbund für Frieden und Freiheit (VFF) was one of the strongest components of the CIAS, in part because it had support from multiple parts of the West German government. The key source for this paper by Torben Gülstorff are the reports from the CIAS to the Auswärtige Amt.

During the decade covered in the paper the CIAS was one of three major anti-Communist networks, the other two being Asian People’s Anti-Communist League (APACL) and the Confederatión Interamericana de la Defensa del Continente (CIADC).*  One of the things that I found most interesting about the paper was the comparison of the three organizations albeit from the perspective of the VFF. The OPACL revolved around an axis between Taipei and Seoul (although this created a tension between the relatively pro-Japanese Republic of China and the anti-Japanese Republic of Korea), and had a policy line that called for the eradication of Communism in Asia as such it was closely aligned with governments. The CIADC was more moderate ideologically but enjoyed little government support. The VFF/CIAS line was intended to keep an opening to the left and was concerned to warn against the lures of Communism (and keep tabs on Communist sympathisers) but did not embrace the kind of ‘eradicationist’ line taken by the APACL. One of the roles that the VFF filled within the CIAS seems to have been to keep more hard line elements under control. A particular issue for the VFF was the degree of anti-Americanism that existed within anti-Communist networks, here Gülstorff points to the lasting legacy of Nazi anti-Bolshevism. These three organizations merged in 1965 to form the World Anti Communist League (WACL) which reflected the ascendancy of the hard line OPACL despite the resistance of the VFF.

From the point of the view of the West German government one of the roles of the VFF/CIAS link was to keep the struggle against East Germany on the agenda of the world anti Communist movement.

The creation of the WACL in 1965 seems to have been a success for the OPACL radicals.

There’s a lot material in the paper and also a lot of loose ends but it helps to broaden the agenda in thinking about Cold War networks beyond the CIA.

*The absence of the USA is an interesting question.Gülstorff points to the fragmentation of anti-Communism within the US and suggests that J.Edgar Hoover might have hand in producing this state of affairs.

Laville H and Wilford H, eds (2006) The US government, citizen groups and the Cold War : the state-private network. London: Routledge.

Saunders FS (1999) Who Paid the Piper?: The CIA and the Cultural Cold War. London: Granta.

Scott-Smith G and Krabbendam H, eds (2003) The Cultural Cold War in Western Europe, 1945-1960. London ; Portland, OR: Frank Cass.

Wilford H (2008) The mighty Wurlitzer : how the CIA played America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.


French Cultural Diplomacy in Eastern Europe, 1936-51

March 4, 2015

I suspect that Annie Guénard-Maget’s newish book Une Diplomatie Culturelle Dans Les Tensions Internationales: La France En Europe Centrale Et Orientale (1936-1940/1944-51). Brussels: Peter Lang, 2014 isn’t going to be a best seller but if you’re interested in the history of public diplomacies it’s a fascinating contribution.

The study looks at the development of French cultural diplomacy in Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, Rumania, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia on either side of the Second World War (1936-40 and 1944-51) It’s a valuable contribution for a number of reasons.

1. Quite a lot has been written about French activities in the America’s so it’s very interesting to see a discussion of the cultural instrument at work in a core zone of contestation. The book begins with the attempt to revive French activities in the region in the face of a rising Fascist threat. In 1940 France was groping towards a strategic concept that integrated cultural activities and propaganda with other aspects of statecraft.

2. The second half of the book is even more interesting and provides a different perspective on the early Cold War from that found in Anglo-American accounts. From the moment of the liberation the French leadership saw the reconstruction of their presence in Eastern Europe as an important part of the restoration of France’s position in the world and jumped in with both feet; schools, higher education links, cultural institutes and Alliance Française committees were all soon operational and entrenched by cultural agreements. The growth of communist power soon meant that these links came under pressure but the cultural agreements both provided routes by which the new governments could cause trouble (because of requirements for agreement to various actions) but also made them harder to get rid of. There are useful comparisons with the experience of the UK and the US who were more cautious about getting involved but also more likely to operate unilaterally via their embassies and consulates.

3. Whereas British and American accounts of these events (and I think perspectives at the time) tended to play down differences between countries in favour of a focus on the advance of Soviet power the French perspective (as well as Guénard-Maget’s account) was much more ‘national’ in two ways. Firstly, it placed much more weight on the local situation in s the six countries but also in the assumption that in the end the nation was the basic unit of international relations. For example a country might be run by communists but in the end they were still had a nationality that nation had a special bond with France. Or a country might reject a programme of visiting French lecturers. The solution – send French communists, after all they were still French before they were communists.

