In March 1961 America’s most prominent journalist, Edward R. Murrow, ended a quarter-century career with the Columbia Broadcasting System to join the administration of John F. Kennedy as director of the United States Information Agency (USIA). Charged with promoting a positive image abroad, the agency sponsored overseas research programs, produced documentaries, and operated the Voice of America to spread the country’s influence throughout the world. As director of the USIA, Murrow hired African Americans for top spots in the agency and leveraged his celebrity status at home to challenge all Americans to correct the scourge of domestic racism that discouraged developing countries, viewed as strategic assets, from aligning with the West. Using both overt and covert propaganda programs, Murrow forged a positive public image for Kennedy administration policies in an unsettled era that included the rise of the Berlin Wall, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and support for Vietnam’s Ngo Dinh Diem. Murrow’s Cold War tackles an understudied portion of Murrow’s life, reveals how one of America’s most revered journalists improved the global perception of the United States, and exposes the importance of public diplomacy in the advancement of U.S. foreign policy.
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About the Author
Gregory M. Tomlin was as an assistant professor of history at the United States Military Academy at West Point. A career army officer, he has served in Germany, Korea, Kosovo, and Iraq, as well as at the White House as a military social aide for the Obama administration. Tomlin is the coauthor of The Gods of Diyala: Transfer of Command in Iraq.
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Murrow's Cold War
Public Diplomacy for the Kennedy Administration
By Gregory M. Tomlin
UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESSCopyright © 2016 the Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved.
Good Night, CBS
Right now I suffer from a great sense of frustration and loss of time.
— Edward R. Murrow, March 1, 1960
Few individuals would balk at a yearlong, all-expenses-paid sabbatical to circle the globe, but for Edward R. Murrow, who embarked on just such an adventure, thanks to the largesse of CBS in 1959, boredom set in by the third month. Perhaps the entire idea had been a mistake; perhaps it was time to sever professional ties with the network that had been his sole employer for the past quarter century. Fortunately for Murrow, he did not lack options. As arguably the most recognized and respected journalist in the United States, Murrow received numerous offers to teach in schools of journalism or serve as a college president; however, these remained less enticing than offers to remain a reporter, his true passion. Quietly, the Ford Foundation engaged Murrow about the possibility of helping to create a national public broadcasting network. Murrow's son, Casey, speculates that, given his father's challenges with CBS, he may have preferred to join a nonprofit network where executives focused more on programming content than the size of profit margins.
CBS executives proposed the sabbatical as a cooling-off period and an opportunity to mend a public relations disaster. Tensions between Murrow and his superiors had developed in the late 1950s over corporate influence in the newsroom. In Murrow's view, their willingness to pander to advertisers who preferred the mundane to provocative content directly hindered the news division's ability to provide viewers with substantive journalism. Dissatisfied with his ability to persuade executives behind the doors of the CBS boardroom at 485 Madison Avenue, Murrow began to vent his frustrations publicly. Beginning his travels in London, where he delivered a lecture in October 1959, Murrow acknowledged to James Seward, a personal confidant and CBS executive vice president, that his differences with network president Frank Stanton seemed irreconcilable. He vented to Seward that he would sorely like to testify before Congress in order to save the dwindling credibility of television journalism or even have a "thorough-going public row."
Stanton did not seem eager to make amends, choosing instead to fight back a week later by insinuating that Murrow rehearsed celebrity interviews for his Person to Person television program. Similar allegations about the quiz shows had become a national scandal earlier that same year. The accusation backfired on Stanton, since many in Murrow's audience were incredulous that the network would compare Murrow's meticulous work to the shenanigans of television game shows. It also directly contradicted an official CBS statement from October 24: "As Dr. Stanton has attempted to make quite clear on several occasions, none of us at CBS has the slightest objection to the way 'Person to Person' has been produced. Indeed, we have always been very proud of the program and those who have participated in it." Within days Stanton backtracked, explaining at a New Orleans engagement that he had only cited Person to Person as an example of how absurd it was to suggest seriously that CBS canned any of its real-time shows.
From London, Murrow traveled to Switzerland in late November with his wife, Janet — his son already enrolled in a Swiss boarding school — where they remained for the rest of the year. Murrow even arranged for Seward to ship his Ford Thunderbird to Europe from New York so that he and Janet would have the liberty to travel wherever they wished on the continent. Murrow told one confidant that he sought "no public row" with Stanton and hoped that his employer would discontinue provoking media inquiries into CBS interview shows. However, Murrow remained defensive: "I am still determined that if there is a break they must fire me[;] after all they hired my services not my silence." Reading about Stanton's accusation from Geneva, Murrow cabled his mother to reassure her that she should not worry about the public criticism: "Hope you haven't been concerned about my small row with CBS. ... They panicked over the quiz show business and thought to throw me to the lions." In another telegram to her on January 5, 1960, he promised her that he would be fine: "Stanton in particular doesn't like people who are not afraid of him and I am not and he knows it. I have become something of a controversial character but that is nothing new."
