A Cold War Narrative of Escape Under the Berlin Wall

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A model of an escape tunnel from East to West Berlin, at the Underworlds museum in Berlin, Germany. Sept. 11, 2009
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The Berlin Wall, built to separate East and West Berlin, fell at the end of the Cold War in 1989. It not only divided the city for 28 years, but the way of life for millions both inside and outside the wall. When it was erected in 1961 and in the years after, it became a symbol of communism across the world. 

More than 200 people died trying to get over, around, and under the wall. In West Berlin there was a desperate race to get family and friends out of the East by building tunnels under the wall into dangerous and deadly territory. For two U.S. television networks, the race to get an unprecedented scoop aided the tunnel effort.  In the end, one network succeeded and made history with its Special Report "The Tunnel."  

This is the story that Greg Mitchell tells in his new book, "The Tunnels: Escapes Under the Berlin Wall and the Historic Films the JFK White House Tried to Kill." He joins The Takeaway to discuss his work today. Click on the 'Listen' button above to hear our full conversation, and check out an excerpt from the book and some photos below. 



When Daniel Schorr got a call at dawn in his Berlin hotel room, on the morning of the great escape through a tunnel that he planned to cover, he was perplexed. He was being summoned to the U.S. Mission. On arrival, greeted by a U.S. Marine guard, he was even more startled to learn that he would be speaking on a secure line (indicating some sort of top secret issue), arranged by the U.S. military. It wasn’t so surprising that the man on the other end was his boss, CBS news manager Blair Clark. But what was Blair doing in Secretary of State Dean Rusk’s office--around midnight--in Washington?  Rusk was still there, with some top aides, along with three CIA officials.

“What’s this I hear about you planning to film a Berlin tunnel escape?” Clark asked.

“I told our foreign editor all about it,” Schorr replied.

“Well, I am sitting here with the Secretary of State in his office,” Clark said.


“And he has convinced me that you shouldn’t go ahead and do that.”

“Why not?”

“Because it would be considered a provocation, it could lead to a great deal of trouble, and the State Department doesn’t want any unnecessary trouble at the Wall.”

“That’s the trouble with the State Department. That’s why there is a wall.”

“Dan, I know you don’t like to be ordered around,” Clark said, putting it mildly, “but that’s it—I want you to scrap all your plans to do that film.” 
 Schorr was stunned. “Okay,” he said, after a moment, “but would it make any difference for you to know that once this gets around and we don’t do it, they [the tunnelers] will go to NBC or, god forbid, ABC?”

“It’s an order.”

The call lasted just six minutes. Schorr returned to his hotel humiliated and fuming. The whole concept was wrong—this administration, any administration, dictating news coverage. He knew Blair Clark was a Kennedy man--a friend since their Harvards days--and he figured that JFK had talked to him, possibly even pressured him, which made Dan even angrier. But there was nothing he could do about it now (he would remain angry about it for the rest of his life). Neither Schorr, nor the White House, knew that another American news team would soon be in place to film the escape.

Copyright © 2016 by Greg Mitchell. Published by Crown, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.