American Foreign and War Correspondents
As the events of the early 1930s began to unfold, Americans turned to foreign correspondents to keep them informed about threatening conditions across the globe. Historians of journalism describe this period and the 1940s as the “golden age” of American journalism, because of the influence of such figures as Edward R. Murrow, William L. Shirer, and Dorothy Thompson.
The decades of the 1930s and the 1940s are known as the “golden age” of American journalism.
American foreign correspondents working for print publications and radio networks reported on the rise of the Nazi regime in Germany.
American war correspondents covered the fighting in Europe and the Pacific, but also the murder of the European Jews.
News Services and Publications
Large American newspapers started their own syndicated news services to cover the tumultuous events of the 1930s and 1940s. The two major American wire services, the Associated Press (AP) and the United Press (UPI), were joined by William Randolph Hearst’s International News Service (INS). Established magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s expanded their coverage of news from abroad in competition with new publications such as the Liberty, TIME, Life, and Look. Many wire services and publications hired correspondents on contract to report from foreign capitals. When the new medium of radio became widely available to American households, these print reporters were soon joined by broadcast journalists.
American foreign and war correspondents achieved professional and public recognition not only for the high literary quality and groundbreaking presentation of their reportage, but also because of their iconic coverage of events during the rise of the Nazi regime and World War II in Europe, including the persecution and murder of the European Jews.
Richard C. Hottelet
Richard C. Hottelet (1917–2014) was one member of a group of talented journalists selected by Edward R. Murrow to cover the war in Europe for CBS News radio. Before joining CBS in 1944, Hottelet reported from Berlin for the United Press (UPI). In 1941, after his dispatches about Nazi violence against Jews displeased the Gestapo, Hottelet was arrested and placed in solitary confinement. His case drew the attention of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. After four months in prison, Hottelet was released in exchange for a German reporter who was being held in the United States.
Hottelet became well-known to American radio listeners for being the first war correspondent to broadcast an eyewitness account of D-Day as he flew above US troops who were advancing on Utah Beach. He reported from the ground as well, covering the Battle of the Bulge as well as the Allied push across the Rhine into Germany. After the war, Hottelet was assigned to Moscow, but was forced to return to the United States when the Soviet regime withdrew his broadcasting rights. Hottelet died in 2014, the last surviving member of “Murrow’s Boys.”
Howard K. Smith
Howard K. Smith (1914–2002) was born and raised in rural Louisiana. Smith graduated from Tulane University in 1936 and went on to Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. After leaving Oxford in 1939, he wrote for several newspapers, including the New York Times. In 1940, Edward R. Murrow hired him to report for CBS from Berlin. Despite pressure from the German government to include Nazi propaganda in his broadcasts, Smith steadfastly refused. The Gestapo seized his reporter’s notebooks and expelled him from the country on December 6, 1941, the last American journalist to leave Germany before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and Germany’s declaration of war against the United States. Smith broadcast from Switzerland until assigned to cover the Battle of the Bulge in the winter of 1944–45. After the war, he covered the Nuremberg Trials and was the only journalist permitted to witness the execution of the convicted defendants.
Smith took over for Murrow in 1946 as head of CBS in London, where he stayed for 11 years before returning to New York to anchor CBS Reports. A disagreement with the network’s management over coverage of the civil rights movement led Smith to leave the network in 1961. He moved to ABC the same year, where he was the moderator of Face the Nation and co-anchor of the ABC Evening News until his retirement in 1979. He is perhaps best remembered as the moderator of the very first televised presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Smith continued to write and publish until his death in Bethesda, MD, in 2002.
Martha Gellhorn (1908–1998) was one of the first female war correspondents and among the most distinguished war reporters and eye-witnesses of the 20th century. Known for her eloquent and often graphic descriptions of the horrors of war and its consequences for ordinary people, Gellhorn covered every major conflict across the globe during her nearly 60-year career. Born and raised in St. Louis, she moved to New York to become a crime reporter after graduation from Bryn Mawr in 1927. Her writing attracted the attention of Harry Hopkins, Secretary of Commerce and a close advisor of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who hired her to travel the country and write about the impact of the Great Depression.
