America at the Dawn of the Cold War
|Bill Downs and his wife Roz in Oklahoma City in 1947|
January 17, 1947
I am not going to speak to you today as an "expert." God knows that there are enough of them on everything, from ladies' girdles to dialectical materialism. I'd like to talk to you as a reporter, a title I claim because that's what it says on my CBS paychecks. And I said reporter, not commentator, because when a commentator gets scooped it hurts his reputation. But for a reporter, well, he has more freedom of action. If he's caught with half-masted trousers, it's just considered one of the hazards of the trade.
So let's suppose that you are the editors, and I am a legman in off-the-beat, sitting around the copy desk in a bull session. As a matter of fact, that's just about what radio does in the news field. Your loudspeaker is your reporter who comes into your home and figuratively props up its feet on the edge of your mind.
Within the next few days, radio station KOMA is going to be rapping at a lot of loudspeakers that it could not reach before. About 750,000 more new listeners will be added to its audience. That's a lot of people, and obviously the responsibility of radio station KOMA and the Columbia Broadcasting System is much more than seeing that you get the latest singing commercial as your regular ration of radio.
Now, I told you that I'm a reporter. But you, as the editorial listening audience, would not hire a reporter who didn't have a mind of his own, and opinions of his own, and feelings of his own. A person without these would be pretty dull.
However, it has been the policy of the Columbia Broadcasting System that no reporter's opinion has any place on CBS air. For example, I hate spinach, but there are some people who like the stuff. Now, if I were sent to one of your big spinach production centers in the eastern part of Oklahoma, I would do a straight-away story on the vegetable—the who, what, where, how, and even the why of spinach. But if in my news report I said that I personally did not like spinach, I would be fired from the CBS reporting staff. And it would be a good thing. There is no place on our network for spinach-haters as such. There is a place for reporters who can be fair and honest about spinach, about labor, about management, about conservatives, about communists, or what have you.
The point I'm trying to make is that the responsibility of radio reporting, news gathering, and presentation is a great one. Our job is to get the news to you as completely and fairly as the medium of radio can present it within its limitations. It is a big job, and a hard job. But somewhere along the line of our national history someone figured out that if you give the American people the facts, give them some interpretation to clarify these facts, and then leave them alone, they will usually figure things out for the general good of themselves and the world.
It's something radio learned from the newspapers which preceded radio news. The printed word preceded the broadcast word and, guided by a man named Thomas Paine, set the American standard of news reporting which radio is willing to challenge them in maintaining. However, let me make this point. We radio reporters have never felt in institutional competition with the newspapers or the news services. Naturally every reporter tries to scoop his best friends and his closest colleagues. This is what makes the game interesting. Lee Bond of the United Press here and Boots NorGaard of the Associated Press will testify to that.
What it comes down to is that the radio and the newspaper news coverage supplement each other. The spoken word is usually faster than the printed word. And on that advantage, the advantage of speed, again lies radio's responsibility. Our biggest shortcoming is time. It is literally impossible to give all the details of any one story unless, such as in the case of the President's speech, the news is made over the radio. But for the most part people depend upon radio to bring them the news first.
Since the end of the war and the signing in Tokyo Bay, I have been on CBS home assignment, except for the break outside of the country when I covered the atomic bomb.
It is my observation that reporting the peace is a much more difficult job than reporting the war. During the war we had the issues defined for us. Our objectives were to defeat the enemy. The enemy was identifiable by the guns he pointed at you, and by the shells and bombs he dropped on you. You probably remember the halcyon days when an ally was an ally, and not a mysterious stranger who might or might not be preparing to blow you to kingdom come.
The year I spent in Russia during the period from the victory at Stalingrad to the capture in Kiev was, I believe, one of the most significant of the century. For the first time, the sprawling nation of some twenty-odd nationalities not only felt itself unified in what is known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, but they also for the first time felt the hand of foreign cooperation and friendliness. This came mostly from America in the form of Lend Lease war materials, particularly transport, and in the form of UNNRA and Lend Lease food.
The Russian people, who for the past twenty-five years had been told they were surrounded by unfriendly capitalist countries, discovered that capitalism is probably not the bugaboo that Stalin and the Party had been telling them for so long. The result was that we found the Russian people extremely friendly. And only in Oklahoma can I say I have found hospitality from the ordinary people any greater...or any more fatiguing. Really, you Oklahomans would like the Russian people. Their country has the same open, rolling plains; the kind of country that breeds a tough, ambitious people for which no task is too big.
However, whether the people are born on prairies or on mountains, whether they eat rice or buffalo meat, or whether they worship a Buddha or a bullock or a bit of stone, there basically is nothing wrong with people no matter how imperfect they are. The trouble comes when this imperfect animal called man gathers power for himself.
It would be oversimplification to say that the trouble with the Russian people is their government. I suppose you could say the same thing about Americans or British or Frenchmen. During the war we foreign correspondents were discouraged from saying such things about our Allies. But now the censorship is off...although it is still imposed with an iron hand in Russia, and we can talk about such things.
Incidentally, one of the most amusing censorship stories I ran into concerned the Russian censor. The censors there are a very worried group of men. One slip-up and they find themselves cutting wood in Siberia, a portion of the Russian nation hardly recommended as a resort.
