George R. Urban

And as the troops passed through and camped in the neighbourhood there could be seen everywhere little heaps of human excrement of international extraction belonging to all peoples of Austria, Germany and Russia. The excrement of soldiers of all nationalities and of confessions lay side by side or heaped on top of one another without quarrelling among themselves.

Jaroslav Hašek’s (1923) The Good Soldier Švejk

If history teaches anything it teaches self-delusion in the face of unpleasant facts is folly.

Ronald Reagan (1982) Address to British Parliament

Dr. George R. Urban Former director of Radio Free Europe and was one of the leading Western organisers against Cold War communism. Urban was known for his long interview-dialogues which he transcribed into articles for Encounter such as “From Containment to Self-Containment: A conversation with George Kennan,” Encounter (September 1976), which were also converted into a series of books including Can We Survive Our Future? (1972, with Michael Glenny), a symposium about the state of the planet, and Detente in 1976 (with Leo Labedz, Adam Ulam, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Francois Bondy, Richard Pipes, Dean Rusk); End of Empire: The Demise of the Soviet Union in 1992 (Sidney Hook, Hugh Trevor-Roper, Karl Popper, Otto von Habsburg, Elie Kedourie). He also joined the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF) in Geneva, running a series of European seminars on the subject of European unity, in which he was an advocate.

Urban’s biographical profile in his 1986 paper A Case for Coherence: assumptions and aims of British foreign policy for the Centre for Policy Studies states that he first came to England in 1939 as a British Council scholar, after attending the University of London in 1949, he became a UK citizen in 1955, making no reference to his work with Radio Free Europe (RFE). Previously he had been a member of the BBC European Service from 1947-60, before joining RFE between 1961-65. After the exposure of the CIA funding in 1968 Urban moved to Los Angeles as a senior research associate of the school of politics and international relations at the University of Southern California (1968-70). Here, with Roger Swearingen, he founded the journal Studies in Comparative Communism. He was also a visiting research fellow at Indiana University (1975) and a visiting fellow at Harvard University (1980). From 1982-86, at the time of his involvement with the Institute for European Defence and Strategic Studies, Urban was appointed by President Reagan as the director of Radio Free Europe.

Roger Swearingen and USC are connections which again take us to public diplomacy and propaganda. According to an (1997) Alumni Profile at USC, Swearingen was a captain in military intelligence during World War II, who had become friends with Henry Kissinger when both were studying for a Ph.D. at Harvard —Swearingen at the Russian Research Center. He returned to USC’s School of International Relations in 1954 as an assistant professor, where he created the field of Soviet policy and world communism, and during the 1960s directed the USC Research Institute on Communist Strategy and Propaganda (established with a $1 million grant from USC trustee Henry Salvatori founding stockholder of National Review magazine, who chaired Barry Goldwater’s campaign, was one of Reagan’s early backers and financial supporter of the Heritage Foundation). He also served as consultant with the RAND Corporation (for 14 years), the US government and industry.

During the Reagan-Thatcher era, Urban was part of the inner circle of foreign policy advisers as a director of the International board of the Centre for Policy Studies and on the board of the Centre for Research into Communist Economies (CRCE) based in 57 Tufton Street, which became a geographical nexus for several organisations including the Centre for European Reform and the Adam Smith Institute and the European Movement.


Un-Public Diplomacy

In terms of creating an appropriate organisational apparatus to intensify public diplomacy Scott-Smith’s (2006) US Public Diplomacy and the New American Studies: No Logo, describes the US approach as working with and through private institutions that provide a ‘neutral’ apparatus separate from foreign policy directives.

Such state-private cooperation was at the heart of the US engagement with the world from the early 20th century onwards, and was emphasised in the major Cold War legislation: The Fulbright amendment to the Surplus Property Act, Smith-Mundt, and Fulbright-Hays. In this way the suspicion of central government combined powerfully with a messianic belief in the capabilities and outreach of unfettered private enterprise. The use of private organisations and citizens as interlocuters in contact with other nations had several advantages: It provided greater credibility and legitimacy; it appeared spontaneous and thus a reflection of a dynamic, committed domestic society; it was flexible, allowing for what George Urban referred to as the ‘privatisation of the Cold War; and it conveyed domestic political advantages to those forces that could successfully mobilise the popular will behind their cause. In the conditions of the Cold War these factors led to the creation of a vast, dynamic network of state and private forces, both overt and covert, to promote the national interest.

