FINEST HOUR 144, AUTUMN 2009
BY FRED GLUECKSTEIN
Mr. Glueckstein, a Maryland writer, is a frequent contributor to FH.
“I first came to England sixteen years ago….I admired your history, doubted your future, and suspected that the historians had merely agreed upon a myth. But always there was something that escaped me. Always there remained in the back of a youthful and undisciplined mind the suspicion that I might be wrong.” —EDWARD R. MURROW, “A REPORTER REMEMBERS,” BBC BROADCAST, 1946
With Hitler’s Luftwaffe pounding London in September 1940, Edward R. Murrow, chief European correspondent for the Columbia Broadcasting System, wanted to be closer to the story. For weeks, Murrow had been asking the Air Ministry for permission to send live broadcasts on the German raids to America from London’s rooftops. The Ministry had refused. Censors could not be sure what the American correspondent might report in a live broadcast.
To address the Air Ministry’s concerns, Murrow and a sound technician went up to the roof of the British Broadcasting Corporation building and recorded a description of an air attack on London. The Ministry told Murrow it sounded fine but again refused permission. Murrow made six more test recordings so that the officials could be sure that he had not compromised security. Although they did not find any violations, Murrow’s request was again turned down.
Morrow was undeterred.
Through his influential contacts, Murrow reached the Prime Minister. A former war correspondent himself, Churchill approved the broadcasts. He hoped that Murrow’s radio reports would affect American public opinion, that sympathy for Britain’s plight would move the United States toward joining the war. Privately, Churchill was convinced that American belligerence was the surest key to ultimate victory.
With Churchill’s approval, Murrow began reporting from London’s rooftops on Britain’s fight for survival. In his elegant and distinctive voice, listeners in America heard Murrow’s first rooftop broadcast on 21 September 1940. Murrow began the broadcast with his famous signature opening, so familiar to his audience since 1937, “This is London.”
I am standing on a rooftop looking out over London. At the moment everything is quiet. For reasons of national as well as personal security, I’m unable to tell you the exact location from which I’m speaking. Off to my left, far away in the distance, I can see just that faint red angry snap of anti-aircraft bursts against the steel-blue sky, but the guns are so far away that’s impossible to hear them from this location.
Searchlights flooded the sky on Murrow’s right: I think probably in a minute we shall have the sound of guns in the immediate vicinity. The lights are swinging over in this general direction now. You’ll hear two explosions. There they are! That was the explosion overhead, not the guns themselves. I should think in a few minutes there may be a bit of shrapnel around here. Coming in, moving a little closer all the while.
Egbert Roscoe Murrow was born in Polecat Creek, North Carolina on 25 April 1908. The youngest of three sons born to Ethel Lamb and Roscoe Murrow, Egbert grew up in a house made of yellow poplar and black walnut logs. The Murrows were Quaker landowners, whose antecedents had supported the Union in the Civil War and favored the abolition of slavery. In 1913, the family moved west and settled on Puget Sound in Blanchard, Washington, where Ethel Murrow’s cousin lived. Egbert and his brothers, Dewey and Lacey, grew up in Blanchard, a community dependent on logging, railroads and farming.
After graduating from high school, Murrow spent a year working in a logging camp in the Pacific Northwest, attended Washington State College, where he took a course on communications with a teacher named Ida Lou Anderson, who imparted a love of learning and had a keen ability to teach and critique speech, diction and presence. Murrow was impressed with this small woman deformed by infantile paralysis. Ida had one maxim that he always remembered: “God will not look you over for medals, degrees or diplomas, but for scars.”
Graduating from college in 1930, Murrow worked in New York as president of the National Student Federation of America, and later as director of the Institute of International Education. In 1933, CBS hired him as director of talks and education, and two years later made him head of its European Bureau. Murrow and his wife Janet, whom he’d married in 1934, went to London. Since his 1930 visit he had not cared for England, particularly the cimate. But now history was stirring, and the Murrows arrived on the cusp of great events.
Since Murrow was responsible for arranging talks and special events for broadcast to America, his sphere of contacts and prestige grew. One politician that he contacted for a broadcast interview was an unpopular Cassandra, warning of the German threat: the Member for Epping, Winston Churchill.
