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A. Ross Johnson: Serving RFE/RL

Ross Johnson in Mitrovica, Kosovo, on the Ibar bridge that divides the city. September 15, 2018. (PHOTO by Amra Zejneli Loxha)
Ross Johnson in Mitrovica, Kosovo, on the Ibar bridge that divides the city. September 15, 2018. (PHOTO by Amra Zejneli Loxha)

Author, historian, archivist, longtime RFE/RL executive and Balkans expert A. Ross Johnson passed away on February 6, 2021. Ross' colleague and fellow former RFE/RL executive Robert Gillette authored this look back at Johnson's life and achievements.

For more than 30 years, Dr. A. Ross Johnson, known to all as Ross, played a central role in the preservation and modernization of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, to ensure that it would continue to benefit – and be trusted by – tens of millions of people deprived of free and independent media.

Ross Johnson’s most recent service to the Radios began several years ago and accelerated in 2020: To coordinate a group of former RFE/RL presidents and other senior colleagues to imagine a new approach to the governance of US international broadcasters to better ensure their own freedom from political interference. This group urgently refocused itself in June, 2020 after the long-delayed U.S. Senate approval of a right-wing ideologue the White House nominated to manage all of US international broadcasting, who moved quickly to replace the broadcast entities’ professional leaders with like-minded allies.

From early November, even as he fell ill with cancer, Ross helped to establish the group’s close working relationship with President-elect Joseph R. Biden, Jr.’s, transition team. This cooperation contributed to the swift removal of the CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media and his cohorts, beginning within two hours of Biden’s inauguration on 20 January, and enabled the restoration of RFE/RL’s president, Jamie Fly.

Ross died in the Washington D.C area on 6 February. Between 1988 and 2002, he served as Director of RFE, Director of the RFE/RL Research Institute, acting president, and counselor to RFE/RL and thereafter remained an adviser to RFE/RL presidents.

Born in 1939, Ross Johnson graduated from Stanford University in California in 1961. He earned a Masters Degree from the Fletcher School in Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in 1962 and his Ph.D. in political science in 1967 under the renowned strategic thinker Zbigniew Brzezinski at Columbia University in New York, following dissertation research in Yugoslavia. Ross spoke Serbian/Croatian, Polish, German and Russian. (Among Brzezinski’s other students was Madeleine Albright, the future Secretary of State.)

“It was RFE’s Job To Provide Independent Information That Was Just Not Available Locally”: Interview with Ross Johnson
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As a young scholar, Ross first worked for RFE from 1966-69 (before its corporate merger with RL) as management’s policy adviser nominally overseeing the formidable Jan Nowak-Jezioranski, Director of the Polish broadcasting department and a revered hero of the wartime Polish resistance. They became lifelong friends.

From 1969 to 1988, Ross was a senior analyst of East European and Soviet politico-military affairs at the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, California. He was appointed Director of RFE in 1988, just ahead of the historic 1989 collapse of communist rule in Central and Eastern Europe and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Though 1989 was a celebratory year for RFE/RL, as its language services rushed to establish bureaus, cadres of local freelancers and rebroadcasting agreements in the nascent democracies, the thrill of historic achievement soon gave way to an existential threat: In 1990, President George H.W. Bush’s administration considered eliminating the organization on the premise that if Europe was free, Radio Free Europe was no longer needed.

RFE Director A. Ross Johnson meets Solidarity leader Lech Walesa during his trip to Poland to seek accreditation necessary for a new RFE bureau in Warsaw (October 1989).
RFE Director A. Ross Johnson meets Solidarity leader Lech Walesa during his trip to Poland to seek accreditation necessary for a new RFE bureau in Warsaw (October 1989).

Ross and his management colleagues quickly reached out to leaders of the emerging new democracies – Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa among them – for support, and urged the White House to form a presidential commission to give more thoughtful study to the question of RFE/RL’s future.

The resulting 11-member, bipartisan Presidential Task Force on United States International Broadcasting visited Munich and met with a parade of distinguished representatives from the new democracies, recruited in part by Ross, who cited the Radios as a model for new and newly liberated media and a bulwark against reversion to autocracy. In its December, 1991 report, the commission agreed: RFE/RL should continue but evolve. (Its views proved prescient, as RFE/RL has now resumed programming to Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria.)