In his writing on the two American-funded international broadcasting organizations— Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty — such as his last book the (1997) Radio Free Europe And The Pursuit Of Democracy: My War Within The Cold War, Urban contends that a second opponent other than the Soviets was less visible but more powerful: influential members of the American and West European Left. what he describes as “the ceaseless sneering, jeering, and outright hostility of progressivist American opinion-makers. . . . I will not forget that long and bitter domestic opposition or how close the West had come, through complacency, inattention and incomprehension, to appeasing the modern world’s most complete despotism”. For Urban these influences also included RFE staff, and after the eventual revelation in the 1960s of CIA funding of both RFE and of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, he describes ‘appeasers’ within RFE who “black-listed or blue-pencilled” broadcasts by Bernard Levin, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and Lord Chalfont and proposed inviting Soviet bloc officials to the Munich studios to challenge RFE/RL whenever they thought the Radios were unfair. These reforms became part of Urban’s perception and awareness of communist agents and ‘sleepers’ within the organizations:

I had handed down to me a number of editors and researchers with communist and left-socialist backgrounds and leanings. Some had come on board in the wake of the Prague Spring (1968) as a result of the Radio’s support of reform communism and were so punctiliously protected by our unions and German labor law that they were virtually irremovable. Most of them had ceased to be communists in the narrow sense, but their loyalty was suspect. . . . They included members of various Eastern intelligence networks.

In the work Urban also defends some aspects of the reputation of the propaganda outlet. As Peter Coleman’s (1998) review of the book stated in the National Interest:

Beginning as a CIA “black radio” whose mission included disinformation and counter-revolution, the turning point was the Hungarian bloodbath in 1956. RFE was accused of having incited and maintained the Hungarian uprising by broadcasting promises of Western arms. Fifteen thousand Hungarians were killed. Relying on archives located in Budapest, George Urban concluded that the RFE’S Hungarian service had not incited revolution or promised arms, although its maudlin and pugnacious rhetoric, drawn from the pre-war Horthy regime, had encouraged false hopes.

Coleman, the author of (1989) The Liberal Conspiracy: The Congress for Cultural Freedom and the Struggle for the Mind of Postwar Europe, also notes Urban’s interest in the occult and gnostic poetry of Stefan George—he published a study of esoteric doctrines and returned to this milieux in retirement. George was influenced by French Symbolists such as Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Verlaine. Described by Robert Edward Norton’s (2002) Secret Germany: Stefan George and His Circle, as “Elitist, hierarchically minded, anti-democratic, and deeply suspicious of all forms of rationalism.” One of Urban’s early works was the (1962) Kinesis and stasis; a study in the attitude of Stefan George and his circle to the musical arts, based on a Ph.D. thesis for the University of London in 1956.

It also categorises Urban’s career at RFE as traversing four periods: in the 1960s he ran its “intellectual bureau”; in the 1970s he was a contributing consultant; and in the 1980s he was its director, one of the “Reagan people.” Finally, in retirement, he returned to consultantcy.

Throughout his RFE work, Urban was strongly influenced by the policy of the Congress for Cultural Freedom. He drew heavily on its apostates of the god-that-failed (Ignazio Silone, Arthur Koestler, John Strachey, Richard Lowenthal, Manes Sperber) to engage communist intellectuals “where it hurt most — in the area of moral conflict which we knew existed between their erstwhile idealism and their slavish yes-manship.” Later he added new apostates to the list, a Milovan Djilas or an Andras Hegedus. They spoke powerfully as participants, not spectators, in communist debates.

Coleman also observes that Urban’s direct criticisms of the US are muted and largely confined to its “East Coast intelligentsia” and one or two “vacuous pragmatists,” and that the only index entry for the United Kingdom is: “Britain, social and political shortcomings.”

