by Edward Weeks
Edward R. Murrow was America’s ablest reporter and most trusted broadcaster in the years of crisis 1938—1961. He was too occupied, and toward the end, too ill, to think of an autobiography; probably the nearest thing to it is the selection of his broadcasts (he made more than five thousand of them) and the best of his rare and terse speeches, edited by his friend Edward Bliss, Jr., under the title IN SEARCH OF LIGHT (Knopf, $6.95). For anyone over forty this book holds the living tissue of our time; in it we see the principles and objectivity with which the man worked, and the judgments, forthright or inferred, with which he swayed opinion; in it we have the chance to evaluate the quality of the man and of his style.
I have never known anyone who was so affectionately regarded by other journalists: we loved him for his courage, which he disguised; for his candor, which could be hot; and for his honor, which he wore lightly but which was always there. I came closest to him in the summer of 1943 in England when perhaps because of my Boston manner rather than the difference in our years he called me “Uncle Ted.” I was one of a group of American editors observing the British war effort, and we were the wiser for listening to Ed at those midnight suppers in a cellar restaurant. His dark, somber visage would light up as he talked, and he loved a joke on himself.
He had been skeptical of the English when, fresh from college, he first visited Britain in 1930. Sixteen years later by way of apology he contided his first impressions to the listeners of BBC: “Your country was a sort of museum piece,” he said, “pleasant but small. You seemed slow, indifferent and exceedingly complacent — not important. I thought your streets narrow and mean, your tailors overadvertised, your climate unbearable, your class-consciousness offensive. You couldn’t cook. Your young men seemed without vigor or purpose. 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. . . .” He realized, as he admitted, that he had misjudged “these young men who are rather languid and wear suede shoes and resolve that they will fight not for king or country.” He watched them after Dunkirk and through the Blitz, and by mid-war it was known that he had access to 10 Downing Street and had won Mr. Churchill’s trust.
It was not so well known that on the night of December 7, 1941, Ed was at the White House reporting to the President on the temper of the British people and that FDR trusted him enough to inform him of the true damage indicted by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor. It is more than myth that years later when it was leared that the Russians with their bomb capability might move, it was decided that it should be Ed’s voice which should counsel the people what to do if and when we came under atomic attack.
Ed’s voice was a broadcaster’s dream: deep, resonant, and authoritative, and so skillfully modulated that it conveyed the admiration, the irony or indignation with which he viewed the situation. He never sneered. And because, whatever the odds, he was essentially a believer in democracy, you knew as you listened that this was not a superficial man who was speaking. “Phis,” he would begin, “is London,” and it was.
Broadcasting is writing for the mind through the ear, and it is quite different from writing for the eye, a distinction not always appreciated by professors. Sentences must be short; words with a high vowel content make a much sharper impact, consonants are likely to fluff and be missed; and the sentence structure must accentuate one image or one idea, not an assortment.
Marrow’s vocabulary was a vivid one; the timing was such that he had to be economical, and he favored the understatement. Of his war broadcasts, most from London, I am stirred by his prophetic description of the new Prime Minister on May 10, 1940: “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 sixtyfive, Winston Churchill . . . is . . . the Prime Minister of Great Britain . . . . He will probably take chances. But if he brings victory, his place in history is assured.”
Ed’s action pieces on a bombing mission over Berlin and his flight to Holland in the armada of gliders, planes, and paratroopers are graphic without glamorizing the speaker. And his manliness and compassion were never more touching than in his broadcast on Buchenwald, spoken the day President Roosevelt died, and in his tribute to the British on V-E Day, ending with these poignant words: “Some people appear not to be part of the celebration. Their minds must be filled with memories of friends who died in the streets where they now walk, and of others who have died from Burma to the Elbe. There are a few men on crutches, as though to remind all that there is much human wreckage left at the end. Six years is a long time. I have observed today that people have very little to say. There are no words.”
It is remarkable that a man who had been absorbed for nine years in such an exhausting assignment should return to clear up the “wreckage” and to bring into sharper focus the besetting problems of the cold war. He reviewed the implication of the conviction of the eleven leaders of the Communist Party in Judge Medina’s court. He flew to Korea in the summer of 1950 and went to the front with the First Cavalry, although, as he said, he thought he had “seen enough of dead men and wounded buildings, of fear and high courage.” In his broadcast of General MacArthur’s removal he reminded the country that “what hung in the balance was not MacArthur’s reputation as a soldier, or Truman’s as a statesman, but rather the principle of civilian control of the military men and forces of this country.” He spoke glowing eulogies on the death of two of his heroes, General Marshall and Vice President Barkley, and was the strongest and at the time the only voice in downright criticism of Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose demagoguery he opposed just as vigorously as he opposed the charges against Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer.
These are some but not all of Ed’s finest commitments in the years when the forces of reaction were threatening the integrity of our democracy and of that mass medium which he had done so much to elevate.
The hunt for the killers
GWYN GRIFFIN, who was born in Egypt, is of Welsh heritage; he was educated in England, served as an officer in the Colonial forces in Africa, and now does his writing in Italy. He is almost as cosmopolitan as Peter Ustinov; he is much too ambitious to use the same setting twice; his last novel, A Last Lamp Burning, was laid in Naples, and in his new one, AN OPERATIONAL NECESSITY (Putnam, $6.95), the Book-ofthe-Month-Club selection for August, he turns to the sea.