In 1937, Gellhorn went Europe to cover the Spanish Civil War for Collier’s. Subsequently, she covered the Japan’s invasion of China, Nazi Germany’s bombing of London (known as “the Blitz”), and the Soviet Union’s attack on Finland. Refused permission by the Allied military to cover the D-Day landing in Normandy because she was a woman, Gellhorn stowed aboard a hospital ship and came ashore posing as member of a medical team. In 1945, Gellhorn wrote her harrowing eyewitness report, published in Collier’s, of the liberation of Dachau by US troops, still considered a landmark piece of journalism. She continued to write much-admired articles, books, and novels until 1992, when cataracts made it impossible for her to see the keys of her typewriter. Terminally ill with cancer, Gellhorn committed suicide in her home in London in 1998.
Margaret Bourke-White (1904–1971) was a pioneering American photographer credited with setting the standards for quality photojournalism. Born in New York City where her father was an engineer, she developed an interest in industrial sites while accompanying him to work. Bourke-White studied photography while a university student and used her skills to finance her education. After graduation from Cornell in 1927, she set up her own studio in Cleveland, where she supported herself working as an architecture photographer. Publisher Henry Luce hired Bourke-White in 1936 as a staff photographer on his new publication, Life magazine. Luce chose her now iconic image of the Fort Peck Dam for the cover of its first issue on November 23, 1936.
Bourke-White remained with Life magazine throughout the rest of her career, including as a war photographer during World War II. At that time, women in the American armed forces were not allowed to serve in combat. Female war correspondents and photographers were also excluded from the front lines until 1942, when Bourke-White became the first female photojournalist to be accredited by the US military. She photographed the Allied campaigns in North Africa and Italy, the siege of Moscow, and followed General George Patton’s Third Army across the Rhine into Germany. In 1945, she photographed Holocaust survivors at the Buchenwald concentration camp. During her coverage of the Korean conflict in 1952, Bourke-White began to suffer the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. She retired from Life in 1969, and died two years later.
Ernie Pyle (1900-1945) became famous as a roving reporter for the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain. With his wife, always called “That Girl” in his popular column, Pyle drove across the United States 35 times between 1935 and 1940. His columns told the stories of the lives of the ordinary Americans they met along the way. Written in a spare, colloquial, and often wry style, the columns were syndicated in more than 200 newspapers.
In 1940, Pyle went to Great Britain to cover Nazi Germany’s bombing of London (known as “the Blitz”) and soon began to report on US troops there as they prepared for war. Pyle followed the Allied troops into action in North Africa and Italy, and in 1944, covered the D-Day landing in France.
Pyle’s columns provided a link between the soldiers and the home front. He told the folks back home about the daily reality of the war from the perspective of the soldiers. He never glorified warfare. Rather, he communicated soldiers’ feelings and thoughts both as they prepared to go into action as well as during the long periods of routine and monotony between battles.
On April 18, 1944, shortly after winning the Pulitzer Prize for his columns, Pyle came under enemy fire while covering the Allied battle for Okinawa and was killed on the Pacific island of Ie Shima. His death was announced by the highest levels of the Allied command. “No man,” said President Truman, “has so well told the story of the American fighting man as American fighting men wanted it told.”
In 1983, Pyle was awarded the Purple Heart, an honor rarely given to a civilian. He is buried in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Critical Thinking Questions
- How does the media, in any form, impact public understanding and/or will to action?
- What challenges or difficulties did correspondents face in getting their stories out?
- How else did Americans get information about World War II?
- What are the positives and the negatives of following and trusting one individual as a source for news?
- How has war coverage changed since the 1940s?
- Investigate how news about the "Final Solution" reached the American public, or the readers in your country.