In 1938, a young midwesterner, Eric Sevareid, later an outstanding news journalist and writer, was also in London. Sevareid was impressed with the quality of editorials and essays of English journalists. “Some of these men I met in Whitehall and Fleet Street,” Sevareid wrote later:
I was impressed by them. I was more sharply impressed, as it happened, by a young American, a tall, thin man with a boyish grin, extraordinary dark eyes that were alight and intense one moment and somber and lost the next. He seemed to possess that rare thing, an instinctive, intuitive recognition of truth. His name was Edward R. Murrow.
He talked about England through half the night, and, although he had been there only about a year, one went away with the impulse to write down what he said, to recapture his phrases, so that one could recall them and think about them later. I knew I wanted to listen to this man again, and I had a strong feeling that many others where he began to use the name Edward. He then ought to know him.
When Murrow himself began broadcasting to America, he was listened to by millions. His pioneering broadcasts using reporters in different international cities set the standard for international news. While reporting on British politics and the developments on the European continent, particularly the territorial conquests of Germany’s Adolf Hitler, Murrow watched Churchill stand almost alone in warning his countrymen of the German threat.
Seeking information himself, Churchill for his part welcomed foreign journalists, businessmen, diplomats, army officers and others to his country home Chartwell. Ed Murrow was among those invited. With the onset of the Second World War, Murrow often reported on Churchill, as on 11 April 1940:
Mr. Winston Churchill left the famous Map Room at the Admiralty and went to the House of Commons this afternoon to tell the House and the world how the war at sea is getting on. His arrival in the packed House of Commons was greeted by the low-pitched roar reserved by the House for Ministers who enjoy the confidence and respect of all political parties. Mr. Churchill was tired, his face expressionless, as he walked down to his seat beside the Prime Minister. He rubbed his eyes, whispered a few
words to Mr. Chamberlain, put on his spectacles, and began a speech which was to last for nearly an hour and ten minutes….
Mr. Churchill today was a combination of orator, actor, elder statesman, and fighting prophet. He was more than that. He was the man who for five years had sat in the corner seat below the gangway, a political exile, while he uttered warnings of increasing German might as he watched the big clock above the Speaker’s chair tick off what he believed to be missed opportunities….The House of Commons liked Mr. Churchill’s speech….It was certainly the most brilliant effort seen in the House
of Commons since the war started.
On 10 May 1940, Murrow broadcast to America the electrifying news that the man he had followed with such fascination since the mid-1930s had become Prime Minister:
History has been made too fast over here today. First, in the early hours this morning, came the news of the British unopposed landing in Iceland. Then the news of Hitler’s triple invasion [Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg] came rolling into London, climaxed by the German air bombing of five nations. British mechanized troops rattled across the frontier into Belgium. Then at 9 o’clock tonight a tired old man spoke to the nation from Number Ten Downing Street. He sat behind a big oval table in the Cabinet Room where so many fateful decisions have been taken during the three years that he has directed the policy of His Majesty’s government. Neville Chamberlain announced his resignation….
Winston Churchill, who has held more political offices than any living man, is now Prime Minister. He is a man without a party. For the last seven years he has sat in the House of Commons, a rather lonesome and often bellicose figure, voicing unheeded warnings of the rising tide of German military strength. Now, at the age of sixty-five, Winston Churchill, plump, bald, with massive round shoulders, is for the first time in his varied career of journalist, historian and politician the Prime Minister of Great Britain. Mr. Churchill now takes over the supreme direction of Britain’s war effort at a time when the war is rapidly moving toward Britain’s doorstep. Mr.Churchill’s critics have said that he is inclined to be impulsive and, at times, vindictive. But in the tradition of
British politics he will be given his chance. He will probably take chances. But if he brings victory, his place in history is assured.
