Sevareid, (Arnold) Eric

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Sevareid, (Arnold) Eric

(b. 26 November 1912 in Velva, North Dakota; d. 9 July 1992 in Washington, D.C.), CBS war correspondent, radio and television commentator, and author, known for the intellectual depth and painstaking eloquence of his commentaries.

Sevareid (who first used his middle name, Eric, as a correspondent in France) was one of four children of Alfred Eric Sevareid, a local banker, and Clare Hougen, a home-maker and the daughter of a Norwegian Lutheran minister. Young Sevareid was a product of his mother’s inspiration to read widely, his heritage of Norwegian-Lutheran reticence and morality, and the effect of the vast Dakota wheat fields on his imagination. In his autobiography, Not So Wild a Dream (1946), he recalled his Velva (pop. 800) boyhood in Edenic imagery, as a source of the individualism and spirit of cooperation that enabled American democracy to survive World War II. As an apprentice in the office of the Velva Journal, a four-page weekly, he learned what he wanted to do with his life.

When drought brought disaster to farm country and caused his father’s bank to fail in 1925, the family moved for a year to Minot, North Dakota, then to Minneapolis, where they lived in a large wooden house in a middle-class neighborhood. Arnold learned how to run the Central High School newspaper before graduating in 1930. Shortly thereafter, at the age of seventeen, he and a school friend, Walter Port, paddled a canoe a spectacular 2,250 miles from Minneapolis to the Hudson Bay and published a newspaper series and book, Canoeing with the Cree (1935), about the experience. This thirst for adventure also led him to hitchhike and ride the rails in the summer of 1933 to toil in a California gold mine.

Working his way through the University of Minnesota, he majored in political science but threw most of his energies into the campus Minnesota Daily. He also joined an elite political discussion club, the Jacobins, disciples of the charismatic Professor Benjamin Lippincott, known as a Democratic Socialist. Many of the Jacobins were pacifists who, like students throughout the country, demonstrated against compulsory military drill. Sevareid’s participation later contributed to his “radical” reputation, and references to it showed up in his FBI file. Emotionally crushed when he did not become the Daily editor, he was convinced that the university president had vetoed his selection.

On 18 May 1935, shortly before graduation, Sevareid married Lois Finger, a law student and the beautiful and brilliant daughter of the university track coach. He worked as a cub reporter for the Minneapolis Star, during which time he saw the police brutally crush a truckers’ strike. He then took a job as a reporter for the Minneapolis Journal, where he wrote an exposé of the Silver Shirts, a national network of fascist, Ku Klux Klan-like clubs, but he was fired in the wake of a newspaper strike. Disillusioned, in 1937 he and Lois left for a new life in Paris.

The Paris edition of the New York Herald-Tribune recognized his talent and let him write what he wanted. He interviewed Gertrude Stein and covered the notorious murder trial of the serial killer Eugene Weidmann with a style that brought him to the attention of the CBS correspondent Edward R. Murrow in London, who recruited him in 1939 as one of the first “Murrow boys”—the cadre of radio correspondents eventually including William L. Shirer, Larry LeSueur, Howard K. Smith, Winston Burdett, and Charles Collingwood—who covered the outbreak of World War II and who became the stars of postwar CBS radio and TV news.

In April 1940 Lois gave birth to twins and escaped with them to New York the following month as the German army bore down on Paris. As the city fell, Sevareid wrote: “Paris lay dying, like a beautiful woman in a coma, not knowing or asking why.” As France collapsed under the Nazi assault, he escaped to London where, with his hero Murrow, he covered the German blitz. His nerves did not take bombing well. He went on assignments in Mexico in December 1940, returned to the CBS Washington, D.C., office in January 1941, and covered the third Pan-American Conference in Brazil in January 1942, but his eyes were on the war in Europe. In his opinion the media (though the term was not yet current) were too “objective,” when they should have been mobilizing public opinion against Nazi Germany. After Pearl Harbor he had a crisis of conscience over whether he should enlist, but he was persuaded to serve as a war correspondent instead.

