In 1961, when the Berlin Wall was first constructed, it divided the city into the Allied-controlled West and Soviet-controlled East. With each passing day, East Berliners sensed their dwindling prospects and access to the world beyond, and began to make desperate attempts to escape to West Berlin.
They tried everything, from jumping from windows of the buildings adjacent to the wall, to swimming across the River Spree, to crashing straight through in trucks. Then came new strategy -- West Berliners started to dig tunnels to the East in hopes of freeing their friends and loved ones.
As news broke of these tunnels, American news networks-- most notably, NBC and CBS -- were eager to film the digging in action. Bob talks to Greg Mitchell, journalist and author of the new book The Tunnels: Escapes Under the Berlin Wall and the Historic Films the JFK White House Tried to Kill, about the efforts of American journalists to report on the tunnels and the JFK administration's efforts to suppress their work.
The Tunnels will be released on Tuesday, October 18, 2016. Here's an excerpt from the book:
One day it would be considered a landmark in the history of television, but on the evening of September 14, 1962, its future seemed very much in doubt. At the NBC office in West Berlin, Reuven Frank was growing frantic. All day he had been watching the remarkable raw footage shot weeks earlier by his camera crew. He couldn’t have been more excited, or anxious. His Berlin correspondent, Piers Anderton, had told him the escape mission, set for late-afternoon on this day, would likely be over by 8 o’clock. Since then, not a word.
Frank, the producer on the top-secret project--which was funded by NBC despite strict warnings from the State Department--had just flown from New York City to Berlin when alerted to the impending tunnel escape. He had expected the brothers Peter and Klaus Dehmel to arrive at the office by nine with their footage but that had not happened. He ordered an expensive Chinese meal delivered, but was too jazzed to eat it. Had the escape under the heavily-patrolled Wall been compromised as it had been at Kiefholz Strasse a month earlier, which led to the arrest of dozens of would-be refugees and couriers, thwarting Daniel Schorr's scoop for CBS? Finally he decided to go out and take a look around.
Not wishing to draw attention, he requested a nondescript car and asked one of his bureau chief's assistants to drive him past the tunnel entrance in the West--a swizzle stick factory--without slowing down. He didn’t see any unusual police activity in the West nor, peering over the Wall, in the East, where the mass escape, via a basement in a tenement two blocks from the Wall and death strip, might have already happened, or been foiled. If there had been a major bust, there would have been some sort of feverish activity or flashing lights, he assured himself, as he returned to the office, to wait some more.
At two a.m. the Dehmels arrived. They had refused to leave the basement until the mission was over, which had meant waiting, like some of the diggers, for the final party of refugees to crawl on all fours through the muddy tunnel rapidly filling with water: three young women with four children in tow. That brought the total number of escapees that night to twenty-seven, despite the hazardous condition of the 400-foot cavern. Then the Dehmels had hauled their precious reels of film stock to a secure lab. Reuven Frank would have to wait until later that day to screen what they had captured, but the Dehmels’ account made it sound like a phenomenal, heroic success—and, incidentally, tremendous television.
Around noon at NBC’s Berlin bureau, the Dehmels’ stark, silent, black and white footage from the night before had come back from the lab and was about to be projected onto the only “screen” at hand: a large sheet of stained white cardboard. Frank wondered if it could live up to the Dehmels’ synopsis of ten hours earlier. He didn’t have to wait long to find out. Just a few minutes in, the screen showed Eveline Schmidt, whose plight had inspired the tunnel organizers to move ahead with their outrageously risky project back in March, climbing the ladder, with Klaus Dehmel, of all people, rushing forward to help her. Despite the weak lighting, the image quality was technically adequate, the tension palpable, the drama off the charts. Soon Eveline's baby, husband and mother-in-law followed her up the ladder to freedom.
On and on it went, displaying the stoic arrival of the more than a dozen escapees and their emotional reactions afterward. Then the camera returned to the ladder and hole in the floor for a few more arrivals, including the tall man in the leather jacket, suspected of being a Stasi agent, who was almost shot by tunneler Hasso Herschel earlier that night. Finally, the last woman and baby arrived, ending in a heart-rending close-up of one of the tunnelers on the ladder holding his son for the first time.