On 4 June 1940, after Churchill had delivered his immortal “Never Surrender” speech, Murrow broadcast: I sat in the House of Commons this afternoon and heard Winston Churchill, Britain’s tired old man of the sea, sum up the recent operations. He told of the 350,000 troops—British and French—brought back from Dunkirk. British losses exceed thirty thousand killed, wounded and missing. Enormous material losses were sustained….A colossal military disaster had occurred, and another blow must be expected immediately. Mr. Churchill believed that these islands could be successfully defended, could ride out the storm of war and outlive the menace of tyranny, if necessary alone. There was a prophetic quality about the speech. “We shall go on to the end,” he said. “We shall never surrender”….
I have heard Mr. Churchill in the House of Commons at intervals over the last ten years. I heard his speech on the Norwegian campaign, and I have some knowledge of his writings. Today, he was different. There was little oratory; he wasn’t interested in being a showman. He spoke the language of Shakespeare with a direct urgency such as I have never before heard in that House. There were no frills and no tricks. Winston Churchill’s speeches have been prophetic. He has talked and written of the German danger for years. He has gone into the political wilderness in defense of his ideas. Today, as Prime Minister, he gave the House of Commons a report remarkable for its honesty, inspiration and gravity.
As Churchill warned, things got a lot worse before they began to get better. During the grim winter of 1940-41, Sue White, wife of CBS executive Paul White, asked Janet Murrow to represent her organization, Bundles for Britain, in London. Through the efforts of American women volunteers, Bundles for Britain was raising funds for food, clothes and medical equipment, which were sent to England for relief distribution. Within six months of its founding in 1939, 1100 branches of the relief organization were operating in the United States.
Janet Murrow became executive chairman of Bundles for Britain’s London Committee. Also active in the organization were Clementine Churchill, its honorary chairman, and Mrs. John Gilbert Winant, wife of the American Ambassador.
Janet and Clementine became immediate friends and worked together closely. On 25 August 1941, they and Bundles for Britain representatives visited one of the first hospitals to be bombed, Queen Mary’s, where they paid tribute to the physicians, staff, and patients. Queen Mary’s received £7235 in cash and £1000 in kind from the Newport News, Virginia branch of the organization. Clementine said that the scenes at some hospitals “wring your heart, but they also make you feel proud when you see the work the hospitals are doing, and the courage shown by surgeons, nurses and patients.”
There was much work to be done and Janet and Clementine—they were on a first name basis—often met at Ten Downing Street. There Janet Murrow was introduced to the Prime Minister, who, on occasion, joined them for lunch. These luncheons also gave their husbands a chance to know each other better. Once when Ed came to pick up Janet, Churchill heard his voice and promptly came out of his study. “Good to see you. Mr. Murrow,” said the PM. “Have you time for several whiskies?”
“The American correspondent and the British statesman were cordially acquainted by then, and had a mutual respect for each other as practicing and successful broadcasters,” wrote Alexander Kendrick, Murrow’s first biographer, a journalist and broadcaster.
“Churchill was impressed by what other Americans had told him about Murrow, and by the reports he got from his own embassy in Washington, about his effect on American opinion.” Kendrick described Murrow’s relationship with Churchill as “deferential’ and Churchill’s “perhaps more political than personal.”
Sometimes Churchill called Murrow during the PM’s working/witching hour of two in the morning, inviting him for a nightcap at Number Ten, in the weeks before the Prime Minister’s quarters were moved to Number Ten Annexe, opposite St. James’s Park. The only security was a single constable. Murrow would climb the staircase, past the photographs of premiers and cabinets, to the living room on the top floor. There WSC and Murrow would talk, presumably about American public opinion.
In addition to reporting to America on wartime Britain, Murrow began broadcasting on the BBC about American politics and life. Murrow was trusted by American and British politicians and statesmen alike, and his circle of professional and personal contacts was extensive and varied. Visitors to the Murrow flat #5 at 84 Hallam Street were Mrs. Churchill, Ambassador Winant, Czechoslovakian Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk, Conservative MP Ronald Tree, Labour MPs Ernest Bevin and Harold Laski, Lady Louis Mountbatten, Eleanor Roosevelt and Clark Gable. (In 2006 English Heritage placed its coveted blue plaque on the building to mark Murrow’s residence between 1938 and 1946.)