Urban’s (1996) Diplomacy and Disillusion at the Court of Margaret Thatcher: An Insider’s View, carries on this theme of distrust and disillusion. In 1981 Urban was drafted into the small group of Margaret Thatcher’s foreign policy advisors and was encouraged by Thatcher to write key foreign policy speeches and suggest diplomatic initiatives. He identifies elements of xenophobia in the vehemence of Thatcher’s attitudes toward Europe and German unification— finding her “wrapped in ideological rectitude of a rather obsessional kind” (p.2) which are interesting in relation to the USA’s position and formation of covert groups based around these positions. According to David Teacher’s study of Brian Crozier and the Pinay Circle, in a passage on Dr. Joseph Retinger, the European Movement (EM) which in Britain was based in Tufton Street mentioned above, was financed from the outset by the CIA, receiving some £380,000 between 1949 and 1953. The conduit for CIA funding was the American Committee on a United Europe, launched in 1949 specifically to support the creation of the EM. ACUE’s list of officers included four top figures from the American intelligence community: Bill Donovan, former Director of the CIA’s wartime predecessor, the OSS; General Walter Bedell Smith, CIA Director from 1950 to 1953; Allen Dulles, Bedell Smith’s successor as Director of the CIA from 1953-61 and Thomas Braden, head of the CIA’s International Organization Division, responsible for setting up CIA front groups throughout the world. The CCF would hire Brian Crozier in 1964 and launch him as a media asset for the Western intelligence services by creating the CIA-funded news agency Forum World Features in 1965. Teacher also notes that alongside the European Movement and the CCF which functioned as mass political and cultural fronts, Joseph Retinger and the CIA created a third forum which was to be far more secretive and more influential than the EM or the CCF—the Bilderberg Group.

Urban drew on diary records, not subject to the Official Secrets Act because of the unofficial nature of his appointment, from 1981-94. His memoir also states he first met her in January 1981 (p. 16) with a group of ‘academics’: Sir Michael Howard (who had written for Encounter), Douglas Johnson, Sir Lawrence Martin, Leonard Schapiro, Dennis Mack Smith and Esmond Wright were assembled to prepare Thatcher to meet Reagan. At the time Schapiro joined Urban on the Institute for European Defence and Strategic Studies (IEDSS). He also notes that this group (and Brian Crozier) are “conspicuous by their absence” in Thatcher’s (1993) The Downing Street Years.

Norman Stone’s Cold War: “Germany? Maggie was absolutely right” mentions a 1990 Chequers Germany seminar whose minutes were leaked and published by The Independent on Sunday on 15 July 1990, and Urban felt what happened was a misrepresentation. Stone noted that Charles Powell set out an agenda to summit participants and was that he was accompanied by Timothy Garton Ash, writes:

“She asked the two of us, with Lord Dacre —Hugh Trevor-Roper , as he was, and a best-selling expert on Hitler ‘s Reich – along with the two best-known American historians of Germany, Fritz Stern , who is German-Jewish by origin, and Gordon Craig , who is Canadian-Scottish. Both men had received high recognition from the West German government, deservedly so. With us came George Urban, the one-time head of Radio Free Europe, who is Hungarian by origin, and who had talked to Thatcher several times over the years about the cold war, and whose writings and interviews in Encounter, the magazine, had been a distinguished contribution to the collapse of that bogus business, détente.”

Urban states he was an adviser on “the Cold War and communist affairs,” and his writing for the CPS, such as (1986) The Case for Coherence, argued that the USSR’s long-term aim was the “de-coupling [of] Western Europe from the US and that an independent “Gaullist” foreign policy position would aid this. Page 17’s assessment of Gorbachev is remarkable for its innaccuracy:

Gorbachev’s priority is to make the Soviet economy more efficient without undertaking a full-scale economic reform, with all the political risks that would entail. He shows no sign of altering foreign policy, for example by withdrawing Soviet troops from Afghanistan or changing basic Soviet attitudes in talks about arms control in Geneva. Even if the Soviet Union were to decline as a superpower, it would, by virtue of its vast resources, its system of government and its military power, continue to be a major threat to us, as to Western interests generally. If Soviet decline were to become more rapid, the Soviet ladership might be tempted to persue adventurist policies in order to restore the regime’s prestige.

