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Interview: Milo Radulovich

How journalism saved one man, and the rest of us, from McCarthyism

Milo Radulovich says his reputation -- and American freedoms -- were rescued in 1953 when journalists from the Detroit News and CBS's "See It Now" publicized his military discharge on specious disloyalty charges.

The film, "Good Night, and Good Luck," was a docudrama about how CBS News' Edward R. Murrow challenged the anti-communist crusade of Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

The screenplay, based on a true story and written by George Clooney and Grant Heslov, turns on a particularly controversial broadcast in October 1953. Reporters for the popular news program, "See It Now," co-produced by Fred Friendly and Mr. Murrow, interviewed a young Air Force lieutenant faced with losing his commission as a security risk, because his father subscribed to a Serbian socialist newspaper and his sister was a civil-rights activist.

The lieutenant, 27-year-old Milo Radulovich, worried at first that the attention brought by the local press and then CBS might further harm his reputation and career. But the broadcast led quickly to Mr. Radulovich's reinstatement. And as the film makes clear, it was one of the key episodes setting in motion the collapse of Sen. McCarthy's Red Scare.

Mr. Radulovich, now 79 and a retired meteorologist living in Lodi, Calif., spoke with Grade the News about the power of journalism to shed light on official misdeeds.

What was your reaction to seeing the final version of "Good Night, and Good Luck" as it wove together the story of the McCarthy era you lived through?

I thought the whole crew did a wonderful presentation of that period of time. In fact I mentioned to Grant Heslov at the time, "You realize that when you're making a film of this nature, dealing with the McCarthy era -- which has not died at all -- this is going to get a reaction from people like Ann Coulter, and the rest of the people out there who are right-wingers, especially." And he said, "Well, I hope so. That means we did the job." Which was an interesting insight into their philosophy in making this whole film.

So it was an explicitly political project?

No. I think that Clooney's own words were that he did not want this to be a political polemic. But he did realize that the McCarthy era and today's Patriot Act era are so similar that you'd have to be pretty well deaf, dumb and blind not to recognize it. Then it was Communism. Now it's being unpatriotic, anti-administration.

What about the current climate has resonance with the McCarthy era?

The whole thing does. People are getting built up to the point where they will not speak out. Everybody wears a "Support Your Troops" banner on their car. The similarity cannot be denied. Look at NASA, that scientist who just now reported the scientific truth of global warming, that we're at a "tipping point." He was threatened with being fired by his superior officer. Not only has this Patriot Act made us fearful of speaking out in terms of that NASA scientist, but in terms of criticizing the course of our country.

You once said the McCarthy era never died, it just faded away -- and is coming back. How does today's climate compare with that of the '50s?

I don't think in the past 50 years that too many people were held in contempt of Congress or took the Fifth Amendment, like in those days. But if I criticize the Iraqi war, if I criticize the Iraq war and the current administration, I don't really feel free. And if I don't feel free, just an innocent old guy now, I think the average person would feel that way.

Over that long period of time, two things have happened. It's the decline of education and the decline of critical thinking among the general population. What I'm saying is that this reflects back on your profession, to have the nerve and the guts to stand up and say, "Hey, there's not two sides to every story. For example, the Holocaust. There's only one side to this story."

Do you think there are any potential Murrows in today's media?

Well, that's a rare bird today, but that's not to say that there are not any journalists or people of Murrow's and Fred Friendly's caliber. But there's suppression, which you saw in that picture. CBS tried to suppress them. And they essentially went out on their own, paying for their own advertisements. That takes a certain amount of courage and a certain amount of saying, "Well, I might lose my job on this." There's a price to be paid.

What role did the press play fighting injustice when you first were investigated as a security risk by the Air Force in 1953?

I was not in the habit of reading the newspapers at that time. I was a college student working two jobs, taking physics. The time that I realized the press was going to get involved was when my lawyer Charlie Lockwood said, "The only way you're going to fight the government is with publicity. With the press." So I said, "The press? What are they going to do?"

They [the Detroit News] sent a journalist out named Russell Harris. I was 27 at the time. He was probably 50 at the most. He was in Detroit for many years. He knew every one of those neighborhoods. And he's the one who interviewed me for all afternoon. Wanted to know all about my family. Well, my parents basically immigrated from Montenegro. Russell knew all about the factions between ethnic groups. He was the type of journalist who got down in the mud. He wasn't afraid to talk to anybody, including his own editors.

Did he have the same anti-McCarthy agenda that CBS News had when it picked up the story later on?

He didn't have any agenda, not that I know of.

Did Murrow?

I don't know. Murrow and Friendly were bothered by what was happening to the country, from what I understand. Because McCarthy was tearing up the country, accusing everybody of being a communist, communist sympathizer, pinko, fellow traveler, you name it.

What was the effect of having your story in the Detroit News?

Well, I was very frightened, quite bluntly. I was on my way to class, my friend said, "Hey, that's you. Look at the picture." I almost dropped dead right there. I said, "This is terrible, with headlines and everything. What's going to happen?" They were getting rid of faculty especially in the social sciences, journalism -- you name it -- physics, because they had shady pasts. Not shady pasts, according to them, but questionable security. Because of the climate of fear. On one final exam, in Thermodynamics 101, the professor wouldn't let me retake it because one of my kids was being born on the same day. He said, "What are you doing getting mixed up with the government like that? That's terrible." Later he reneged and said I could take it.

At the time did you understand this article and the subsequent publicity would be your salvation?

