Ashmore, Harry Scott and Baggs, William Calhoun ("Bill")

views updated

ASHMORE, Harry Scott and William Calhoun ("Bill") BAGGS

ASHMORE, Harry Scott (b. 28 July 1916 in Greenville, South Carolina; d. 20 January 1998 in Santa Barbara, California), and William Calhoun ("Bill") BAGGS (b. 22 September 1922 in Atlanta, Georgia; d. 7 January 1969 in Miami, Florida), editors of metropolitan newspapers whose views contrasted sharply with those held by many of their fellow southerners. During two missions to North Vietnam in the late 1960s, they spoke with that country's leader, Ho Chi Minh, in an attempt to end America's conflict with his regime.

Ashmore, the younger son of William Green Ashmore and Elizabeth (Scott) Ashmore, worked his way through Clemson College in South Carolina after his father's shoe store failed in the Great Depression. After earning his B.A. degree from Clemson in 1937, he reported for several home-town newspapers. In the course of his work he observed signs of discontent among African Americans in the region. On 2 June 1940 he married Barbara Edith Laier, a Boston native teaching at Furman University in Greenville; they had one child, a daughter. In 1941 he was named a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but the U.S. entry into World War II interrupted his fellowship. Ashmore was commissioned as a reserve officer at Clemson and served as a staff officer in the European theater.

After being discharged as a lieutenant colonel in 1945, he worked as an associate editor of the Charlotte News in North Carolina. Ashmore's advocacy of civil rights for African Americans caused Time magazine to call him "one of the South's most realistic and readable editorial writers." In 1947 he moved to Little Rock, Arkansas, where he soon became the editor of the Arkansas Gazette. There he continued to criticize racial discrimination, became nationally active in the Democratic Party, and challenged the governor's attempt to block integration of Little Rock's Central High School in 1957. The Pulitzer Prize committee awarded the Arkansas Gazette the prestigious public service award for 1958, and Ashmore won the 1958 prize for editorial writing. Opposition to the paper's position and to him personally persuaded Ashmore to leave the Gazett ein 1959 and accept a post as a senior fellow at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions (CSDI) in Santa Barbara, California.

In 1959 the CSDI was contracted to revise the structure of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and Ashmore worked as the project's editor until 1963. At that point he began to devote his full attention to the center's efforts to ease world tension by bringing people together to discuss issues central to world harmony. Under the auspices of the CSDI, 2,000 delegates from twenty nations met in New York City in February 1965. Neither they nor those who attended a second meeting two years later accomplished much; however, the effort put into organizing these conferences prompted Ashmore and his friend Bill Baggs, a center director, to travel to Hanoi, where they spoke with Ho Chi Minh in January 1967. They believed the North Vietnamese leader sought negotiations to end the war and were convinced their attempt to facilitate his overture was sabotaged by the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson, which bitterly opposed their intervention. Ashmore and Baggs publicly criticized their government and published an account of U.S. "double-dealing" in Mission to Hanoi: A Chronicle of Double Dealing in High Places (1968). Despite the Johnson administration's angry reaction, the U.S. State Department authorized a second trip in March 1968; by this time Johnson was eager to negotiate with North Vietnamese leaders. Both men believed their second visit "opened the way to the Paris peace talks."

As public attention shifted away from civil rights and the Vietnam War, Ashmore became less personally involved nationally, although he remained active in the affairs of the CSDI. At age eighty-one, on 9 January 1998, he suffered a stroke from which he never regained consciousness. His body was cremated, and his ashes were scattered in the Pacific Ocean near Santa Barbara.

Baggs was the son of Crawford C. Baggs, a Ford car dealer, and Kate May (Bush) Baggs. The youngest of four children, he moved to Colquitt, Georgia, to live with his mother's family after the death of both parents. There he completed high school and turned down an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy. Confined to bed for a year by illness, Baggs read extensively; after recovering and feeling that he had learned more while ill than in school, he decided not to attend college. Instead, he went to Panama in 1941 and worked for the Panama Star and Herald. When the United States entered World War II, Baggs joined the Army Air Corps and flew B-24s from North Africa and Italy.

