Watching this excellent docudrama about Edward R. Murrow’s battle with Senator Joe McCarthy took me back, in imagination, to those days. In 1953 and 1954, when the events of this movie took place, I was a college student in Wisconsin. I listened faithfully to Edward R. Murrow’s CBS radio news broadcasts, and admired his use of language—precise, strong, not a word wasted and his tone of voice full of majesterial disdain for liars and demagogues. I don’t remember whether I viewed Murrow’s CBS TV documentary on McCarthy when it was originally broadcast, but later, but I greatly admired it for the same reasons.
I watched it the other night on DVD at the home of my radical friend Larry, who pointed out that the time frame of the movie coincided with the CIA-sponsored coups against the elected governments of Iran in 1953 and Guatemala in 1954—both of which planted the seeds of the tragic histories of those two countries down to this day. I don’t remember if Murrow ever did broadcasts on those two events. At the time they did not loom large in my consciousness. To the extent that I thought about them, I thought about them not as examples of American imperialism, but as episodes in the global struggle against totalitarian Communism.
My writings for the student newspaper were about academic freedom, which all educated, right-thinking people were for, and about racial discrimination, which all educated right-thinking people were against. I thought the danger to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights came from demagogues like McCarthy and the Southern segregationists. I did not think there was anything systemically wrong with the basic institutions of American society, nor did Edward R. Murrow.
It is only in the past 20 years, and especially the past 10 years, that I have begun to see that I was wrong, and radical friends such as Larry were right. U.S. government policies that I saw as byproducts of the struggle against Communism continued and grew stronger after the fall of Communism.
The movie depicts a program that Murrow did defending Milo Radulovich, an Air Force lieutenant who lost his commission on the grounds that he had been determined to be a security risk on the basis of secret information. He had been asked to sever ties with his immigrant father, who subscribed to a Serbian-language newspaper published on Communist Yugoslavia, and his sister, who allegedly was active in liberal and left-wing causes.
Today this seems almost quaint. The U.S. government now uses secret information to designate people for “targeted killing”.