The rise of disinformation spread through the internet, and its malignant effect on our politics, got me thinking about past generations of technological advances in communication, that of radio in the 1920’s-30’s; and then television a generation later in the 1950’s-60’s. This brought to mind the experiences of the famous radio and television broadcaster Edward R. Murrow, his use of these new technologies, and his impact on political events; a story well worth telling, with some historical background.
Edward R. Murrow (1908-1965) worked as a lumberjack in the Pacific Northwest; paying his way through Washington State University, studying political science, speech and international relations; graduating in 1930. Murrow worked for the National Student Federation; then for the International Institute of Education, setting up seminars, lectures and a radio program. Murrow next joined CBS as a radio broadcaster in 1935 and was assigned to London in 1937 to head the European bureau. As the war expanded, Murrow built a team of correspondents who would become legendary, including William Shirer; Eric Sevareid; Walter Cronkite; Howard K. Smith; Charles Shaw; Marvin Kalb; Daniel Schorr, and others.
One of Murrow’s correspondents, William Shirer, went on to write “Rise and Fall of the Third Reich”, which should be required reading for every American high school student. A breathtaking account of the collapse of the Weimar Republic; the political sabotage of a modern Constitutional democracy; the grotesque perversion of a society with centuries of sophisticated intellectual and cultural traditions in philosophy, literature, music, art, mathematics; followed by great and terrible civilization-shattering events; the righteous might of civilization responding too slowly to the threat; western democracies aligned, resources massed and brought fully to bear; history’s greatest alliance prevailing in titanic struggle; utter destruction of Germany, modern Carthage, cities razed, populace devastated and starving; the regime’s criminal leadership run to ground, imprisoned or executed; its functionaries continuing to be tracked for years, even now, so terrible their crimes; the alliance of democracies nurtured, sustained and expanded through the Cold War, and further, eight decades on; the great pride of western civilization.
Germany’s path of aggression through the 1930’s is familiar, beginning with its economic devastation after World War One due to massive war expenditures, oppressive imposed reparations, financial system collapse and global depression; political turbulence leading to sabotage of its new constitutional democracy; then the armaments buildup and abrogation of its reparation obligations in violation of the Versailles Treaty. This was followed by repeated cycles of belligerent threats and demands for annexation of surrounding territories, some having been ceded at Versailles. Initially, re-militarization of the Rhineland (March 1936); then the Anschluss, annexation of Austria (March 1938); then the negotiated cessation at Munich of the Sudetenland (September 1938); then the occupation of the remainder of Czechoslovakia (March 1939); then the partition, invasion and occupation of Poland (September 1939); then invasion and occupation of Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg and France (June 1940).
With millions slaughtered in World War One, just a generation before, millions more surviving with terrible physical and psychic wounds; treasuries exhausted from economic depression; public and political opinion in Britain, France and America had been slow to respond to Germany’s outrages in Central Europe. By September 1940, with British and French forces pushed aside in the fast German onslaught; the British Expeditionary Force barely escaping destruction at Dunkirk; German air and land forces mustering at Calais for the cross-channel invasion; new leadership in Britain, now under existential threat, rallied public and political opinion to the nation’s determined, but desperate, defense. In Churchill’s words to Chamberlain after Munich, “You were given a choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor, and you will have war”.
Murrow’s correspondents broadcast the wars events, helping listeners hear, envision, feel the mood, and understand these experiences viscerally. Broadcast of Germany’s occupation of Vienna by Murrow and Shirer provided a sense of things to come: “mobs of Swastika-wearing thugs, shouting ‘Sieg Heil!’ and ‘Ein Reich, Ein Volk, Ein Führer’ . . . people are in a holiday mood; they lift the right arm a little higher here than Berlin and ‘Heil Hitler’ is said a little more loudly; young storm troopers are riding about the streets, singing and tossing oranges out to the crowd”.
Shirer witnessed the most humiliating French surrender in their centuries-long history at Compiegne, site of the German surrender in 1918, observing Hitler through the train window: “I have seen that face many times at the great moments of his life, but today it is afire with scorn, anger, hate, revenge, triumph. He glances back at the last war’s monument, contemptuous, angry—angry, you almost feel, because he cannot wipe out the awful, provoking lettering with one sweep of his high Prussian boot”.
Murrow broadcast nightly to America, “London After Dark”, as preparation for Germany’s cross-Channel attack began with an air war fought in the skies over England, the Battle of Britain, causing staggering losses that drained British aircraft and trained pilots almost completely, then continuing through the “Blitz” the long campaign of strategic bombing of London. Murrow concentrated on the average British man and woman on the street, sensing instinctively that Americans would identify with ordinary people who were undergoing an extraordinary trial, speeding down blacked-out avenues of London in search of vignettes for the people at home. Murrow did not write out his scripts in advance, dictating what he was seeing as it happened; the effect was electric: “trucks loaded with sandbags and gas masks were to be seen. The surface calm of London remains, but I think I notice a change in people’s faces. There seems to be a tight strained look about the eyes. I saw more grave solemn faces today than I have ever seen in London before, fashionable tea rooms were almost deserted; the shops in Bond Street were doing very little business; people read their newspapers as they walked slowly down the streets. I saw one woman standing in line for a bus begin to cry, very quietly. She didn’t even bother to wipe the tears away.”
