Escape under the Berlin Wall: When the Kennedy White House helped kill one of Daniel Schorr’s greatest scoops
Not long before his death in 2010, Daniel Schorr, the legendary CBS correspondent and proud member of Nixon’s “enemies list”–and later a popular NPR commentator–would tell an interviewer that the suppression of one of his greatest journalistic scoops in 1962 was “a case of a boss of mine, who was a friend of President Kennedy, and it was possible for them to go to him and tell him the President asks you to do this.” He paused. “And that’s the story of The CBS Tunnel That Wasn’t.”
My new book, The Tunnels: Escapes Under the Berlin Wall and the Historic Films the JFK White House Tried to Kill reveals the full story of the CBS tunnel under the Berlin Wall, along with an even more spectacular one funded by NBC, for the first time. It’s based on new interviews and thousands of pages of official documents, some only recently declassified. Here, as fears rise about anti-media policies already evident from Team Trump, is an excerpt from the book (greatly compressed to cover more of the story) about the suppression of the Schorr special.
As the first anniversary of the emergence of the concrete Wall dividing Berlin approached in August 1962, Dan Schorr was still looking for a sensational way to mark the occasion. For months he had been trying to find, and then film for a primetime CBS special, an escape tunnel under the Wall. This had become the latest method embraced by activists in West Berlin (still occupied, seventeen years after the postwar division, by the Americans, the French and the British) to spring friends, lovers, family members and strangers from the Communist zone in the east dominated by the Soviet Union. Reversing the usual approach for those resisting prison or tyranny, they dug not in the direction of freedom, but from it, from west to east.
These young men, many of them college students, risked everything to do this, with cave-ins an almost constant risk. Or they might be captured by the notorious Stasi secret police, imprisoned or tortured, or shot and killed, a fate suffered by two of their peers already that year. But they were that desperate. In the first months after the Wall appeared, thousands had fled the East via sewers, by swimming rivers and canals, busting through the barrier in trucks, or sneaking past guards with fake IDs or passports. But now border controls had been stiffened, and the Wall reinforced, so excavating under the barrier viewed was nearly last resort. Several tunnels successfully spirited a few dozen refugees to the West, but most projects had ended in collapse or exposure by East German police or Stasi.
Dan Schorr, like his chief rival, Piers Anderton of NBC–the two networks were in the hottest media competition since Hearst battled Pulitzer–had long set his sights on becoming the first to film a tunnel escape from the inside. In July 1962, he did not know that Anderton was already filming a daring project, led by a cadre of West German students, who were burrowing under the Wall and the “death strip,” halfway along their 400-foot route to a basement two blocks past Bernauer Strasse. Since that would not be completed–if it ever was–for another month or longer, Schorr still had a chance to win this race and provide another celebrated special for his bosses at CBS.
A self-professed “outsider,” Schorr was, he admitted, “pushy,” not always liked by his superiors at CBS and prone to courting controversy, but also dogged in pursuing a scoop. Now Schorr set his sights on another coup: filming a major tunnel operation, perhaps even crawling through the passage himself, with a cameraman, to the Communist side. Like Anderton, he put out word through his contacts that CBS was ready and willing to cover such an enterprise.
Schorr knew that filming a tunnel escape could put him in danger of physical harm, and he faced an additional risk: opposition from the White House. Schorr’s boss, CBS news director Blair Clark, was a former Harvard classmate of the President and remained friendly with him, maybe a little too friendly. Clark had told Schorr that the White House was continually unhappy with the CBS correspondent’s reliance on leaks from West German officials that painted U.S. actions—or inactions—in Berlin in a poor light. Clark revealed that at a recent White House dinner, JFK had leaned over and advised, “Blair, that Dan Schorr in Germany is a pain in the ass—why don’t you pull him out of there?”
Around August 1, Dan Schorr finally got his tunnel, thanks to a tip from magazine writer, and he paid the young West German organizers more than $5000 for the rights to film. But how would American officials respond to such an adventure? While U.S. officials took a strong stance in promising to defend West Germany, they privately expressed ambivalence about escape actions at the Wall, fearing any conflict that might spark a superpower confrontation. President Kennedy, after the Wall went up, told aides that horrible as it was it was likely to reduce the need for any Soviet moves against the West there. “A wall is better than a war,” he said. This attitude carried over in regard sensational escapes–and media attempts to cover them.
The Tunnels, thanks to the newly declassified documents, discloses the full and frank cable traffic between the U.S. mission in Berlin and the State Department, including responses from Secretary of State Dean Rusk. He ordered American diplomats to meet with Schorr and bully him into dropping his coverage. When that failed, in an unprecedented move, approved by the White House, he summoned Schorr’s boss, Blair Clark, to his office on the eve of the escape, and this scene followed.
