November 20, 2022

1940. Edward R. Murrow from a Rooftop During the London Blitz

The Sights and Sounds in London

Edward R. Murrow

CBS London

September 21, 1940

I'm standing on a rooftop looking out over London. At the moment, everything is quiet. For reasons of national as well as personal security, I am unable to tell you the exact location from which I am speaking.

Off to my left, far away in the distance, I can see just that faint red, angry snap of antiaircraft bursts against the steel-blue sky. But the guns are so far away that it's impossible to hear them from this location. About five minutes ago the guns in the immediate vicinity were working.

I can look across just at the building not far away and see something that looks like a splash of white paint down the side. And I know from daylight observation that about a quarter of that building has disappeared, hit by a bomb the other night.

Streets fan out in all directions from here, and down on one street I can see a single red light, and just faintly the outline of a sign standing in the middle of the street. And again I know what that sign says, because I saw it this afternoon. It says: "Danger: Unexploded Bomb." Off to my left still, I can see just that red snap of the antiaircraft fire.

I was up here earlier this afternoon, and looking out over these housetops, looking all the way to the dome of St. Paul's, I saw many flags flying from staffs. No one ordered these people to put out the flags. They simply feel like flying the Union Jack above their roofs. No one told them to do it, and no flag up there was white. I can see one or two of them just stirring very faintly in the breeze now.

You may be able to hear the sound of guns off in the distance very faintly, like someone kicking a tub. Now they're silent. Four searchlights reach up, disappear in the light of a three-quarter moon.

I should say at the moment there are probably three aircraft in the general vicinity of London, because one can tell by the movement of the lights and the flash of the antiaircraft guns. But at the moment, in the central area everything is quiet.

More searchlights spring up over on my right. I think probably in a minute we shall have the sound of guns in the immediate vicinity. The lights are swinging over in this general direction now. You'll hear two explosions in just—there they are. Again moving in, still a considerable distance away, moving still just a little closer—there you heard two. The searchlights are stretching out now in this general direction. I can hear just the faint whisper of an aircraft high overhead. Again those guns are considerable distance away. You'll hear them just vaguely in the background.

Straight in front of me now you'll hear two sounds in just a moment. There they are. That was the explosion overhead, not the guns themselves. I should think in a few minutes there may be a bit of shrapnel around here. Coming in, moving a little closer all the while, the plane is still very high and it's quite clear that he's not coming in for his bombing run.

Earlier this evening we could hear occasionally—again, those were explosions overhead. Earlier this evening, we heard a number of bombs go sliding and slithering across to fall several blocks away. Just overhead now, the burst of the antiaircraft fire. Still the nearby guns are not working. And the searchlights now are feeling almost directly overhead.

Now you'll hear two bursts a little nearer in a moment. There they are. That hard, stony sound.

November 18, 2022

1939. Middle America's View of the World in Crisis

Nebraskans Weigh in on the Looming War in Europe
"Middlewesterners are 'unanimous for keeping out of war.' The cartoon is captioned 'A Fair Question.'" (by S. J. Ray in The Kansas City Star)

This article is part of a series of posts on how newspapers covered world politics and the rise and fall of fascism in the years leading up to and during World War II. In July 1939, reporter Leonard H. Robbins spoke with residents of Lincoln, Nebraska about the situation abroad.

From The New York Times Magazine, July 23, 1939, pp. 6, 14:

How the heart of the nation feels about the big issues that confront America today


LINCOLN, Neb. — While the Atlantic seaboard and the Pacific Coast grow anxious over the war clouds looming on the nation's horizons east and west, how does the heart of the country feel? To know is important in these weeks of watchful waiting, for no national decision can be taken at Washington without the agreement of the Middle West.

Traditionally, the Middle West is different in point of view and habit of thought from the rest of the country. It is geographically remote from dangers that coastal regions might fear. Its opinions are its own; it is not given to going along docilely either with the industrial East or with the Solid South.

It is the stamping-ground of pacifism and the native heath of neutrality. At the time of the World War it was slow to anger. Today it is the most prolific source of peace petitions to Congress. What can be expected of it if a new world crisis should demand action?

•    •    •

Lincoln seems as good a place as any for taking the pulse of Middle America. It stands by its lone on the prairie floor of the great valley between the Alleghenies and the Rockies; it thinks for itself, and being the capital of a State, the seat of a State university and other colleges, and a principal trading center of a territory 500 miles wide, it can speak for many more people than its own 80,000.