Iron Curtain at RFE/RL Headquarters in Munich: Civic Forum member Milos Dravil (right) drove from Prague to Munich to present RFE/RL with 30 meters of barbed wire from the Czech- Bavarian border.
Iron Curtain at RFE/RL Headquarters in Munich: Civic Forum member Milos Dravil (right) drove from Prague to Munich to present RFE/RL with 30 meters of barbed wire from the Czech- Bavarian border.

In 1990, Ross took on the new role of consolidating and reorganizing separate, long-standing research departments of RFE and RL to form a new RFE/RL Research Institute, which produced a daily news summary from the region, widely read in Washington and around the world, along with deeper political analyses of a rapidly evolving region.

Beginning in 1992, as the brutal war in Bosnia dragged on, Ross urged RFE/RL management to seek approval for a new, multi-ethnic broadcasting service to Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia. The new service, which continues, was launched from Munich in January, 1994.

RFE/RL’s next existential crisis struck in 1993: At the instigation of Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin (who had campaigned on a platform of 250 ways to save the U.S. government money, starting with eliminating subsidies to wool and mohair farmers, the second being to shutter RFE/RL), the U.S. Congress slashed the Radios’ budget from $208 million a year – a reflection of the high cost of operation in Germany – to $75 million.

Given the difficulty under German labor law of reducing staff, it was unclear how the Radios could survive. Until Pavel Pehacek, the Czech service director, returned to Munich in the summer of 1993 from a long weekend in Prague with his old friend and schoolmate Vaclav Havel, then president of the Czech Republic, and with Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus. The federal parliament building at the top of Vaclavske Namesti, Havel had noted, was empty now that there was no longer a Czechoslovak federation to occupy it. RFE/RL should move there, Havel and Klaus agreed – and the Czech government, eager to bond with the United States and looking toward membership in NATO and eventually the EU, would welcome the Radios as a symbol of its commitment to democracy.

Ross was one of a handful of senior RFE/RL managers who thought the idea could work. A quick trip to Prague that August to meet with Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus’s chief of staff and a tour of the parliament building convinced him. On the brief flight back to Munich he literally sketched out on the back of an envelope the potential staffing and budget of a new, streamlined organization.

A year-long bureaucratic struggle then ensued in Washington, culminating in President Clinton’s July,1994 approval of the move after a phone call with Havel. However, Ross’s beloved Research Institute became a casualty. The limited new budget could not sustain it, and initial support from the philanthropist George Soros’ Open Society Foundation was soon withdrawn.

Ross Johnson during a presentation at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington (October 2006)
Ross Johnson during a presentation at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington (October 2006)

While remaining a counselor to RFE/RL presidents after the move to Prague, Ross became a research fellow at the Hoover institution at Stanford as well as a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a leading U.S. forum for foreign policy analysis and discussion. From Hoover and later at the Wilson Center, he authored numerous papers – based in part on visits to Bosnia and Kosovo – and led conferences often dedicated to international broadcasting. And he began an extraordinary campaign to preserve and publicize the history of RFE/RL.

Ross was invariably calm and unflappable. The adjective his friends and colleagues most often call upon to describe him is “decent.” Burga Pattinson, his long-time aide in Munich, wrote, “I experienced Ross as the most decent human being imaginable, dedicated to what he believed in, always fair, never judgmental, and with a wicked sense of humor and a great joy in life once you got to know him.”

And he was relentless.

RFE/RL had never employed an organization-wide archivist or historian and had no corporate policy on the preservation of administrative records or program tapes apart from saving a recorded log of all broadcasting for a few months, required by German authorities as a condition of RFE’RL’s broadcasting permission. Long-term preservation of significant audio tapes was left mostly to individual language services.

In 1994-5, as the Radios prepared to move to Prague, Ross first arranged for literally tons of paper archives of East European and Soviet media – probably the largest public research collection of such material from the now-collapsed communist world – to be shipped from Munich to Budapest to be professionally curated in what is now named the Vera and Donald Blinken Open Society Archives.

