October 19, 2011

Harold Burson's Blog

The Nuremberg Scripts

Posted By Harold Burson

On Monday, October 1, The New York Times Op-Ed Page columnist, Joe Nocera, titled his offering “The Nuremberg Scripts.”  He used the next 750 or so words to comment on my reporting on the Nuremberg Trial for American Forces Network, the military radio network in Europe.  October 1 was the day the trial of major Nazi war criminals ended sixty-five years ago.

While I reference my Nuremberg experience on biographical material, and many of my professional colleagues and friends know I witnessed history in the making over a stretch of five months back in 1945-46, I have never sought to publicize my association with the trial.  And it was by chance that Joe Nocera learned about it over a social lunch about six months ago.

Joe asked me if I had ever been a reporter.  I told him of my early days on the Memphis Commercial Appeal and that I had also reported on the Nuremberg Trial. Also, I mentioned I had kept my scripts.   He asked to see them and I sent him all 40-something.  Some time later, he e-mailed me that he planned to write a column based on the scripts and that a timely day would be the anniversary of the end of the trial.

After Joe’s column appeared on the New York Times website, comments from friends and B-M colleagues started arriving at midnight Sunday, the first from Bob Pickard, our regional CEO based in Singapore, followed by an e-mail from former B-Mer Brian Lott in Abu Dhabi.  By now, I have had several hundred more, many asking if they could access the scripts.  Joe has also received requests from readers to make them available on line.  (A sampling can be accessed on my website haroldburson.com.)

Now that the subject has been raised, I will share with you how I came to report the Nuremberg Trial.  After wartime service with an engineer combat unit in Europe, I was transferred in July 1945 to American Forces Network as a news writer preparing on-the-hour news broadcasts and special news programs.  AFN brought U.S.-style broadcasts to the several million state-side troops in the UK and on the Continent.  It also had a vast European following largely due to its news coverage and popular disk jockey music programs.

It was a great new job for me, not alone because I was stationed in Paris at a time when most GIs had headed home and the American liberation of France was still top of mind.  Also, of course, I welcomed the occupational change.  I always preferred writing to erecting bridges and maintaining roads!

In early November, I was summoned to the office of AFN commanding officer, Colonel John Hayes, who as a civilian had headed WQXR, the radio station of The New York Times.  He said he wanted me to cover the upcoming Nuremberg Trial of major Nazi war criminals starting November 20.

While flabbergasted he chose me to report on so historic a happening, I was flattered, but confident I was up to the task.  At age twenty-four I was the youngest GI on AFN’s news staff.

My job was writing the news commentary after each day in court; I didn’t have either the right voice or the right accent to go on air.  For the first couple of weeks, I worked with another AFNer on the scripts; until the end of March, I did all the writing. Because so many were being discharged after the war, four successive “voices” read my scripts, the last of them, Herb Kaplow, who later joined NBC News in Washington.

Knowing I was experiencing history in the making, I saved my scripts.  For sixty-five years they attracted no attention, although I have participated in numerous conferences and seminars dealing with the Nuremberg Trials.  To tell the truth, I have scanned the scripts about once every ten years and, frankly, marveled at the words of a 24/25-year writer.  But the topper was this Joe Nocera observation in his column:

“There was another aspect to Harold’s scripts, one I found quite endearing. They have an earnest, idealistic quality that reminds you just how full of hope America was after World War II.  Though we had fought a brutal war, we were determined to act generously to the vanquished.  That even applied to the Nazi brass who had committed reprehensible crimes against humanity.  ‘GI’s have one stock question,’ reads Burson’s very first script, ‘Why can’t we take them out and shoot ‘em?  We know they’re guilty.’

“Again and again, Burson’s scripts try to answer that question.  Because ‘the guilt of the German leaders should be carefully documented.’  Because ‘we of the four Nations are devoted to law and order.”  Because ‘our system is not lynch law.  We will dispense punishment as the evidence demands’  Led by the Americans, the Allies were insistent that the Nazi defendants be treated fairly; Burson’s pride in that ethos shines through on every page.  This postwar idealism was one of the Greatest Generation’s finest qualities.  Today’s cynical, divided country sorely misses it.”

My hope is that you will find interesting the sampling of scripts on my website, the words of which make me prouder today than when I typed them on an ancient Olivetti portable typewriter that badly needed an overhaul.  Take into account I wrote them sixty-five years ago; I am not certain I would do as well today.

Harold Burson

October 19, 2011