4. The fact that the study looks at multiple countries allows an examination of what was common to these cases and what differs. One irony is that the Yugoslavian government was particularly suspicious of the French despite Tito’s split with Stalin.

5. There’s a mass of detail here which can get a bit heavy but really adds to the story.


The Warring Tribes of US Cold War Public Diplomacy

May 8, 2013

In working on the book I’ve been trying very hard not to allow the formulation of the problem to be too influenced by the American experience as a result I’ve been putting off reading a stack of books on American Cold War PD.

Anyway I’m now coming to the end of them…and what can I say: American Cold War Public Diplomacy = warring tribes

This isn’t exactly a surprise but it does reinforce the four paradigms argument.  You’ve got the culturalists (represented by Coombs (1964) and Frankel (1965) and the informationalists (represented particularly by Sorensen (1968 – who is really advocating a proto-strategic communications line) – I was interested to see that he was explicitly dismissive of Coombs and Frankel and their pursuit of an autonomous cultural relations programme – of course Sorensen is one of the main villains in Arndt’s  First Resort of Kings (2005).

Then you’ve got the broadcasters but they are really three different tribal federations; however much they tone it down RFE/RL are cold warriors but the Eastern Europeans aren’t too keen on the Soviets but then within the two stations the different language services don’t necessarily get along too well.  VoA is  fighting a much deadlier set of foes than the communists: The State Department and The USIA.  It took me a while to realize that the struggle that  Alan Heil (2003) keeps talking about isn’t against communism or for democracy but for the independence of the VoA. (Even in 1988 Gifford Malone referred to this as the ‘eternal struggle’)

Then of course up to the late 1960s there’s the ‘hidden’ clan with its subsidies to anyone who might look useful the:  CIA (Laville and Wilford 2006, Wilford 2008, Saunders 1999)

Then there are dark overlords who threaten this little ecology of struggling tribes  First, there’s State (who when they notice them) would like to use the tools of PD to directly support their activities.  Particularly in discussion of the radios (eg Puddington 2000) there are many examples of embassies who really wish that they could dial the volume of PD up and down at will in order to influence US relations.  Second, particularly in the 1950s and the 1980s there are the political warriors (many from the White House) who want to coordinate and subordinate the whole machinery against the Communist foe.

And of course there are the gods of Congress who must be appeased.  It’s pretty clear that Congress is like Olympus where the deities are conspiring against each other and somewhat randomly intervening in human affairs.

Is this degree of tribalism normal?  I think a degree of conflict is normal.  Strategy is an art so some conflict will emerge from routine disagreements. In a national public diplomacy system where you have a foreign ministry, a cultural relations organization, an international broadcaster, trade, investment and tourism organizations conflict will be rooted in the need to engage different publics in different ways.  However, the American case does seem particularly prone to argument.  One aspect of this that recurs in the literature is that different bits of the system (culture, information, broadcasting), particularly at the beginning, were staffed by people from different professional backgrounds. I would also point to an argument from social movement theory, that is people mobilize when they see an opportunity, what’s called political opportunity structure.  The involvement of Congress plus changes in Administration offered opportunities to reengineer the institutional structure which in turn encourage the expression of identities and interests.  If you look at other countries you do find strong expressions of differing perspectives during periods of organizational change.  Almost continuously across the Cold War period there was some project for the reorganization of US PD floating around Congress.  In comparison with UK, France, Germany the US carried out more reorganizations of its PD.  The USSR can probably be placed between the Europeans and the US but I’ll save that for another post.



Arndt, R.T. (2005) The First Resort of Kings: American Cultural Diplomacy in the Twentieth Century. Washington  D.C.: Potomac Books.

Coombs, P. (1964) The Fourth Dimension of Foreign Policy: Educational and Cultural Affairs. Published for the Council on Foreign Relations by Harper & Row.

Frankel, C. (1965) The Neglected Aspect of Foreign Affairs: American Educational and Cultural Policy Abroad. Washington, D.C: Brookings Institution.

Heil, A.L. (2003) Voice of America: a history. New York: Columbia University Press.

Laville, H., and H. Wilford (2006) The US government, citizen groups and the Cold War : the state-private network. London: Routledge.

Malone, G. (1988) Political advocacy and cultural communication : organizing the nation’s public diplomacy. Lanham: University Press of America.