Reuven Frank was floored. He rang his boss, NBC's vice president for news, Bill McAndrew, back in New York to tell him to forget the plan for a sixty-minute special on a wide range of Berlin escape efforts—he would need ninety minutes just to tell the tale of this one tunnel.
He couldn’t imagine that, for NBC, the easy part was over. Soon the Kennedy White House and State Department would attempt to suppress what he felt certain would be a landmark documentary.
Adapted from THE TUNNELS: ESCAPES UNDER THE BERLIN WALL AND THE HISTORIC FILMS THE JFK WHITE HOUSE TRIED TO KILL Copyright © 2016 by Greg Mitchell. To be published by Crown, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, on October 18.
"Turnaround" by Ornette Coleman
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield. Propaganda wars, never mind wars of ideology, are as old as time and they are impossible to separate from the political or military conflicts, themselves. Consider the Berlin Wall, barrier and metaphor.
NEWSREEL ANNOUNCER: As the Communist barrier between East and West Berlin grows higher and stronger, the more determined grows the will of those in the East to escape. This woman drops into a net held by alerted firemen and then, as the tense crowd watches, she is followed by her husband.
BOB GARFIELD: In 1961, escape from the East was an irresistible life or death drama, and it became more dramatic still when would-be escapees went not up and over but underneath in tunnels dug by West Berliners to liberate a plucky and lucky few. But also under the surface, direct financial support for the tunnelers from US news organizations and heavy-handed efforts by the Kennedy administration to bury the story altogether.
In his new book, The Tunnels, journalist Greg Mitchell describes how NBC and CBS, in the midst of a ratings battle, were desperate to scoop each other with separate tunnel documentaries.
GREG MITCHELL: The NBC involvement began in June of 1962 via Piers Anderton, their chief correspondent in Berlin. He got the okay to cover this tunnel and got several thousand dollars in cash to give directly to the tunnelers to – well, you might say for the rights or you might say to help fund the escape. Meanwhile, Dan Schorr was also looking for a scoop.
BOB GARFIELD: CBS correspondent Daniel Schorr will be familiar to public radio listeners as the longtime news analyst for All Things Considered.
GREG MITCHELL: Dan got his scoop about a week before it was ready to break through in the East, and that was going to be the biggest escape ever in Berlin, was going to involve maybe upwards of 100 people escaping. You know, he knew this was going to be a big scoop and he was going to beat NBC.
BOB GARFIELD: It didn't turn out that way. The escape was compromised. There was a mole in the operation of Stasi, the East German secret police, and?
GREG MITCHELL: The tunnelers came up in this house and found out that the Stasi and the military were surrounding the house, so they had to beat a hasty retreat, But before then, Dan Schorr had already been called off his coverage by his boss in New York, Blair Clark, who had been summoned to Secretary of State Dean Rusk's office twice to sort of bully him into calling Schorr in the middle the night and ordering him to drop his coverage. Of course, Dan had little choice, but he remained bitter about it to the very end of his life.
BOB GARFIELD: And that's not all because in addition to big footing CBS, the Kennedy administration was doing all sorts of things that we would call Nixonian, except that Nixon hadn't happened yet.
GREG MITCHELL: Our popular image of John F. Kennedy is that he was very media friendly and the media loved him and he loved the media but, in fact, like most presidents, he had a love-hate relationship with the press. In July of 1962, thanks to a major leak in The New York Times, he impaneled a new intelligence unit which then set up the CIA to begin “monitoring,” as they called it, US reporters, to follow who they were talking to and also to crack down on the bureaucracy to force officials within the administration to report conversations with reporters.
BOB GARFIELD: And, of course, the CIA has no legal mandate.
GREG MITCHELL: Right. It was completely illegal and reporters, when the documents about this came out just a few years ago, noted that this was sort of a precedent for the Nixon abuses of just a few years later.
