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A Harrowing Tale Of Cold War Escape And Suppression In 'The Tunnels'

The Berlin Wall was a scar — a concrete and barbed wire boundary that divided families, East and West, communism and capitalism, tyranny and democracy. People died trying to climb over it while others labored to carve tunnels beneath it.

In his new book, The Tunnels, Greg Mitchell writes about a time in the early 1960s when two groups of diggers built tunnels that were filmed and financed by U.S. television networks. Those networks wanted to turn acts of daring into primetime specials. But when the U.S. government discovered those projects, the Kennedy administration moved to suppress them.

Mitchell talks with NPR's Scott Simon about the escapes and the documentaries that the Kennedy administration tried to shut down.

Interview Highlights

On why the Kennedy administration may have felt some relief when the Berlin Wall went up

Berlin of course had been divided since the end of the '40s. It was a tremendous pressure point between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. So when the wall came there was, in many quarters, a certain sense of relief, because it not only stopped the refugee flow, but it signaled that the Soviets were maybe not going to try to take West Berlin. And it was tough luck for those in East Berlin.

On how there came to be a CBS tunnel and an NBC tunnel

This was the golden age of television documentaries — prime time documentaries. CBS and NBC were in a dogfight for ratings. ABC was still kind of the upstart. So both NBC and CBS were in a battle to become the first to film one of these tunnels from the inside.

These tunnel escapes were getting a certain amount of press. ... They wanted to get to be the first to get a scoop. And it turned out that NBC was alerted first in June of 1962 and was able to start filming after they paid — a controversial move — paid thousands of dollars in funds to the tunnel organizers.

Daniel Schorr spent 20 years as a foreign correspondent. He is shown above in 1957.
/ AP
Daniel Schorr spent 20 years as a foreign correspondent. He is shown above in 1957.

On Daniel Schorr planning to film inside the tunnel during an escape

Daniel Schorr .... CBS legend [and] later NPR legend ... he was a Berlin correspondent for CBS. And so he had put the word out that he wanted to film a tunnel. And on August 1st he was alerted to a smaller tunnel and the promise was to bring over up to 100 escapees who would have been the biggest escape ever in Berlin.

So he was extremely excited about this and sent a cameraman to start filming and was gearing up for an August 7th mass escape. That would be one of his most spectacular stories in his entire career.

On why that never happened

The State Department found out about it. They alerted Dean Rusk, who is the Secretary of State, and Dean Rusk immediately ordered them to try to bully Daniel Schorr into not going ahead with this.

And the reasoning was that this could be a spectacular incident — whether it was a success or failure. [It] could set off reverberations with the Soviets — "raise tensions" is that the word they always used to use — or endanger lives either in the short run or the long run. ...

In the book I'm able to detail day-by-day this operation because of recently declassified documents. You're right in the room there with Dan Schorr as he's being pressured by the State Department to drop this project. You can imagine, knowing Dan, how that went down.

On how Schorr wasn't deterred

[Schorr] was still probably planning to go ahead, and then, knowing they had failed to bully him, the State Department pressured Dan's boss, Blair Clark, to come to Dean Rusk's office just before midnight on the eve of the escape, where Dean Rusk and ... three CIA officials in the room laid down the law.

And so Blair Clarke around midnight in Washington calls Dan Schorr. ... And there is his boss on the line saying: You can not do this. You have to call this off. And of course it turned out, as Schorr well knew, Blair Clarke was a very close friend of John F. Kennedy — they'd gone to Harvard together.

Dan never quite got over this. Later, even to the end of his life, he was saying how much this still made him angry. ... Especially that a friend of the president was able to be told to kill this show and ultimately did it.

Heidelberger Strasse was divided down the middle by the Berlin Wall. It was known as "the Street of Tears" and was the site of many of the early tunnels.
/ Courtesy of Crown Publishing Group
Courtesy of Crown Publishing Group
Heidelberger Strasse was divided down the middle by the Berlin Wall. It was known as "the Street of Tears" and was the site of many of the early tunnels.

On how CBS had to shelve their film, but NBC's went through

The difference with the NBC tunnel was that our government didn't know about it, so it went through. Twenty nine people escaped. NBC was there to film it all. Again, the State Department then found out about it, and we see the pressure on NBC to kill this program. Ultimately they succeeded in having it postponed.

Then, about seven weeks after it was postponed, NBC kind of slipped it onto the air and it became a landmark in television history. It won three Emmy Awards including becoming the first documentary to ever win program of the year. But you know it came extremely close to not seeing the light of day.

On whether the networks were manufacturing news

In both cases the tunnels were underway when the networks found out about them. So you can't say they were manufacturing the story or the tunnels. In the case of CBS, Dan Schorr found out about it very near the end. That tunnel was going to go ahead no matter what.

The NBC tunnel was a little different and they needed the funds. So NBC did not create that project but certainly the argument could be made that without the NBC money it never would have gone to completion.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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