This story was published in Radio Recall, the journal of the Metropolitan Washington Old-Time Radio Club, published six times per year.
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Words at War
by Howard Blue
407 Pages $34.95 clothbound
Scarecrow Press, Inc., 4720 Boston Way
Lanham MD 20706
"Battles Won And Lost"
Book Review by Maury Cagle
(From Radio Recall, February 2003)
Even at my advanced age, radio of the past usually means my favorite adventure and comedy shows. I heard many of them as they were broadcast, but, being a child, I didn't pay much attention to the serious programs dealing with the social and political issues of World War II.
While many of those shows still exist, their content seems no longer relevant, and sometimes edges into blatant propaganda. But their impact at the time was profound. That's why Howard Blue's new book, Words at War, is a valuable addition to the literature of OTR.
Essentially, the book is a history of what issues the U.S. government and military thought important enough to "enlighten" the U.S. public about by radio. It's divided into three basic parts: 1) The eve of World War II; 2) The war years; and 3) The aftermath of the war and the anti-Communist blacklist of authors and performers.
The focus is on a group of talented writers and actors, and their work through the three periods. Some of them are immediately recognizable, such as Norman Corwin, Norman Rosten, Arch Obeler, William Robson, and Orson Welles.
Others are familiar, but not primarily because of their work in radio: poets Langston Hughes, Archibald MacLeish, Stephen Vincent Benet, actors Frederic March, Burgess Meredith, and playwright Arthur Miller.
Some were major contributors whose names have not endured to the degree that their contributions to the genre merit, such as Millard Lampell, Morton Wishengrad, Canada Lee, and Allan Sloane.
What's clear is what a powerful medium radio was in the period of the late 1930's and through the years of World War II in molding public opinion. What's also clear is that at the beginning of the war, no one in authority really knew what to do with the power of the medium.
Blue traces the work of long-forgotten official and unofficial bodies, such as the Office of Facts and Figures (Predecessor to the better-known Office of War Information), the Writers War Board, The Council for Democracy, and The Hollywood Writers Mobilization in mobilizing radio to support the war effort.
A number of policies impacted those writing, producing, and performing radio shows: Before the war, not dealing too harshly with Nazi Germany; During the war, guiding public disfavor from the Japanese toward the Germans; accepting the British (with their class system and colonies) and treating the Soviet Union, as allies.
The writers and actors featured in the book turned in some astounding performances, many of them rated among the best in radio history. But an underlying current of discontent was present. Many of those involved were also convinced that the U.S. had to do better after the war with regard to racial equality, conditions for workers, and working with other nations for a lasting peace, and they wove these themes into their scripts.
As the war ended and tensions increased with the Soviet Union , these progressive issues, for years put aside to face a common enemy, burst forth in the hunt for those deemed "Communist," or "fellow traveler." The culmination was the now-discredited blacklist. Many of those who worked so hard on behalf of the war effort in radio found their careers in ruins, based on innuendo and false accusations. At this point, the book moves from an academic to a polemic focus.
The book has some distracting flaws, for instance the reference to "taping" programs in 1942. It also suffers from obvious computer spell checking, but not proofreading, as in the use of "one," when the intended word is "on." I was also bothered by a half-baked structural device that precedes most, but not all, chapters, a fictional paragraph in italics, written in third person, that attempts to set the scene for the chapter. In a nonfiction book with superb research, I found this to be an unnecessary and distracting element.
The most bothersome flaw is the penchant the author has for inserting his personal editorial comments into what is otherwise a carefully constructed flow of well-researched facts. This reduces the impact of the research and makes the reader wonder if the author trusts your ability to draw the correct conclusions.
The major strengths of the book center on Blue's massive research. The author did extensive interviews with several of those featured in the book, and delved into neglected archives. He describes long forgotten broadcasts, and the underlying politics that either led to the show, or had to be fought to allow its airing. For me, the most interesting parts were quotations from letters that listeners wrote in reaction to various programs. These provide a window into what the public thought at the time, in their own words.
Faults aside, this is a fascinating, and highly readable, book about a major period in the history of both the nation and radio.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Maury Cagle, a MWOTRC member from Herndon, VA, has been a confirmed radio nut since receiving a radio for his 6th birthday. He holds BA and MS degrees in communications from Rutgers and American Universities, and he retired last year after 40 years government service, most recently heading up the Media Program for the 2000 U.S. census.