It is a livable city of one-family homes, of lawns, gardens and shaded streets. A party of British visitors, admiring its miles of comfortable living, said: "Now show us your slums." Their host had to admit that Lincoln hadn't a slum to its name. They marveled also at the many colleges and public schools. "But what," they queried, "do you do with all these people you educate?" Their guide replied: "Oh, we leave it to them to get along somehow." And somehow the Lincolnites do it. In fact, their per capita purchasing power is $250 a year higher than the average American's.

Consider, besides, that Lincoln has 100 churches, sixteen parks, ten theatres, 10,000 automobiles, and airport, a symphony orchestra, a zoo, golf courses, a public rock garden and 110 "Who's Who" notabilities, and you are prepared to weigh the opinions of its citizens on peace, war and the foreign policy of the United States.

•    •    •

Sixty citizens contributed their thoughts to this sampling of the mind of their region. They included ministers, educators, librarians, business executives, public officials, doctors, dentists, newspaper men, housewives, tradesmen, railroad workers, college students and a retired ranchman.

About half of them favored airtight neutrality. Most of the others, including the Mayor of the city, said they were "for isolation, but not 100 per cent." Twenty believed that firmness at Washington, even at the risk of getting into war, was the surest way of avoiding war. None felt warlike. In no one had indignation over the inhumanity of the dictators reached the point of wanting to take over the Lord's prerogative of vengeance.

To the Middle Westerners, the age of martial crusades is over. They took part in one twenty-odd years ago, and they did a thorough job while they were at it. People tell you of terror by sight; of inoffensive old German farmers and farm wives dragged from their homes by mobs of patriots. The prairie folk went as far, it seems, as any other part of the land to make the world safe for democracy. But Governor Cochran recalls that they had little real enthusiasm for it at the time.

They have still less today. They quote the Quaker phrase, "Out of violence only violence comes." They say that war settles nothing. They set their faces against war not merely to save American lives and treasure, but even more to prevent the nation from resorting again to mass murder. The pacifists have been busy on the prairies since 1920. They have planted the peace idea, and it thrives even when the corn fails. They have kept alive the notion that the Kellogg-Briand pact means what it says. They have made the question of war a moral question here.

It transcends political partisanship. Mayor Copeland says, "Although I am a Republican and expect to be one always, I will support the Roosevelt Administration in any policy that will keep us out of war." A Republican merchant says, "This talk that the President wants a war so as to cover up his New Deal failures sounds like cheap talk to me. I trust him not to want war, in the first place, and to avoid war if that is possible. For one thing, there's Hull beside him." Other Republicans say, "Those fellows at Washington know more about the situation than we do. Give 'em a chance."

•    •    •

Against that, a New Dealer tells you frankly, "When F. D. cabled Hitler and Mussolini, I think he stuck his neck out." And former Governor Bryan, who opposed the NRA as hotly as Senator Borah himself, interrupted his game of billiards at his club to say, "President Roosevelt's message to the dictators was one of the smartest pieces of diplomacy I've ever known. You can quote me on that."

You have to expect politically irregular sentiments in Senator Norris's State, where party-mindedness is suspected of being a form of feeble-mindedness and where the voters shop around among the parties on election day.

A university professor, analyzing the anti-war feeling here, says: "We all sympathize with the victims of the international pirates. We are sorry for the Czechs, of whom there are many in Nebraska. But there are many Germans here, too; their love for their home land is as strong as ever, regardless of what they may think of Nazism; and both Czechs and Germans are good neighbors of ours, and good citizens.

"And there's the native sense of humor. Talk to people about lending our money to help save civilization, and they think of the war debts of last time. Tell them the fate of democracy is at stake, and they look at Turkey and Russia lining up with the forces of liberty."

Unanimous for keeping out of the war, Middle Westerners disagree on measures toward that end and on the need of any measures whatever. The tailor who says flatly, "What do we want to go over there for? Why do we get into that mess?" speaks the thought of many. To sit tight and do nothing is all that's necessary. You hear the argument that the United States can prevent a European war by merely withholding its credit.

But a dentist asks, "When our welfare is so bound up with the welfare of Europe and the world in general, how can we possibly keep out?" A minister observes, "We don't want war. We want peace, but it must be real peace. Can we assure it by simply taking cover to save our skins? I believe we shall insist on a nobler policy when the time comes." And a department-store owner says: "Peace won by playing safe might be most unsafe. I don't see that our national interests can be separated from those of England and France. If those nations should be overwhelmed, our turn would surely come next."

