Born January 13, 1890
Died May 18, 1958
Federal administrator, radio commentator, news reporter
Elmer Davis, a popular national radio newscaster, became director of the newly formed Office of War Information (OWI), charged with coordinating government information about World War II's (1939–45) progress to the home front. It was a role that placed him in continual confrontation with U.S. military leaders concerning what the public had a right to know.
A desire to learn
Elmer Davis was born on January 13, 1890, in the southeast Indiana town of Aurora. He was raised in a family that valued education and knowledge. His father, Elam H. Davis, was a cashier at the First National Bank of Aurora, and his mother, Louise Severin, was a high school principal. During his early school years, Elmer became known for an inquiring mind, always searching for information, and for being a good writer and avid reader. He began his career in newspapers during the summer after his freshman year of high school, when he got a job as a printer's devil for the Aurora Bulletin. Printer's devils had the very messy job of setting type and handling ink-covered materials. Elmer also began writing stories, selling his first one for twenty-five dollars to the Indianapolis Star. He attended Franklin College, located twenty miles south of Indianapolis, beginning at age sixteen. He served as the school correspondent for the Star.
Upon graduation from Franklin in 1910, Elmer Davis received a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford University in England. He quickly began distinguishing himself in his studies at the prestigious English educational institution. Davis completed his studies in two years and toured Europe, learning of its geography, politics, and history, which would be useful to him later in his news career. However, in 1913 he received word from home that his father was very ill. He returned to Aurora, but too late, as his father died while he was on his way.
A writing career
With few job opportunities in Aurora, Davis landed a job as editor for Adventure magazine in New York City, making ten dollars a week. After a year he was hired as a reporter for the New York Times, where he covered a wide variety of stories for the next ten years such as championship boxing matches, political conventions, and religious rallies. In 1917 he married Florence MacMillan of Mount Vernon, New York, whom he met earlier while on his journeys through Europe. They would have two children.
Davis rose in position to editorial writer for the Times while the United States fought in World War I (1914–18). In December 1923 Davis left the Times to pursue a freelance writing career. Settling into a summer home in Mystic, Connecticut, he was very successful writing both fiction and nonfiction for a number of popular magazines. These included the Saturday Review of Literature, Harper's, New Republic, Liberty Magazine, and Collier's. He also wrote fictional books and filled in at times as a newscaster on CBS radio.
In 1939 while writing a serial mystery novel for The Saturday Evening Post, the news department director of Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) called and offered Davis a job as radio news analyst. He took the place of popular newscaster H. V. Kaltenborn, who went on assignment to Europe to cover the unfolding events of Germany's military expansion. Davis often worked eighteen hours a day covering European events from the CBS studios, though he was only on the air for one hour a day.
Davis became very popular with CBS listeners. His Midwest accent and direct approach without many frills, in contrast to other radio newscasters of the time, gave a "back home" feel to his broadcasts. Millions of listeners tuned in regularly to his daily reports.
Office of War Information
On March 2, 1942, Davis gave a strongly stated broadcast urging the U.S. government to greatly improve its ability to get war news to the public. Frustrated, he claimed too many agencies were involved in controlling information. There was the Office of Facts and Figures, the Office of Government Reports, the Office of Emergency Management's Division of Information, and the Office of Co-Ordinator of Information. He called for a single agency headed by a single person to coordinate information to the public. The New Yorker magazine quickly came to support Davis's observations and wrote that Davis should be that person.
In reaction to the growing public dissatisfaction with the government's control of war information, on June 13, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45; see entry) created the Office of War Information (OWI). It combined the responsibilities of all existing federal information offices. He appointed Davis as its director. Davis left his CBS post and saw his income drop from fifty-three thousand dollars to twelve thousand dollars. As head of the OWI, Davis oversaw the production of radio messages, leaflets, booklets, films, and a glossy magazine titled Victory. In addition, Davis sought to make sure the entertainment industry was providing to the public a positive image through their productions. Movies and radio programs were to be inspiring and showing confidence in a future beyond war. Davis, through the OWI, sought to highlight the positive aspects of the American way of life.
The OWI had an annual budget of twenty-five million dollars and employed thirty thousand people with diverse skills, including news editors, advertising experts, poets, film directors, lawyers, anthropologists, sociologists, playwrights, and film directors. In Washington, the OWI had offices in the Library of Congress, Social Security Building, and U.S. Information Building. Though not having developed administrative skills in the past, Davis molded a very effective organization. He was always answering to independent-minded writers and others who did not want to become simply propagandists for the government. Davis contended relentlessly that the public should know as much as possible about the progress of the war, balanced with the need for certain amounts of military secrecy.
