January 9, 2017

Documents Reveal JFK Attempts to Kill CBS and NBC Specials

rusk kennedy

While much has been written about this key aspect of my book The Tunnels, I have never put the highlights of the evidence–and the recently declassified cables themselves–in one place until now:  On how the Kennedy White House and State Department in 1962 attempted to kill two landmark network news programs on escape tunnels under the Berlin Wall (and partly succeeded).    Here at last is the link to the declassified cables on the CBS/Schorr tunnel.  If interest warrants, I can supply some of the cables and memos on the NBC tunnel.  More on the book here.

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President John F. Kennedy in 1962 approved attempts by his State Department to suppress NBC and CBS television coverage of escape tunnels under the Berlin Wall, declassified official documents and other files reveal in a new book, The Tunnels.   The Kennedy administration pressure, led by Secretary of State Dean Rusk, induced CBS to kill a special report by correspondent Daniel Schorr, and forced NBC to postpone a groundbreaking 90-minute primetime special.  When the latter finally aired, it drew wide acclaim and is now considered a landmark in the history of television.

The revelations  are based on recently declassified State Department and CIA files, thousands of pages of cables and other documents obtained from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, and interviews.   The book has been hailed by leading historians and by journalist Bill Moyers, who was deputy director of  JFK’s Peace Corps at that time.

Cables to and from the State Department, the White House, and the U.S. Mission in West Berlin, detail the sustained efforts to suppress the two programs,  over many days in the summer and autumn of 1962.  This included Rusk’s face-to-face showdowns with network executives in his office at the State Department, and between U.S. diplomats and an angry Daniel Schorr in Germany.  Schorr would remain bitter about the episode until his death.

Cables reveal that JFK and Rusk feared that the two programs would suggest U.S. support for escapes from East Berlin which might exacerbate conflict with the Soviets in the world’s most dangerous Cold War hotspot.   The White House, while publicly expressing support for freedom attempts by citizens in communist East Berlin, had decided to focus entirely on maintaining the survival of West Berlin, which meant not provoking the Soviets.  “We don’t care about East Berlin,” Kennedy told one of his top aides, McGeorge Bundy.

U.S. diplomats, tipped off by American magazine writer close to the tunnelers, repeatedly tried convince Schorr to drop his project in early August on grounds that it would “raise tensions.”  The chief of Berlin Mission’s politics desk advised a superior, “If Schorr does not agree, we may recommend CBS in US be approached by department.” Documents reveal the bullying of Schorr, who remained unshaken, although he said he might stay away from the tunnel on the day of the actual escape.

Rusk (with the approval of the White House) summoned the correspondent’s CBS boss, Blair Clark–a longtime friend of the President– to his office just before midnight on the eve of the tunnel escape.  Three CIA officials were also present.  Rusk convinced Clark to call the correspondent at that late hour and order him to desist.  His coverage would amount to a “provocation,” Clark told Schorr.  Rusk, at midnight, would cable an official in Berlin: “I saw Clark tonight and he agreed scrub CBS participation in tunnel project.”  To make sure, Rusk met with Clark again the next morning. Diplomats in Germany would soon warn Schorr to never try this again, but complained that he did not appear “contrite.”

Rusk informed his diplomats and the White House: “US officials have no apology for prompt actions taken with CBS and Schorr.  Schorr involved himself in a matter which was far beyond his private or journalistic responsibilities…”   The head of the U.S. Mission in Berlin urged Rusk to consider “high-level intervention with NBC along general lines taken with CBS” to forestall any tunnel coverage by that network.  And soon one of Rusk’s tops aides met with the NBC news chief to issue this demand.

Two months later, after learning that NBC had filmed the digging of a second tunnel, and the dramatic escape of 29 East Germans, and now planned a primetime special, the State Department blasted the project.  Documents reveal that CBS, having axed its own program, was now boasting about shutting down its own coverage and lobbying the State Department to shut down NBC’s scoop.   George Ball, an undersecretary of defense, informed the State Department that Blair Clark “has justifiably asked whether his excellent cooperation in suppressing CBS effort on earlier tunnel project has in effect left CBS out in the cold. Department feels obliged give him all available information” relating to the NBC film.

The head of the Berlin Mission then cabled Rusk that U.S. journalists were not heeding State’s warnings and continued to show interest in covering escapes.  Officials would continue to try to “prevent” such reports but suggest that “most effective contact” might be with the media headquarters in the U.S.

NBC claimed that it had not aided the escape at all, but documents show that they rented an apartment where refugees and couriers received signals on escape night.  Rusk suggested that NBC should “abandon” its film.  His chief spokesman labeled the program “irresponsible” and “not in the national interest.”

When this did not get an immediate response, Rusk called NBC execs and producer Reuven Frank (later president of NBC News) to his office, again with the support of the White House.   NBC soon called off its airing that month.  Fearing the program would be cancelled, Frank wrote out his resignation.   He believed that NBC’s corporate chiefs feared they might lose lucrative military contracts for subsidiary RCA if they did not go along with the White House on this.

Six weeks later, NBC went ahead with airing, and it would end up winning three Emmys, and became the only documentary to ever win the top “Program of the Year” award.

The tunnels under the Wall were dug by daring young West Germans attempting to free friends, lovers, family members and strangers from the East.   Hundreds were brought to the West in this way, but hundreds of others were arrested in the process, and some tunnelers were shot and killed.  The Tunnels tells the full story for the first time, based on dozens of exclusive interviews and hundreds of pages of never before seen documents from the files of the Stasi secret police.  More on the book here.