August 17, 2015

1947. Our Perilous Future

The Cold War, the Atomic Bomb, and Hope for the Future
Bill Downs (left) and Edward R. Murrow in East Berlin standing under a Free German Youth banner in 1948

1947 Speech to the Huntington, West Virginia Teachers' Conference

by Bill Downs
I come here this morning to speak to you as a reporter. I feel that there is a kind of kinship between the profession of teaching and the job of reporting. In the first place, in no other spheres of public activity do the people get so much brains for so little money. I think you know what I mean.

But there is another alliance. When it comes right down to it, you schoolteachers are really nothing but legmen working a beat in the world's history, economics, language, and culture. You simply report to the youth of our nation what has gone on before and what is going on now and trying to make them understand it.

However, you have one advantage over my kind of reporter dealing in current events. You can sit your audience down and make it read and listen. We in the news business just hope we can make the stuff interesting and understandable enough to catch an audience. You don't know how many times a reporter wishes he could pound a story into the heads of his listeners.

I thought a long time about this so-called speech. I don't have to go into that usual line about schoolteachers—the importance of your job, the future of America, and all that stuff. I'm sure it makes you feel good, but these are no times for self-gratification.

The past seven years I've traveled a half-million miles covering news and, I suppose, searching for peace. I'm still traveling and I'm still looking. It isn't peace when there is a full-fledged civil war in China; where there are bitter and bloody revolutions underway in Java and Indochina; when there is wholesale murder underway in India; where organized assassination is the policy in Palestine, and where the Arab world in the Middle East is drawing battle lines. You can't call it peace, either, with men killing each other in the mountains of Greece and the Balkans; with possible civil war shaping up in France and Italy.

When I was in Berlin a few months ago, I was taken to a small black market club where it was possible to buy schnapps with American cigarettes. Since bartenders are often the best news sources in the world, I got to talking about conditions with one of them at this club. After hearing the usual tale of woe about the poor beaten fatherland, this bartender told me a story that used to be current when Hitler and Germany were riding high. "People used to come in here and make a toast," the bartender said. "They would lift their glasses and say, 'Enjoy the war, because the peace is going to be hell.'" The Nazis never were very good prophets. What they meant was that the postwar period would be their hell, and it is right now. But the peace is not here.

Peace is a dynamic, growing thing that operates every minute of every hour of the day. Peace is not so much what happens at this minute. It is what is going to happen tomorrow. It is people living together in harmony and dignity and without fear. We Americans know more about it than any other nation in the world, and because we do, we often assume that other people do the same. It is a natural mistake, but nevertheless such assumption is a mistake. Let me tell you what I mean.

This spring I went back over the victory route from Britain to Normandy to Berlin. My job was to talk to ordinary people; farmers, bakers, and factory workers, with only one category out of the ordinary. I also talked to a lot of schoolteachers. We talked about everything under the sun. The atomic bomb, whether Hitler is dead, the black market, the price of potatoes, and we did a lot of talking about things like communism, democracy, freedom, and peace.

Well, we in America have come to accept our freedoms as our birthright. Viewing history through the wrong end of the telescope—as we do from our privileged position on our continental island—we have assumed that all of the rest of the world wants the same things that we want. We here in America assume that the rest of the world desires to achieve what we call democratic standards of living in the same way they were achieved in this country.

But let me tell you, in England, France, Belgium, Holland, and Germany, you find a fading confidence and trust in the thing we call the American brand of democracy.

It's with a shock that you discover a new kind of struggle, a revolution almost underway in war-battered Europe, and the stakes are pretty much everything that we as Americans hold sacred. The pursuit of happiness is in direct competition with the potato, a vegetable burned by the ton in the United States but exceedingly rare in Europe. Liberty on the continent exists in direct ratio to the legume. And life itself has meaning for the continental peoples only in terms houses and buildings not yet constructed; in coal and steel on which depends the economy of whole populations. The problem of Europe is not life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is potatoes, housing, and the pursuit of a vein of coal far underground.

Sitting in a British pub a few weeks ago I discussed this phenomenon with a group of young English engineers—men who work in industrial laboratories. The tradition of freedom is stronger in Britain than any other European country, and these men hold no high position in the factories in which they work. They are white collar workers making ordinary British salaries.

