Robert E. Button, a Dartmouth graduate, served as Director of the Voice of America from 1956-1958. The multi-talented Button was a first-rate musician, television and broadcast enthusiast, war hero, and diplomat.
A graduate of Brooklyn Law School, Button nonetheless took a job at NBC in 1940. Shortly thereafter, he was drafted – in 1941, the first NBC employee to be drafted. During his military career, he served in intelligence, received eight military decorations including two bronze stars, and even helped crack Germany’s famous Enigma code. He met his wife, Decima, while stationed in London. Both were enamored with music; Decima sang while Button became her accompanist.
Button’s directorship was a busy time. Both the Hungarian Revolution and the Suez Canal crisis occurred in November 1956, and President Eisenhower (with whom Button had worked during the war) communicated to a worldwide audience through VOA in 1957. On February 25, he spoke during VOA’s 15th Anniversary program “Freedom to Listen” which was translated and broadcast in 38 languages, including Russian, French, Chinese, and Spanish.
Button was a lifelong fan of television – VOA was dabbling in it at the time, and in 1956, as VOA deputy director, he traveled to Indonesia, Iran, Lebanon, Pakistan, Taiwan, and other countries promoting the possibilities of video broadcasting. “If I ever saw anything that would lick the communists on their own front, this is it,” he said.
His swing band, aptly named the Bob Button Orchestra, was but one of his musical ventures: he also led a 24-voice male chorus, a ladies sextet by the name of Button and Bows, and another ladies group, the Decibelles.
Later in his life, Button developed television infrastructure domestically, and in Nepal in 1994. In 2004, he published his autobiography Enigma in Many Keys, which chronicled his many military and professional accomplishments. In the book he called his time at VOA “the experience of a lifetime.”