On August 6, another sultry 90-degree day in D.C., Dean Rusk was so concerned about a possible tunnel fiasco in Berlin that he stayed very late in his seventh-floor office. At ten minutes after ten he talked on the phone with Charles Hulick at the Berlin Mission, seeking an update on the escape and, more importantly, on Daniel Schorr’s plans to cover it, despite multiple warnings from Rusk’s underlings.
A few minutes later, Rusk conferred with the President’s press secretary, Pierre Salinger, insuring that there was no question that Kennedy was on board with this intervention. At 10:50 p.m., Rusk met with the State Department’s top two men in public affairs, Robert Manning and Jim Greenfield. Three men from the CIA joined them. Finally at 11:25, the CBS news director, Blair Clark, arrived, at Greenfield’s invitation.
Born in 1917, Clark grew up in Princeton and met John F. Kennedy when they lived in the same house at Harvard. He remained a Kennedy pal, even joining young Jack and Frank Sinatra on one occasion when they partied in Las Vegas. As president, JFK even offered him the position of ambassador to Mexico.
Now Dean Rusk was asking Clark to order Dan Schorr off the tunnel story. The State Department would even provide a secure phone line to make the call to Berlin. Salinger and Rusk—and the CIA experts—spoke of “proof” that the tunnel had been compromised and that lives were endangered. With time short and no way to evaluate these claims, Clark agreed to talk to Schorr that night. Rusk finally got a chance to go home at midnight, but not before dictating a cable, marked “eyes only,” that was sent to Hulick at the Berlin Mission shortly after 1 a.m.:
“I saw Clark tonight and he agreed scrub CBS participation in tunnel project. However there is evidence that this matter has been the subject of communication between Schorr and his home office over period of time. I am disturbed that so many people aware of project. I cannot assess matter fully here and must leave to local discretion. But urgent consideration should be given to steps to alert East Germans involved to high probability that secrecy broken and they walking into trap. If possible should be considered whether not advisable scrub whole effort.
You should also consider quiet surveillance of area to ensure that photographers and others not poised for tunnel exit.”
Signed: Rusk. A copy of the cable would be sent to Mac Bundy and to Pierre Salinger, who would brief the President on its contents. As usual, no reply from the White House would signal approval.
When Schorr got a call at dawn in his Berlin hotel room, he was perplexed. He was being summoned to the U.S. Mission. On arrival, greeted by a U.S. Marine guard, he was even more startled to learn that he would be speaking on a secure line (indicating some sort of top secret issue), arranged by the U.S. military. It wasn’t so surprising that the man on the other end was his boss, Blair Clark. But what was he doing in Dean Rusk’s office around midnight in Washington?
“What’s this I hear about you planning to film a Berlin tunnel escape?” Clark asked.
“I told our foreign editor all about it,” Schorr replied.
“Well, I am sitting here with the Secretary of State in his office,” Clark said.
“And he has convinced me that you shouldn’t go ahead and do that.”
“Because it would be considered a provocation, it could lead to a great deal of trouble, and the State Department doesn’t want any unnecessary trouble at the Wall.”
“That’s the trouble with the State Department. That’s why there is a wall.”
“Dan, I know you don’t like to be ordered around,” Clark said, putting it mildly, “but that’s it—I want you to scrap all your plans to do that film.”
Schorr was stunned. “Okay,” he said, “but would it make any difference for you to know that once this gets around and we don’t do it, they [the tunnelers] will go to NBC or, god forbid, ABC?”
“It’s an order.”
The call lasted just six minutes. Schorr returned to his hotel humiliated and fuming. The whole concept was wrong—this administration, any administration, dictating news coverage. He knew Blair Clark was a Kennedy man, and he figured that JFK had talked to him, possibly even pressured him, which made Dan even angrier. But there was nothing he could do about it now.
Diplomats in Germany would meet with Schorr two more times that week to make sure he would never try to cover a mass escape again, but found that he did not, as one put it, feel “contrite.” A month later, as my book covers in-depth, the NBC tunnel broke through, leading to the escape of 29 young East Germans. When that network announced its own primetime tunnel special, the Kennedy administration again moved to kill it–forcing a lengthy postponement of the program. When it finally aired, it drew wide acclaim and won three Emmy Awards, and is now considered a landmark in the history of television. Daniel Schorr, knowing he had scooped NBC, would remain bitter about the shutting down of his coverage of the earlier tunnel for the rest of his life.
Greg Mitchell’s latest book, The Tunnels: Escapes Under the Berlin Wall and the Historic Films the JFK White House Tried to Kill, was published last month by Crown.