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tv   Radio World War II- Era Politics  CSPAN  July 21, 2018 1:35pm-1:56pm EDT

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vetoed. that effectively is regrettable because unless the in people don't know that we have no sales tax or income tax. we are a very low tax state. however, the later pfu has handled it people have to pay $1000 in taxes. that is kind of inequitable, if you ask me. >> voices from the state on c-span. next, we interview wofford college history professor mark byrnes about the influence of radio on world war ii-era politics. we spoke with him at "the organization of american historians annual meeting" in sacramento, california. this is about 20 minutes. steve: mark byrnes is a professor of history at wofford college. let me begin by asking, where
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was america in the late 1930's on the eve of world war ii and where was radio? prof. byrnes: that is an important point in our history. it is in the late 1930's that the u.s. for the first time had national media. you had four different radio networks, mutual, nbc blue, nbc red, and cbs. that meant that basically anyone anywhere in america could hear the same thing. that simply had never happened before in any political debate that the u.s. had engaged in, that you had national media that everyone in theory had access to. by 1939 or 1940, about 75% or so of the american people had radios. that was over 90% in urban areas. even people who do not have their own radios probably knew somebody who did and could gather to listen to radio programming. it was the first time in
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american history that you could reach everyone at once. steve: president franklin d. roosevelt died in 1945. if you travel to hyde park and take the tour, the historians will say president roosevelt never thought television was going to take off. he thought the radio was always going to be king. i mention that because of the importance radio played for fdr in particular, but also its importance in the 1930's and 1940's in the u.s. prof. byrnes: one of the things about fdr -- i think that is natural. he was widely acknowledged as the first master of radio in politics. he is the one who really understood its true potential. everyone knew it was there. herbert hoover in 1929 was talking about its potential, but he wasn't able to exploit that. fdr was and fdr understood the power of radio better than anyone else in his time. what is interesting about what i am looking at and researching is that by 1939, roosevelt
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also understood that he could not do it by himself. we think of politics and radio in the 1930's and we think fdr and fireside chats. in this debate, roosevelt knew he could not be on the radio all of the time. he had learned that his ability to go on the radio and talk to the nation was political capital that he had to spend very carefully. one of the things i found in my research, even before world war ii started in europe, roosevelt was looking to other people to go on the radio and advance ideas that he liked. when the war began, he contacted others, would you meet with some like-minded folks and talk to them about going on the radio? he understood that the more he talked, the less effective he would be.
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would be. he wanted to broaden that. one of the things that happens during this debate over world war ii from 1939-1941 is an incredible variety of people on the radio. it is not just the president or members of congress. it is university presidents, clergymen, labor leaders, businessman. all these people have access to radio time during this debate. that is one of the fascinating things about it. it goes against our stereotype that roosevelt was "the radio politician." this debate is not about roosevelt, it is about everyone else. steve: it is also winston churchill and edward r. murrow. prof. brynes: murrow is particularly interesting because he skirts on some level the boundaries between news and commentary. that is also something that happened during this time. you have people that are very well-versed going on the radio and explaining important events and foreign policy to the
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american people. it is hard to do that without making some kind of judgment. it is not exactly straight news. on some level, it is also advocacy. i think that is an important part of what i consider formative time in radio in american politics. all sorts of lines of being blurred. the line between news and entertainment is being blurred. the line between straight news reporting and advocacy news is being blurred. steve: some have described radio as the most personal and visual of mediums. would you agree or disagree with that? prof. brynes: certainly the way franklin roosevelt used it in the fireside chats was personal. he moved away from the bombastic oratory that was normal for political speeches and spoke conversationally, and that made it very personal. the extent which radio required people to visualize and create their own visual component to what they were hearing certainly
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made it visual in that sense. i am not sure i would go as far as what you said is it being the most visual. certainly what happens later with a television where we literally see sometimes images overwhelming words, change s things quite a bit. the focus was still on the word in the radio era. it remains that words were still important. steve: hitler is making his move in the late 1930's, europe is in the middle of a war. we don't enter until december 1941. go back to your point about the you will debates going on here in this country and how fdr used radio to facilitate that debate. prof. byrnes: he knew from the beginning of the war in europe that the american people were not interested in engaging in this war. the consensus view in the american public was that world war i involvement had been a mistake.
