The Word War at the River Plate

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The Word War at the River Plate
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    Please do not quote from this paper:A revised version is currently being published in: Gisela Cramer/UrsulaPrutsch (eds.), ¡Americas Unidas! Nelson A. Rockefeller’s Office of Inter-AmericanAffairs (1940-46), Berlin/Madrid: Vervuert, 2012 The Word War at the River Plate:the Office of Inter-American Affairs and the Argentine Airwaves, 1940-46 ∗   The introduction to this volume provides a brief outline of Nelson A. Rockefeller’sOffice of Inter-American Affairs (OIAA) and its overall objectives. This chapterconcentrates on one of the OIAA’s major operational units, the Radio Division. Morespecifically, it explores the use of radio as a means to reach and influence mass audiencesin Argentina. Initially, the OIAA’s strategies in Argentina were similar to those employedelsewhere in Latin America. In Argentina, however, the agency soon encountered majordifficulties. As wartime governments in Buenos Aires moved toward a policy that openlydefied the United States, they also, and increasingly, interfered with the OIAA’soperations. The Rockefeller agency therefore moved much of its broadcasting activitiesinto neighboring Uruguay. Here, it worked with a number of radio stations that wereaudible in the Argentine heartlands, and it secured covert control over one of the majorstations in Montevideo, Radio Carve. Once equipped with superior technology andprogramming staff, Carve would become, it was hoped, a major player in the River Plateregion and thus attract mass audiences in Argentina. Yet, despite considerableinvestments, such attempts at building an effective propaganda base across the river fellshort of the highflying plans developed in Washington.Apart from documenting one of the more intriguing, if ultimately unsuccessful, of the OIAA’s covert undertakings, this chapter provides a brief outline of U.S. broadcastingactivities directed at Latin America in general before zooming in on the peculiarities of the Argentine case. It then focuses on the ability of the OIAA to open up and preserve a  presence on the Argentine airwaves, in stiff competition with other forces, including theArgentine government. At this level of analysis, it is possible to construct a ratherstraightforward narrative and the major findings are as follows.First, although the United States entered the war on the airwaves rather late, thevolume and scope of U.S. broadcasts directed at Latin America in general and atArgentina in particular soon surpassed comparable efforts by other foreign powers,including Nazi Germany. 1 Second, U.S. efforts to reach and influence audiences in LatinAmerica were supported by considerable research. Drawing on the emerging discipline of communications studies and engaging some of its foremost scholars, 2 the OIAA initiatedsystematic investigations into the structure of Latin America’s communications systemsand into the reading and listening habits of the region’s inhabitants. 3 It also employed    leading academics engaged in propaganda research to help frame the messages to beconveyed by radio and other media. 4 To be sure, the practical use and effectiveness of such research should not be exaggerated. Much of the OIAA’s radio programming seemsto have been guided by trial-and-error methods that aimed at increasing audience sizerather than by carefully-calibrated strategies to influence hearts and minds . Listenersurveys and other research undertaken by the OIAA reveal, at best, the popularity of agiven station or program in terms of audience size, but they do not provide systematicinsights into the possible effects on listeners. 5 Yet, such research was important in that itguided the OIAA’s content development and program placement and, more important forour purposes here, it served to assess the degree to which Latin America’scommunications systems had been penetrated by the Axis and other powers, and itallowed the OIAA to gauge its own presence on the airwaves.Third, given that international shortwave radio reached rather limited audiences,all the major powers seeking to influence mass audiences in Latin America strove tomake inroads into domestic broadcasting systems, particularly with regard to news andcommentary programs. More precisely, they strove to feed broadcasts into LatinAmerica’s domestic networks and to control the sources of news transmitted by localstations. Their rates of success, however, varied greatly, as systematic researchundertaken by U.S. diplomatic missions and the OIAA reveals. In Argentina, the radioindustry was by and large privately owned and dominated by three major commercialnetworks sympathetic to the Allied cause. Their political orientation and, no lessimportantly, the high costs involved in buying station time on major networks constituteda rather effective barrier against intrusions by Nazi Germany and its allies. Axis inroadsinto the domestic radio arena were restricted to minor outlets. What is more, such inroadswere rather effectively checked by Allied reprisals ( blacklisting ). Hence, these findingsdo not support earlier claims by scholars who maintain that Nazi propagandists, whilerather unsuccessful in their bid to subvert Argentina’s print media, found “their mostsuccessful outlet” in radio. 