World War II and Radio’s ‘Dean of Commentators’

(Americans marked the anniversary this past week of the invasion of Normandy. One of the leading advocates in the early days of the war for U.S. intervention was H.V. Kalenborn, one of the earliest talk icons. Below is an excerpt from The Right Frequency, an Amazon Best Seller, about Kaltenborn’s commentary and reporting on World War II.)

H.V. Kaltenborn had a progressive streak. Though it was not necessarily clear cut, as such labels have a different meaning today than in the 1920s. He was not aligned with the Democrats or Republicans. He was critical of organized labor, but was smitten with President Franklin D. Roosevelt. One might also call him hawkish on military intervention— as he wanted to enter World War II well before Pearl Harbor. But the Republican party of that day was largely defined by a strong isolationism.

Almost half of American homes tuned into his broadcast in September 1939 as Kaltenborn reported the outbreak of World War II, or the conflict that most Americans insisted was a European matter.

Kaltenborn was not most Americans, and in 1940 began demanding the officially neutral United States enter the war to aid Great Britain. CBS news chief Ed Klauber was not happy with this line of commentary, and the two clashed. Klauber asked him to make the commentary less personal. Instead of saying “I think,” say, “there are those who believe,” or “some experts say.” It seemed like a reasonable compromise to Klauber. Kaltenborn found it unacceptable and just went to NBC, a station all too happy to take the competitor’s big star.59 His NBC commentaries in 1941 were almost exclusively about the need for American interventionism, and even warned of an aggressive action by the Japanese before Pearl Harbor.

After America entered the war in response to Pearl Harbor, the then-63-year-old Kaltenborn took a microphone to broadcast from the battlefields in Europe, and interviewed soldiers and politicians.

After the war ended, he was recognized with the 1945 DuPont Radio Award, and then with nine other awards the following year.

After the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki ending the war, the great World War II correspondent warned, “For all we know, we have created a Frankenstein! We must assume that with the passage of only a little time, an improved form of the new weapon we use today can be turned against us.”

Click here to order a copy of The Right Frequency.

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