From 2006 | Edward R. Murrow: As Good as His Myth

By | Oct 12, 2022
From the Archive

This article was originally published in the April 2006 issue of Moment

In 1932, a 24—year-old man accepted the posi­tion of deputy director of the Institute of Inter­ national Education in Manhattan. Working out of the Institute’s cramped 16th-floor office on East 45th Street, he would rescue some of Europe’s brightest minds from Nazi hands, an experience that would make him a life-long champion of the Jews and Israel. His name was Edward R. Murrow.

Ed Murrow and his new boss, Stephen Dug­ gan, passionately believed in the Institutes mis­ sion-that dialogue between American students and teachers and their foreign counterparts could lead to greater understanding between governments. But Stalin’s rise made cultural exchange with the Soviet Union nearly impos­sible, while Germany was about to enter an unprecedented era of moral darkness. So when, in 1933,Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, began burning the great books of Western culture and dismissing Jewish, anti­ Nazi and “politically unreliable” professors from Germany’s universities, the IIE undertook a cultural rescue operation. Murrow was named secretary of the Institute’s Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced German Scholars.

Murrow threw himself into the project. “I was the youngster who did all the donkey work,” he would later say. His job was to find honorary lectureships for the refugee professors at American colleges and universities, a task easier said than done. Unemployed college professors were common during the Depression, and there were no funds to hire foreign scholars. So the per­ suasive young Murrow offered the universities the opportunity to have world-renowned scholars on their faculties at virtually no cost. The bill was largely paid by wealthy Jews and Jewish organ­izations such as the American Jewish Joint Dis­tribution Committee, The New YorkFoundation, The Nathan Hofheimer Foundation, and later, the Rosenwald family of Sears, Roebuck & Co.

Murrow was in constant motion and would, on a daily basis, receive 50 letters from dis­ placed professors and interview between 12 and 15 scholars, all while carrying on an endless stream of phone conversations. One of his reg­ular correspondents was Albert Einstein. The scientist, safely ensconced at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, sent him recommendations and advice in letters that always opened with “Sehrgeehrter Herr Mur­row.” (“Dear Honorable Mr. Murrow.”) Mur­row regularly met and dined with university presidents, consuls-general, government offi­cials, scholars, ambassadors, foundation direc­tors and foreign notables. He traveled to academic institutions throughout the United States and visited Europe, where he held furtive rendezvous with potential refugees.

As Joseph Persico, one of the future broad­ caster’s numerous biographers, writes in “Edward Murrow: An American Original, Murrow found himself “emotionally caught up in the plight of the refugees, living out their dramas as if they were his own.” Murrow once told of

.escorting a refugee scholar to CBS, where the man was to give a radio talk. The cab driver, navigating Manhattan’s clogged streets, sud­denly hit the brakes at an intersection, flinging his passengers against the front seat. The pro­fessor instantly dropped to the floor of the cab, waved toward a black car behind them, and said in a voice quaking with fear, “Someone is try­ ing to stop me from speaking on the radio.”

The dapper Murrow was well suited for the job. Born in 1908 to a Quaker family of mod­est means in Polecat Creek, North Carolina, he was raised in the timber country of Wash­ington. He attended Washington State College, where as a senior he was elected president of the student government and the National Stu­ dent Federation of America. Already his pas­ sion for fairness and defense of the underdog was evident. During his tenure as NSFA pres­ident, he solicited black colleges to send repre­sentatives to the national conference in Atlanta, single-handedly integrating the organization. After earning his bachelor’s degree in forensics, he moved to New York City to run the NSFA national office.

Once he joined the IIE, the young man who had worked his way through college by felling trees and picking crops was thrust into the maelstrom of European politics and became one of the few Americans-Jewish or other­ wise-with a close-up view of the impending Nazi aggression. Unlike many others, Murrow had the foresight to see what was coming. In March 1933, six years ahead of the actual events, he wrote to his soon-to-be-wife Janet: “If interested in the most likely springboard for the next European war, get out a map and find Danzig.” In 1939, Hitler seized the city and invaded Poland.