Not in the least. I thought they would drag me down deeper. I was dealing with three colonels, and they would read it -- and they did. [They said,] "Well everything would have been OK, if you had just kept your mouth shut. Everything would have been fine. We would give you the verdict in a sealed envelope."

And they said, "I'll tell you what: You denounce your sister and everything's going to be fine. That's all you have to do. Denounce her. And your father." And I said, "I can't do that." You denounce your own DNA? No, I couldn't. So when I saw the first page of the Detroit News, I didn't get exuberant and say, "Oh, man, that's going to be great." I said, "Man, I'm dead."

At what point did your understanding of the power of the press change?

Then Murrow and Friendly's team got into it. Somebody called me up from CBS, "This is Ed Murrow's 'See It Now.' We'd like to have some of our people come out to Dexter [Michigan] to interview you. We want to do a feature on this tribunal thing."

So they sent Joe Wershba. A journalist who should be enshrined. He interviewed my father. Interviewed my sister, my brothers in Detroit. Then he interviewed the town. The whole damn town.

That's journalism, man! That's what I mean. Get down in the mud. He went to the dry-cleaning lady. He went to the dentist. They talked to the cop. It took him a couple of days, as I remember. I was kind of hesitant about all this, because I didn't realize that "See It Now" was a popular television news program.

What happened after the program aired?

I got a phone call. "Yeah, this is Joe Blow from United Press International, am I talking to Milo Radulovich?" "Yeah." "Well how do you feel about being reinstated and exonerated?"

I felt like I was a helium balloon in weather floating up to the sky. A lot of times when you're doing something consciously, in this case protecting your own reputation and character and name and family, you're standing up for it, you don't realize the weight that's on you until some kind of victory is achieved.

Well, if it hadn't been for journalism? No way. It would never have happened.

So it took courage to tell that story, on the part of the journalists?

I personally think it took a lot of courage to put themselves on the line. The stories, really, they were just the facts, ma'am. As Murrow told at the end of the period of a half-hour, "I will grant the Air Force or anybody else equal time to refute anything that we have presented here as facts in this case. Anything that they wish, including the Air Force, if they want equal time, here it is." Like that. But nobody took them up on it, because there wasn't anything to refute. So actually facts may be in the eye of the beholder, but nonetheless facts sometimes are facts.

Were the journalists facing repercussions?

Yes, I do think that. Certainly McCarthy. In fact he tried to neutralize Murrow, because the first thing he did was call Murrow a communist. Because years ago, in the '30s, Murrow was in some kind of an international journalism program for the world. It showed it in the film, "Good Night, and Good Luck." Part of it was in the Soviet Union. So McCarthy ran with that -- he's an agent of the communist government. Yeah, I think it took a hell of a lot of courage. You're damn right.

Do you think if a case like yours came across the attention of the national press today that the same thing would happen? Or has the press been too cowed by the government to undertake a similar type of expose?

Well, I don't know. I don't think that the journalists of America -- print journalism anyway -- have been cowed by anybody but their editors, who don't represent anybody but the corporations that own them. It takes a lot to stifle a journalist. But suppression of a journalist comes from much higher than a journalist. I think there's a lot of potential Murrows and Cronkites and all those outstanding journalists of America.

Would the McCarthy era have ended without the efforts of journalists working to scrutinize it?

I think the efforts of journalists accelerated it. Everything ends. He died at 49 years old of alcoholism. So that part of it would have ended. So one McCarthy dies. You've got 20 more -- like this guy who wrote me last week with a threatening letter accusing me of being a communist. This shows me there are demagogues alive and well out there ready to accuse.

Do you think an atmosphere like that could ever return?

Once bit twice warned. Anything is possible. But my hope is no. Question authority! It's a ticklish dance we're dancing in this democracy. The people might have been dumbed down but they're not that dumb. Not yet. Every American has basic intelligence. But sometimes in an atmosphere of fear you don't express that. That's where journalists come in. The most powerful weapon in the world is the word. Look at poor Thomas there in the press corps there in Washington, D.C.

Helen Thomas?

Yes. Another example of the same mold as Murrow, Joe Wershba, Russell Harris, Cronkite, all those big names. But Helen Thomas made the mistake of criticizing the administration, or asking a question that sounded like it was critical. She was relegated to the back row and not called upon anymore.

So we need more Helen Thomases?

Absolutely we need more Helen Thomases. The people of course have to do it, but the voice of the people, vox populi, are journalists, for God's sake.

How did all this affect your outlook on life?

I've got a framed poster of the Bill of Rights on my wall. How did the founders come up with such deep philosophical ideas about the human race? Who would I be, talking to a journalist, if I was just Joe Schmo from Kokomo, working in a factory or in a shipyard like I used to do, or driving a cab?

The government seems to be back in the business of spying on Americans. Do you think there's adequate debate about that?

No, I really don't. Like Murrow said, we should argue about it endlessly. That's the way he ended "Good Night, and Good Luck": "Whatever happens in this whole area of the relationship between the individual and the State, we will do ourselves; it cannot be blamed upon Malenkov, Mao Tse-tung or even our allies." We only have ourselves to blame. Those words are still valid, more so today. They're valid every day, as we get into periods of tenseness and distrusting each other, on the political scene, entering into wars against people who have done us no harm.

What do you think? Discuss it in The Coffeehouse.


A project of the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at San Jose State University, Grade the News is affiliated with the Graduate Program in Journalism at Stanford University and KTEH, public television in Silicon Valley.

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