In late 1941, the Murrows returned to the United States on a three-month vacation. In a CBS testimonial dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on December 2nd Archibald MacLeish, the poet and Librarian of Congress, spoke of Murrow’s accomplishments:
Over the period of your months in London you destroyed in the minds of men and women in this country the superstition that what is done beyond 3000 miles of water is not really done at all—the ignorant superstition that violence and lies and murder on another continent are not violence and lies and murder here…the black and stifling superstition that what we cannot see and hear and touch can have no meaning for us.
On December 7th, Ed and Janet Murrow were invited to dinner at the White House. Roosevelt wanted to talk about Anglo-American relations. Murrow was playing golf when he heard the news of Pearl Harbor. Janet telephoned Mrs. Roosevelt, expecting the dinner to be cancelled, and was surprised when the First Lady said, “We all have to eat. Come anyway.”
The Murrows dined at the White House. The President was too occupied to join them, but Roosevelt still wished to talk with Ed, and the two met at half-past midnight. The President shared his personal feelings about the attack with Murrow, who knew he had the biggest story of his life. But, good newsman that he was, he kept it to himself until Roosevelt spoke the next day to the Congress and American people.
A week later on December 14th, Janet Murrow wrote Mrs. Churchill from Ponte Vedra, Florida, voicing disillusionment with the growing incompetency and mismanagement of Bundles for Britain. With America now at war, she expected relief efforts to be directed at home, and felt little more could come of the organization. She expected Mrs. Winant would leave and suggested that if Mrs. Churchill wished to do so it would be well to have the British Embassy announce it, in order to assure
finality. Janet concluded on a personal note:
As you may have noticed we are at this moment in Florida. The moment the news came from the Pacific Ed wanted to dash right off there. My heart sank. I was afraid he would get no rest at all. But there was no way to get to Manila, so he’s forced to have a few days anyway. The first day it blew a gale, but yesterday and today the sun has shined feebly and we feel we’re very lucky. I wish we could send some of it to you.
We miss you all very much and look forward to our return somewhere around the first of March. I hope you all keep well and that the news from the Middle East will continue to be encouraging. How splendidly they seem to be doing. And it hasn’t been easy I know. My best wishes always to you. Please remember me to Miss Hamblin. We’ll think of you this Christmas season.
The Churchills and Murrows had evidently become close friends, as seen in a letter from Clementine to Janet Murrow on 13 May 1943:
I am so delighted that you will both come to the play with me next Thursday, the 20th. I have got tickets for “Present Laughter.” Will you both come to 1, Storey’s Gate Building and have a drink first, and then we can all go on together to the play, and come back to dinner afterwards. I am so much looking forward to seeing you both, and I do think it was good-natured of you to give up having Ronnie and Nancie [Tree] to dinner with you, so that we could all have a little party together. Brendan Bracken is coming too.
Ed Murrow’s relationship with Churchill was well known by 1945. Interested in the Prime Minister’s war memoirs, M. Lincoln Schuster of Simon & Schuster wrote to Murrow on 11 July 1945: “Knowing that you are a close friend of Brendan Bracken, and frequently see Mr. Churchill, I thought you might be interested in knowing about this correspondence,” wrote Schuster, who attached a letter sent to Churchill. “We would certainly appreciate your help and guidance on this quest for the most historic Churchill book which would certainly be the answer to a publisher’s prayer.”
Murrow replied to Schuster on 7 August, deftly taking himself off the hook: “I happen to know that Mr. Churchill has not so far signed any contract. He has naturally received a great many offers but has not even answered most of them. I do not feel that I can intervene usefully or effectively in this matter. If I were to raise the subject with him his first query would be ‘What do you know about publishing?’ and I would have to reply, ‘Not a damned thing.'”
The Murrows returned to the United States for good in 1946, and Ed became a renowned radio and television broadcaster. But they returned frequently to England, and in 1947, Ed broadcast the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and he and Janet visited the Churchills. Clementine who had kept up her correspondence with Janet, thanked her for the small food parcels she had sent, containing items difficult to obtain in postwar Britain. On 30 November 1954, Edward R. Murrow made a special broadcast on Churchill’s eightieth birthday:
His political obituary was written when he had scarcely passed forty. He sat for years in the House, warning of the menace of Nazism, while the big clock above the speaker’s chair ticked off the wasted hours. He was a lonely but not a bitter man, always enjoying the cut and thrust of parliamentary debate, where no man was his match.