Let me say at once that this is a story mostly about men and of excruciating reality. The novel begins aboard a rusty old freighter which has just crossed the Line bound for Bahia with a light cargo of palm kernels, evil-smelling hides, and West African hardwoods. The aged skipper, Captain Christopher Crawshaw, has twice been torpedoed; now in the closing months of the war he is piloting a wheezy old craft with its motley crew in the bland belief that he is out of reach of the submarines, which he is not. At 7:28 P.M. on the fifth of January, 1945, the old freighter is torn apart by two torpedoes. Half the crew is killed immediately, and the survivors clinging to the life rafts are methodically machine-gunned by the commander of the U-boat, who wishes to obliterate every evidence of the sinking.
So begins this masculine, beautifully vivid story which contrasts the fortunes of the seven merchant seamen who survived the machinegunning with the fate of those in the U-boat. Of the seven who keep afloat in a half-demolished raft, only two are unscathed — Captain Crawshaw, the sturdy Welshman, and Gaston, the radio operator, a bullnecked twenty-year-old Frenchman. The others have been cruelly hurt, and as the captain ministers to them, doling out their rations, catching the rainwater, setting the little sail, he has compassion for all save Rayner, the giant Negro, whose mouth has been bashed in but who may turn berserk. The skill with which the author depicts the alternating hope and despair in that open raft under the blazing sun reminds me of that long torture which Nordhoff and Hall wrote about in Men Against the Sea.
Meanwhile, all is not well in the submarine. With its nervous captain and green crew it has narrowly missed serious damage from depth charges, which threw one of its I propellers out of line. After the sinking of the freighter some of the officers and men resent the orders to destroy the survivors, but none of them, save perhaps the chief engineer, could have imagined the swiftness with which the retribution rains down on them from above. The crippled submarine, with its bow crushed, noses down to an incredible depth, and the terror within is most feelingly revealed. They dare to right themselves only after night has fallen, and when with tanks blown they struggle to the surface, they in their turn are as mercilessly exposed as the dwindling occupants of the raft.
The submarine is spotted by English planes shortly after daybreak; they compel its surrender, and the crippled U-boat is eventually towed into the little port of Masondi in Tanganyika. The German captain, Eugen Kiclbasa, and his halfFrench aide and admirer, Emil, would like to cover up their tracks, destroy the log, wipe out any remembrance of the killing of the defenseless seamen, and when they fail to do so, a trial (and it is a long one) for a war crime is inevitable.
Episodically, it is a brilliant performance. But there is one serious drawback in a book with as many people and as many casualties as this: one looks in vain for a central character in whom one can repose one’s sympathies. No women enter the story until well over a hundred pages have passed, neither the German captain nor his crew are intended to be appealing, and in the curious rivalry between Gaston, the castaway from Dieppe, and Emil, the half-German, half-French conscript from Occupied France, neither takes a strong hold on one’s imagination.
Inside “Inside Washington”
My trouble with novels or plays dealing with contemporary politics in our national capital is that neither the President when he appears nor the senators who are out to bait him are portrayed as being in the least capable of wielding power or even of doing a halfway serious job. Too often these protagonists in fiction seem to have the facade of Warren G. Harding and the integrity of Bobby Baker. History reminds me that at times there has been skulduggery in high place, but I also know from my own limited experience that the business of government is carried on by senators as conscientious and hardworking as Robert Taft, Leverett Saltonstall, and Mike Monroney. So when I find myself in a novel like WASHINGTON, D.C. by GORE VIDAL (Little, Brown, $6.95), I instinctively sprinkle the political part of the tale with salt, swallowing it as best I can, and seek such pleasure as I can get from the social intercourse, which is generally more plausible than the skulduggery.
Washington, D.C. begins in 1937 just after President Roosevelt has been defeated in his attempt to pack the Court. Foremost in opposing him, we are told, is James Burden Day, a conservative senator whose own presidential aspirations are momentarily excited by the national press. He takes them seriously, and to raise the money he may need, Senator Day is a little less than conscientious about some Indian lands. When Pearl Harbor and FDR between them have put the kibosh on the senator’s hopes, he is left to deflate, with the nagging suspicion that he may be in trouble. The handicap in all this is the characterization of the senator, who comes across as a romantic Southerner, happy to be a member of “ The Club” and averse to work of any consequence. One doubts that he could even be a successful corrupter.
As the senator’s prestige declines, the spotlight shifts to his administrative assistant, Clay Overbury, a tough, good-looking opportunist, attractive to women, avaricious, and determined to get a seat in Congress at whatever cost. Clay will trade any scruple for advance, and it is his rising, risky fortune, plus his adventures in bed, which keeps us turning the pages. The family into which Clay has seduced his way is a tricky lot: his wife, Enid, an erotic alcoholic; his father-in-law, the wealthy proprietor of the Washington Tribune, a man without affection or remorse; his brother-in-law, Peter, a half-shrewd, half-credulous columnist. Clay has His way with them much as he had with the senator’s secretary. Mr. Vidal’s novel, like The Comedians by Graham Greene, is about adventurers whose morals are dubious, but in Mr. Greene s story the people have fun and some of it rubs off on the reader, whereas in Washington, D.C. the scheming ends in tawdriness.