Eric Sevareid: The Taming of the Dream
September 1, 2010        



            In Democratic Vistas (1867), his immortal paean to American promise, Walt Whitman celebrated an ideal to which, he claimed, the American West at least sometimes approximated:


I can conceive a community, to-day and here, in which, on a sufficient scale, the perfect personalities, without noise, meet; say in some pleasant western settlement or town, where a couple of hundred best men and women, of ordinary worldly status, have by luck been drawn together, with nothing extra of genius or wealth, but virtuous, chaste, industrious, cheerful, resolute, friendly and devout. I can conceive such a community organized in running order, powers judiciously delegated -- farming, building, trade, courts, mails, schools, elections, all attended to; and then the rest of life, the main thing, freely branching and blossoming in each individual, and bearing golden fruit. I can see there, in every young and old man, after his kind, and in every woman after hers, a true personality, develop'd, exercised proportionately in body, mind, and spirit. I can imagine this case as one not necessarily rare or difficult, but in buoyant accordance with the municipal and general requirements of our times. And I can realize in it the culmination of something better than any stereotyped eclat of history or poems. Perhaps, unsung, undramatized, unput in essays or biographies -- perhaps even some such community already exists, in Ohio, Illinois, Missouri, or somewhere, practically fulfilling itself, and thus outvying, in cheapest vulgar life, all that has been hitherto shown in best ideal pictures



            In the middle of the next century, a son of one of those Western communities looked back on his boyhood and remembered something not unlike what Whitman had foreseen:


We were a true democracy in that huddled community of painted boards. ... There were, of course, differences in degree of material wealth. There were what was always referred to as the "well-to-do," and we had a few families "on the other side of the tracks." No doubt there was envy at times and small bitternesses here and there. But no man lived in fear of another. No man had the power to direct another to vote this way or that. No impenetrable combine could foist a candidate upon the people if they did not wish, and it would have been quite impossible to rig an election and get away with it. This was an agrarian democracy, which meant there was no concentration of capital goods, which meant in turn, since we had no all-powerful landlords, that no class society based on birth or privilege had a chance to develop. ... No virtue was made of poverty ... but to be poor was no disgrace.

            Later I read all the exalting literature of the great struggle for a classless society ... It occurred to me then that what men wanted was Velva, on a national, on a world, scale. For the thing was already achieved, in miniature, out there, in a thousand miniatures scattered along the rivers and highways of all the West and Middle West. I was to hear [others] speak with a certain contempt of our Middle West ... its dullness, its bedrock of intolerance. [But] we had, in those severely limited places, an intolerance also of snobbery, of callousness, of crookedness, of men who kicked other men around. The working of democracy is boring, most of the time, and dull compared with other systems, but that is a small price to pay for so great a thing.



            The rest of Eric Sevareid's splendid memoir, Not So Wild a Dream, bears the impress of this noble prairie populism. The incidents of his early life are set down with a wry but still glowing moral fervor: the abject poverty of the despoiled Cree Indians he encountered on his astonishing 2200-mile canoe trip with a high-school friend; the rough-and-ready egalitarianism of mine scavengers in the Sierra Nevada and hobos on the railroad boxcars he bummed back to the Midwest; his shocked discovery as a cub reporter that "nearly all men working in a large American concern did their daily work under the tyranny of fear"; the camaraderie of the undergraduate radicals in the "Jacobin Club" at the University of Minnesota; the young Sevareid's disillusion when administrators' machinations cost him the coveted editorship of the college newspaper. Later in the book, his indignation over the treatment of Southern Negroes and his anguish over victorious America's apparent preference for dealing with former collaborators rather than leftist partisans are eloquently rendered.

            Though the teeming memoir was dashed off in six months - by a mere thirty-three year-old - it did not lack literary qualities. The New Yorker's A.J. Liebling, whose war writings have been collected in a Library of America volume, is usually considered the most accomplished of World War II correspondents. But compared with Sevareid's taut narrative, pulsing with moral drama, psychological insight, and colorful incident, Liebling's prose seems mannered, too sly by half.

Which is not to say that Sevareid was incapable of lyricism or wit. En route to China, his transport plane went down. Sevareid and most of the other passengers and crew managed to parachute. Here is his description of their rescue, after twelve days in the Burmese jungle, by a British official and a party of natives:


They came as the light was dimming away. The mist was spread below us, and we seemed to be alone, on the summit of the world. A low chanting sound came from beneath the cloud layer, growing louder and louder until it seemed that a subterranean forest of voices was rising to engulf us. Dark, glistening bodies appeared from the ravine, more and more of them, flooding among us and surrounding our space of habitation. A tall, slim young man wearing a halo of shining fair hair, carrying the mystery of civilization in his casual posture and soft blue eyes, materialized from the void. He was standing at our gate, smiling gently, like a stranger in the countryside, out for a stroll and dropping in with an air almost of apology. He was garbed in a soft blue polo shirt, blue shorts, and low walking shoes. His legs were bronzed and firm. From his smiling lips drooped a long cigarette holder. He was Philip Adams, the Sahib of Mokokchung, king of these dark and savage hills.



