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Remembering Radio Free Europe's balloon crusade

source: Hoover Institution

No doubt many Radio Survivor readers remember and still love Nena’s 80s rock song, Ninety Nine Red Balloons. It’s about a couple of kids who let loose a slew of balloons, and trigger the early warning systems of Europe, unleashing nuclear war.

Ninety-nine dreams I have had
And every one a red balloon
It’s all over, and I’m standing pretty
In this dust that was a city
If I could find a souvenir
Just to prove the world was here
And here is a red balloon
I think of you and let it go

It was a popular song for the Reagan/Gorbachev era anti-nuclear movements of both the United States and Europe. But not that many people know that next year will be the anniversary of a much bigger balloon story, Radio Free Europe’s Operation Prospero.

From August 1951 through November 1956, RFE launched millions of balloon carried leaflets into Communist Eastern Europe. They urged Czechs and Slovaks to boycott national elections, and told Poles about corruption scandals in their country. “The balloons also provoked a degree of official Communist fury never elicited by RFE broadcasts;” writes Arch Puddington in his history of Radio Free Europe. “Regime leaders were reduced to profanity when the subject of the balloons came up, and the balloon campaign ultimately wound up as an issue before the United Nations.”

The first balloon launching didn’t accomplish very much, it seems, largely because the leaflet messages weren’t very interesting. The next urged Czech’s to resist the government following the hugely unpopular devaluation of Czech currency in 1953. The leaflets for this campaign, dubbed Operation Prospero, urged readers to “insist on workers rights today. Demand concessions–tomorrow, Freedom.” More than sixty thousand balloons filled the skies during Prospero’s initial flight. In response:

“MiG fighters were ordered to shoot down the balloons; when they proved too fast to get an accurate bead on the targets, slower, propeller-driven Messerschmidts were dispatched, and antiaircraft guns fired at the invaders as they crossed the border. After an emergency session of the Politburo, police cars were told to patrol the streets with sound systems, demanding that citizens turn in any Prospero leaflets they encountered.”

Despite the Messerschmidts, tons of anti-Communist literature and propaganda was delivered this way, including copies of George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm. Some balloons could carry up to four hundred pounds of material and rise to 75,000 feet.

Following the crushed Hungarian Revolution of 1956, RFE abandoned these sort of pugnacious campaigns for more subtle methods. And it’s unclear how seriously the target populations took the often crudely written propaganda messages they received via balloon. But Operation Prospero is a reminder of the lengths to which a radio station or network will go to get some publicity. Then, and now.

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