One Mic against the Reich: CBS Radio Newsman Edward R. Murrow Brought the Ugly Truth about Nazi Aggression to America's Living Rooms Direct from Burning London

By Morris, Roy, Jr. | America in WWII, April 2019 | Go to article overview

One Mic against the Reich: CBS Radio Newsman Edward R. Murrow Brought the Ugly Truth about Nazi Aggression to America's Living Rooms Direct from Burning London


Morris, Roy, Jr., America in WWII


EDWARD R. Murrow, CBS Radio's London bureau chief, drove out to a plateau overlooking England's Thames River estuary on the morning of September 7, 1940, together with Ben Robertson of New York City's PM newspaper and Vincent Sheean of the North American News Alliance. The three journalists wanted to see a pair of oil tankers that had been set ablaze the night before. The men got out of the car, walked to the edge of a turnip field, and were watching smoke rise from the burning ships when a sickly wail arose: air-raid sirens! The trio looked up to see wave after wave of German bombers racing overhead in tight V-formations of 20-25 planes each. The bombers swept upriver straight toward London as black clouds of flak from thudding anti-aircraft guns exploded in the sky. The Blitz--Nazi Germany's all-out, months-long air campaign against British cities--had begun.

On that first day of the Blitz, bombs fell on London for 12 straight hours. When it was over, the East End was in flames and 3,000 citizens were dead or injured. Murrow returned to the city and took it all in, then made his way to the BBC Broadcasting House. From Studio B4 in the building' basement, he conveyed the scene to CBS listeners across the Atlantic. "There are no words to describe the thing that is happening," he began. He went on to paint vivid, indelible word pictures of the carnage. "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 guns rolling down streets, the stench of air-raid shelters in the poor districts." By the time his on-the-spot report from war-ravaged London ended, Murrow had become a broadcasting legend.

Back in the spring of 1937, a few months before the tramping of Nazi jackboots echoed across Europe, Murrow and his wife, Janet, had settled into an expensive apartment in London, four blocks from the British Broadcasting Corporation headquarters in the tony West End. Just 29 years old at the time, Murrow was fresh from a two-year stint as "director of talks" for CBS in New York City. In that role, he had been responsible for bringing in experts and public figures to discuss issues in the news. But then network executives decided to replace longtime London bureau chief Cesar Saerchinger, a pretentious music critic, with a more experienced newsman. The execs wanted to expand their coverage beyond Saerchinger's fawning puff pieces on the British royal family, fancy-dress horse races, and society promenades. Murrow, a tenacious reporter with an instinctive grasp of political realities, seemed to fit the bill. No one, not even he himself, knew just how well. War was in the air; soon Murrow would put it on the air.

In Vienna, a Prelude to War

It HAD BEEN A LONG journey for Murrow from the lumber town of Blanchard, Washington, to London's West End. The youngest of three boys born to Quaker parents, he excelled academically and athletically, leading his Edison High School basketball team to the county championship. He spent his summers working as a lumberjack to earn enough to put himself through Washington State College in Pullman. There, too, he excelled, becoming student body president, starring in campus theater productions, joining the Kappa Sigma fraternity, and honing his speaking skills as two-time president of the National Student Federation of America. After college, he parlayed his experience into a full-time job with the federation in New York City, spearheading the organization's University of the Air, a popular talk show that featured such celebrated guests as Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi, and various American and European political leaders. In 1935, CBS hired Murrow.

Despite all his broadcasting experience in New York City, when Murrow arrived in London he had no intention of putting himself on the air. …

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