The IEDSS’s Gerald Frost is still on the CPS Advisory Board and John O’Sullivan was also closely involved. The CPS also produced the (1988) A Year in the Life of Glasnost, including Zbigniew Brzezinski, Iain Elliot, Dominic Levein, Antony Polonsky, and Urban. Brzezinski was at the time a senior counsellor for the Center for Strategic and International Studies; Elliot was an Associate director of Radio Liberty and a leader writer for the Times and in 1985 joined the Board of Management of the IEDSS with Urban; Leven was a German scholar based at the LSE, a centre for Anti-communist activity led by Leonard Schapiro; Polonsky was also at the LSE. Urban’s contribution was “The Russian Disease” on the subject of American superiority as demonstrated by the Strategic Defence Initiative. This largely contradicts his (1986) The Case for Coherence, while using the analogy of Stalin whereby: “Stalin’s own perestroika of the 1930s […] tried to eliminate Russian backwardness by show trials and the knout, Gorbachev is trying to do so by persuassion and a number of Western-style initiatives.” British Socialism is tarred with the same brush as the ‘Oblomovism and the Russian tradition of coercion”. Just as he draws on a work of fiction, in this case Ivan Goncharov’s (1858) Oblomov, there is no evidence presented to back up the claims in these essays, no references, statistical inferences and there is something of the Jaroslav Hašek’s (1923) The Good Soldier Švejk, about Urban in his pandering to the army chaplain.

In his memoir of advising Mrs Thatcher he also describes her as “a model of broadminded tolerance” and describes the struggle against the Soviets:

“was about moral values, or it was about nothing. Moral outrage was, as it had to be, the mainspring of our opposition to totalitarianism. From that, and not from any power-calculus alone, followed all the practical policies Margaret Thatcher’s administration put in train in the international domain between 1979 and 1990. I rejoiced in this primacy of moral concepts and did my best to reinforce Margaret Thatcher’s identification with them.”

The only remaining problem identified was to harness Thatcher’s passions to deserving causes. The book also recalls the more informal discussions which occurred over tea:

The prime minister then switched her anxiety to subversion in the british media. A Sunday television interview had deeply upset her. Why are there so many subversives in our media? Why all the left-inspired carping and scepticism?

The Times, October 8, 1997, stated:

In 1983, The Times of London ran three extensive extracts from his Encounter conversation with Jeane Kirkpatrick, president Ronald Reagan’s hawkish ambassador to the United Nations. The surprise was that the gentlemanly scholar was more hawkish than the Republican politician, urging that America need not make concessions to the Soviet Union but could more openly support dissident movements.

Urban’s remarks about Thatcher’s “Alf Garnett version of history”, came up in a Centre for Policy Studies lunch with Thatcher in December 1989, which was covered in Urban’s memoir:

‘You know, George,’ she said coming quite close to me, ‘there are things that people of your generation and mine ought never to forget. We’ve been through the war and we know perfectly well what the Germans are like, and what dictators can do, and how national character doesn’t basically change …’ and so on. This was disturbing. If the British prime minister feels these things to be true, then we are heading for an unregenerate Europe, and most of our work over the last thirty or forty years, from Monnet to the present day, will have been wasted. I only hope my fears are unfounded. Otherwise we will find ourselves back in 1910, and I said so to her in guarded language. We were in for a lively lunch.

This view is hammered home by Urban which quotes Thatcher’s words on Germany as being loaded with anger: ‘once a German, always a German’; ‘You can never trust them’,and adds that the CPS’ Hugh Thomas, who also wrote for the IEDSS, tried to ‘put in a corrective’:

‘My impression has been’, Hugh said, ‘that NATO and our defences have been created because we were threatened by the Soviet Union. Have we switched enemies? Do we suddenly have a threat facing us in the centre of Europe, from Germany, our ally?’ MT said: ‘Well, we have always fought for a balance of power in Europe and that has to be established again and again; don’t be deceived by words. As soon as the Germans have fully recovered they will reassert their hegemonic interests throughout Eastern Europe,’ and she went on representing the British populist view of foreign affairs in disarmingly simple, not to say simplistic language. I was distressed and so, I noticed, was Hugh Thomas. She was a long way away from any informed analysis of what Europe is now about, what the West German people and opinion-making Germany are like, and what hope resides in a unified Europe. Here was offshore thinking with a vengeance.”

Archie Brown’s (2008) The Change to Engagement in Britain’s Cold War Policy: The Origins of the Thatcher-Gorbachev Relationship
Journal of Cold War Studies – Volume 10, Number 3, explores aspects of how the change in Britain’s stance in the Cold War was initiated in 1983. This argues that Thatcher decided to move to greater engagement with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, but distrusted the Foreign Office as an institution, and asked for papers from eight outside academic specialists, “on whose analyses she placed considerable weight.” Brown (a biographer of Mikhail Gorbachev) adds:

The invitation to Mikhail Gorbachev to visit Britain in 1984, prior to his becoming leader of the Soviet Union, had its origins in a Chequers seminar involving both academics and officials on 8–9 September 1983. This was the beginning of an important, and surprising, political relationship that transformed Britain’s militantly anti-socialist prime minister into the strongest supporter—certainly among conservative politicians worldwide—of the new leader of the Soviet Communist Party.