Baggs was discharged in 1945 and married Joan Orr of Athens, Georgia, on 7 July 1945. In 1946 he became a reporter for the Miami News, the Cox Newspaper Group's lackluster evening paper. Baggs polished his craft in Miami, where his skill and personality earned him promotion to a political columnist by 1949. Early in his journalistic career, Baggs met the U.S. financier and presidential adviser Bernard Baruch. The elder statesman opened doors that proved invaluable to the young newsman. During the administrations of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, Baggs had widespread contacts in the United States and abroad.

In 1957 Cox Newspapers appointed Baggs as the editor of the Miami News, passing over journalists with more experience. By releasing underperforming staff and promoting the talented, the new editor revived the paper. Although he could not overcome the dominance of the Miami Herald, he made the News more vibrant and provocative. Time magazine observed, "By almost any measure, Baggs's Miami News is the best second-best newspaper in the U.S." As the editor, Baggs used humor to challenge racial discrimination, promote civic improvement, and question the nation's foreign policy. Conservative southerners found his outlook repellant and barraged him with critical, and occasionally threatening, letters. He replied with gentle humor even when someone fired a bullet into his office wall. His White House connections enabled the News to scoop the competition during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, when the United States and the Soviet Union nearly went to war because of the Soviets' installation of nuclear missiles in Cuba. Baggs's access to Washington insiders also smoothed the way for the News reporter Hal Hendrix, who in 1963 won the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting. Baggs's successful campaign to preserve southern Key Biscayne as a public park prompted the governor of Florida to name the site Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park.

Baggs's final foray into public service teamed him with his longtime friend Ashmore; they were determined to help find a way out of America's involvement in the Vietnam War. Baggs felt that Johnson's escalation of the war had brought the nation no closer to victory, created growing discord at home, and drained resources that could have been better used for peaceful purposes. In January 1967 Baggs and Ashmore embarked on the first of two trips to Hanoi. Overworked by the demanding schedule imposed by his job, Baggs contracted influenza and died at age forty-six. His body was cremated, and his ashes were scattered in the Atlantic Ocean off Key Biscayne.

Unlike their colleagues in broadcast journalism, Baggs and Ashmore worked in relative obscurity. Neither is the subject of a full biography or is even mentioned in surveys of the 1960s, but both left their mark on the era. Their campaign on behalf of civil rights for all Americans strengthened the assault on discrimination in the South. If they did not eliminate prejudice, their public opposition helped to make it unfashionable, even in the heart of Dixie. Their questioning of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia did not end the conflict, but both believed it played a significant role in launching the talks that eventually extricated the United States from the long, bloody Vietnam War.

Material relating to Ashmore's association with the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions is held by the library at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Two books written by Ashmore, Hearts and Minds: The Anatomy of Racism from Roosevelt to Reagan (1982) and Civil Rights and Wrongs: A Memoir of Racism and Politics, 1944–1996 (1997), contain autobiographical material. Obituaries are in the New York Times and Arkansas Times Gazette (both 22 Jan. 1998). The William C. Baggs Papers, a collection of correspondence, photographs, and writings from the 1940s through 1969, are held by the Otto G. Richter Library, University of Miami. Biographical sketches of Baggs were published in Newsweek (12 Aug. 1957) and Time (16 Nov. 1962). The New York Times, Miami News, and other newspapers covered the Baggs-Ashmore trips to Hanoi. The Saturday Evening Post (16 Dec. 1967) featured Baggs's account of his talk with Ho Chi Minh, and Time (29 Sept. 1967) and Newsweek (2 Oct. 1967) ran articles on the mission. Obituaries are in the Miami News and New York Times (both 8 Jan. 1969).

Brad Agnew