What Narrative? Edward R. Murrow’s “I Can Hear it Now”

I’ve been spending the past few columns discussing “the narrative” of World War II, our accepted version of the conflict, and how important it is to challenge it when we think it needs changing.

I’ve obviously touched a nerve. There have been some very stimulating posts on the “comments” section, in my email, and on my Facebook account. Unsurprisingly, not everyone is happy with me, and many of the comments have been pretty feisty. It’s something that goes with the territory, I’ve learned. It has to be jarring when some wiseacre comes along and challenges what you know to be right. Most Americans still know and feel in their hearts that World War II was a good war, fought for the right reasons, and conducted about as humanely as we possibly could.

Look, I get that, and I’ll tell you why: I was raised in “the narrative.” I learned it as a kid. Hell, I MEMORIZED it as a kid. I’ve been eating, drinking, and sleeping the narrative as far back as I can remember. I am old enough to remember 78 rpm records—yeah, that I’m that old—and my folks had a copy of Edward R. Murrow’s I Can Hear it Now series dealing with the war. With one of the century’s greatest journalists as my guide, I could literally hear that war coming. Murrow laid it out: while the democracies slept, the dictatorships spent the 1930’s arming and preparing. It sure seemed that way. I listened to Mussolini boasting about his new Roman Empire in front of screaming crowds. I heard the Japanese soldiers roaring out their “Banzai” war cries in China. Above all—and it made an indelible impression on me—I listened to Hitler snarling his bloodthirsty threats against Czechoslovakia in 1938 at the time of the great crisis that culminated in the Munich Conference.

I even remember asking my dad that question that ALL sons ask at some point as they grow to manhood: “Dad, what’s the Sudetenland?”

OK, so I was a weird kid. But even today, I think of that little boy sitting in his living room in Cleveland, Ohio,, listening to a pile of ancient 78s, and I remember feeling certain that what Murrow was telling me wasn’t one mere “narrative” among many. It wasn’t one account that he was “privileging” above others, or some post-modern “construct.” To me, it was something real. It was the truth.

So sure, as a professional historian, I challenge the narrative wherever possible and when I think the facts warrant it. But where I get off the train is when it starts down the “we were all at fault” track and assigns equal moral demerits to the democracies and the dictatorships. It ain’t all up for grabs. World War II may or may not have been a “crusade,” but I still think the Allies had little choice but to fight and win it, and I’m glad they did. Even today, “I can hear it now.”

Next week, we’ll let Frank Capra tell us “Why We Fight.”

For the latest in military history from World War II‘s sister publications visit HistoryNet.com.


7 Responses

  1. Dave T

    Dr. C,
    I agree with your last paragraph. I too grew up with the ‘narrative’ as a Navy brat in the 50’s and early 60’s. It is okay to challenge the narrative, just don’t change the facts…as some revisionists will do to fit their ‘narrative’.

  2. Jacob DeWitt

    Seems like Murrow told it like he saw it. I would think those records are more interesting as a source revealing what Americans heard and thought about the country’s involvement in the war.
    I got this narrative from the books, documentaries, and movies I ate up as a kid, much of which was made in the first decades after the war. I have read a lot since then, and nothing has really shaken that narrative for me. The truth is messier, but it’s a messy world.

    As for the last paragraph, I agree entirely. I still think the Allies were right, and that the Axis powers had to be stopped, but I don’t doubt for a second that we did things that caused a great deal of suffering for millions. Isn’t that why we generally prescribe against war these days?

  3. Mike H.

    The trouble, Robert, has always been the tendency of historians to either (a) glorify or (b) demonize one side or the other in WWII…or, for that matter, in any war. The losers are usually the ones that fall into category (b)…but that has nearly always been a universal truth: that History is written by the winning side. All that said, I, for one, am always willing to listen to a new view, as long as that view is supported with facts and substantiated evidence. In short, I’m want the truth, and not something based on long-held prejudices. What comes immediately to mind is the crapola that the Holocaust never happened…that it is “Zionist Propaganda”. And, no, of course our hands aren’t clean…War is a nasty, brutal business. However, I have never heard of anything remotely resembling Sonderkommando Dirlewanger” on our side…nor the wholesale slaughter of already-surrendered German or Japanese by the British or American troops. (now, our “gallant Sovet allies”? That’s another story…) In any event, PLEASE keep up your fine work. You know you’re getting it right when you can (and do) get people frothing at the mouth when you tell the truth.

  4. DPCII

    Well you did say crusade, Christ, World War II, and admitted to the infamous historian culpability of moral einseitigkeit all in one entry so I’m sure there were a few instant-stroke casualties in the readership. It wouldn’t be fun if there wasn’t any conflict though, especially since you get to handle the emails and not me.

    I personally stand on the side of argument that says that not enough has been done to bring to light the atrocities of the winning side. I’m not one to believe that objective truth is possible to find in this life, though I believe it exists apart from ourselves and is a worthy goal for anyone willing to pursue it. By exposing the mea culpa that we as humans have in every nation and race for committing atrocity, we disarm the convenient narrative that it was the “evil X race or nation or political party” at fault, and certainly not us. Certainly not I. I would never, my people would never do this or that. This is ultimately the mental acrobatics of terrified human beings, who shrivel at the thought of facing who we are.

    I think this is what the author intended, but by all means correct me if I’m wrong.

    • Patrick Miano

      In balance, the Allies fought substantially more humanely than the Axis. The Allied war effort was not a crusade, but it was a good thing. In such a total war, it is idiocy to expect even the “right” side to be morally pure. It is just an excuse to advance the pacifist “no war is justified” agenda. The Allies were mostly right, the Axis were mostly wrong. That is enough.

  5. Chris Grattan

    In 1971 Fred Friendly and Walter Cronkite produced a 3-LP set, “I Can Hear It Now-The Sixties.” The original series had been enormously popular in its time, and it was hoped that this might be as well. Interesting in terms of the narrative of the decade as it was understood by these two mainstream journalists (Cronkite was still anchoring the CBS Evening News at the time). It has been available on CD. The Murrow-Friendly series (there was a volume 2 that covered the postwar era up to Truman’s 1949 inauguration, and a volume 3 that used mostly re-enacted voices that covered the period from the failure of the Versailles Treaty ratification to FDR’s first inauguration) has not been available on CD, though it was had an early release on LP and a couple of subsequent re-releases in that format (including a boxed set). It’s too bad, because the recordings really do give the listener a good sense of how people understood what were then recent events.

  6. Terry Bratt

    Grandmother left me a 5 record set entitled \I can hear it now\ in original box and sleeves in mint condition considering there age 78 rpm records . They have Columbia masterworks set mm-800 Edward R Murrow and Fred W Friendly copyright 1948 on the cover. 1st album is stamped 72711-D XCO 39891.

    Anyone know the value of these thick hard non vinyl 78 records? If so PLEASE contact me my daughter is sick and I need the money desperately thank you 901-415-4531


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.