This came at the time when East-West relations were at a low point
(with the Euromissile crisis and collapse of arms talks, followed by downing of Korean Airlines Flight 007 and subsequent scandal) and as noted in a review of Brown’s work by Robert English, of the University of Southern California, the origins of Mrs. Thatcher’s initiative remain a bit mysterious. According to English:

Thatcher had read the analyses and prognostications of both the Foreign Office as well as Britain’s leading academic specialists, who in addition to Brown (writing on the Soviet political system and party leadership) included Alec Nove (on the Soviet economic system), Alex Pravda (dissent and nationalities issues), Michael Bourdeaux (religion), Michael Kaser (institutional and demographic economic constraints), Ronald Amann (technological inertia), Christopher Donnelly (Soviet military power and strategy) and George Schopflin (the USSR and Eastern Europe).

In Thatcher’s memoir (1993)The Downing Street Years, she adds that the Chequers analysis “put flesh on the bones of what I had learned [earlier] from Robert Conquest. So we have two IEDSS influences on this decisive turning point. Brown’s own input seems to have held sway, contending with reluctance from the US:

It was even harder with a CIA director (William Casey) and Secretary of Defense (Caspar Weinberger) actively working to block any improvement in U.S.-Soviet relations, even in defiance of
Reagan’s orders […] Matlock also faced the challenge of educating a well-meaning but woefully ignorant Reagan on the fundamentals of Soviet politics and history something he tackled with a series of 21 briefing papers—“Soviet Union 101”—in 1985. The often-unfocused Reagan would concentrate on an issue only when a concrete task was at hand, in this case meeting with the new Soviet leadership.
These papers, and meetings with historian Nina Tumarkin (on Lenin’s legacy in the USSR) and writer Suzanne Massie (author of the cultural history Land of the Firebird) on the eve of his late-1985 first encounter with Gorbachev, were in some ways the closest Washington equivalent to the Chequers seminar of two years earlier.


Eurocommunism (1978) edited by G R Urban, featured an essay from Manuel Azcárate, titled ‘What is Eurocommunism?‘ A term which has a ambiguous origin, including the rumor that Zbigniew Brzezinski coined the term. Possibly Urban’s work here is linked to his anti-communist work at USC and the IEDSS and the impact and conceptualisation of Eurocommunism is an interesting one.

(1986) Stalinism: Its Impact on Russia and the World
(1982) Stalinism, St. Martin’s Press, New York
Radio Free Europe and the Pursuit of Democracy: My War Within the Cold War
Hazards of Learning: An International Symposium on the Crisis of the University
Social and Economic Rights in the Soviet Bloc: A Documentary Review Seventy Years After the Bolshevik Revolution
Scaling the Wall: Talking to Eastern Europe, the Best of Radio Free Europe

* Kinesis and stasis; a study in the attitude of Stefan George and his circle to the musical arts (1962)
* The Sino-Soviet Conflict (1965) with Leo Labedz
* Toynbee on Toynbee: A Conversation between Arnold J. Toynbee and G. R. Urban (1974)
* Detente (1976)
* What is Eurocommunism? (1977) editor
* Eurocommunism: Its Roots and Future in Italy and Elsewhere (1978)
* Communist Reformation: Nationalism, Internationalism, and Change in the World Communist Movement (1979)
* Can the Soviet System Survive Reform?: Seven Colloquies About the State of Soviet Socialism Seventy Years After the Bolshevik Revolution (1989)
* End of Empire: The Demise of the Soviet Union (1992)
* Diplomacy and Disillusion at the Court of Margaret Thatcher: An Insider’s View (1996)
* Radio Free Europe and the Pursuit of Democracy: My War Within the Cold War (1997)
Social and Economic Rights in the Soviet Bloc by George R. Urban

Communist Reformation: Nationalism, Internationalism, and Change in the World Communist Movement by George R. Urban, Vladimir Maximov (Editor), Jacob D. Beam (Editor)(Transaction Publishers, January 1, 1988) Hardcover (1979)

Further Reading

Chris Tudda (2006) The Truth is Our Weapon: The Rhetorical Diplomacy of Dwight D. Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles,M1

*Back to the The Institute for European Defence and Strategic Studies


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