The first balloons were launched on August 13, 1951 in an open field near the Czechoslovak border and Iron Curtain. This test operation, known as “Operation Winds of Freedom,” was on an experimental stand-alone basis, i.e., the launching of the balloons was not yet fully part of a coordinated effort with Radio Free Europe broadcasts.
The Free Europe Press (FEP) printed up millions of propaganda leaflets to be launched. The leaflets contained such slogans in Polish and Czech as "A new hope is stirring," and "Friends of Freedom in other lands have found a new way to reach you." The strong propaganda messages of the leaflets included,
- To the people of Czechoslovakia, a new wind is blowing
- They know that you also want freedom
- Millions of free men and women have joined together and are sending you this message of friendship over the winds of freedom
- We are in touch with you daily by radio
- There is no dungeon deep enough to hide truth, no wall high enough to keep out the message of freedom
- Tyranny cannot control the winds, cannot enslave your hearts.
- Freedom will rise again.
The schedule and frequencies of Radio Free Europe’s broadcasts to Czechoslovakia were on the reverse side of the leaflets. Organizational signatures were also on the reverse side and included the Crusade for Freedom, International Federation of Free Journalists and Confederation International des Anciens Prisonniers de Guerre (over 1,200.000 war veterans and prisoners of war from Belgium, France, Holland, and Italy).
On August 12, 1951, at 6:30 p.m., a convoy of eleven trucks, two busses, six automobiles, a radio truck, and a few taxis, began the trip from Radio Free Europe headquarters in Munich to the Iron Curtain, about 170 miles northeast of Munich. As one participant described it, “The convoy stretches out over a half mile. It looks like an army division on the move.” Frank Jewett was the FEP’s technical director for the balloon launching.
The convoy arrived at a field near Tirschenreuth, West Germany at approximately 1 a.m, on the 13th of August, 13, 1951, and set up the base of operations, a few miles from the Czechoslovak border.
Some of the first balloons, supplied by the General Mills company, were about 4 feet in diameter and the Czech word “Svoboda” (freedom) was printed on the side in red letters. Other balloons carried the Polish word for freedom: "Wolnosc."
The balloon crews began work almost immediately after arrival in five trucks. Here is one description of how the preparations for the launching began:
The plastic balloon crews work inside the truck--five men to a truck. Two men prepare the ‘pillows' and insert the message sheets; one man operates the hydrogen tanks; another nozzles in the gas; the last man 'weighs' each balloon by attaching a small metal ring with scotch tape.
When the right amount of gas has been inserted, the balloon hangs almost stationary in the air. Finally, the opening at the corner of the balloon is heat-sealed with an electric gadget like a curling iron. The actual launching consists of tearing off the iron ring and shoving the balloon out the back end of the truck. The 'pillows' take off gracefully and slowly, their silver sides catching the moonlight.
On August 14, 1951, the General Mills public relations department posted the following information on bulletin boards at the corporate headquarters in Minneapolis:
Tens of thousands of General Mills-made freedom balloons are now landing in Czechoslovakia...carrying messages of hope to peoples behind the Iron Curtain. Called pillow balloons because of their 54" square size, they were developed at company Research laboratories in 1949. The balloons are made of polyethylene, a substance commonly used in food saver bags.
A second type of balloon was made of rubber and called “Gummies” (German word for rubber) by the balloon crews. The “Gummies” were round, colored either red or black and took off at a faster rate and soon raced ahead of the “pillow balloons.”
Three prominent American personalities eagerly participated in the first balloon launching:
- Famed American newspaper syndicated columnist Drew Pearson, a major proponent of the balloon launching program in his widely-read US newspaper column: “”The Washington Merry- Go-Round;”
- C.D. Jackson, President of Free Europe Committee and former Time magazine vice president;
- Republican Party leader Harold Stassen, former Governor of Minnesota, who was National Chairman of the 1951 Crusade for Freedom campaign.
According to Time magazine, the three of them launched the balloons “looking like three Statues of Liberty, held high above their heads big rubber balloons. At signal they solemnly let go.”
The photo shows Stassen talking to reporters, with Drew Pearson in the background wearing a hat and all standing underneath a "Gummi" balloon with leaflets. After the launching, Harold Stassen was quoted as saying,
We tore a big hole in the Iron Curtain. If the free world can send enough messages by radio and balloon, Soviet Russia will have to give up its present world policy, and the prospects for avoiding World War III will be considerably brighter … Crusade balloon messages and radio broadcasts will be integrated to tell the prisoner peoples the truth. Later on, balloon messages can prove with pictures that Soviet propaganda is false.
C.D. Jackson reportedly said, 'Tonight we caught the Kremlin with its Iron Curtain down.”
In his nationally syndicated column in the United States, dated August 17, 1951, Drew Pearson wrote:
Near the Czechoslovak border, the current experiment in penetrating the iron curtain by balloons may be a great success or it may fail. It is too early yet to say. But the important thing is that it’s an attempt by private individuals under the free-enterprise system to try out certain methods of psychological propaganda—or call it psychological warfare if you will—which governments will not—and perhaps cannot tackle.