"You Americans don't understand," they said. "For centuries our country has been run by the aristocracy, an economic aristocracy in which most of the wealth of the empire was concentrated. You talk about economic freedom? We say that the Labour government, by its nationalization program in taking over the coal mines and the railroads and the rest, is really for the first time giving us economic freedom."

"But," I said, "isn't nationalization by its very character banishing freedom of economic opportunity?"

They turned to me and grinned. "That's the trouble with you Americans. You don't understand. Now who in Britain is going to demand the freedom to build another railroad? And where are you going to discover another coal mine? Our geologists have ended that search long ago. Now, just whose freedom is being banished?"

Some days later we were in Normandy talking with a calvados farmer. He was typical of that rich farming area in his support for the new people's rally headed by General De Gaulle. The General claims his new movement is not a political party, just a unity movement to bring France back to some sort of national cohesiveness. My Normandy farmer was vehement in his viewpoint. He, like all French farmers, is making more money now than at any other time in his life.

"What France needs is a strong leader," he said. "De Gaulle could do it. Maybe even if he has to go beyond the law and take control. Look at the stupid government now—those socialists and communists and everything. No wonder they don't get my wheat. The government-controlled price of wheat is so low that it would not even pay me to feed my cattle. I tell you, as long as the government does these things, I'll sell to the black market. And why not? I should keep those people in power with my wheat."

In Berlin I met a blond, boyish looking youth, 24-years-old and typical of the thousands now in Germany who were weaned on Hitlerism. I tried to talk with him about democracy and freedom. He looked puzzled. "I have lived only under the Third Reich," he said. "You people say we should have democracy. Well, we lost the war, so let's have it. But look at Germany today." His arm swept towards the ruins that is Aachen, towards the lifeless people shuffling along the ruined streets. "The war has been over for two years. Is this what you call democracy? At least the people had enough to eat under Hitler."

Thus it went all across Europe.

The ideals of freedom and equality—the things that we accept so smugly in America—are being lost in a frustrating struggle for individual existence in Europe.

I spent many hours trying to find the key to what is happening in Europe. The one thing that struck me in London, in Saint-Lô, in Nijmegen, Essen, and Berlin was the same cynicism in both victors and vanquished. You ask about the atomic bomb. "Yes," the people say, "we know how terrible it is. But while you Americans have it now, we will have it soon."

When I tried to explain the horror of what I saw at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and when I started talking about the frightening test I witnessed at Bikini, the people looked vacantly at the ruins of their city and shrugged their shoulders.

When I asked them about the United Nations, about the aims of world peace and world government, they would smile at me and say, "Oh yes, the United Nations. An interesting experiment. Tell me, do you Americans really believe it will work?"

When I told them that many of our atomic scientists believe that another war, an atomic war, might wipe out what we know as civilization, again you would get a cynical, fatalistic reaction which said, "So what?"

The choice is still being made. In some cases, communism is being enforced with guns, as in Bulgaria, Romania, and Poland. And let me remind you that the American pressures on Greece and Italy have almost been as powerful, if not as bloody, in maintaining our position in Europe.

The winter in Europe is going to be crucial. I wish I could tell you what is going to happen. At the moment, the communist movement in Italy seems temporarily stymied. But if there is mass starvation in Italy this winter, and if distribution and production of available supplies collapse, you can look for a resurgence of the communists there, and possibly the fall of the De Gasperi government.

The other critical point in Western Europe is France. The municipal elections were a setback for the communists—a surprising one. But the word that is whispered in political conversations across France is "civil war." The emergence of the so-called "people's rally" under the leadership of General De Gaulle has brought another factor into the nation's political scene. Democratic Frenchmen with whom I talked feared it might happen as early as last spring. Now our kind of democracy faces in France a threat from the extreme right wing as well as from the left.

If there is a chaotic food and distribution problem this winter, and if the communists lead anything like a general strike, you may see bloody fighting there. The French army leadership is known to be ultraconservative, and in some circles you can hear open discussions of plans for the army garrisons outside Paris to march on the city. Then you hear of plans for using the occupation army in Saar to subdue the rest of the country if necessary.

I want to warn you that this is all speculation, but it is the kind of disturbing stories that are sweeping the country. The last right-left split in the elections have done little toward healing the breach. I talked with communist leaders in Paris about all this civil war talk. They merely shrug their shoulders and say, "Remember, we still have our guns from the Maquis days. And anyway, how many French soldiers who were in the Maquis would follow a military campaign against their own comrades?"