Murrow was fully aware of the historic sig­nificance of his work. He drafted the Commit­ tee’s 1934 annual report in which he recalled how Greek scholars had been expelled from Byzantium in 1453 only to settle in Italy, where they helped catalyze the Renais­sance. “Huguenots were driven from France to England, to England’s profit and France’s loss,” he wrote. “The Jews’ current plight at the hands of the Nazis was not new. They had been thrown out of Spain in 1492, and as a consequence, some of the finest scholars, scientists and mathematicians of the fifteenth century were scattered.” The United States, pre­dicted Murrow, would be the benefi­ciary of the latest exodus of talents.

By the time the Committee had disbanded, 288 refugee academics and scientists had been placed in Ameri­can universities. The religious affilia­tion of the scholars was known in 177 cases. Eighty-two were Jewish and 95 were not.The list included 55 Protes­tants, 39 Catholics and one member of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

As Murrow had promised, these refugees were an immense benefit to the United States. Among the prominent rescued Jewish scholars were Otto Nathan, Kurt Lewin, Hans J. Morgenthau, Herbert Marcuse, Otto Szasz, James Franck and Felix Bloch. “This country blossomed as a result,” says Bob Edwards, the well-known broadcast journalist and author of the recent Edward R. Murrow and The Birth Of Broadcast Journalism. “The proteges of these scholars are still writing.”

Murrow also benefited. “The best education I ever received came from German professors who were flung out of German universities by Hitler,” said Murrow, who described this period of his life as a “sort of revolving seminar.”

It was a formative experience for the young and impressionable Murrow. “At an early age, he was thrown into intimate contact with some of the great minds of the era,” writes Persico. “The upheaval that had cast them up on America’s shores placed Ed in a curious role reversal. They may have been giants in their own field and their own country, while he was a young and lightly educated man. But now they were aliens in an alien land, often not knowing the language, ignorant of customs and frightened for their futures. They looked to him to save them. They needed him. In their vulnerability, they clung to him the way an aged parent does to a grown son.” Murrow once called his work with the Committee, “the most per­sonally satisfying undertaking in which I have ever engaged.”

The man who was to go on to become a legend as a pioneer of radio broadcast­ ing and television news received little recognition during his lifetime for rescu­ing Europe’s persecuted scholars. In fact, says Edwards, “Americans who knew Murrow the broadcaster had no idea what he did for refugee scholars in the 1930s, the full extent of which would not be known until years after his death. On the other hand, Murrow in the 1930s did not know that he would become the quintessential broadcast journalist. He thought of himself as an educator, for everything he’d done since college had been connected to education. He imag­ined that some day he would be a college president.”

Indeed, in 1934 Murrow, then 26 and newly married, had been offered a job as president of Rockford College, a women’s school in Illinois. He was about to accept when the offer was withdrawn. As he had done since college, Murrow had embellished his resume, adding years to his age, changing his college major to polit­ical science and international rela­tions and awarding himself a master’s degree from Stanford University. “The deal fell through when the good ladies of Rockford discovered Ed was only 26 and didn’t have the credentials he had said he had,” says Edwards.

In 1935, Fred Willis, who booked educational programs at CBS, sug­gested that Murrow apply for a new CBS post called Director of Talks. As a college senior, Murrow had met Willis while promoting a radio lecture series called University of the Air. Willis agreed to air the show when Murrow promised to deliver an interview with Albert Einstein. Murrow would go on to book Mohandas Gandhi, British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald and other major international politicians usu­ally out of the reach of a student.

When applying to CBS, where he would soon establish an international rep­utation for integrity and become known for “telling it like it is,” Murrow again lied about his age and credentials. “For all his accomplishments, Ed Murrow still lacked confidence,” says Edwards. “Born in a rustic cabin, the product of working class parents, acculturated by lumberjacks, and educated at a ‘cow college’ in the far West, he believed that he needed to invent a bit more for himself. Remember, he was going out into the world to com­pete with the Ivies.”