Abbott Washburn, executive vice-president of the Crusade for Freedom wrote an “eyewitness account” of the balloon launching, which was published nationwide in the United States:
When dawn comes, the scene overhead is something out of science fiction. The sky to the east is literally filled with balloons, three layers-deep, on their way to Czechoslovakia. Farm kids, barefoot, gather around the launching site, excited but awed.
The crews returned to work at 7 a.m., and continued launching until noon. By then, over 3,000 balloons carrying 4,000,000 leaflets had been launched. It was 7 p.m. before the convoy returned to Munich.
Abbott Washburn added,
Here at Radio Free Europe they've begun calling them 'ballooncasts.' The new Freedom Balloon operations are being quickly integrated with the regular broadcasting schedule. On ballooncasting days, like yesterday, the station stays on the air 20 hours— 9 hours more than usual — in order to report and background the event for its listeners inside Czechoslovakia.
In its present early stage development, ballooncasting is a lot more strenuous than broadcasting.
On August 17, 1951, Howland Sargeant, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs (and future Radio Liberty President), sent a memorandum to James Webb, Under Secretary of State advising him of the balloon project:
For several months the Department has been following with interest certain privately sponsored plans to use balloons as vehicles for the delivery of propaganda. The Department felt that such projects had sufficient merit to warrant experimentation on a test basis, and consequently encouraged the private interests involved to proceed.
On November 8, 1951, James Webb sent a Third Progress Report, classified “Secret,” to the Executive Secretary of the National Security Council on the subject of “The Foreign Information Program and Psychological Warfare Planning.” Under paragraph 9, Propaganda Balloons, Webb wrote,
There has been continued study of the possibility of using balloons to carry our propaganda to the people of Russia and her satellites. Following Committee approval, the appropriate government agency, in cooperation with private organizations including the Crusade for Freedom in New York, launched an experimental propaganda balloon project from Western Germany with Czechoslovakia as a target ... Details of the project have since appeared in the press. The effectiveness of the project is currently being evaluated.
The 1951 Crusade for Freedom officially began on Labor Day, September 3, 1951. One grass-roots newspaper editorial in support of the Crusade for Freedom included the following: “No one can be sure so early in the experiment whether the balloons will do the job they’re designed to do. But they are nevertheless a symbol of the Crusade’s bold attack on the problem of getting the truth over, under, and through the Iron Curtain.”
Other newspapers carried reports about the balloon launching results that included,
Other newspapers carried reports about the balloon launching results that included,
- Ten Czech refugees reported that eight Red planes tried to shoot down the first three waves of 10,000 balloons recently.
- Local Communist committees in Czechoslovakia ordered the population to ignore and destroy the messages.
- One farmer who ignored the warning was arrested. But the first balloon wave alone dropped 9,000,000 messages, and farmers read these as they lay on the ground, and then plowed them under.
- From one village near Pilsen, came this message: "The balloon messages have inspired us with a new hope and courage."
- From a Prague district: "They show us we are not fighting alone. We know we are not forgotten!"
The story of these balloons has swept Czechoslovakia. Everyone now knows about them, and those who haven’t seen the messages have heard about them. People are now watching for balloons pretty much as Americans once watched for flying saucers. The Messages have been mimeographed, tacked up on telegraph poles and mailed anonymously to Communist officials.
The Czech prime minister has made a speech on the floor of parliament blasting the balloons as carrying ‘beetles’ and ‘press manure.” The Moscow radio has claimed: ‘The winds of freedom stink.’
The Crusade for Freedom sponsored a film about the “Winds of Freedom” that was used in the 1951 fund drive at local rallies and meetings. Here is an excerpt of that film:
The phrase "Winds of Freedom" in connection with balloon launchings over the Iron Curtain apparently comes from articles printed in the nation-wide Sunday newspaper magazine Parade. According to the September 30, 1951, Parade, the idea was first broached on May 28, 1950, when it published a map that showed "how easy it would be to let balloons carry messages of freedom from Europe to the slave countries behind the Iron Curtain." On March 25, 1951, Parade reported, under the rubric "The Winds of Freedom are Rising." about "growing underground dissatisfaction in the Iron Curtain countries."
Over 11,000,000 leaflets were eventually launched during the two weeks of the “Operation Winds of Freedom” at a cost of $233,041.89.
For the next five years, the skies of Central Europe were filled with more than 500,000 large balloons, which carried over 300,000,000 leaflets, posters, books, and other printed matter sent from the three FEP sites in Germany over the Iron Curtain to Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary.
Richard H. Cummings, “Balloons Over East Europe: America’s Covert Radio and Leaflet Operations in the Cold War.” Falling Leaf Magazine: The Quarterly Journal of the PsyWar Society, Issue No. 197, Summer 2008.
Herbert A. Friedman, “Free Europe Press Cold War Leaflets,” http://www.psywarrior.com/RadioFreeEurope.html. This is an excellent and detailed article with numerous photographs of the balloon leaflets.
For a detailed technical review of the balloon launchings, see David L. Hollyer, “Winds Aloft: When Radio Free Europe Flew Balloons, “QST, April 2001.
For the full 1951 film posted by the Hoover Instituion about the “Winds of Freedom” balloon launching launching, visit http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AjE6_RAcDho&feature=player_embedded#!