            After a short stay in India and a longer stay in China, he reported in Not So Wild a Dream, his "basic beliefs in the liberal approaches were deeply shaken." Were the democratic ideals he revered of any use in this hungry, crowded half of the world? Might the coercive methods of Communism be, in these desperate circumstances, a lesser evil? He confronted these questions sensitively and fearlessly:


The great aim of freedom in security for the individual seemed to me universal and eternally right. As for the methods, however, it seemed clear that there was a time-space equation involved which could not be ignored. ... Half the human race was barefoot, filthy, sick, and worried from morning till night, from birth until death, over no other problem than simply finding food for their bellies. The truth was that, no matter how ruthless the effort might be, nothing could be worse than the present condition. And maybe in ten years, or twenty, or fifty, these hundreds of millions would be able to live, to be clean and whole, to rise above their animal state and walk as men. True, there was danger that the means would become the end. But it seemed to me that the risk was worth the taking.



            In retrospect, a question occurs to anyone pondering 20th-century American history: why did such openness of mind and generosity of spirit as this so rarely find expression in the new mass media? Even Sevareid himself seldom if ever in his broadcasting career matched the admirable blend of discrimination and passion that makes Not So Wild a Dream an inspiration, even now. With honorable exceptions, he seemed in his broadcasts to have exchanged the searching critical spirit of his first mentor, Edward R. Murrow, for the bland centrism of Walter Lippmann and James Reston. Like the latter, he became an insider, his perspectives and values fatally shaped by what they all regularly, knowingly referred to as "the mood here in Washington."

            The price of respectability in American public discourse has always been an unwillingness to question the good intentions of US foreign policy. Of course everyone agrees that the US has made mistakes abroad, out of naivete, impatience, or short-sightedness. But to deny that American international behavior is fundamentally idealistic, is sincerely devoted to spreading democracy and freedom everywhere, without regard to the commercial or strategic interests of those who wield domestic power in the United States - this is heresy. It is anti-American, irresponsible, beyond the pale.

            Sevareid largely accepted this conventional wisdom. Like Lippmann and Reston, he was a Cold War liberal. He scoffed at "the mea culpa open letters one is asked to sign by high-minded American professors deploring the principle of the Cuban invasion attempt" - the principle, that is, that the US has every right to disregard international law and the UN Charter. (Alas, if more people had joined back then in deploring that "principle," even graver US crimes in Vietnam and Iraq might have been prevented.)  He reassured nervous Brazilians that "we have no designs on Latin America save its stability and security" - this less than a decade after the US shocked all of Latin America by organizing the overthrow of the newly-elected reformist government of Guatemala and two years before the US supported a military coup in Brazil that that imposed a harsh right-wing dictatorship on that country. He urged "African nationalists" to "abandon their comfortable hatreds" and admit that "the British and the French ... truly are moving out of Africa, truly do seek free and viable African states" - this just four years after the British and French invaded Suez and a year before the US and Belgium organized the murder of Patrice Lumumba and the breakup of the Congo. He lamented that "the generous humanitarian American formula for saving underdeveloped countries from Communist upheaval" - a formula that in fact included frequent armed intervention, CIA subversion, and steady support for anti-democratic military commanders - "cannot work in a good many such countries" and professed himself "impatient" with the frivolous notion that we might succeed better abroad through "more exemplary conduct at home ... and by ceasing to support the local dictators." Joseph Alsop or William F. Buckley Jr could not have put it better.

            It is not what one would have expected from the former doyen of the Jacobin Club. What happened? Introducing his major collection, This Is Eric Sevareid, he faced this question. "For the present I find myself divided, not only between political liberalism and cultural conservatism, but I find myself politically liberal on domestic affairs and increasingly conservative on foreign affairs." He had, he suggested, been naïve. Time and travel had taught him that Communism was more dangerous and the Third World more corrupt than he and other left-liberals had suspected. If this was apostasy, it was honestly come by and modestly asserted. He did not, at least, become a neoconservative.

            Another remark in that Introduction also revealed that he'd come a long way from Velva. "It has become harder to believe that if only the people are given the truth, they will do the right thing, that some kind of folk instinct is better than expertise and aristocracy of wisdom and taste." This is rank Lippmannism. Surely Sevareid had spent too much time in Washington, among the "experts" who managed to squander, in the second half of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first, so much of this country's blood, wealth, and reputation.

            In any case, whether "the people are given the truth" was not up to Sevareid, as he knew all too well. Raymond Schroth's biography tells of a confrontation between Sevareid and CBS chief William Paley in 1956 over a broadcast criticizing the State Department, which Paley ordered killed.


The two men sat there across from one another. ... Paley had, as usual, the upper hand. ... Despondent, Sevareid broke the silence. "Maybe I've been too long with CBS." Paley just sat there silently looking at him - a signal that, yes, it was time for Eric Sevareid to resign. But he didn't.



            Two years later, Paley again demonstrated his unfitness for his position by terminating Edward R. Murrow's great series See It Now, telling Murrow: "I don't want this constant stomach-ache every time you do a controversial subject." "It goes with the job," protested Murrow, who apparently hadn't learned that the job of publishers and media executives is to please advertisers and shareholders, not to see that "the people are given the truth." It's a pity that Murrow and Sevareid, with their extraordinary talents, had to spend so much of their professional lives working for someone with a weak stomach. But that's journalism, then and now.