In spite of this indiscretion, which remained unnoticed for years, Murrow landed the job. He was not hired to go on the air but to arrange ‘radio talks.’ Before he started in September 1935, Murrow and his wife, Janet, traveled to Europe, where he made a final round of calls for the IIE. The couple arrived in Berlin just a few weeks before the Nuremberg Laws-which stripped Jews of their remaining civil rights-went into effect. In their hotel room, the Murrows surrep­titiously hosted ousted university professors and their wives, many of whom told horror stories of academic repression and inquired about American refuge. At the same time, Murrow surveyed the Euro­ pean horizon for possible speakers for CBS: politicians, educators, writers, scien­tists and others who could make radio talks.

Two years later, Murrow was trans­ferred to London to assume the position of European director for CBS. His knowledge of European politics and the breadth of his contacts among intellectu­als and scholars made him a valuable addition to the network during a period when it seemed war was likely to break out at any time. One of the people he hired to give radio talks was newsman William Shirer.

In March 1938, the Nazis invaded and annexed Austria. Shirer, the only Ameri­can correspondent to witness the inva­sion, was forced to fly to London to get the story out when the Nazis refused to let him broadcast from Austria. Murrow, in Eastern Europe, managed to charter a plane and fly to Vienna.

To cover these fast moving events, CBS decided to attempt a feat never done before-a live news roundup of corre­spondents broadcasting from capitals throughout Europe. Even in peacetime this would have been a  great technical chal­lenge, but Mur­row in Vienna, with the help of Shirer in Lon­don, pulled it off.

As the only CBS representa­tive in Vienna, Murrow went on the air himself to report what he saw. By now, Nazi censors were in place and they watched carefully over the young man as he spoke. “This is Edward Murrow speaking from Vienna,” said Murrow in his first-ever broadcast at 2:30 a.m. on March 13th. “There’s an air of expectancy about the city, everyone waiting and wondering where and at what time Herr Hitler will arrive.” Two days later Murrow reported: “Please don’t think that everyone was out to greet Herr Hitler today…. There is tragedy as well as rejoicing in this city tonight.”

“Until Vienna, Murrow wasn’t a corre­spondent, but he had this drive to tell people what was going on,” says Richard Hottelet, who after having been imprisoned for espionage by the Nazis and released through a prisoner exchange was hired by Murrow in 1944. “This was when Murrow invented radio news.” Later in London, Murrow would hire a team of seasoned journalist to cover Europe for CBS, including Hottelet, Shirer, Charles Collingwood, Eric Sevareid, Howard K. Smith, Larry LeSueur, and Bill Downs. These eight men would become part of the group known as “Murrow’s boys.”

Murrow, who had never covered a war, was visibly shaken by the killings, mass arrests and suicides he witnessed in Vienna.

“Seeking respite in a quiet cafe one evening, he had just ordered a drink when the doors flew open to a street gang drag­ging a man inside-Murrow guessed he was Jewish-beating and kicking their victim while the patrons smiled or roared approval,” writes A.M. Sperber. “He watched, paralyzed, then paid his tab, and stumbled out into the cold March street, fighting the urge to throw up.”

In his memoirs, Shirer recalls that when he returned to Vienna, Murrow steered him away from a cafe with the words: “I was here last night about this time. A Jewish-looking fellow was stand­ ing at that bar. After a while he took an old-fashioned razor from his pocket and slashed his throat.”

In another instance, Murrow stood transfixed, his eyes wide and staring as the Nazis looted the Rothschild mansion. “He’d never seen anything like that before,” writes Shirer.

Vienna, says Hottelet, marked the beginning of the Murrow era. “From then out, radio broadcasting was Mur­row.” Even today, Murrow is remembered for his courageous reporting throughout the Nazi bombing of London from September 7th, 1940 through May 11th, 1941. As bombs exploded and shrapnel flew around him, Murrow stood on the rooftops and described what he saw to the American public. His broadcasts were critical to building American sup­ port for entering the war.

Murrow was “inspired by some high­ er mission that overrode his inherent gloom,” writes CBS head William S. Paley in his 1979 autobiography As It Happened. “On the air and off, he was the soul of integrity. He was fearless, strong­ willed and honor-bound by his convictions. It all came across in his wartime broadcasts. He radiated truth and con­ cern. And America recognized and react­ed to it.”