These are some of the reasons that the Marshall Plan is so important right now. There is no assurance, of course, that all the food in America would stop the ideological struggle now underway in Europe. But one thing is for certain: aid from America is the best insurance we have that our brand of democracy has the best chance of surviving if the people involved have American food in their bellies.

How about Russia? How is she doing in her competing campaign to sell her brand of so-called peace?

There's a story circulating Europe these days that sums up the situation pretty well. The story concerns one of those mass military demonstrations which the Russians like so much to display. Red Square was packed with phalanx after phalanx of soldiers.

When Stalin appeared on the podium, General Zhukov shouted, "Attention!" The entire square froze to ramrod stiffness as one man. Suddenly there was a loud sneeze. Someone started laughing, and in a few moments a wave of mirth convulsed the whole display.

Stalin leaned over the parapet and said, "Who did that?" There was a wave of quiet, but no one answered.

Stalin signaled to the NKVD, who upped Tommy guns and shot down the first line of soldiers. Again, Stalin said, "Who did that?"

More quiet. Stalin signaled once again, and the second row of soldiers went down. For the third time, Stalin said, "Who did that?"

Just as he was to signal for the next wave of soldiers to be shot, a hand went up way in the back and someone cried, "It was me!"

Stalin leaned over and replied, "Bless you, comrade!"

There is an almost pathological fear of Soviet Russia throughout Western Europe. The stories of the terror that swept over the Russian zone of Germany in the early days of the Nazi defeat have been told everywhere. While most Europeans agree that the Germans had it coming, they also don't like the idea of being potential enemies of these strange people from the East. This fear of the Russians and their collective philosophy of communism is simultaneously the biggest argument for and against the Soviet position. The military threat is very real. Even our own military men in the occupation areas will admit that, if the Red Army wanted to move today, they would be on the channel in less than a month.

There are considerations other than the military. Russia's productive capacity is just being tapped. Nations like France and Italy and the Low Countries—not even England—are going to burn all their bridges with the East just because America might desire it. America is regarded as a fickle young giant, rich and powerful, but not necessarily dependable. If, for example, the present Congress at its special session now pending curtails the Marshall Plan or procrastinates on food or other materials needed immediately to get Europe through winter, it would be the greatest argument for communism and the Russian position that could be made.

I think the point is that communism is a philosophy of despair. If we provide that despair through failing to act and act quickly, then our position overseas is, and deserves to be, weakened.

There's one other thing on my mind. It is the Atom. It is a word I have come to hate. I wonder if man has the common sense and moral strength to handle this new energy he has discovered.

Before I was assigned to cover the Bikini tests, I had a good look at both Nagasaki and Hiroshima, or at least the place where these two Japanese cities had been before we blew the nation out of the war.

I wish there were words to describe these places. John Hersey, in his book Hiroshima, one of the greatest reporting jobs of all time, has done the best job of describing it. He told the story of a half-dozen people and what happened to them when the sky fell down. But as excellent as it is, the unreality, the horror, the overwhelming tragedy cannot really be told in words. There just aren't any that described what happened when we dropped those two atomic bombs.

What you would have to do is get the stories of all 130,000 residents of Hiroshima, and you would have to have the stories of the pain and burning of some 30,000 of these people who were killed or who died of radioactivity. The latest reports form Nagasaki and Hiroshima say that only now, two years later, have the people begun the task of reconstruction. When you look at a city devastated in such a manner, the hope and life goes out of the survivors. There is simply too much to do. The human mind rejects the prospect.

I could make a guess from what I saw in Japan and at Bikini to give you a completely unofficial prediction of what would happen if an atomic bomb were dropped on this city of Huntington, West Virginia.

Let's say, for example, an atomic bomb of the old type was dropped directly over this Chamber of Commerce building. You could write off everything living within mile and a half radius. The flash would burn the patterns of miners' overall straps into their backs. A woman wearing a black dress would suddenly find the dress in flames and burning her to death. Carpets on floors where the flash entered windows would burst into flames. Roofs would be crushed in by the concussion. Fragments of glass would penetrate through concrete walls and through doors to stick in an opposite corridor. And following these would be a three mile area immediately in flames all at once, and no fire department in the world could control the blaze. Then, for another two mile radius beyond this main center of devastation, windows would be blown out, roofs ripped off, water mains and gas mains would be broken and dangerous. Telephone poles would be down. There would be no communication. Automobiles would be crushed like accordions.