Despite his confidence in being exonerated, by mid-January Murrow indicated his dislike for the extended European retreat, suggesting that he really did want to get back to journalism. He felt more exhausted on the vacation than he did prior to the trip, and he complained about the poor weather in Switzerland. He felt "very disappointed" by a recent CBS news report on Iran, but he lacked the motivation to write a critique to his longtime producer, Fred Friendly. Murrow also terminated a report of his own that he had begun on the future of television. Evidently restless, he decided to ship his Thunderbird to Israel, where he and Janet traveled by air, to begin a documentary on the Holy Land. Over the winter he read the Bible as a history book and expressed some interest in its narrative but little else in January's frosty gloom.
Despite the biblical project, Israel did not make him any happier: "I have been reading much Plato which doesn't contribute to peace of mind. ... [and] am being driven mad by well meaning Hebrews." While in the Middle East, he stopped in Iran, spending two weeks on a program for CBS. He elicited the help of Burnett Anderson, the Tehran U.S. Information Agency public affairs officer, who worked closely with him for the duration of the filming. Little did either know at the time, but Anderson would work for Murrow the following year. News arrived of Stanton's testimony before Congress about network production rigging, tempting Murrow once again to respond, but he reconsidered and held his tongue. Frustrated by what he could not mend, he confided in a telegram to CBS radio broadcaster Edward Morgan, "I am tired beyond endurance and wish myself in some far place but know not where ... enough of this."
Part of his stress stemmed from not knowing what he would be returning to in New York. The network canceled his major television program, the investigative journalism See It Now, in the summer of 1958. Since 1953, he had hosted Person to Person, a much lighter show where he pioneered the celebrity interview; however, the network replaced him as host with Charles Collingwood, in 1959, prior to Murrow's departure for London. A new show that year, Small World, allowed him to serve as moderator for a broad range of guests to discuss current events, but it did not enjoy a regular time slot, which made it challenging to build a loyal audience. Despite his yearlong hiatus, a CBS official told the New York Times that Murrow would return to the air on July 1, 1960, without specifying what show he would host. The Times reporter noted that Murrow "lived in a shadow of speculation" since leaving the country in July 1959. Still, Seward remained optimistic that Stanton would agree to give Murrow a weekly radio program on Sundays at a minimum.
The Murrows' journey continued across Asia in the spring, but this region also failed to buoy his spirits. In March he remained tired, turning down Friendly's invitation to travel to the Republic of China for a month to cover the Quemoy Matsu crisis because "[I] simply haven't the energy." However, he agreed to record a weekly half-hour radio piece. This did not make him happy either, as he explained morosely to Morgan from India, "Right now I suffer from a great sense of frustration and loss of time." His mood continued to darken toward the end of the month, and in referring to Stanton's most recent public announcement about the future of news on his network, Murrow said, "[It] made me want to vomit." Murrow seemed totally exasperated and ready to terminate his relationship with CBS. Writing to Seward from Hong Kong, he said, "This whole expedition just hasn't worked out. ... Unless I hear from someone in authority at CBS I am likely to say that the last contact I had with the company was when they sent a man to London to tell me I was fired."
CBS executives continued to debate what to do with Murrow. While lodging at Tokyo's Imperial Hotel, Murrow received a letter from Seward on March 26, 1960, explaining that the television division "wavered" about whether or not to air Murrow's Small World on a more regular basis. The network announced publicly that when Murrow returned on July 1 he would do a weekly radio series titled Background, in addition to participating in election and political convention coverage. Seward encouraged Murrow to respond to media inquiries about his feud with Stanton by clarifying that it had been grossly exaggerated, and that he understood that the CBS president had used Person to Person as an example of upholding media standards, rather than to associate it nefariously with the scandalous quiz shows. Further, Seward suggested that Murrow explain his more recent negativity in the press as a natural response to attacks against his integrity or his commitment to journalistic excellence.
Murrow responded to Seward's recommendations by explaining why he could not agree to regurgitate the corporate talking points. In the last phone conversation he had with Stanton in London the previous October, the network president told him, "We haven't been able to solve this matter." Therefore, Murrow said that "under no circumstances will I say that my belated comment was extreme or unwarranted. ... I can think of nothing less important than what Dr. Stanton thinks of me unless it's what I think of him." Nonetheless, to assure Seward that he did not seek to exacerbate the situation further, Murrow reminded Seward that, as "an old enough hand," he knew how to keep from being provoked by sensational reporters. He remained on the defensive, emphasizing that he would not tolerate CBS insinuating that he created the rift: "If my conscience wherever it resides summons me to make public comment on the state of TV or radio I shall certainly do so and be prepared to suffer the consequences ... this sounds pompous as hell, but you will know what I mean ... right now the whole bloody business seems too juvenile to bother with." Seward sympathized with Murrow's position with one exception: he instructed his friend never to disclose publicly how little he thought of Stanton.