6  Yet, fourth, this chapter also shows that U.S. and Allied efforts to place programswith Argentine networks encountered a series of difficulties. They met with theconstraints of a highly competitive market and, more importantly, with increasingly stiff censorship restrictions. To some extent, Argentina’s censorship officials even reachedinto neighboring countries and thereby obstructed some of the OIAA’s more ambitiousdesigns to use Uruguay as a base for mass propaganda. Hence, if the Allies were rathersuccessful in diminishing the Axis’ limited presence on the airwaves, they were unable torein in the Argentine government. The latter not only restricted Allied programplacements; it increasingly silenced critical comments in the media and forced privatebroadcasters to adjust to its own policy agenda.By focusing closely on the OIAA and on the institutional environment it wasoperating in, this chapter follows a mode of analysis that resembles a political economyapproach to media studies. As such, it has clear limitations that need to be addressed atthe outset. It cannot assess the OIAA’s effects on hearts and minds. True, it is not toodifficult to understand what the OIAA in general and individual radio programs in    particular were supposed to achieve as a few examples discussed below will illustrate.Measuring the effects they had on public opinion or any segment thereof, however, is anentirely different matter. Audiences here as elsewhere were certainly not a uniform andpassive mass of recipients waiting to be manipulated, as contemporary scholarsinvestigating propaganda effects in international broadcasting soon found out. If contemporary communication research nevertheless ascribed significant power to themass media, much recent theorizing insists that audiences generate their own meaningsfrom their readings of media contents, engage in creative appropriation processes andthereby resist being guided or manipulated. Such reasoning may overstate audienceautonomy and resilience, and understate the implications of highly asymmetrical powerrelations in the mass communications systems, as critics of the more extreme versions of “active audience theories” have pointed out. 7 In any case, any empirical attempt to gaugethe OIAA’s effects on public opinion, if possible at all, would have to focus onaudiences, rather than the agency itself, and thus would need to introduce dimensions of analysis that go far beyond what this essay can provide.Deductive reasoning, however, may provide an avenue to solving this particularempirical conundrum. The conclusions to this essay will situate the OIAA’s broadcastingactivities within the wider framework of U.S. policies toward Argentina and providesome overarching, if tentative, suggestions as to the possible effects of U.S. strategies toinfluence the course of affairs in the River Plate region. Shortwave broadcasting in the 1930s  By the mid-1930s, most European nations had established powerful shortwavetransmitters for international programming. Initially, most of these stations directed theirantennas at colonial territories and at nationals residing abroad. Increasingly, however,shortwave broadcasting aimed at foreign audiences and provided news, commentary andcultural programs in different languages. 8 Programming for foreign audiences requiredconsiderable investments, not just in terms of transmission facilities. It also requiredcontents that were more than simple translations of programs produced for domesticlisteners. Nevertheless, European states invested heavily in shortwave programming as ameans to impress foreign audiences with their cultural achievements and materialprogress and also in order to influence public opinion abroad with a view to importantmatters of policy. In the United States, Europe’s increasingly intense use of radio as a vehicle toinfluence public opinion abroad did not fail to raise concerns. The rapid expansion of Germany’s shortwave capacities raised particular fears. It was generally assumed thatradio had been a major propagandistic asset in the Nazi’s rise to power. And it waswidely feared that Joseph Goebbels’ seductive talents might not be limited to Germans,but could prove to be equally effective when directed at other audiences. Systematicstudies into the possible impact of foreign broadcasts on public opinion in the UnitedStates soon laid to rest some of the more pronounced anxieties. These studies concludedthat foreign shortwave programs in general reached only a tiny minority of U.S. citizens.    Germany’s programs in particular attracted even smaller groups, mostly Nazisympathizers who needed little convincing in the first place. 9 Yet, if U.S. audiences byand large seemed to be impervious to the lures of fascist propaganda, U.S. policy makersand other observers were less convinced as to the steadfastness of Latin Americans. Thelatter were considered ideologically less stable, politically unsettled and thus more likelyto fall for foreign propaganda. Latin America, moreover, was home to large pockets of citizens of German and Italian descent who, prodded by Berlin and Rome, might turn intoFifth Columns and active agents of fascism. 10 Indeed, it was fear of a fascist penetrationin Latin America that, toward the late 1930s, sparked a range of congressional initiativesseeking to establish a government-controlled radio station that would engage ininternational programming. 11  However, such initiatives encountered fierce resistance. Broadcasting in theUnited States had developed as a private enterprise, and corporate interests interpretedsuch proposals as a first step toward public control of the entire industry. Furthermore, amajority in Congress remained unconvinced that the situation, grave as it was, required agovernment station to do the job. Yet, public debate and concern during the late 1930sexerted increasing pressure on the private sector to expand transmitting facilities andprogram hours in order to keep up with European and, more particularly, with Germanshortwave programming for Latin America.In contrast to domestic radio, international shortwave broadcasting was not aprofitable enterprise. Until 1939, federal regulations prohibited commercial sponsoringon shortwave and profitability did not improve markedly thereafter. 