Sunday, March 12, 2000

VOA site could become Cold War museum

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Radio towers that transmitted Voice of America rose above Union Township until the late 1990s.
(Enquirer file photo)
| ZOOM |
        UNION TOWNSHIP — From this high, rolling Butler County field, the sounds of democracy once rang around the world.

        First came the World War II short-wave news broadcasts of the Voice of America Bethany Station as it waged war on Nazi Germany's radio propaganda.

        Then the VOA took on the spread of global communism during the Cold War years.

        But in 1994, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union — and subsequent end to the Cold War, the Bethany VOA station shut off for good the transmitters that had hummed non-stop since 1944.

        Now a new energy sparks within the old station's walls as local officials talk about memorializing the site with what could become the largest Cold War museum in the nation.

  In the early days of World War II, Nazi Germany was winning the global propaganda battle because it had dozens of short-wave radio transmitters.
  But that advantage faded when Cincinnati-based Crosley Corp. built the Bethany station of the Voice of America in Butler County's Union Township. It began broadcasting in 1944.
  The pro-democracy broadcasts so angered Adolf Hitler that he referred to “those Cincinnati liars ...” in several speeches.
  During the Cold War years, the Bethany station broadcasts were often the only pro-democracy news available to people living under the Soviet Union's communist sphere of influence.
  The station's transmitters were silenced in 1994. The big towers came down in 1997.
        “It's about the struggle for freedom and democracy,” said Bill Zerkle, Union Township director of parks and recreation, from his office in the former VOA headquarters off Tylersville Road. “In my mind, this would be much bigger than just the VOA's history.”

        The 625-acre VOA site is being developed by township officials, Butler County MetroParks, private developers and a consortium of local universities. The former VOA headquarters would be a museum centerpiece on the 330-acre recreation area owned by Union Township, which recently changed its name to West Chester.

        There now are some Cold War exhibits and artifacts within museums around the country, including the U.S. Air Force Museum in Dayton, and a small

        traveling museum created by Gary Powers Jr., son of famed U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers.

        But a single, large museum dedicated solely to the Cold War has yet to be developed in the United States. In Canada, a large, underground nuclear bomb shelter has been converted into such a museum.

        Mr. Zerkle, along with former VOA officials, have formed a museum design team that soon will decide how to proceed.

        Funding sources have not been discussed, he said, but federal grants would be sought, especially considering that the Bethany VOA station was created and staffed in part by federal workers.

        The VOA facility is also being considered as a national historical site.

        Mr. Zerkle said the proposed museum would naturally focus on the VOA's role, but it also would give visitors a sense of the urgency, drama and international scope of the decades-long Cold War struggle.

        The interior of the Bethany station would be renovated to reveal original art-deco style modeling covered years ago by temporary dry wall and drop ceilings, he said.

        A giant control console would be restored, and original recordings of historic VOA broadcasts could be heard by visitors.

        The station's high guard tower, which once coordinated armed guards as they patrolled the barbed-wire-enclosed grounds around the clock, may be converted to an observation tower for visitors.

        The facility would be a permanent or temporary exhibition space for thousands of Cold War artifacts, memorabilia, photos, documents and motion pictures pertaining to the era, Mr. Zerkle said.

        But, he added, at this early stage, no broad specifications, much less details, have been addressed.

        Mr. Zerkle said the Bethany station's proximity to Interstate 75 would make it an attractive and easy reach for thousands of travelers.

A chilling time
        Though it was this century's longest global conflict, the Cold War was marked more by sharp ideological and political tensions than any direct military engagement between the United States and the Soviet Union.

        In its simplest terms, the conflict pitted democracy against communism and at times directly threatened the civilian populations of both nations with quick annihilation by nuclear missiles.

        But many people today are too young to grasp the fear and anxiety that Baby Boomers and older Americans lived with for decades.

        “Today's generation doesn't know about nuclear missile "duck and cover' drills in schools,” said Mr. Powers, son of the famed spy pilot who was captured by the Soviets after his high-altitude spy plane was shot down over Soviet air space in May 1960.

        “If you mention U-2, they think of a rock band,” Mr. Powers said recently from his Fairfax, Va., home.

        “There is a real absence of Cold War history among their generation, he said. “There is no standing Cold War museum.”

        Mr. Powers is the founder of the mobile Cold War Museum, which is located in Berlin, Germany.

        He shares Union Township officials' enthusiasm for creating a free-standing Cold War museum that would feature the rich history of the long-running struggle and the vital role played by the VOA.

        Former VOA Plant Supervisor David Snyder agreed that the younger generation needs to learn about the recent past.

        “For years and years, we sat on edge,” he said. “But throughout that whole time, the VOA was promoting freedom and democracy.”

        “We'll never be able to figure the impact of the VOA in the Cold War,” he said. “But I would call it significant.”

Tearful visitors
        Mr. Snyder witnessed the emotional impact of VOA's messages of truth and freedom in 1990, when he helped host a tour of the Bethany station for officials from the Ukraine.

        The foreign visitors were thrilled to visit a VOA station after having lived under Communist rule where their only news of world events was Radio Moscow, the VOA's Soviet broadcasting counterpoint — but used as a propaganda tool of the communist government.

        During their tour, some of the Ukranian officials became tearful and confessed to Mr. Snyder that for years they had secretly listened to VOA short-wave news broadcasts knowing that if they had been caught they would have lost their jobs or suffered worse punishment.

        “They didn't trust what their government had told them,” he said.

        “They all became emotional. They couldn't imagine that some day they would be sitting in a VOA facility.”

        The first VOA broadcast in 1942 actually came from a station in Great Britain and was in German. In 1944, VOA broadcasting began from Bethany.

        Directed to the citizens of Nazi Germany, the World War II broadcast began with, “We shall speak to you about America and the war.

        “The news may be good or it may be bad, but we will tell you the truth.”


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