The exile of Edward R. Murrow would have surprised most of his admirers if they had had access to the cables and letters crossing the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans between October 1959 and April 1960. Since 1937, when he began acquiring his CBS audience from London, where he tried to make sense of the disintegration of European civilization, Murrow's name had become synonymous with integrity and honesty. He took his work seriously, sought to illuminate complex issues, both foreign and domestic, and provided eloquent analysis in his commentaries. Further, his listeners would have found his depression alarming, since he always exuded confidence on television, whether interviewing heads of state or reporting on sensitive topics such as civil rights or communist infiltration in the United States. Throughout his life, however, Murrow's family and closest associates knew of his moodiness, even his nervousness prior to going on the air, but he managed successfully to keep this from the public's eye the moment that a microphone activated or a camera began to roll.
His humble origins did not make his rise to international fame inevitable, but the resoluteness that he demonstrated throughout his life helps explain his stubborn unwillingness to compromise his ethics with CBS over programming content. Perhaps he gained this sense of commitment from his Quaker parents, Roscoe C. and Ethel F. (née Lamb) Murrow. Egbert Roscoe Murrow was born at Polecat Creek, near Greensboro, North Carolina, on April 8, 1908, the youngest of three sons. Murrow's father struggled to support the family by selling corn and hay from their modest farm. When Egbert was six — he did not change his name to Edward until his second year of college, after already adopting the nickname Ed — his parents trekked across country for a fresh start in Blanchard, Washington, seventy miles north of Seattle. Although a seemingly risky move, Roscoe decided to uproot his family after hearing promising stories from Ethel's cousin about Washington's logging camps and sawmills. Fortunately Roscoe found employment as a lumberjack and eventually a locomotive engineer for the Samish Bay Logging Company.
Throughout his childhood, Murrow seemed determined to keep up with his older siblings. Murrow looks downright dour as a little boy in a photo of him posing beside his two older brothers, Lacey and Dewey, and some biographers consider this an indication of his stoicism. However, the background of the photo is much more humorous. On the first day of a new school year for his brothers, Murrow threw a temper tantrum because he was not old enough to go to school himself. Since his mother wanted a picture of her three boys, she handed her youngest son a book to settle him down. While he is not crying in the photo, he displays the classic morose stare that many have confused for Murrow being glum when in fact he was focused on a project or deep in thought.
At Edison High School, Murrow completed his academic work, but his real education came from delving into extracurricular activities "as though discovering a buffet" after attending first through eighth grades in Blanchard's two-room grammar school. Voted "most popular" among his classmates, they elected him senior class and student body president. He competed in school debates and baseball and participated in the school's orchestra and glee club. From the age of fourteen until completing college, Murrow spent his summers learning from lumberjacks how to rough it in the wilderness, smoke cigarettes, and incorporate "the exquisite expressiveness" of profanity into his language.
Although he aspired to study law at the University of Virginia, his family's financial means limited him to Washington State College (now University) where he majored in speech. As with high school, Murrow completed his homework but took greater interest outside of the classroom in the Kappa Sigma fraternity and student government, to include serving as president of both the student body and the intercollegiate Pacific Student Presidents Association, and cadet battalion commander of the school's Reserve Officer Training Corps. However, he learned to take his academics more seriously under the tutelage and mentorship of his speech professor, Ida Lou Anderson, a crippled woman only eight years his senior. Murrow became her star pupil by taking every class she offered, and she not only honed his unique delivery style, but she later sent him letters with recommendations on how to improve his broadcasts during his early years at CBS.
With his grades on the rise and finding a passion for debate, Murrow convinced his college to send him to the National Student Federation of America's (NSFA) national convention at Stanford University in December 1929 where he delivered a speech encouraging his peers to take greater interest in national and international affairs. The speech received such high praise from the audience that they elected him president of the federation, the largest collegiate student organization in the country. His prose and maturity impressed the organization's administrators so much that, upon his college graduation in 1930, they asked Murrow to take a position with the NSFA main office in New York. Accepting the offer, Murrow busied himself with the administration of the federation, a job that came with no salary but a modest living allowance of twenty-five dollars a week.
Over the next seven years, Murrow used the cross-country move as an occasion to navigate his way into the field of journalism, albeit unintentionally. In 1930 he did not know what career to pursue, but the federation offered him the one opportunity that he definitely wanted after graduating from college: a ticket away from the sawmills of Washington. As one of forty country members of the International Confederation of Students, the NSFA afforded Murrow the opportunity to travel to Europe. International conferences allowed him to engage foreign students in political debates, which broadened his worldview. Returning to New York, he learned that producers from the fledgling two-year-old CBS radio network had invited the NSFA to fill a portion of their midday schedule that lacked sponsors so that it would not have dead air. This is how the organization brought Murrow to the microphone and provided him with the chance to utilize the communication skills developed under Professor Anderson. On September 15, 1930, he hosted Robert Kelly, executive secretary of the Association of American Colleges, for an on-air discussion titled "Looking Forward with Students." After the interview, the producers told Murrow that they approved of his performance, but they would only invite him back if he could find bigger names. Amazingly, the twenty-two-year-old succeeded, bringing on international heavyweights such as Paul von Hindenburg and Mahatma Gandhi.
Excerpted from Murrow's Cold War by Gregory M. Tomlin. Copyright © 2016 the Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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