‘This . . . is London.” With those words, delivered in a measured, baritone voice, CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow began his radio broadcasts during England’s great hour of peril. No man risked more to alert Americans, and the world, to the human drama of Britain’s existential struggle during the horrific months, in 1940, of the London Blitz. “You burned the city of London in our houses,” said one admirer, “and we felt the flames that burned it.”
Less than a year after its invasion of Poland in September 1939, Nazi Germany subdued nearly all of continental Europe. France capitulated in a matter of weeks. The United States, asleep in isolationism, seemed indifferent to Europe’s fate. England stood alone when, on September 7, 1940, Hitler ordered a massive air assault on London, hoping to force Great Britain to sue for peace. Three hundred fifty bombers, supported by over 600 fighter planes, rained down hell.
“Today, in one of the most famous streets in London, I saw soldiers at work clearing away the wreckage of nearly an entire block,” he reported. “The men were covered with white dust. They thought maybe people were still buried in the basement. . . . They paid no attention to the bursts of anti-aircraft fire overhead as they bent their backs and carried away basketfuls of mortar and brick.”
SLIDESHOW: The London Blitz
Murrow possessed a genuine empathy for the ordinary citizen and soldier; he observed and recorded, without excess emotion or verbiage, the quiet bravery of the British people.
It was an inspired decision. There was widespread doubt in the United States that Britain could resist a Nazi invasion. Roosevelt’s ambassador to Great Britain, Joseph Kennedy, an avowed isolationist, held out no hope. “Democracy is finished in England,” he said on returning to the United States. The naysayers in FDR’s inner circle nearly prevailed. Even as London burned, Roosevelt rejected many of Churchill’s most urgent pleas for war supplies. To make matters worse, 1940 was a presidential-election year, and FDR campaigned on a pledge to keep America out of the European war.
Yet Murrow’s broadcasts highlighted the grit and resilience of most Londoners in the face of catastrophe: the blown-out shops that remained open for business, the families grown accustomed to the daily pilgrimage to bomb shelters, the firemen and ambulance drivers who stood at their posts as incendiaries fell around them. “We are told today that the Germans believe Londoners, after a while, will rise up and demand a new government, one that will make peace with Germany,” Murrow reported. “It’s more probable that they will rise up and murder a few German pilots who come down by parachute.”
Other war reporters — notably William L. Shirer, Eric Sevareid, and Ernie Pyle — displayed remarkable risk-taking and steadiness under fire. Yet, like no one else, Murrow pioneered the new medium of radio to help Americans confront realities that neither they nor their political leaders wished to face. Observed poet Archibald MacLeish a year after the Blitz: “You destroyed in the minds of many men and women in this country the superstition that what is done beyond three thousand miles of water is not really done at all.”
After the attack at Pearl Harbor, Franklin Roosevelt agreed to a “Europe first” strategy that committed the U.S. military to defeating Nazi Germany before Japan. Churchill’s courting of the president had much to do with this, but so did American public opinion, which had shifted dramatically toward Great Britain.
Murrow, armed only with a microphone and a passion for truth-telling, played no small role in changing the public mood. Thus did 10 Downing Street issue this statement on his death in 1965: “Successive British governments have reason to be grateful to him for his presentation of the nation’s story to those who found it difficult to understand that a tiny island could be so important to the future history of the world.”
— Joseph Loconte is an associate professor of history at the King’s College in New York City and the author of A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914–1918 (HarperCollins, 2015).