“Through the Blitz,” recalls Hottelet, “there was no question that Murrow carried a lot of weight. He never advo­cated anything, he just laid it on the line. But by laying on the line what was going on in Nazi-dominated Europe, there was only one conclusion and it was terrible.”

The American government was shamefully slow to acknowledge Hitler’s campaign to annihilate European Jewry. The reasons were many: isolationism, failing to give what little they did know its due attention. Even Murrow and his “boys,” stationed in London, didn’t know what to make of the rumors they heard. “We didn’t know all that much, the Nazis kept it dead secret,” recalls Hottelet. “The first word seemed to come from travelers to Stockholm, from people who came out of Germany. There was no proof. While people did know that the Nazis had kicked  around the Jews, this was so incredible that people looked around for some confirmation, and that really wasn’t that avail­ able. The Holo­caust was still a mystery.”

By late fall of 1942, evidence was mounting that at least two million Jews had been slain and that Hitler had ordered the extermination of all of the Jews. Still, most of the press kept mum. Murrow did not. On December 13th, four days before Allies confirmed the reports, Murrow beat them to the punch. “Edward R. Murrow,” writes Deborah Lipstadt in her 1986 Beyond Belief the American Press & the Coming of the Holocaust 1933-1945, “was one of the few journalists who acknowledged  the transformation of thinking about the European situation.”

“One is almost stunned into silence by some of the information reaching Lon­ don,” said Murrow in his broadcast. “Some of it is months old, but it’s eye­ witness stuff supported by such a wealth of detail and vouched for by responsible governments. What is happening is this: Millions of human beings, most of them Jews, are being gathered up with ruthless efficiency and murdered …. And when you piece it all together-from Holland and Norway, from Poland-you have a picture of mass murder and moral depravity unequaled in the history of the world. It is a horror beyond what imagi­nation can grasp  Let me tell you a lit­tle about what’s happened in the Warsaw Ghetto…. The business started in the middle of July. 10,000 people were rounded up and shipped off. After that, a thousand more went each day. The infirm, the old and the crippled were killed in their homes. Some of them were driven to the Jewish cemetery, and they killed them there. And others were put in freight cars; the floors were covered with quick-lime and chlorine.Those who survived the journey were dumped at one of three camps where they were killed. At a place called Treblinka, a huge bulldoz­er is used to bury the bodies.”

There were other reporters whom Holocaust scholars also credit with pas­sionately confronting the story of Jewish extermination in Europe. But Murrow, heard regularly on Sunday nights, was the most trusted. “He was a very serious man, a very sober man, a thoroughly decent man,” recalls Hottelet. “He had a streak of pessimism and his reporting for the most part seemed to justify that. What he saw happening in Germany, the Anschluss, and the obvious things that were going on, everything antagonized him and moved him, and he believed that people had to know about it. All the years preceding the Blitz built up a kind of anger in him that was not in his nature to suppress.”

By the time the war had ended no other voice-on the radio, or in the papers-rivaled Murrow’s. On April 12, 1945, the same day Franklin D. Roosevelt died, he was the first journalist to pass through the barbed wire gates of Buchen­wald. Murrow wept openly at what he saw. But upon his return to London, he did not rush to write up his report. Other reporters recall that Murrow spent the three days before his regular Sunday broadcast chain-smoking, and that his mood was so somber it seemed the “smell of death” still lingered on his correspon­dent’s uniform.

Murrow told a colleague that he need­ ed time to “acquire detachment.” “I never saw him so cut up by anything; he was really sort of trembling,” remembered BBC correspondent D.G. Bridson, who was there when Murrow finally delivered his account of Buchenwald. “Yes, literal­ly  he was shaking with rage by the time he finished it.”

Despite the fact that Murrow filed his report 72 hours later than other reporters who had been to Buchenwald, the full text of his broadcast was picked up by British newspapers, and the BBC asked him to repeat the broadcast for its domestic service. Mur­row was held in great respect in Britain, and his broadcast was aired on the assumption that he was the one journalist who could not be accused of overstating the facts.