When he came to power in the spring of 1940, he brooked no recrimination about the past, lest the future thereby be lost. He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle to steady his fellow countrymen and hearten those Europeans upon whom the long dark night of tyranny had descended.
Five years later, in an October visit to England, Janet and Ed Murrow drove to Chartwell for lunch. Sir Winston was now 85, extremely deaf, and spoke with difficulty. Sadly, he could only observe his guests playing croquet on the lawn.
Though Ed was thirty-years younger, both he and Churchill died in 1965, the former of lung cancer. Rarely photographed without his trademark Camel, he admitted: “I doubt I could spend a half hour without a cigarette with any comfort or ease.” Nevertheless his TV program,”See It Now,” was the first to air a report on the connection between smoking and cancer.
Looking back, we can see that Churchill and Murrow were similar in many ways. Both had the experience of being war correspondents. Both showed courage under fire, whether in war, business or politics. Both had perseverance and a dedication to excellence. Both enriched the English language and were master communicators, understanding the power of the media to inspire, educate, and affect public opinion.
Churchill’s star had a long trajectory. Edward R. Murrow, Eric Sevareid said, was more of “a shooting star.”But they both shared a fervent belief in the pursuit of truth, the rights of man, and the inviolability of free government, free speech and free thought. To apply what Sevareid said of Murrow, “we will live in their afterglow a very long time.”
1. Edward Bliss, Jr., ed., In Search of Light: The Broadcasts of Edward R. Murrow 1938-1961 (New York: Discus Books, 1974), 17-18.
2. Alexander Kendrick, Prime Time: The Life of Edward R.Murrow (Boston: Little Brown, 1969), 206-07.
3. Edward R. Murrow, edited with commentary and footnotes, by Elmer Davis, This Is London (London: Cassell, 1941) 196-97.
4. Kendrick, 102. Ida Lou Anderson considered Murrow her “masterpiece.” She listened to his broadcasts from London and told
Murrow his opening phrase, “This is London,” was too hurried and lacked impact. Murrow changed it to “This…is London,” with his famous measured pause.
5. Joseph E. Persico, Edward R. Murrow: An American Original (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1988), 41.
6. Kendrick, 147.
7. Eric Sevareid, Not So Wild a Dream (New York: Atheneum, 1979) 82-83. Murrow, impressed with Sevareid’s writing, hired him in 1939 to cover Paris. Sevareid was one of the “Murrow Boys”—a corps of brilliant foreign correspondents which included one woman: Mary Marvin Breckinridge. The others were Sevareid, William L. Shirer, Thomas Grandin, Larry LeSueur, CecilBrown, Winston Burdett, Howard K. Smith, Charles Collingwood, William Downs and Richard C. Hottelet.
8. Murrow, 90-9.
9. Bliss, 38.
10. Ibid., 43-44.
11. “Mrs. Winant’s Tribute to Hospital: Visit with Mrs. Churchill,” The Times, London, 26 August 1941, 2.
12. Kendrick, 231.
13. Ibid., 231-32.
15. Ibid., 216.
16. John K. Hutchens, “Radio Notebook,” The New York Times, 7 December 1941, 16.
17. Kendrick, 239.
18. Ibid., 239-40.
19. Edward R. and Janet Brewster Murrow Papers, Mount Holyoke College, Archives and Special Collections, South Hadley, Massachusetts. Grace Hamblin (1909-2002) was Winston’s and later Clementine’s personal secretary from 1932. In 1966 she became the first National Trust administrator of Chartwell.
23. Murrow was famous for his programs Hear It Now, This I Believe, Person to Person, See It Now, and Years of Crisis. His award winning programs included his 1954 broadcast criticizing Senator Joseph McCarthy’s persecution of presumed Communists and his 1960 documentary Harvest of Shame, which showed the plight of migrant farm workers. From 1961 to January 1964, Murrow served in the Kennedy-Johnson Administration as the director of the United