•    •    •

The retired ranchman on the list goes still further. "We can't say we have no concern in what other nations do. We can't have peace when other people are raising hob anywhere on the map. This world is our world, the same as theirs, and when they turn it into a roughhouse, there's no living in it for us.

"We can't make believe that a war in Europe is none of our business. We've got the right and the duty to yell before they start anything. And how much are they going to listen to us if we build a wall around ourselves and turn into another China?

"Here in America we're getting pretty well civilized, all things considered. But a lot of this world is still gun country. We've got to remember that before we throw the old musket on the junk heap. Or put it like this: the way the world is today, we don't live by ourselves, away from the rest, any more. We all live in an apartment house, so to speak. And when the people downstairs set the place afire, we don't save ourselves by locking our door and pulling down the blinds. As long as we won't help support a world fire department, we've got to be ready to grab a fire bucket.

"I'm for strong action before war starts," he concludes. "It will prevent trouble and keep us out of it better than any pussyfooting. And one thing more: They can hold their referendum without me. Let those who have to go do the voting."

•    •    •

Above a portal of the new Nebraska Capitol is inscribed: "The salvation of the State is the watchfulness in the citizen." People here are watching. They see very little war propaganda in their newspapers. They hear more from lecturers, and they discount most of it. They want facts. They ask the pulse-taker more questions than he asks them. One thing they want to know is: "What big Eastern interests will benefit from a war?"

The front tables in their bookstores are covered with such books as "The New Western Front," "The Rise of American Naval Power," "The Crisis of Democracy" and "This Peace." Hitler's book is a best-seller. The public library has waiting lists for new books on foreign affairs.

Opinion in the State Capitol reflects that outside. One official comments: Let's approach the war problem by putting our own house in order and setting a good example." Another says: "Expand the air force, maintain the navy, increase the army somewhat, and don't talk. Don't start anything, but be ready for anything." The Governor advises: "Don't tie the President's hands," and opposes a war referendum.

The State University teaches military science. Hundreds of lads in uniform give the campus a West Point look. But the student R. O. T. C. is, by vote, against war. It was not thus in the "Uni" battalion of 1898 when Cuba was to be freed. War has lost its glamour to Cornhusker youth. Nowadays they "reason why" about it.

A recent campus discussion of "Alternate Ways to Peace," though held on a busy morning in examination season, brought out fifty young men and women to listen to a peace-society speaker and a history teacher and to ask pointed questions.

The peace chap argued that world peace would be simple to arrange if the "have" nations would only share the raw materials of civilized life with the "have-nots." They were the "10-o'clock robbers" who had gone to work early and then turned respectable. Now come the "2-o'clock robbers" and find the cupboard bare; and "what they think essential to peace is just as important, in a forever-changing world, as what the reformed robbers think. Starving peoples won't stay democratic and starve to death peaceably. You can't eat democracy."

The history teacher granted the need for a better division of the loot of the earth, but suggested: "If you give what you have to an angry person who will use it for your destruction, that doesn't help." The immediate problem was to prevent war, and it was unlikely that war could be prevented if the United States should let England and France carry the whole burden of representing democracy against the dictators. We should speak out, he inclined to think, even at the risk of involvement. After all, the sentimental ties were strong. "If London and Paris are bombed, nothing can stop us from digging up old Lafayette and dusting him off again."

The peace-society man came back. "To whip the 'have-nots' would only suppress the fundamental conflict, and suppressed conflict is not peace." But most of the audience seemed to side with the teacher.

•    •    •

Four hundred of the university's 4,000 students were polled last month for their views on foreign policy. Half of them would support a President in designating aggressor nations. Two out of three were for an embargo on foodstuffs and munitions to aggressors. Five in six opposed exporting munitions to all belligerents. The vote against sending troops to Europe was 4 to 1 and to the Far East 12 to 1.

That poll agrees very closely in results with the nation-wide Gallup poll on the subject, while the people talked with in Lincoln seemed strangely like the views of people in New York, in New England, in the Ohio Valley and elsewhere between the oceans.

That being so, and if Lincoln opinion is a fair picture of Middle Western opinion, then the Middle West is not so very "different," after all. Perhaps this prairie city typifies not its own region alone, but America—a wide-awake, cool-headed America that will not be stampeded either into rushing to arms or into dashing for the cyclone cellar when decisions have to be made.