“There had been other accounts of Nazi death camps, like those of Maidanek and Auschwitz in Poland, liberated by the Russians,” writes biographer Alexander Kendrick in Prime Time: The Life of Edward R. Murrow. “But none carried the force and cold fury of Murrow’s story from Buchenwald.”

“It is very clear that Murrow is angry when you hear this broadcast,” says Edwards. “He is mad because he didn’t know. Or maybe he had heard but did­ n’t take it seriously. I think he’s mad at himself. He feels that he should have known. And he is furious with the Ger­mans.”

Many thought it the best broadcast he ever delivered, but Murrow believed it a failure because he was unable to fully convey what he saw and felt. “One shoe, two shoes, a dozen shoes, yes,” he said, referring to the heaps of footwear which the Nazis had taken from the dead along with clothing, hair and gold teeth. “But how can you describe several thousand shoes?”

The war ended in 1945, and in 1948 the Murrows returned to New York with their young son Casey. In 1951, Murrow and producer Fred Friendly, who was Jewish, created the ground­ breaking television news program “See It Now.” The two, with Murrow on screen, famously took on Senator Joseph McCarthy (as seen in the 2005 Oscar­ nominated film Good Night and Good Luck), who then lashed back at Murrow for his connection with the IIE, which he accused of having communist ties. Murrow and Friendly tackled other issues of great importance during the show’s six-year run, creating the genre of television news along the way.

In 1956, Murrow traveled to Israel to prepare a broadcast called “See it Now: Egypt-Israel.” From the moment he dis­ embarked, the Israelis showered him with attention. He was welcomed in Israel, “with more than the usual red-carpet treatment for a powerful American TV journalist,” writes Sperber. “This was Murrow of the London Blitz, the antifas­cist, the man who had stood up to McCarthy  Murrow in turn was drawn to what was still an agricultural society, to the leonine Ben-Gurion, Moshe Dayan, Teddy Kollek… and others of the then­ dominant Labor party.”

He interviewed Ben-Gurion at. Sde Boker, his kibbutz in the Negev Desert. The two men talked until one in the morning, cameraman Charlie Mack recalled. After he left, Murrow realized he hadn’t properly thanked the Ben-Guri­ons. Returning to the house, he saw the prime minister at the sink rinsing coffee cups. As Sperber recounts, “His first instinct had been to get the camera. Instead, he quickly shut the door; no one, he said, would ever believe they hadn’t set it up.”

Daniel Schorr, who was hired by Mur­row at CBS in 1956, believes his boss never lost his love for Israel. “My moth­er was an ardent Zionist, and once he got sick with what turned out to be his fatal illness, my mother planted a tree in Israel for Ed Murrow,” Schorr recalls. “Some­ time later, when I returned from the Soviet Union in 1957, I went to see Mur­row to discuss news in general, and before I could get started he said ‘Daniel, we’ll get to all these other big things later. But first, tell me what I really need to know. How’s my tree doing?’

“Whenever we discussed Israel, he dis­ cussed it very warmly,” Schorr continues. “I think because of his general devotion to the underdog, the little one who is fighting hard to make it in the world. It went along with his sympathy for the British during the Blitz over London. In 1948, the State of Israel was created, he had himself done a quite unbelievable piece of reporting on the liberation of an extermination camp, and with that he started with ‘Jews have had a very rough time and the Jews have a state, I’m for it.’ Whenever Israel came up in any discus­ sion, be it on the air or whatever, he always sounded like someone for whom Israel was a member of his family.”

Edward R. Murrow left CBS in 1961 to become head of the United States Information Agency, a position offered by President John F. Kennedy. He died on April 27, 1965 at age 57, from cancer most likely brought on by decades of heavy smoking.

Despite his love of Israel, he was not a religious man. Rather, as his friend and colleague Eric Sevareid once said, he was “a great moralist” who expected govern­ments and individuals to live up to high ethical standards. Murrow was willing to stand up to evil and fight for what he believed was fair. “Ed Murrow embodied many Jewish values,” says one Murrow admirer. “He was a witness and his testi­mony was in a prophetic tradition. He spoke truth to power. There was a moral message to the news he presented.”

Murrow was, as David Halberstam once wrote, “one of those rare legendary figures who was as good as his myth.”

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