Working almost single-handedly, with the dedicated assistance of former Polish service manager Leszek Gawlikowski in Munich, Ross arranged for the Hoover Institution to become the repository of RFE/RL audio, script and corporate archives.

As the Wilson Center noted in a tribute to Ross on 8 February, his years of effort have now resulted in the professional archival protection at Hoover of 10.5 million pages of documentation and the preservation of 100,000 program tapes from the 1950s to 1995 (and some in digital form to 2006.) These records constitute a vast and unique resource of news, politics and economies and once-forbidden culture that captures the reality of life and fills major gaps in historic records during half a century of communist rule. (In 2015, Ross signed on behalf of RFE/RL a joint memorandum with the Hoover Institution and Blinken archives – named for a former U.S. Ambassador to Hungary – for mutual cooperation and digital sharing.)

Many of the broadcast tapes have now been digitized and made available on-line from Hoover. Many others remain to be digitized.

Thirty thousand of the now-digitized tapes came from the Polish Service alone and have helped Polish public broadcasters reconstruct their nation’s post-war history. In recognition of this service, Poland’s Minister of Culture in 1996 awarded Ross a citation for Meritorious Service to Polish Culture and in 2001 the Prime Minister presented him the nation’s Laurel Award.

Among the most important tapes Ross’s efforts recovered was the full, 400-hour record of RFE’s Hungarian broadcasting during the 1956 uprising. Found not in RFE/RL’s own holdings but in the German federal archives in Koblenz, the tapes showed that, although the broadcasting was at times overly emotional, allegations persistent to this day that RFE had incited the uprising or promised American intervention, thereby exacerbating the tragedy as Soviet forces crushed the rebellion, were untrue.

As a scholar at Hoover and the Wilson Center, Ross obtained permission from the Central Intelligence Agency to review the CIA’s still-classified files on the origins and early history of RFE and RL, enabling him to write the definitive early history of the organization to which he devoted so much of his life, in “Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty: The CIA Years and Beyond”, Stanford University Press, 2010.

Also in 2010, he and R. Eugene Parta, the preeminent leader of RFE/RL audience research – who pioneered techniques of measuring public opinion in “denied areas” where conventional surveys were impossible – co-edited a 581-page compilation of papers, “Cold War Broadcasting: Impact on the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe,” published by the Central European University Press. Ross also co-edited a 2013 book with former Secretary of State George P. Shultz, “Communicating with the World of Islam.” (They both passed away on 6 February, Shultz at age 100.)

Condoleezza Rice, National Security Adviser and Secretary of State to President George W. Bush and now director of the Hoover Institution, wrote on 9 February, “I am saddened to learn of the passing of another great American – A. Ross Johnson. While he is best known for his important work of advancing democracy worldwide in many roles at Radio Free Europe, I fondly remember him as my first boss [at RAND-RG] – and later, as my colleague at the Hoover Institution.”

Not content merely to review CIA archives on RFE/RL for his book, Ross was, as the Wilson Center wrote, a “tireless advocate for the declassification of U.S. documents from [the CIA] and other government agencies concerning the history of RFE/RL, filing hundreds of Freedom of Information Act and Mandatory Declassification review requests.” More than 250 of these documents have since been declassified and made public on the Wilson Center’s Cold War International History Project’s Digital Archive, with another 75 soon to be added.

More than merely revealing history for its own sake, his overall objective, the Wilson Center noted, was to provide historical context for today’s public policy issues, including the future governance of international broadcasting.

Ross is survived by his wife Diana of Vienna, Virginia; daughter Karin of Seattle, Washington; and son Eric of Minneapolis, Minnesota, and his brother Reid.

READ MORE remembrances of Ross Johnson and his service to RFE/RL on this blog, Ross Johnson: His Colleagues Remember.


Robert Gillette joined RFE/RL in 1989 as deputy to Ross Johnson, then Director of RFE, and until 1998 served as Director of RFE and RFE/RL Director of Broadcasting. He and Ross remained friends and informal colleagues, and hiked together in the Sud Tyrol, Slovenian Alps, Switzerland and Madeira.