BOB GARFIELD: The CBS tunnel ended in chaos, but the Piers Anderton NBC tunnel ultimately was successful and led to a number of escapes to the West.
GREG MITCHELL: On September 14th, the tunnelers broke through into the East, the basement of a tenement, and NBC captured it all. They had their camera down in the basement to welcome the refugees as they climbed the ladder to freedom. They also helped out by letting the tunnelers use an apartment that they had rented, high in a building on the other side of the Wall in the West, to use as a way to signal the couriers and the refugees with a, a blanket held outside the window. So NBC, which later professed that they had absolutely nothing to do with helping in this tunnel, actually, besides even their money, they also had had a direct hand in the final night of the escape. They had thousands of feet of remarkable footage they’d shot over those many weeks, and so, they proceeded to edit and be prepared to air what would be a truly historic documentary in October of 1962.
BOB GARFIELD: But, once again, the Kennedy administration was unenthused and did everything it could to stymie this project.
GREG MITCHELL: Word leaked out that they were planning this program and the Kennedy administration was extremely upset about this. As with the CBS tunnel, they were afraid of anything that would infuriate the Soviets and perhaps lead to a confrontation in Berlin. A nuc - of course, nuclear war was always a big threat. They wanted to kind of keep a lid on it. And so, in their view, this even extended to media coverage. And it looked like they had killed the program. It was postponed in October and seemed to be going to the trash heap. The producer, who later became president of NBC, Reuven Frank, a legendary figure, rode out his resignation, he was so upset about it.
But after six weeks passed, NBC kind of slipped it on the air, and it caused a sensation and it went on to win three Emmys, including the first documentary ever to win the Program of the Year Emmy for that year.
BOB GARFIELD: Absent the network’s money, these two tunnels might not have existed, so isn’t this fundamentally unethical journalism that was going on, no matter how righteous the cause?
GREG MITCHELL: While the NBC tunnel program seems like it was, you know, advocacy journalism and they saw this as sort of a black-and-white issue - it was freedom versus enslavement, it was people trapped behind a wall, it was people who were separated from their families and jobs and opportunities in the West - and so, the compromises, which involved payment of money, which involved Anderton kind of being part of the story by being in the tunnel and other steps they took, they saw as something they could defend.
BOB GARFIELD: And look, Greg, far be it from me to play devil’s advocate for prior restraint by a government but when Dean Rusk talked about lives being at stake, he was talking about, you know, 100 million Americans because the fear was that an incident at one of these tunnels could trigger the Soviets to actually put their multiple armored divisions massed on the border into action, leading to a direct US response, and the only response we were contemplating at the time was nuclear, and next thing you know it's Armageddon, more than just theoretical at the time, no?
GREG MITCHELL: Yes, that's right. That was the argument. However, there were several dramatic episodes at the Wall involving shootings and other things, stemming from escapes and other actions, and none of them provoked that. There never was that kind of crisis caused by one of these spectacular incidents. So to me, I understand all that arguments, and I think the book is very evenhanded in how it presents the fears of the time versus the realities of the tunnelers and the escapees. But I think, in the end, the general feeling, I think, that would come out of the book is that the Kennedy administration overreacted to what was really the, the real threat that was posed by these tunnels and that, you know, they could have and should have done more to assist the operations or at least the coverage of them, because when The NBC Tunnel ultimately aired, the US side, actually, by that time, as a propaganda tool, and the USIA bought up hundreds of copies of the program and distributed them around the world, suddenly, it became a plus in the propaganda war, not a minus. So I think maybe there was even some recognition then that they may have gone overboard before then.
BOB GARFIELD: Greg, thank you so much.
GREG MITCHELL: Thank you, thank you.
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BOB GARFIELD: Journalist Greg Mitchell is author of The Tunnels, which will be released Tuesday, October 18th.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, the third episode in our series, “Busted: America’s Poverty Myths,” this one, “Why Bootstraps are Bunkum.”
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media.