EXCERPT: Murrow’s Cold War

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TomlinThe following is an excerpt from Murrow’s Cold War (May 2016) by Gregory M. Tomlin. 

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). 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.

Chapter 8: Birmingham, the Story Heard ‘Round the World 

“We cannot do good propaganda unless we have something good on which to base it.” —Eleanor Roosevelt, May 26, 1961

While Kennedy utilized his executive power selectively to address aspects of American racism, Murrow faced the challenge of explaining the civil rights movement to the world. Despite the important relationship between public diplomacy and Cold War foreign policy, studies on Murrow, Kennedy, and the civil rights movement have largely overlooked the USIA’s role. Dudziak’s Cold War Civil Rights never mentions Murrow in the chapter on Kennedy, and Borstelmann does not examine the contributions of the USIA in The Cold War and the Color Line. Nevertheless, accepting Dudziak and Borstelmann’s arguments about the centrality of Cold War pressures on propelling domestic civil rights reform invites a more critical examination of how Murrow’s contributions to the formation of American public diplomacy shaped world opinion of Kennedy’s civil rights record.

Murrow personally believed in ending segregation, making his opinion very clear to the American public and presidents well before joining the Kennedy administration. One of his earliest demonstrations in support of racial tolerance occurred in December 1930 when, as the president of the National Student Federation of America, he organized a desegregated conference for college students in Atlanta, Georgia. Murrow convinced white delegates to allow black delegates to join them at the Biltmore Hotel by warning them that to do otherwise would tarnish the name of their organization in the New York Times. Since hotel policy prohibited serving African Americans in the dining room, white students passed the plates served to them, by African American waiters, to their black colleagues.23

In his May 18, 1954, television broadcast on CBS, Murrow lauded the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. Not only did he call the decision an example of African Americans gaining equal rights as citizens, albeit slowly, but he placed it into the perspective of the Cold War: “Students of world opinion can testify that this decision will add power to the United States’ influence in the world. . . .The ethical pieces in the armor of American defense aren’t comparable with the other pieces, but they are no less essential, and they may be even more important.”24 During the 1957 Central High School standoff, Murrow reported live from Little Rock and explained to his national audience how Arkansas governor Orval Faubus’s refusal to integrate students cost the United States “dearly in world prestige.” In a moment when U.S. officials outspokenly criticized the Soviet subjugation of Hungarians, following the 1956 uprising in Budapest, “Communists could not have asked for more timely and effective anti-American propaganda than our own dispatches about Governor Faubus.” Murrow proposed that the creation and enforcement of a meaningful civil rights act would “do us more good abroad perhaps than any measure since the Marshall Plan.”25

A few weeks prior to joining the Kennedy administration, Murrow visited Birmingham in January 1961 to evaluate the severity of Southern segregation and participate in a discussion with the Birmingham Council. Rev. C. Herbert Oliver of the council lauded Murrow’s address to the organization, which had “stirred up the dregs of many hardened consciences.” Oliver wrote to Murrow to thank him for his appearance: “Our appeals so often go unheard, but somehow your coming brought to the forefront that fear of the light which haunts creatures of darkness.”26

As a political realist, Murrow understood that American public opinion, reflected by the intransigence of Congress and Southern governors, would not support an abrupt termination to the legal and cultural obstacles faced by African Americans in 1961. Casey Murrow does not recall his father being overly critical of the president for the pace of his civil rights reform because Murrow recognized that Kennedy “couldn’t do everything at once,” given the political climate in America at the time.27 As USIA director, Murrow provided message guidance to his media divisions to report, analyze, and explain domestic violence, grassroots demonstrations, and the legal efforts made by those involved in the civil rights movement. This information campaign provided a more honest portrayal of American challenges to a foreign audience too sophisticated to accept platitudes that whitewashed the plight of African Americans.