Puddington, A. (2000) Broadcasting Freedom: The Cold War Triumph of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. University Press of Kentucky.

Saunders, F.S. (1999) Who Paid the Piper?: The CIA and the Cultural Cold War. London: Granta.

Sorensen, T.C. (1968) The Word War: The Story of American Propaganda. New York: Harper & Row.

Wilford, H. (2008) The Mighty Wurlitzer : how the CIA played America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.


The Interagency Working Group on Active Measures

March 27, 2013

If you know what the Interagency working Group on Active Measures was you either read The Cold War and the United States Information Agency very carefully or you’re old enough to have been paying attention during the 1980s.  This was a group based in the State Department that worked to unmask Soviet use of forged documents and front organizations  One of topics that they spent a lot of time on was origins and circulation of a rumour that the AIDS virus was an American biological warfare programme.  The high point of their fame came in October 1987 when Mikhail Gorbachev waved a copy of one of their reports at George Shultz and complained that publishing such information undermined relations between their countries.

Last summer the National Defense University put out a monograph by Fletcher Schoen and Christopher J. Lamb on the working group which I would highly recommend.  It’s an extremely detailed study  that asks how did they manage to do so much with such limited resources when most similar groups achieve nothing?  Part of the answer is high level political support but they also point to the motivations of the group members and skilful leadership that managed the personalities and interests at work.  Setting limited and manageable objectives was also important; the group limited itself to a particular subset of Soviet activities – those involving deception – not their communication effort as a whole.  The study is based on interviews with members of the group and demonstrates an impressive sensitivity to the organizational dynamics at work.

A second strand of the discussion is about what the value of the group’s work.  Many people in the State Department were unhappy with the whole enterprise.  Their unmasking of what the Soviets termed ‘active measures’ had the potential to further strain relations with the USSR and to embarrass allies  who appeared to be the target of these actions. Although Shultz conceded nothing to Gorbachev after their meeting there were stories that he returned to Washington and ordered that future reports from the group should be published by the USIA and not State.  Schoen and Lamb point out that this reflected a deeper debate about the significance of the Soviet covert techniques.  The view held by the supporters of the working group was that at the margin the constant repetition of Soviet falsehoods damaged the reputation of the US and had to be countered.  The other side saw these activities as fundamentally unimportant so that unmasking them did nothing but increase international tensions.   Interestingly a few days after his meeting with Shultz Gorbachev told Charles Wick of the USIA that disinformation activities had to stop.

If you’re interested in how organizational imperatives shape public diplomacy  or the interaction between public diplomacy and diplomacy this study is well worth a read.

Schoen, F., Lamb, C.J., (2012) Deception, Disinformation, and Strategic Communications: How One Interagency Group Made a Major Difference,  National Defense University Press, Washington DC.


Relations and Messages: The Case of the Information Research Department

July 5, 2011

Over the past few years public diplomacy scholarship has increasingly advocated a focus on relationship building rather than messaging.  That is the typical emphasis on ‘getting the message out’ misses the point that it’s not going to do any good if no one is listening.  Of course when you start looking at real cases the opposition between messaging and relations tends to be less clear cut.

The history of British public diplomacy contains a very nice case of this in the work of the Information Research Department.  Active between 1948 and 1977 the IRD was a semi autonomous department of the Foreign Office and a major element of the UK’s Cold War information activity.

The IRD gathered information on Soviet and communist activities produced reports and talking points and disseminated them domestically and internationally (no Smith-Mundt in the UK!) through a network of trusted contacts.  Drawing on experience from the Second World War  the IRD approach was that information work should be truthful but would be more credible if it wasn’t linked to official sources hence their mode of operation was grey propaganda – their bulletins were circulated to embassies and other offices with a cover sheet that had to be removed before it was passed to journalists, foreign officials or other contacts.  The information could be freely used but should not be attributed to the UK government.

The point is that for this strategy to work the IRD had to have access to a network of trusted contacts who could disseminate its messages – here the overt work of information officers in UK embassies provided the channel through which IRD material could be disseminated.

The IRD is one of the most controversial aspects of British information work (The introduction to Defty 2004 has a useful discussion of the historiography of the IRD).  On one hand the work is very similar to the way that political parties or PR companies operate but because it was being done by a semi-secret government department it attracted considerable suspicion as more material on its work became available.

Defty, A. (2004) Britiain, America and Anti- Communist Propaganda, 1945-53. Abingdon: Routledge.