12 Indeed, shortwaveinvolved considerable losses, even for otherwise highly successful networks such as theNational Broadcasting Company (NBC) or the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS).Nevertheless, in fear of government intrusion, both larger and smaller networksscrambled to comply and gradually increased their transmitting facilities and hours of programming in Spanish and Portuguese. 13 By mid-1939 representatives of the radioindustry hailed these advances as examples for a successful, and typically American,response to the Nazi threat in the hemisphere. Industry spokesmen and sympathetic mediaobservers proudly presented growing volumes of fan mail from Latin America. Theyclaimed that “American shortwave broadcasts are not only most popular but are on the airmore than any other nation’s.” A survey sponsored by NBC found that total programminghours directed at Central and South America by this company alone (63 hours per week)exceeded those beamed from Germany (56 hours), France (33.5 hours), Britain (18.5hours) or Italy (9.5 hours). 14  Such claims to success, however, paled as news on the Wehrmacht’s militaryadvances in Europe came in thick and fast. By mid-1940, Nazi Germany loomed largeron the horizon than ever before, and Washington’s policy makers now became convincedthat private industry on its own was not sufficiently prepared to keep up in the war on theairwaves. Assisting the private networks in their quest to conquer the airwaves south of the Rio Grande was one of the major tasks assigned to the Office of Inter-AmericanAffairs, established in August 1940 and led by Nelson A. Rockefeller.    The OIAA and shortwave broadcasting  The OIAA worked closely with the radio industry and the private sector in general. TheOIAA’s Radio Division was led by senior officers who had previously held importantpositions in the communications, news and advertisement industries. The senior staff included, for instance, the legendary Sylvester L. (“Pat”) Weaver, who would laterbecome president of NBC. The division quickly pieced together a qualified staff of radioengineers, programming experts, journalists, scriptwriters and translators. 15 It alsoinitiated a series of surveys on the signal strength of U.S. stations and found it wanting.Systematic research into the transmission power of the (by then) twelve shortwavestations revealed that in many parts of Latin America reception remained poor and veryinferior to German or British transmitters. 16 Hence, much of the division’s early workwas focused on increasing signal strength and overall reception quality. 17  Progress was slow at first. Keeping up with German or British stations presentedits own difficulties. In Germany and Britain, shortwave broadcasting was a highlycentralized affair. Both countries used teams of transmitters to simultaneously broadcast agiven program. This provided not only for a strong signal but also allowed listeners toswitch to alternative frequency bands in case of interferences. 18 U.S. stations, by contrast,were operated by six different corporations. 19 Together they offered a larger choice of programs, but they did so at the cost of dispersal in terms of both signal strength andprogram quality. “You just cannot tune into a specific American station with anticipationof one hour’s interesting listening. Either there are mediocre programs, the frequencybegins to fade […] or the station changes to another language pattern,” senior officerJohn W. G. Ogilvie reported, somewhat disheartened, from a fact-finding mission to theSouthern Cone in mid-1942. 20 U.S. embassy officials monitoring shortwave broadcastsfrom the United States concurred. The program contents came in for particularly severecriticism. Too much of the contents consisted of “regular American chain broadcasts,with a few Spanish words hurriedly interpolated for the title of a song,” a U.S. consularofficial reported from his post in Buenos Aires. Such “transmissions of […] standardized‘variety programs’ mean nothing to the Latin American listener.” 21  Much to the surprise of the OIAA’s Communications Division, therefore, the firstlarge-scale surveys on listening habits and audience preferences in Brazil and Argentinasuggested that U.S. broadcasters fared rather well in comparative terms. Disguised asmarketing surveys for commercial purposes and based on representative opinion polls,the two surveys were conducted in early 1941. 22 They found the United States to be oneof the main competitors in the shortwave arena, together with Britain and Germany. True,the Brazilian survey showed that the combined broadcasts of U.S. shortwave stationscame in as a poor second, trailing far behind the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).But they were still ahead of the more powerful German transmitters in terms of overallaudience preference ratings. 23 The Argentine survey produced even more promisingresults. In Argentina, at least three-fourths of the adult population were found to listenregularly to the radio. What is more, a rather large percentage of male interviewees andowners of radio sets professed to tune regularly (15 percent) or occasionally (13 percent)
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