When the American Press Bent the Rules to Fight Hitler

Before America’s entry into WWII, the country was divided on the question of intervention, but not for want of trying on the part of FDR and the nation’s foreign correspondents.

In his “Four Freedoms” State of the Union speech on January 6, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt denounced “the new order of tyranny that seeks to spread over every continent today” and vowed to help any nation combatting it. “We shall send you, in ever increasing numbers, ships, planes, tanks and guns,” he declared. To do so, his administration urged Congress to pass the Lend-Lease bill, deliberately called H.R. 1776 to tie it to the ideals of the American Revolution.  

The bill was designed to bolster a beleaguered Britain’s chances of withstanding the onslaught of Luftwaffe bombers following Nazi Germany’s conquest of much of continental Europe. Roosevelt argued that to do any less would jeopardize American security, leaving the United States open to becoming the next victim of Hitler’s aggression—a sentiment fully endorsed by Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Although Charles Lindbergh and the isolationist America First Committee fiercely opposed the Lend-Lease Act, the House and Senate approved it by large majorities.

One reason Roosevelt’s and Churchill’s reasoning prevailed was the support they received from several key American correspondents in Europe. As I write in my new book 1941: The Year Germany Lost the War, they proved to be the two leaders’ not-so-secret weapons in the battle for public opinion. In those extraordinary times, some journalists took extraordinary measures that went well beyond their normal briefs.

For much of 1941, most Americans still hoped that Roosevelt would make good on his promise not to send “our boys” overseas again, keeping them out of the new European conflict. But those American reporters who were already overseas had fewer illusions on that score—and were eager to enlighten their readers and listeners back home.

In doing so, they bolstered the narrative that Churchill so eloquently wove, portraying his country as a lonely holdout against the Nazi tide that was willing to pay any price to defend its liberty. Edward R. Murrow’s “This is London” broadcasts riveted his CBS listeners with their descriptions of the toll that German bombs took on a daily basis. Most importantly, the broadcasts conveyed to them the quiet courage of London’s citizens and praised the inspiring leadership provided by their new prime minister who “spoke the language of Shakespeare with a direct urgency such as I have never before heard.”

Eric Sevareid, who also worked in the CBS London bureau, insisted that Murrow was not trying to “sell” the British cause to his audience. Instead, “he was trying to explain the universal human cause of men who were showing a noble face to the world.” It was a fine distinction at best, and other American correspondents made little pretense of maintaining any sense of journalistic detachment. They loved the story of courageous Brits standing up to Hitler’s terror tactics that had worked devastatingly well elsewhere in Europe. 

Ernie Pyle, the Scripps-Howard correspondent whose folksy style and courage won him a Pulitzer and huge fame before he was killed by a Japanese sniper in 1945, arrived in Britain in December 1940 and stayed until March 1941. Ernie Pyle in England, his speedily published book, was an unabashed ode to the English spirit. “In three months, I have not met an Englishman to whom it has ever occurred that Britain might lose the war,” he wrote.

The Americans who had lived longer in Britain knew the reality was not that simple: the English harbored the same doubts and fears that anyone would as the skies filled with German bombers. Even Churchill had his private moments of doubt, but in public he was always the defiant leader, proclaiming the inevitability of victory. As for the general public, Sevareid noted that the British considered it “bad form” to do anything less than display similar confidence: “One could panic in the heart, but two together could not show it, nor a hundred in a group.”

“In late 1940, Quentin Reynolds, a roving correspondent for Collier’s Weekly, maintained that the Blitz was already a failure.”

Significantly, Sevareid’s ruminations on this subject appeared in his memoir that was published after the war. During Britain’s moment of greatest peril, he and his colleagues were not inclined to share such nuanced analysis. Instead, they sought to convince their audience back home that British courage was unwavering—and, therefore, fully worthy of American support.

In late 1940, Quentin Reynolds, a roving correspondent for Collier’s Weekly, maintained that the Blitz was already a failure. Instead of quivering as the German bombs fell, he wrote, “London yawned. Terror as a weapon against the English is about as effective as a cream puff would be in a fight against Joe Louis.”

The correspondents who had covered Hitler’s Germany were particularly intent on urging their countrymen to stand with Britain. On December 1, 1940 as he was wrapping up his tour in Berlin for CBS, William Shirer noted in his diary that if Hitler continued to score victories in Europe and Africa, he would then launch an attack on the United States “unless we are prepared to give up our way of life and adapt ourselves to a subservient place in the totalitarian scheme of things.”