Sevareid’s first war assignment came at government request in 1943, when he flew to China to assess the political-military situation. Over the Burma “hump” the engines of his C-46 gave out, and the twenty passengers, including the diplomat John Paton Davies, parachuted into the jungle. They were rescued by Naga headhunter tribesmen, and Philip Adams, a young British colonial officer, led them on a ten-day trek to safety. Sevareid, who had lost his Lutheran faith at college, served as chaplain to the party; most important, the ordeal helped settle any lingering questions about his own physical courage. When he completed his mission to China he wrote a report exposing the corruption of the nationalist Chinese government, which the War Department forbade him to publish in any form. It foresaw the “loss” of China to the Communists, for which Davies and other China hands were later blamed. When Davies lost his job under Secretary of State John Foster Dulles in 1954, Sevareid defended him in a blistering radio commentary. Sevareid was also one of the first to attack the red-hunting Senator Joseph McCarthy, even though he knew his own buried China report could be used to ruin his career.

Restless away from the front, Sevareid followed the U.S. Army to North Africa, Italy, southern France, and, finally, across the Rhine into Germany. After the war he took a few months to write Not So Wild a Dream, an interpretation of the American character as well as an account of his own life. He settled in Seminary Hill in Alexandria, Virginia, covered presidential nominating conventions, commuted to New York for various assignments, and most of all, honed his prose style, finding his voice with original five-minute commentaries—mini-essays—at the end of the 11 P.M. radio news.

But his personal life was falling apart. Lois was manic-depressive and frequently hospitalized. Eric was attentive and tried to be loyal; but he had limited emotional energy and had been concentrating on his career. In 1959 they moved to Georgetown in the District of Columbia. Then Eric fled to Spain with Belén Marshall, the vivacious daughter, half his age, of a Cuban-born opera singer, who was herself a songwriter and singer. On 16 August 1962 he and Lois divorced, and on 28 February 1963 he married Belén, with whom he had one child. The couple moved into a new house in Washington, D.C., but the worlds of the lively Belén and the scholarly Eric did not mesh. They separated, although they did not divorce until 1973. Eric never justified his treatment of Lois, who died in 1970. In Dan Rather’s words, “It remained an object of excruciating guilt for him the rest of his life.”

Sevareid’s career took on a new dimension with the inauguration of the half-hour CBS-TV Evening News with Walter Cronkite in 1962. Though very nervous in front of the camera, Sevareid worked all day to carefully craft two-minute commentaries. Although conservative in his fidelity to American institutions, he was a liberal in the tradition of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Adlai Stevenson and a strong defender of human liberty and the free press. He was unsympathetic to students who trashed their universities but was one of the first correspondents to go to Vietnam and conclude that it was both a losing and an immoral adventure. On 19 April 1972 he said, “If we have reached the dreadful point where the honor of the state and the conscience of the people collide, then what does honor mean anymore? … There does come a time when the heart must rule the head. That time is when the heart is about to break.” While striving to keep a balance in his language, he was nevertheless relentless in the last days of Watergate, “one of the most destructive political scandals in recent times.”

In 1977 Sevareid marked his obligatory retirement at age sixty-five by three commentaries reflecting on his career. He concluded: “There is in the American people a tough, undiminished instinct for what is fair. Rightly or wrongly, I feel that I have passed that test.” He went on the lecture circuit, made occasional film cameo appearances, and narrated documentaries. In 1979 he married Suzanne St. Pierre, a CBS producer. They had no children. Always insecure about money, he nevertheless declined a million-dollar offer to do endorsements for an investment house, lest he tarnish his name. A shy man, he loved to retire to trout streams and his cabin in the woods of Warrenton, Virginia. He lacked the will to write another volume of his memoirs; but as long as his words are on record, he will be remembered as speaking both to and for America at its best. Sevareid died in Washington, D.C., from stomach cancer, and his remains were cremated.

The Sevareid papers are in the Library of Congress. Sevareid’s memoir Not So Wild a Dream was published in 1946. His radio commentaries are collected in In One Ear: 107 Snapshots of Men and Events Which Make a Far-Reaching Panorama of the American Situation at Mid-century (1952) and Small Sounds in the Night: A Collection of Capsule Commentaries on the American Scene (1956). The only complete biography is Raymond A. Schroth, The American Journey of Eric Sevareid (1995). See also Stanley Cloud and Lynne Olson, The Murrow Boys: Pioneers on the Front Lines of Broadcast Journalism (1996). Sally Bedell Smith’s biography of William Paley, In All his Glory: The Life of William Paley: The Legendary Tycoon and His Brilliant Circle (1990), is valuable for its pictures of CBS. The best history of broadcast journalism is Edward Bliss, Jr., Now the News: The Story of Broadcast Journalism (1991). An obituary is in the New York Times (10 July 1992).

Raymond A. Schroth, S.J.