Listening selectively to US broadcast recordings of the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s—the period often referred to as the radio’s golden age—I often neglect the kind of program that, during the late 1930s was fast gaining in significance as millions of Americans, many of whom were immigrants from Europe and Russia, were following reports from the Old World they had left. On this day, 22 September, in 1939, news commentator H. V. Kaltenborn kept CBS listeners abreast of the situation in Europe, paying special attention to the politically unstable kingdom of Romania.
As I learned yesterday, reading My Eyes Are in My Heart by aforementioned radio announcer Ted Husing, the King and Queen of Romania were savvy people not averse to selling out or forging lucrative alliances. On a tour of the United States back in 1926, Queen Maria of Romania, made a splash in the advertising world, agreeing to appear on radio, promote products, and be seen shopping in certain stores, all for the right sum of money.
Romania had one particularly valuable commodity, and the country, still neutral in the fall of 1939 was keen on keeping good relations with the nation that was about to swallow the continent. On 21 September, premier Armand Călinescu was assassinated by Romania’s fascist Iron Guard and Gheorghe Argeşanu, former Minister of War, was named as his successor. Here is how Kaltenborn (whose German title would have been Baron von Kaltenborn-Stachau, had he not been born and raised in Wisconsin) described the situation to American listeners:
That means that they are going to have a military government, as strong a government as King Carol [II] could possibly create, and it needs to be strong in view of the situation faced by imperiled Romania. Russian armies are menacing from the north. German armies are menacing from the west.
While Russia was anxious to regain territory lost to Romania after Germany needed Romanian oil, Kaltenborn explained; and in trying not to offend either giant, Romania was on the brink of becoming another Poland.
Speaking rapidly and with animation, Kaltenborn occasionally stumbled in his commentary; he generally used notes rather than a prepared script, a technique that lent urgency to his reportage.
By 1939, he was a veteran, his beginnings in broadcasting dating back to 1922 (as you will learn listening to this Recollections tribute from 3 April 1957). As early as 1926, he had remarked upon “Radio’s Responsibility as a Molder of Public Opinion,” upon radio’s role as the Fifth Estate. “Public opinion is the king of America, and radio must assume a more conscious responsibility as democracy’s kingmaker,” he had cautioned.
World War II had only just begun; but news analysts like Kaltenborn were preparing the ignorant, the indifferent, and the isolationists for the inevitable, however tentative and cautious they were in their warnings:
I spent a good part of yesterday in Washington, I interviewed members of the Cabinet, outstanding leaders of the Senate, some of the most outspoken leaders of the opposition to lifting the embargo [against sending military aid to European countries facing threats from Germany and Russia, an embargo maintained as part the US Neutrality Act that FDR had urged Congress to repeal on 21 September], and got a picture of the atmosphere of Washington. There is general apprehension in Washington that somehow, in some way, in spite of our not wanting it, that the country may be pushed towards war.
“Let those who seek to retain the present embargo position,” Kaltenborn insisted,
be wholly consistent and seek new legislation to cut off cloth and copper and meat and wheat and a thousand other articles from all the nations at war. I seek a greater consistency through the repeal of the embargo provisions and a return to international law.
Kaltenborn then read a bulletin from the United Press, which stated that the isolationists in the Senate intended to fight the President on the embargo repeal “from hell to breakfast.”
Recordings of broadcast news and commentaries like this (which you may find in this invaluable Old Time Radio Researchers Group compilation), bring to life a time of fear and uncertainty without an awareness of which classic radio plays like “The War of the Worlds” cannot be fully understood.