Huntington would cease to be a city. It would be a series of isolated neighborhoods in grave danger of destruction; the city would be in shambles. And in this outer area of destruction, a few weeks after the blast, burns would not heal. People exposed to the gamma rays or to the highly lethal gases would find themselves losing their appetites. They would begin to vomit even water. They would lose all interest in life, and pretty soon they would just lay down and die. This is the way radioactivity works on the human system.

It is even more horrible, but as I said, there are no words to describe the real horror, and there are better men with words than I.

I believe what I just described to you is a pretty fair estimate of what would happen to Huntington with the old-type, experimental atom bomb which we used at Nagasaki and Hiroshima. The thing to remember is that we have now perfected the bomb to where it is many times more efficient.

These things occupied our thoughts at Bikini. We talked with the scientists who developed the bomb on board observer ships, in airplanes, and at Bikini and Kwajalein. There was a lot of argument among these men as to what is and what is not a secret. But, generally speaking, they agreed on one thing: that civilization now has in its own hands the means by which it can destroy itself, and that the other nations of the world will, in a comparatively short length of time, will have the so-called atomic secret in operation. The time for other nations to produce such an explosive was variably estimated from five to twenty-five years.

I still have bad dreams about the atomic bomb. The thing that worries me is that more people don't have bad dreams. People like Mr. Molotov, Mr. Marshall, Mr. Bevin, and a guy named Chiang Kai-shek. As a matter of fact, I believe that if I could project my atomic nightmares into every person's dreams in the world, we would solve this problem of what to do with the atomic explosive. We darned-well would turn it over to an international commission—a world government—with the guts and power to see that every atom in every part of the world behaved itself.

Which brings me to the end of my report. This has not been an optimistic story. This is not the best of all possible worlds, but I believe that there are sincere efforts to improve it. That is where you come in. But you must know what you are doing and understand what you are teaching. And that's where we reporters come in. We struggle as honestly and the best we can to get the facts straight, and the interpretation and definitions honest and fair.

Right now we are having a lot of trouble with definitions. Vulgar misuses of justice and semantics have been displayed in Washington in the past few weeks. The words under definition have a familiar ring; "capital," "labor," liberal, conservative, communist, and fascist. In my travels over the country I have heard a lot of foolish and irresponsible uses of these words. Right now, a man who advocates an increase in the national minimum wage might be branded a communist. On the other side of the fence, any person who demands that the government leave business alone might conversely be called a fascist.

A reporter recognizes such labels as ridiculous and foolish; even dangerous. There are, of course, communists in America, and there are men in this country who like and support the concepts of fascism. You are bound to have that in a country where there is freedom.

For the most part these extremists on the right and left are men in search of power, or who think they know where the power should be shifted. But our particular form of government doesn't believe in power as such—as a goal. Power is a byproduct of democracy; it is not the purpose of that form of government. However, it is a byproduct that needs watching. When it gets out of the hands of the people, or when the people lose their interest in this factor in their government, then there is trouble.

Right now we are watching a great experiment in power; world power. Considering the difficulties, the obstacles, and the plain ordinary trouble it takes to translate from Russian to French to English at the United Nations sessions, the world is not doing too badly.

It has come down to the point where, if someone around the United Nations conference table wants to say that he thinks such-and-such is a so-and-so, the words are pronounced and the issues are thrashed out. Just as the hope of America is in free speech and free thought, so it is in the UN.

Vital issues are still pending in the international organization. It is still a baby, and often a difficult one. It needs changing more often than not, and there is a lot of unnecessary noise and annoyance. Occasionally it gets colic, and every once in a while it has to be spanked by some nation or other. But it seems to be growing, and everyone is trying to raise it to be a healthy boy with no threat that it becomes a delinquent child.

Politicians and statesmen, when they grow old and retire from their jobs, have an old saying: "The people of a city, state, or country usually get the kind of government they deserve."

In these days of change, evolution, revolution, and readjustment in the process that we call peace, I think we can improve on the old politicians and statesmen. We can expand it a little.

"The people of the world will get the kind of world they deserve."

The world is up to you.