January 10, 2023

1939. Edward R. Murrow Four Days Before the Start of World War II

Edward R. Murrow in London Before the War

Edward R. Murrow

CBS London

August 28, 1939
ROBERT TROUT: The news of Europe, as it occurs. The world is now awaiting the arrival in Berlin of Sir Neville Henderson, British Ambassador to Germany, who took off from England's Heston Aerodrome nearly three hours ago, flying to Berlin with the British Cabinet's answer to German Chancellor Adolf Hitler.

Now, during this broadcast period we shall hear the latest word direct from the two key cities of London and Berlin as our CBS representatives speak to us across the ocean by shortwave radio. First, in London waiting to speak to us now, is the chief of Columbia's European staff, Mr. Edward R. Murrow. And to hear Mr. Murrow, we switch you now to London.

EDWARD R. MURROW: This is London. Europe is all paradox these days. For instance, one of the few places in Europe where international railway traffic is undisturbed is the Polish corridor. Germany's transit arrangements continue to function without a hitch. Trains continue to cross the corridor without a hitch, and Germany is said still to be sending military transport over the line.

Now, here in London today the Chinese and Japanese ambassadors called at the Foreign Office, and they called together. That's something that London hasn't seen for a long while. It's also just been announced that Germans have been instructed to leave Hong Kong.

Croydon Airport will be blacked out tonight, and the Admiralty has forbidden the use of wireless transmitting apparatus from any seagoing ship in British territorial waters. And I should not be surprised to see certain steps taken during the next twenty-four hours to establish what would be called a "voluntary censorship" over certain other forms of communication.

The first Defence order—or decree—was issued here today. They cover a lot of territory. Power is given to order compulsory evacuation for both people and animals. In other words, if the government says go, you've got to go whether you like it or not. Compulsory billeting is provided for, and that means that if you had a house in the country with an extra room, the government might billet without your consent two or three people in that room. Private premises may be taken over. Traffic on the roads may be regulated. And the carrying of cameras will be prohibited in certain areas.

And there's another provision: it states that no person shall have under his control or liberate any racing or homing pigeon. Prices of food and other commodities may be controlled, and a dispatch from the United Kingdom of material other than that handled by mail may be controlled or stopped altogether. There are more than a hundred separate items in the list, and there will probably be others to follow.

Well, those surprising rations are still handing out surprises. Voroshilov, the War Minister, says there's no reason why Russia should not supply the Poles with arms and materiel, just as the Americans. And incidentally, the British have been supplying them to Japan for the last two years.

The feeling is growing here that the agreement with Russia may in the end of the day do Germany more harm than good. We should probably have more information on that point after the speeches in Moscow tonight.
As you know, the House of Commons meets tomorrow 3:45 London Time. And I can tell you that the Prime Minister is being urged very strongly not only to outline the recent exchange between Hitler and the British government—which so far remains a secret—but he has today been urged by certain opposition leaders to tell the whole story of the breakdown of negotiations with the Soviet Union. If he does tell that story, we shall be in for further surprise.

Mr. Chamberlain has been told that Parliament will provide a good sounding board; that a full, complete statement would convince doubters. But he has no appetite for personal government, and is prepared to defend Britain's actions in the open. Of course, what he says will, in large measure, depend upon whether or not he has received Herr Hitler's reply to Britain's message, which Sir Neville Henderson is now taking to Berlin by air.

On the whole, I should say that the possibility of avoiding war has not increased during the day. Government circles are in fact exceedingly pessimistic. But there is a general belief that the strategic position has improved; that Hitler is hesitating; that the Russians may betray the Germans. You are already aware of the reaction in Tokyo and Madrid as a result of Hitler's retreat to Moscow. We are not yet certain of its full effect in Rome. Italy still has only a quarter of her army under arms, and if war comes and Italy stands with the Germans, she will suffer more terrible havoc than will Germany.

There is still hope that Hitler may pause and think again. There is still the possibility of a conference. The people with whom I have talked in London today certainly haven't expressed any optimism, but their spirit is better. They believe the Germans are worried and uncertain, if not frightened, and that's a pleasant situation to most Englishmen. They think, rightly or wrongly, that they now have the initiative; that if war comes, they will win it. But if we have a conference instead, the result is likely to be more postponement.

That view is reflected in The Evening News, which says, "What can Britain or France do to prevent war at the last moment? Unless Herr Hitler takes some steps towards calling off his dogs and agreeing, in the words of President Roosevelt's appeal, to 'refrain from any positive act of hostility for a reasonable stipulated period.' Even if Herr Hitler did so agree, it would but postpone the day of reckoning so long as he is in his present mood, which is that of a wayward child who has never been caught."

So far as I can learn, the Poles have not been subjected to pressure by Britain. England could truthfully say that the alliance with Poland has never aroused and popular enthusiasm in Britain. Britishers know very little about Poland. The necessary historic and sentimental ties are missing.

But the matter is not now so much one of Poland as it is of Britain's pledged word, and the determination to move in one direction or the other out of this twilight of peace. Hitler has made a demand, now he pauses. It is difficult to see how any solution can be reached on Hitler's terms; that is to say, any solution that would provide anything more than a temporary relief.

Now the Queen is returning from Scotland tonight, and the two princesses are remaining there. Everything is being prepared for zero hour. Britain is moving up to the line, and I should be less than truthful if I had failed to report that some people see it coming with almost a sense of relief. Those are the people who maintain that the retreat has gone on far too long, and that strength and determination are now required. They feel that perhaps war is the only solution, and that the resulting world order will be different than the one we have fumbled with for the past twenty years.

I don't know. But the decision must be made. The folks here seem to think it will be made during the next thirty-six hours.

I return you now to America.