Appointed RFE Director in 1968, Ralph Walter was responsible for ensuring that the language services “heeded the lessons of the Hungarian Revolution.” He strengthened oversight of political commentaries and newscasts and insisted on a policy of caution, as a result of which RFE broadcasts to Czechoslovakia during the darkening year of 1968 won high praise from Czechs and Slovaks for their accuracy and restraint.
Over a long career at Radio Free Europe and RFE/RL, Ralph E. Walter did much to shape a responsible and professional broadcasting organization promoting freedom in Soviet-dominated Europe.
Walter was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, on May 7, 1924. Following service in the U.S. Army from 1943 to 1946, he enrolled at St. Olaf College, where he met Paul Henze, beginning a lifelong professional and personal friendship. He received B.A. and M.A. degrees from the University of Minnesota.
Walter joined the National Committee for a Free Europe (NCFE), RFE’s parent organization, in 1951, first working in the Division for Exile Relations with East European Leaders and organizations supported by the NCFE. In January 1954 he transferred to RFE in Munich as assistant political advisor for Polish affairs, reporting to Paul Henze and Political Advisor William E. Griffith. In October 1958 he returned to New York to work again on exile affairs. After a series of temporary assignments in New York and Munich, he was appointed RFE Policy Director in September 1965 and RFE Director in March 1968.
Mindful of inadequate management oversight of RFE broadcasts to Hungary in 1956, Walter was determined that all RFE broadcasts during the 1968 Czechoslovak “Prague Spring” and the ensuing Warsaw Pact occupation would be restrained and responsible. As he explained later to Arch Puddington [recorded in Puddington's Broadcasting Freedom: The Cold War Triumph of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty], “We heeded the lessons of the Hungarian Revolution. We were cautious, because we were conscious of the possibility of an invasion.”
Departing from usual RFE practice during the crisis, Walter and his staff approved political commentaries prior to broadcast and exercised policy oversight of newscasts. At his direction, RFE relayed much information from the underground radios--but not calls for active resistance, even when carried in Western media. These steps were controversial internally, but RFE broadcasts to Czechoslovakia throughout 1968 won high praise from Czechs and Slovaks and from Washington policymakers, including Deputy Undersecretary of State Chip Bohlen.
Walter likewise insisted on prior review of some Polish Service commentaries on the regime’s violent crackdown on protests on the Baltic Coast in 1970. RFE’s performance under his leadership during the 1968 Czechoslovak crisis and the Polish crises in the seventies and early eighties justified his careful and alert, hands-on style of management.
Walter was a staunch defender of the independence of RFE and RFE/RL, resisting – not always diplomatically – what he saw as efforts of various American ambassadors, State Department and German Foreign Office officials, and Board for International Broadcasting (BIB) staff to interfere with RFE/RL operations and broadcasts. Rejecting criticism from the U.S. Embassy in Bucharest that Romanian Service broadcasts were “too harsh and querulous,” Walter countered that “we have no intention of ceasing criticism of Romanian regime policies and practices.” He was equally blunt in rejecting suggestions from the German Olympic Committee and Foreign Office that RFE refrain from political broadcasts and contacts with Soviet bloc visitors during the 1972 Munich Olympics.
Following the merger of RFE and Radio Liberty in 1976, Walter was appointed Executive Vice President for Programs and Policy, overseeing RL as well as RFE broadcasts. In 1982, BIB Chairman Frank Shakespeare installed a new RFE/RL management team and Ralph (along with RFE/RL President Glen Ferguson and RFE Director Jim Brown) left RFE/RL in September after completing 31 years of distinguished service. A recent Polish TV documentary about RFE/RL concludes with an interview with Walter recorded a year before his death in which he relates how proud he was to have been associated with RFE/RL and its exile broadcasters and to have witnessed a future he had worked for but never expected to see -- a Europe whole and free.
Walter died in Berlin on July 11, 2013.
We knew Ralph E. Walter as boss, colleague, and friend. We honor his dedicated service to RFE and RFE/RL for over three decades. His contribution to the cause of freedom in Eastern Europe is fully documented in his papers that are now part of the RFE/RL Collection at the Hoover Archives at Stanford University.