Upon returning from his Berlin assignment about the same time, Joseph Harsch of the Christian Science Monitor warned that Germany was engaged in a titanic struggle for global dominance. “America can either belong to that dominant force or submit to it,” he wrote. To prevent a German victory, the United States needed to “take its stand with Britain.” He added: “The two together can unquestionably defeat Germany.”

A couple of the former Berlin correspondents went even further, crossing the line from editorial advocacy to outright cooperation with the Roosevelt administration.

Chicago Daily News correspondent Edgar Ansel Mowrer, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his incisive reporting on Hitler’s rise to power, was forced to leave Germany in 1933 under pressure from the new Nazi regime. In the summer of 1940, his publisher Frank Knox, who by then was secretary of the navy, instructed him to accompany William “Wild Bill” Donovan on a mission to Britain. Roosevelt was sending Donovan, who would soon head the spy operation known as the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), to assess the British mood and chances for survival since he did not trust the judgment of Joseph Kennedy, the U.S. ambassador in London who was predicting Britain’s defeat.

After their meetings with Churchill and other top British officials, the two emissaries agreed on what they would report back to the president. As Mowrer put it [his italics], “Britain under Churchill would not surrender either to ruthless air raids or to an invasion.”

Dorothy Thompson, Mowrer’s former colleague in Berlin and one of the first women foreign correspondents to achieve celebrity status, had been warning about the dangers of Nazi Germany for years—although she had famously underestimated Hitler before he took power. As if to make up for that early misjudgment, she not only became a passionate crusader for aid to Britain in her widely syndicated columns but also penned the introduction to the pamphlet The Battle of 1776, which laid out the government case for the Lend-Lease legislation.

The pamphlet contained the text of the proposed bill along with statements by Roosevelt and key members of his cabinet. In her introduction, Thompson described Germany as no longer a state but “a tribe held together by a secular church, a pagan religious order, the Nazi Party.” Then, in a passage that sounds eerily contemporary but would be denounced as politically incorrect if it were written today, she wrote: “It is this order, this secular religion, which, like Mohammed’s movement to which it bears more resemblance than anything else, is subjecting the civilized world. And wherever it arises, nations end.” If Britain fell, she concluded, the United States would inevitably be Hitler’s next target.

Thompson traveled to Britain the following summer to continue spreading that message. She praised the British for refusing to succumb to German might after the fall of France and the frantic evacuation of its troops from Dunkirk. “If you had given up at that awful moment, we would have given up, too,” she declared. “Everyone would have given up…You people in Britain have released more minds from fear that you can possibly imagine.”

She also directly addressed the German people on the BBC. Speaking in German, the language she had mastered when she lived in Berlin in the ’20s, Thompson said, “I know Germany, and I love Germany, and I believe in Germany. I hate and loathe this insane war. But I am not neutral in this war, I want Britain to win it… I hated and fought the Nazi regime because I believed that it would destroy Europe and destroy Germany and destroy the whole of Western civilization if it were allowed to run its course unchecked.

Roosevelt’s speechwriter Robert Sherwood called Thompson an “indefatigable fighter for freedom.” Duff Cooper, Britain’s Minister of Information, praised the whole “exceptionally fine team” of American correspondents who reported from London during this critical period. “They were, almost without an exception, anti-German, and they rendered great service to the common cause,” he wrote later.

As a former foreign correspondent and editor, I fully share the misgivings of many Americans about the open partisanship and tendentious reporting that is so often on display in the media today. As a historian of Nazi Germany and World War II, I find particularly repellent the incessant invocations of that era as justification for abandoning any pretense of balanced reporting.

Whatever one thinks of President Donald Trump and populist trends in the United States and elsewhere, journalists need to resist the impulse to draw patently false parallels to the Nazi era. At a minimum, such parallels trivialize the long litany of horrors of Nazi rule, starting with the Holocaust. They also betray a woeful ignorance of the huge contrasts between our democracy, however flawed, and a totalitarian system.

Finally, if we paint almost any contemporary political battle as a contest between good and evil, some journalists will view themselves as crusaders who are no longer obligated to maintain basic standards of fairness. Their job is to hold the leaders of any government to account, not to caricature them.

The foreign correspondents of the ’40s, by contrast, were fully justified in enlisting in what Cooper called the common cause. They were both bearing witness and sounding the alarm when it was needed most, even if that meant departing from some of the normal practices of journalism on occasion.

But most of them would have been the first to point out that they were operating in exceptional conditions—making them the exceptions that proved the rule.