In America, public and political opinion were slow to evolve, frustrating the Roosevelt administration’s efforts to increase the slow trickle of military aid to Britain under the “Lend-Lease” program. Murrow transmitted his reports from a rooftop with a live microphone to make the “Blitz” real for listeners in America, helping them understand the brutality of Germany’s indiscriminate war on civilians from the air. From heights overlooking London, Murrow reported wave after wave of German bombers, flying in tight V-formations of 20 to 25 planes each, sweeping up the Thames, headed for London, then, after 12 straight hours of bombing, the East End of London in flames, 3,000 city dwellers dead or injured. “There are no words to describe the thing that is happening,” Murrow began. “A row of automobiles, with stretchers racked on the roofs like skis, standing outside of bombed buildings. A man pinned under wreckage where a broken gas main sears his arms and face. The courage of the people, the flash and roar of the anti-aircraft guns rolling down streets, the stench of air-raid shelters in the poor districts.”
“One becomes accustomed to rattling windows and the distant sound of bombs, and then there comes a silence that can be felt,” Murrow said. “You know the sound will return—you wait, and then it starts again. The waiting is bad. It gives you a chance to imagine things.” . . . “My favorite shop gone, blown to bits . . . The windows of my shoe store blown out . . . the windows of my barbershop gone, the Italian barber still doing business.” He went to buy batteries for his flashlight; the storekeeper told him he didn’t have to buy so many at once, they would be open all winter. “What if you aren’t here?” Murrow asked. On another occasion, a man sitting calmly at a desk in a pile of bombed-out rubble. “He was paying off the staff of the store that stood there yesterday”. Murrow reported “There was no bravado, no loud voices, only a quiet acceptance of the situation. To me those people were incredibly brave and calm.”
When a delayed detonation bomb flew through the seventh-floor window of Broadcast House, laying inert for an hour, Murrow waited in the sub-basement until the bomb exploded, killing or wounding seven men and women; Murrow then unflappably resumed his broadcast from the damaged studio. Another night, as Murrow and his wife walked home, he suggested stopping at a pub favored by reporters, but kept walking, and a moment later, “a tearing, whooshing shriek seemed to be coming down on top of them. They wrapped their arms around their heads to protect their eyes and ears; the blast flung them against the wall”. A bomb had landed directly on the pub, killing 30 people inside.
Murrow directed the news coverage of America’s entry into the war, and he and his staffers went into the field to report its progress, often at great personal risk. Cecil Brown was torpedoed aboard a British battleship off Singapore; he leapt overboard, remained afloat and was fished out of the water by rescuers. Eric Sevareid parachuted out of a nose-diving C-46 cargo plane while flying “the Hump” over Burma, and endured a harrowing 120-mile jungle trek to safety, helped by Burmese headhunters who were “some of the world’s most primitive killers.” Richard Hottelet was arrested in Berlin by Gestapo agents for espionage and held for several weeks before being exchanged for two Nazi spies in custody in the United States. Charles Collingwood sent back the first eyewitness reports from Sword Beach on D-Day: “The first craft onto the beaches was a little LCT. They came in doggedly looking very small and gallant with their heads up. Offshore several miles loomed the silhouettes of the big ships. This beach is still under considerable enemy gunfire. These boys are apparently having a pretty tough time in here on the beaches. It’s not very pleasant.” Murrow himself ventured into the field to cover the American campaign in Tunisia, where he came upon a knocked-out enemy tank in a stream bed. “Two dead [were] beside it, and two more digging a grave,” he reported. “A little farther along a German soldier sits smiling against a bank. He is covered with dust and he is dead. On the rising ground beyond a British lieutenant lies with his head on his arms as though shielding himself from the wind. He is dead too.”
Murrow rode along on a night bombing raid of Berlin in a Lancaster bomber, the first of his twenty five sorties, reporting the experience as “Orchestrated Hell”, beginning in his characteristic low key: “Last night some young men took me to Berlin.” It proceeded to paint an intense and sharply focused portrait of what it was like to fly through the pitch-black skies over the Nazi capital. “The small incendiaries were going down like a fistful of white rice thrown on a piece of black velvet. The cookies—the four-thousand-pound high explosives—were bursting below like great sunflowers gone mad. I looked down, and the white fires had turned red. They were beginning to merge and spread, just like butter does on a hot plate. It isn’t a pleasant kind of warfare. The job isn’t pleasant; it’s terribly tiring. Men die in the sky while others are roasted alive in their cellars. Berlin last night wasn’t a pretty sight. This was a calculated, remorseless campaign of destruction.”
Murrow’s tireless broadcasts had become legendary. Winston Churchill considered him nothing less than the voice of Anglo-American cooperation, crediting him with personally rallying American public opinion, essential to Britain’s survival, to their side. And statistics bore out this belief, revealing that only 16 percent of Americans had favored sending aid to Great Britain before the Battle of Britain, while the number had risen to 52 percent afterward.
Murrow was in London for V-E Day. “Six years is a long time. I have observed today that people have very little to say. There are no words.” In his last London broadcast, he thanked the British people for their hospitality, courage, and commitment to democratic ideals. “They feared Nazism but did not choose to imitate it,” he said. “I am persuaded that the most important thing that happened in Britain was that this nation chose to win or lose this war under the established rules of parliamentary procedure [with] no retreat from the principles for which your ancestors fought.”
Returning to New York, Murrow was honored at a dinner where poet Archibald MacLeish paid tribute: “You laid the dead of London at our doors, and we knew that the dead were our dead. You destroyed the superstition that what is done beyond three thousand miles of water is not really done at all. There were some people in this country who did not want the people of America to hear the things you had to say.” Murrow’s broadcasts from Europe became classics of wartime journalism, winning him five Peabody Awards from the Overseas Press Club.
But Murrow was not done with his service to the American public . . .