(Go into Russian Poltava censorship story)
"I went with my secretary to the Lenin Library to look up the First Battle of Poltava in 1709 when Peter the Great defeated Charles of Sweden. I managed to dig up the number of men involved, the number of horses employed, and the number of guns in that first battle that ended the era of Swedish conquest. I thought it would make an interesting angle to supplement the 1943 battle story. However, the censor stopped all the statistics on that 240 year old battle because, he explained, it is 'military information.' It was obvious that he suspected some sort of a code."There is no time to go into the vagaries and the shortcomings of the Russian form of government. But there can be no doubt that it is the most intriguing, most fearful, and the biggest nation in the world. Its people are, by our standards, comparatively uneducated, but they are vigorous, strong, and ambitious. They have the faults of any other nation—a fact which the pro-Russian Americans often fail to recognize. There is antisemitism in the Soviet Union, and there is graft and corruption in the government even as in the United States. Its basic fault is the lack of human freedom that we have come to accept as our God-given rights in this country.
The one thing which will defeat or overthrow the Soviet government is the suppression of the people and the smothering of freedom of speech, the press, and the radio. No man and no nation can live freely unless its people are allowed to think freely. The Kremlin recognizes this fact and is now trying to substitute forced mental feeding for free thought. I do not think the Stalin government will succeed. Hitler tried and failed.
Personally, I do not agree with the international crepe-hangers who predict inevitable war with Russia. I do not believe that I am whistling in the dark when I say that there is a real possibility of "One World" being achieved, and being achieved peacefully.
The fact that we forget is that governments are dynamic, ever-strengthening things. You Democrats in the audience can verify that. But it is as ridiculous to say that the government of the United States is going to remain the same for thinnest fifty years as it is to say that the Russian government will remain the static dictatorship it is now.
For example, look back fifty years into our own history. The economy of the country was controlled by the men who controlled the money. At that time, to think that the working man might have something to say about how to run the business or industry in which he labored would have been branded as the rankest socialism. Antitrust laws? Social insurance? Minimum wage? Fifty years ago this was rank communism. The royalists in England were saying the same thing back in 1776 when an upstart group of colonists dared oppose the divine right of kings.
Today we hear a lot about the inevitable battle between capitalism and communism. In this changing world, it is difficult to tell what these two words mean, because as a system of enterprise they also are dynamic and change. As a matter of fact, any Russian citizen, or the government itself for that matter, will tell you that there is no communism in the Soviet Union. The Communist Party members will remind you that the name is Soviet Socialist Republics. Communism is something they hope to attain.
The changes that are going on today in Russia's economic life smell suspiciously capitalistic. They long to have a sped up system. Their workers are paid according to the amount of work done, not on the basis of need as it says in Das Kapital. The privilege dispensed in the government rivals the most patronizing and efficient political machine we have in the United States.
Governments change as they grow. They advance, they compromise, they exist only to serve the greatest good of the greatest number of people. When they stop operating on that principle, they die or are overthrown. Right now the Stalin government has the confidence of its people, who sincerely believe that the government is operating for their welfare. They point out that the government is only some twenty-nine years old; younger than most of us here. It won a victory against the most powerful army ever to make an offensive attack on a peaceful country. Its Five Year Plans are sweeping and ambitious, and so far the people are willing to sacrifice to achieve the goals of the country.
No one to whom I talked while in Russia, or to authorities and my friends who have lived there since I came out of that country, predicts any revolutions or upheaval inside that nation. It is a very difficult thing to do under a dictatorship.
The point is that we have to live with Russia as she is while she grows up, whether we like it or not. I'm afraid that the Soviet Union is here to stay, depending upon us and other factors I'll go into later. Meanwhile, we must continue as nations to work together and cooperate with each other until that day in the far distant future when men really and truly understand and love one another.
Before we get off this subject of national and international growth—of dynamic change—I'd like to point out that right now in the Far East there is, I believe, in progress one of the greatest and most important revolutions under way since the days the boys at Lexington and Concord laid their lives on the line.
You hear and read the reports of the Chinese Civil War—the story of the fighting in Rangoon or India seem remotely terrible to you, and the fierce battles being fought in Indo-China and Java are more than bloody Far Eastern precinct battles. They are the signs of a discontented and oppressed people testing their muscles to throw out of power—possibly out of the entire Far East—the white men who they feel have kept them under their heel. I believe it is the most important revolution since 1776.
I had some dealings with these revolutionaries. As a matter of fact, they darn near killed me, and they did kill an OSS colonel who, ironically, was one of their greatest sympathizers. Both in Indo-China and in Java there were signs on the buildings and on trucks and ox-carts quoting the American Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address, and our Bill of Rights. Again the paradox was that the white man, in bringing his culture and his exploitation to the Far East, also brought his concepts of liberty and human freedoms. You could say that the white man literally is being hoisted out of the Far East by his own petard.
(Recall incident at Saigon)
This young revolutionary told me something that I have never forgotten. He was in tears. He spoke in French through his own interpreter. It went something like this:
"We regard Americans as our friends. The whole Far East sees in America the things which all men want despite the color of their skins. You build your country on the principles of liberty and freedom and equality. That is all we want. We consider Americans our allies in this fight. But if we have to, we will fight you even to achieve these things."The picture in the Far East is a confused and baffling one, but I believe that this young Annamite lieutenant stated the basic issue. The danger is that the White Man will really be expelled from the Far East, and the Far East will form their own kind of isolationism. Then we will have the delicate and dangerous job of bringing them back into the world before events on a hemispherical scale force an even bigger slaughter than the one we just went through.