From 1946 through 1960, the U.S. government explained the slow pace of civil rights reform as reflecting a “natural” American process that should not be rushed or condemned: “Democratic change, however slow and gradual, was superior to dictatorial imposition.”28 Early USIA publications wrote starkly about slavery, not to shock foreign readers about how such an evil institution once thrived in the United States, but to indicate the country’s progress. As a seasoned journalist, Murrow understood how this approach had failed to foster credibility, especially with audiences in Africa. Not everyone in Washington agreed. Just as Murrow witnessed apathy, if not downright contempt, from Congress when it came to increasing his agency’s appropriations, the Democratic Congress did not support robust civil rights legislation and worried that the USIA’s focus on the topic diminished America’s image further.

Due to the absence of a coherent civil rights platform, it did not take Kennedy long to complain that administration officials were “flying off in several directions” with respect to explaining his position.29 Still, his tepid leadership on the matter did little to synchronize the administration’s approach. During a cabinet meeting on February 16, 1961, the president tasked department secretaries to conduct surveys to see how many minorities they employed so that the administration could consider giving blacks more opportunities for career advancement.30 The vice president recommended sending African American diplomats to Africa early in their diplomatic careers. The State Department needed more black Foreign Service officers, and Johnson called for an end to the “‘Jim Crow’ consular service situation.”31 By addressing equal employment opportunities within the federal government, the president hoped to set a standard for the private sector.

The USIA could not rely on incremental, equal employment opportunities within the federal government to persuade Africans to ally with the United States. Murrow encouraged USIA broadcasters and public affairs officers to discuss the challenges central to the civil rights debate in their international discourse. In a February 1961 Redbook magazine interview, Murrow argued that enhancing national security required a frank discussion about unpleasant issues, to include racism.32 He made film production a priority given the medium’s accessibility in the developing world. In his first month on the job, the director instructed the Motion Picture Service to produce documentaries on the lives of typical African Americans, after discovering that the USIA had not produced such films prior to his arrival.33 In June 1961, Murrow told the film division to produce a documentary on the work of the Civil Rights Commission, a bipartisan congressional organization.34 When providing films or magazines to African countries, the agency debated what the ratio should be for pictures depicting African Americans versus whites. Murrow objected to a ratio, and, like his reluctance for seeking to quantify the success of USIA programs, he preferred a more amorphous equation. Speaking before the House Subcommittee on African Affairs, Murrow stated, “The answer plainly lies not in numbers or formulae but in an attitude and an impression. The attitude must be one of awareness of a need to reflect the role of Negroes in American life. The impression must be that we accomplish a success in sincerity in reflecting that attitude.”35

Notes: 

  1. Murrow’s weekly reports to the president are available in Boxes 4–5 (microfilm), E1006, RG 306, NA.
  2. JFK, Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961, Public Papers of the Presidents: John F. Kennedy, vol. 1961, 2.
  3. David E. Bell, recorded interview by William T. Dentzer Jr., January 2, 1965, JFKLOHP.
  4. Memorandum, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. to JFK: “Organizing the Democratic Parties of the World,” September 29, 1961, WAH.
  5. Fried, Nightmare in Red, 136; and Schrecker, Many Are the Crimes, 256–57.
  6. Cable: “Developments in Communist Bloc International Broadcasting in 1961,” February 7, 1962, FO 1110/1522, BNA.
  7. “The Truth Must Be Our Guide, But Dreams Must Be Our Goals,” Newsweek, September 18, 1961, 26.
  8. Tudda, Truth Is Our Weapon, 10–14.
  9. In November 1954, when Soviet troops arrived in Budapest to put down the revolt, many Hungarian freedom fighters continued to resist insurmountable odds because they said that broadcasters on the CIA’s Radio Free Europe had promised that American forces would cross Austria to support their cause. A post-uprising CIA investigation into the RFE’s role remained inconclusive since the station did not maintain transcripts or recordings of its broadcasts, and RFE officials said that Hungarians exaggerated the content of their programs. See Sebestyen, Twelve Days, 181–83, 294–96.
  10. Tudda, Truth Is Our Weapon, 128.
  11. Report, President’s Committee on Information Activities Abroad, December 23, 1960, quoted in Cull, Cold War and the United States Information Agency, 183.
  12. Domer, “Sport in Cold War America,” 260–61.
  13. “George A. Smathers, United States Senator, 1951–1969,” Oral History Interviews, Senate Historical Office, Washington DC, http://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/oral_history/George_A_Smathers.htm.