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that it should not be repeated. i think fdr, in many ways shared that opinion. i don't think he was eager to get involved in the war, certainly initially. what happened over time, especially after dunkirk, the fall of france in the spring of 1940, he became increasingly certain that american security required an ally and a nazi defeat. the question was, how do we play a role in that? most americans agreed with that. they wanted the british to win and the nazis to lose. they also did not want the americans to fight it. how do we serve that goal, the allied victory, and preserve our independence as a nation and not become indebted to the british
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empire and its survival? that is what the debate is about. how to serve the national interest in a broad sense? how do we also preserve our independence as a nation and our independent actions? what fdr's doing during this entire period is trying to convince the american people to do more to aid the british. as he was incredibly sensitive to it, he could not get too far out ahead of the public. he could not be in a position of looking back and seeing that no one was following him. what he wanted the public to do was come to its own conclusion. he did not want to tell them this is what you think. he wanted them to come to that conclusion. that meant that he could not be the one on the radio. other people had to be making the arguments that he could then responded to the public demand for more aid. and he was perceived for doing that. he was very careful, working behind the scenes to encourage other people to go on the radio, to make the case for aiding the allies in way that would be persuasive to the public. one example, in august of 1940, he was considering the famous
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"destroyers for bases deal." it would be an unprecedented thing to give great britain 50 american destroyers during wartime. there is nothing neutral about that, giving ships to a country at war. steve: we should point out that winston churchill was begging roosevelt to help out. prof. byrnes: roosevelt wanted to do it. he was also worried about the political reaction. would the public support him if he took that step? he met with some prominent people called the century group. he said, what we need is a program of radio education. we need the people to hear on the radio why this is a good idea. he suggested to them, let's get black jack pershing, the american war hero from world war i, to go on the radio and say this is a good idea. i do not want to do it. i want pershing to do it.
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i want you to get pershing to do it. if you say it is my idea, i will say that you are lying. i will disavow it because i do not want the public to think that this is my idea. i want the public to see other people advocating this. this was part of how roosevelt used radio without going on the radio. it is a powerful tool, but it is even more powerful if he is not the one making the case. the larger story that has been untold is that there are many people going on the radio, making these arguments to the american public for and against intervention. steve: how many americans had radios in those days? prof. byrnes: the numbers i have seen are at least 75% of the national population and over 90% of urban areas. more in the north than the south, but generally speaking, the vast majority of people had a radio or access to a radio from someone they knew in the
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family, a neighbor. it was incredibly widespread by world war ii. by 1940, most people get their news from radio, more than 50% got their news from radio at that point. steve: were they relatively inexpensive? prof. byrnes: i don't know the exact cost of a radio, when you are talking about the fact that this is still during the great depression, they do not pull out of the depression until 1940 or 1941. the fact that that many people had them despite the economic hard times meant they had to be an affordable item that was beyond a luxury and more a commonplace household item. steve: you are from new jersey. if you were alive on december 7, 1941 listening to the radio with your family, what would you have heard that day and the day that followed the famous infamy speech by fdr? prof. byrnes: what would you have heard that day? that is interesting. you would have heard, initially, the news flash on sunday which
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would have been very spotty that something had happened. i would imagine over the course of the day what you had were updates and people breaking with additional details. certainly, by monday morning, you knew the country was at war, even in fact if congress had not acted yet. and what i think you would have heard with roosevelt's speech is the wisdom of the approach that i have been talking about. this was a time when only the president could speak for the country. he had been very careful to hoard that political capital, and now when he needed it to rally the nation to arguably the most important cause it had ever engaged in, he was seen as i think primarily, not universally, but primarily a unifying figure who had the ability to do that. he had not been seen as a pure
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partisan of one point of you -- view throughout the entire debate. he maintained his distance. he had calibrated his involvement as a leader on the radio. when he spoke to the entire , over the radio and not just to congress, it was that speech that was much more effective than it otherwise would have been. steve: this may be an obvious question, but when did fdr realize the value of radio, and why was he so adept at using it? prof. byrnes: he seems to have noted certainly from the very beginning in his presidency the first big challenge he had was the thinking crisis in the into regular him -- into regular interregnum between hoover and himself. steve: in 1933? prof. byrnes: 1932 and 1933, that was before we had anyway 20th inauguration day. it was not until march and the banking crisis got worse and worse that hoover felt he could not act.
