The Record Offensive


I’ve been reading Kenneth Bilby’s biography of David Sarnoff, the pioneer in organizing multinational corporations to enthusiastically crush inventors who foolishly develop critical radio and television technologies, and came across one of those passages in Chapter 7 (“Chapter Seven”) that just captivates a mind like mine:

The tools that [ Sarnoff ] proposed for winning [ the Cold War ] were electronic, to be made available at cost by American manufacturing concerns, led by RCA. Tiny record players, costing less than $1 to manufacture, would be parachuted in clusters inside Russia along with small vinyl records. The recorded messages in Russian would tell the populace that America was their friend and call upon them to overthrow their Marxist masters. [ … ] The idea of parachuted phonographs was dropped as too hazardous, and thus possibly counterproductive.

Imagine the world if come the late 50s RCA had cranked out millions of cheap record players that were parachute-dropped into the Soviet Union, carrying messages of friendship and goodwill and apologies for any record players that hit someone on the head as they landed, which would probably be the counterproductive part. “We love you,” I can picture the recording of President Eisenhower saying, “Sorry about the bumps on the head! Overthrow your masters!” Well, maybe that doesn’t exactly capture Eisenhower’s voice, since he was born in Kansas or something in the late 19th century, where they only used exclamation points for weirdly passionate arguments about silver coinage. So imagine something with those sentiments, then, but expressed using his own punctuation.

Of course, on top of the counterproductivity of bonking Russians on the head with record players of love and rebellion there’s also the potential for retaliation. Surely something fewer than two billion record players could be dropped onto Moscow before the Soviets would decide it’s time to retaliate, and they’d start whipping up their own record players for dropping into Western Europe, increasing the rate of head injury from the Oder to the English Channel, and maybe a bit farther, if the winds are up to it. By 1962 West and East Germany could be covered hip-deep in one-dollar record players, and traffic in anything smaller than a bulldozer would be impossible.

Since by this point it’d be clear the record-player-drop wasn’t working the only thing to do would be to step it up, with even more record players and far more discs plummeting onto the East European Plain when the Central Siberian Plateau turend out to be too hard to find. The President couldn’t possibly have time to record all the messages, and probably wouldn’t even review them after a couple dozen times. The record-makers would start slipping in popular music, comedians, maybe read some stuff from the newspaper they thought was neat and the only people to suspect would be the actual Russians, who, if they understand English, would naturally wonder why the United States was going to all this effort to read them Charles Henry Goren’s columns about playing bridge, or why anyone plays bridge.

To achieve better market saturation bombers would give way to rockets, and by the mid-1960s the Soviets and the Americans would have hundreds of Intercontinental Ballistic Muzak weapons, ready on a moment’s notice to shower the population with enough Ferrante and Teicher to background the world with music twelve times over. The contest would leap inevitably to space, where the first long-playing rockets threaten to light up the entire ionosphere with an inescapable mass of Mexicali Singers, at what risk to the ozone layer we can only imagine. (And none of this even considers how the Non-Aligned Movement might react to a blanketing of Vaughn Meader.) The first men on the Moon could well look back to Earth and remark how from that distance there are no 45’s, no 33 1/3’s, no 78’s, just a universal matrix message of brotherhood.

So aren’t you captivated by this? And yet the real world decided this was maybe one Cold War scheme too many. But that’s probably just as well. If we were making record players for a dollar to parachute onto unsuspecting people, how much would we be spending on the parachutes? I grant a cheap parachute isn’t necessarily a bad one, but, would you want to take that risk?