As I entered Elsa’s inner circle, I became aware of a struggle for control of Pacifica’s programming. Elsa and most of the staff were on one side and management and the Board were on the other. For Elsa, getting the truth on the air always meant “forcing it through the wheels of the machinery.” The drift of any institution, she believed, was toward the safe and complacent while the purpose of any news outlet ought to be to get people thinking. That’s what the First Amendment was all about.
KPFA had been under a sustained attack from a small group of conservatives since 1958. The attacks intensified as Pacifica began to gain more listeners from its coverage of HUAC, Civil Rights and student movements. Neo-conservatives Russell Kirk and William Rusher refused to appear on WBAI in New York if any “known communists” were allowed to be broadcast. At KPFA, sociologist Semour Martin Lipset, a regular KPFA broadcaster, Eugene Burdick, author of Failsafe and The Ugly American and Paul Jacobs, a local anti-communist liberal, circulated a February, 1960 issue of Counterattack: Facts About Communism and Those Who Aid Its Cause. It contained an article, Radio Station Promotes Communists, and listed communists, leftists and liberals who had appeared on KPFA.
The board wanted to take Herbert Aptheker, a Communist historian, off the air. Without discussing the issue with anyone on KPFA’s staff, Station Manager Harold Winkler wrote to Aptheker, “We have decided to give you a rest for a while and use your spot for other commentators on the left.” Elsa was furious. Joined by music director Alan Rich and three other staff members, she asked for a clarification of Pacifica’s policy. We spent hours in whispered conversations in Edy’s coffee shop, or late into the night in our messy offices, among used coffee cups and the stale smell of too many cigarettes, plotting.
Eleanor McKinney had been with Pacifica since its very first days and was frequently in the middle of disputes between Elsa and Harold Winkler. Eleanor knew I was an ardent supporter of Elsa, but she also felt I was reasonable. Eleanor sympathized with Winkler’s position, the man in the middle between the Neocons and the radicals. She said he’d been enthusiastic and optimistic about the growth and potential of the Foundation when he first took over. In 1958 KPFA won a George Foster Peabody Award for Public Service, radio’s highest award. The Peabody praised KPFA for demonstrating that “mature entertainment plus ideas constitute public service broadcasting at its best.”
Pacifica also was in the midst of an expansion. In July of 1959 Terry Drinkwater, son of the founder of Western Airlines, launched KPFK in Los Angeles. In 1960, Louis Schweitzer offered Pacifica his New York City FM station, WBAI. Pacifica was broadcasting to three metropolitan centers with a potential audience of sixty million people. It was bound to get noticed.
The Cold War was heating up again. Relations with the Soviet Union deteriorated after Kennedy took office. Construction of the Berlin Wall began in May. Kennedy and Khrushchev met in June in Vienna, Austria. It did not go well. Kennedy later told New York Times reporter James ‘Scotty’ Reston it was the “worst thing in my life. He savaged me”. Observing Kennedy’s morose expression at the end of the summit, Khrushchev believed Kennedy “looked not only anxious, but deeply upset…I hadn’t meant to upset him. I would have liked very much for us to part in a different mood. But there was nothing I could do to help him…Politics is a merciless business.”
Khrushchev announced the resumption of nuclear testing in August. Kennedy urged Americans to build fallout shelters in a Life magazine spread. In October the Soviet Union detonated a 58 megaton yield hydrogen bomb known as Tsar Bomba. It remains the largest ever man-made explosion. It scared all of us. A true doomsday device, the kind Herman Kahn talked about as he stormed the country in 1959 promoting fallout shelters and the idea that we could survive a nuclear war with losses of only sixty million or so.
In November of 1961 Kennedy increased the number of U.S. advisers in Vietnam from 1,000 to 16,000. A few days later he authorize the delivery of the first military helicopters to Vietnam. Under American guidance, the Vietnamese began the Strategic Hamlet program of rural pacification, surrounding villages with barbed wire and guard towers to keep the Vietcong (the villagers’ relatives in many cases) out of schools, community hospitals, and homes.