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roosevelt was not an office so -- in office so he couldn't act very quickly. when he came in, he knew something had to be done very quickly, and it was. he also understood he needed to explain to the public what had been done, and that was the very first so-called fireside chat. he went on the radio and explained in a conversational tone, without the normal rhetorical bombastic political speech what exactly the government was doing and why people should have faith in it. i think he simply had an intuitive sense that if you talk to the people as if they are intelligent, if you do not condescend to them, but you also don't talk over their head. you simply speak plainly to them as you would to anyone that you are trying to explain something to, that they will respond to that. the people may not be as well-versed in a particular topic as you are, but that doesn't mean they're not capable of understanding.
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if it is explained to them well and carefully, they will respond, and they will have faith in that. he especially understood that the previous several years with the sense that political leadership had failed under hoover, that what people needed was that faith more than anything else that their government and the people in charge of the government actually could do things to make their lives better. but first they needed to have faith in that person and i think he gave them that faith by trusting them them with the idea that they could understand even complex financial situation like the banking bill of 1933 if it were explained to them. steve: doris kearns edwin has goodwin has often told the story in brooklyn you could walk down the street on a summer
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day, you could hear the entire speech because everyone had it on. is that true? prof. byrnes: it is certainly seems to be metaphorically true. a presidential speech was a relatively big deal. during the period i am talking about and looking at with the debate over world war ii, roosevelt spoke relatively rarely during that period. he only gave the equivalent of a fireside chat only two or three times during this entire debate. but when he did, he had a record audience. steve: and conversely, where there the isolationists or opponents who did not want to see the u.s. enter the war, did they also use radio? prof. byrnes: absolutely. in fact, i think you could argue they used radio more creatively than the interventionists did. america first engaged in a technique known as transcriptions, which to the modern era means the written speech, but what a transcription was in the 1930's was a record -- they would cut a record that they would send to radio stations, and they developed a
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technique of effectively creating a radio brand for themselves or they had theme music, an a cappella group singing "my country 'tis of thee," which would fade out and then the announcer would come on and introduce the programming. someone would speak or other content would be presented to the public and then at the end, it would give a fund-raising pitch -- send your money to america first committee, the borad of trade building, chicago, illinois, let me repeat that address, and then they would repeat the address and he would make sure the people knew where to send their money and acquire would come back on. any time the public heard this version of "my country 'tis of thee," they knew they were listening to an america first broadcast. they actually had a sense of branding for their point of view of creating a kind of radio programming that the listener was used to when they listen to jack benny or something like that that they would instantly identify who they were listening to at that point in time.
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they pioneered the use of on-site reporting. a member of congress, a guy named james van zandt of pennsylvania went to the veterans' hospital in washington, d.c. and interviewed world war i veterans in their beds and wheelchairs. so that it wasn't just a politician saying these are the mistakes, he would say comrade, tell me what you think, this wheelchair-bound veteran, and understood the power of that. that is testimony from people who had seen more and suffered -- war and suffered some of the worst consequences of war. it is powerful stuff to listen to. it was also incredibly rare. it is the sort of thing where used in the modern day where we go to the reporter on the scene, this is incredibly new and unusual in 1941 when it was done. steve: i am struck by what you are saying because we have america first, president trump make america great again, let's pull out of syria and question our role in nato.
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in terms of the sentiment for a core group of donald trump supporters, that was president in the 1930's as well. there is a parallel between the two. prof. byrnes: in the 1930's, and even among people who wanted the british to win the war, they didn't want to fight it. even on the eve of pearl harbor, most americans did not want to get into the war. it took an event of a of a direct attack on the united states and its territory to convince people that war was necessary. they wanted to help, they didn't want to get involved. throughout the entire period from september 1939 all the way through december 1941, most americans did not want to fight in the war. they just wanted to help. steve: mark byrnes, do you have a book in you on this? prof. byrnes: i hope so. i have been working for several years and researching how groups like america first and the committees to defend america by aiding the allies, the roosevelt administration used radio and
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working on something i hope we will see to furition one day. steve: we thank you very much for being with us. associate professor for the department of history at wofford college, i appreciate your time. prof. byrnes: thank you. [captioning performed by the national captioning institute, which is responsible for its caption content and accuracy. visit] >> you are watching american history tv, only on c-span3. >> the summer solstice marked midnight sunday and in fairbanks alaska. the amateur baseball game held at the home started at 10:00 p.m., and because the sun is out for nearly 24 hours, there is no need for additional lighting. up nest -- next, we continue our visit to alaska with the visit to the trends alaska -- transamerica pipeline. the 1970'sem back in was


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