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Bringing Tales Of WWII To American Radios And Bookshelves


WILLIAM SHIRER: We hear the church bells ringing again today ringing the tidings of the entry of German troops into Paris. And tonight, the swastika flag with Adolf Hitler's Third Reich hovers from the Eiffel Tower there by the Seine in that Paris...


That's William L. Shirer telling Americans about the fall of Paris in 1940. Bill Shirer was a veteran but unemployed foreign correspondent when Edward R. Murrow hired him. They were a part of the team along with Bob Trout, Eric Sevareid, Charles Collingwood, Richard C. Hottelet and others who essentially invented radio news and brought vivid, American narrative voices from faraway places into kitchens and living rooms. But Bill Shirer had a postwar breakup with Ed Murrow in what was then called the Columbia Broadcasting System. He bounced around a bit, and just when friends had begun to mutter about what he might wind up doing, he wrote one of the great, big best-selling books about the war and the 20th century. Ken Cuthbertson, the Canadian author and historian, has written a new book about the journalist and his career "A Complex Fate: William L. Shirer And The American Century." Ken Cuthbertson joins us from the studios of the CFRC at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario. Thanks very much for being with us.

KEN CUTHBERTSON: Oh, my pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: Murrow's time in London has been justly celebrated and well-documented. How dangerous was it for Bill Shirer to report from Berlin?

CUTHBERTSON: Well, he was tightly controlled by the censors, and it became a game of wits with Shirer to see what he could get past the German censors. But of course the Germans were very suspicious of him, and they were kind of suspicious that he was putting code words in his broadcasts. And I think by the time he decided that it was imperative for him to leave in December of 1940, his effectiveness as a correspondent had been compromised because he was being so closely watched that he couldn't say what he wanted to say. Plus he was really concerned about his own safety. People had warned him that the Gestapo were watching for whatever excuse they could use to grab him.

SIMON: What was Bill Shirer's view of Adolf Hitler? And we might remind ourselves 1939 not, 1940 - George Bernard Shaw, Charles Lindbergh - there were many respected people in the U.S. and Britain that thought Hitler might be a little puffed up but not dangerous.

CUTHBERTSON: Indeed, that's something that is generally forgotten today was that they say that if Hitler had died just prior to the war, he would have been probably viewed as one of the great leaders of European history in the 20th century 'cause he - after all he did put Germany back to work and establish sort of a new geopolitical order in Europe. But Shirer, to his credit, recognized that Hitler was somebody not to be underestimated as a lot of people were doing. A lot of people considered him a clown or a buffoon who would be put in his place eventually by either forces within Germany or by some of the international groups that were aligned against him.

SIMON: Ed Murrow, Bill Shirer both came back to CBS hailed as heroes, masters, in a sense, of a new literary form and friends. What happened?

CUTHBERTSON: What happened was a falling out between the two old friends. Shirer had left Germany in December of '40 - 1940; came home, as you said, hailed as a hero. He promptly steps into a 15-minute weekly broadcast on CBS - a very highly rated show. He's busy lecturing, he's busy writing articles, he's busy making a lot of money. In fact, he's making more money than Ed Murrow. And Ed Murrow begins to resent that a little bit. He come back just after the war and takes a management position at CBS. And suddenly, the two old friends are no longer old friends per se, they're employer employee. And Bill Shirer really didn't accept that and didn't recognize it, felt that he could still continue to do things his own way and that Murrow is his buddy and they were still foxhole buddies. But Murrow had somewhat different ideas. And the long and the short of it was they got forced into a situation that was kind of a dead-end for both of them and couldn't get out of it. It's a very sad end to a relationship that was very close and very seminal in the lives of both men - tragic.

SIMON: After he was kind of forced out at the Columbia Broadcasting System, Bill Shirer couldn't seem to hook on anywhere for long. Then, he began a book, "The Rise And Fall Of The Third Reich." How big was that book in 1960?

CUTHBERTSON: Initially, no one wanted to publish it. The prevailing opinion was that Americans were sick of hearing about World War II and there was no market for this book. But much the surprise, the reviews came back glowing, and before long, there was a great demand for the book, and it went into successive new printings. And it's in fact still in print today. There was a 50th anniversary edition put out in 2010. And if Shirer's remembered today for anything, it's because of that book and not because of his broadcasting, which is in some ways a shame because he was a pioneer broadcaster as well.

SIMON: Ken Cuthbertson, his new book "A Complex Fate: William L. Shirer And The American Century." Thanks so much for being with us.

CUTHBERTSON: Oh, it's my pleasure, Scott. Thanks very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.