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Recalls Words At War
Words At War
A Book Review
Read G. Burgan
Words At War was one of the highest quality wartime radio programs of World War II. It is also the title of a new hard cover book that explores the role of American radio during W.W.II. Author Howard Blue has succeeded in creating a scholarly, comprehensive yet readable book.
Blue’s book provides mini-sketches of the major writers and actors who spearheaded radio’s wartime programming including writers Norman Corwin, Arch Oboler, Archibald MacLeish and William Robson and actors Will Geer, Orson Welles, Canada Lee and Burgess Meredith.
He provides details of their lives, political and social orientation and anecdotal examples of their personalities including their methods of writing and passions for various causes that influenced what they wrote or the causes they embraced. He describes their attempts to affect the American social conscience by including themes dealing with racial intolerance, anti-Semitism and poverty at a time when radio -- and those who controlled it -- wanted only to entertain.
In addition, he provides details and illustrations of what it was like to live in an era of limited supplies, massive family disruption, hoarding and all of the other problems that are peculiar to a country at war. When America declared war on Germany and Japan, our country was far from united. Many Americans saw it as Europe’s war and none of our affair.
Blue gives detailed examples of the radio series developed especially to aid in the indoctrination of the American people. He provides insights into the propaganda purposes of radio’s war time programming and detailed examples of series and individual episodes designed to change the attitude of the American public.
Anyone who is a serious broadcast professional will find the list of specific wartime programs worth the cost of the book. Blue lists and describes some of the most outstanding dramatic programs ever aired on American radio including We Hold These Truths, Johnny Got His Gun, On A Note of Triumph and Bill Of Rights -- important programs for any serious student of radio..
But he also tells a troubling story -- a story where yesterday’s heroes become today’s enemies. He relates how many of the writers and actors who produced radio’s finest wartime dramas were later persecuted for the very work that had gained them such praise.
Many of radio’s finest writers and performers were blacklisted because of alleged Communist ties. It was a time when friends testified against friends. Some committed suicide. Others left the country. Still others struggled to support their families as their livelihood vanished before their eyes.
Blue names names. In many cases, the true villains were highly respected in the broadcast industry.
Blue himself was born, raised, and educated on Long Island where he taught high school Social Studies for 32 years. Why did a high school teacher decide to write a book on wartime radio drama? “A combination of my lifelong interest in World War II and my warm memories of the tail end of the Golden Age of Radio played a role in motivating me to write the book,” Blue says.
This is a well-written, wonderfully researched book with ample documentation. To write the book, Blue visited many archives and museums, interviewed dozens of first hand sources and listened to hundreds of hours of radio programs from the W.W.II period.
Getting interviews from some of the icons of radio’s golden age was challenging. “I knew that Art Careny did not like to give interviews, but I wrote a couple of letters to him anyway. He did not respond. However, I was fortunate to have received his unlisted telephone number. An actress who had been very helpful to me and who was a friend of his, urged me to call him and inform him that I was calling on her recommendation. That was how I was able to interview him.”
Surprisingly, some of the most famous went out of their way to be cooperative. “Arthur Miller who lives in Connecticut, only responded to my first letter requesting an interview an entire year after I wrote to him. I thought that it would be a phone interview if it happened. But he suggested that we meet in his New York City apartment which we did. It was a fascinating experience.”
In some cases, doing the actual interview was more difficult than arranging it. “The interview of Allan Sloane who was both a victim of the blacklist and an informer about other people, was one of the most interesting ones. I thought that his informing was awful, but during my two visits to him, I came to like him very much. I never asked him a direct question about the blacklist.”
“But he knew the topic of my book and he clearly understood that I was interested in his experience with the blacklist. My indirect approach paid off beautifully. He gave me the most detailed account of how CBS dealt with people whom the network fired because of the blacklist.”
Blue’s dogged determination to ferret out all available sources relating to his book paid off. Words At War is a fascinating read and will serve as a valuable resource.
Words At War by Howard Blue, The Scarecrow Press, Inc., Lanham, Maryland, and Oxford, 2002 ISBN 0-8108-4413-3 (alk.paper) 407 pages. $34.95-- available from your local bookstore, the publisher (www.scarecrowpress.com ), Amazon.com, or the author at www.howardblue.com at a discount while supplies last.
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Read Burgan is a free lance writer and a former public radio station manager who can be reached at (906) 296-0652 or through e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org