Davis worked with film, radio, music, and printed material. He established the Domestic Radio Bureau to provide war information over the airwaves. One radio program series, Uncle Sam Speaks, included a character named Uncle Sam (representing the United States) speaking to listeners about hope for the future after the war. Other series included voice documentaries in which common citizens described their perspectives on different war issues and a series titled The Man Behind the Gun about American servicemen. The OWI also coordinated production of short spot announcements for war bonds, scrap drives, and V-mail that appeared in everything from kids' afternoon radio serial programs to the evening adventure dramas.
Bureau of Motion Pictures
A key responsibility of Elmer Davis and the Office of War Information (OWI) in 1942 was to coordinate the production of government information films and oversee Hollywood movie production. To accomplish this broad task, Davis created the Bureau of Motion Pictures (BMP) branch of the OWI. White House assistant Lowell Mellett was selected to head the BMP, which had offices in Washington, D.C., New York, and Los Angeles.
Playwright Sam Spewack (1899–1971), head of the New York office, was responsible for making government informational films. The films focused on the good news related to the early war effort, such as the miraculous home front industrial production that was in high gear by late 1942. One such film, Autobiography of a Jeep, chronicled the life of an army jeep, a uniquely American war product, from production to use. Highly popular with the public, this film was released in sixteen different languages. BMP produced a series of fifty-two informational short films called America Speaks. Davis's OWI staff wrote half of the films, also known as Victory Films, and Hollywood screenwriters wrote the others. The films were shown in movie theaters around the country. However, even more people watched BMP 16-mm films about the war effort on the battlefield and the home front. The BMP provided the movies for showings at churches, schools, and other community buildings. By January 1943, the BMP films had more than thirty-one thousand showings to some 4.7 million people.
The Los Angeles BMP office, under the leadership of Nelson Poynter, reviewed Hollywood scripts and films before their release to make sure they presented the proper images to American citizens about the virtues of the American way of life. Some 1,650 movie scripts were voluntarily submitted for review. The BMP would often suggest inserting an inspirational war message at some point in the movie dialogue. In a few cases it recommended withholding the movie until after the war.
The BMP also coordinated informational films produced by the military. Perhaps the most popular military films on the home front were a series of films titled Why We Fight made by noted Hollywood director Frank Capra (1897–1991; see entry) for the U.S. Army. Originally created to be shown to newly recruited soldiers, they became so popular among the U.S. military leaders that the BMP made them available to the general public, too. The first film in the series, titled Prelude to War (1942), explained the events in Europe and Asia leading to war, the military dictatorships of Germany and Japan, and the reasons for going to war. Capra effectively included captured enemy newsreels in the film. The BMP made these inspirational films available to war industry workers and at community centers and movie theaters. BMP film production ceased in mid-1943 when Congress cut its funding.
The OWI also worked with the Songwriters War Committee to produce informational songs promoting home front participation in scrap drives, victory gardens, and air raid drills. They also sought to boost the morale of war industry workers who were working long hours.
Davis's job was very demanding and controversial. Regarding the release of war news, Davis had to deal relentlessly with uncooperative military leaders. He also faced accusations by conservatives that his agency housed Communist sympathizers. In addition, congressional Republicans charged that the articles in Victory magazine, like many of OWI's films, focused too much on Roosevelt. They claimed the OWI materials served to rally public support for Roosevelt's potential 1944 reelection bid. In May 1943 Congress significantly reduced OWI funding. This stopped most of its home front programs. The OWI ceased operation in September 1945 after the surrender of Japan ended the war.
A defender of constitutional freedoms
After the war Davis returned to radio broadcasting, working for the American Broadcasting Company (ABC). When U.S. senator Joseph McCarthy (1908–1957) rose to prominence in 1950 by charging Communist influences in U.S. government and other segments of society, Davis led opposition to McCarthy's intimidation tactics. By the fall of 1953, Davis became so concerned about McCarthy's influence on America that he went on a speaking tour across the nation plugging the constitutional freedoms of speech and association. Much as he had done with OWI, he urged calm and reason among the public. Davis drew both extreme praise and criticism for his outspokenness. The speeches were compiled into a popular book titled But We Were Born Free, published the following year in 1954. The book sold one hundred thousand copies. The Senate finally voted to censor McCarthy in December 1954.
Davis was also greatly concerned about the proliferation (spreading) of nuclear weapons by the United States and the Soviet Union as the Cold War escalated in the 1950s. The Cold War was an intense political and economic rivalry from 1945 to 1991 between the United States and the Soviet Union, falling just short of military conflict. Davis wrote a number of articles about the perils of the nuclear arms race. They were published in various popular magazines. He combined the articles into a second book titled Two Minutes Till Midnight in 1955.
The various political battles took their toll on Davis. By the mid-1950s his health declined steadily and he gradually faded from the public eye. A year after his second book was released, Davis had to leave broadcasting. He suffered a stroke in March 1958 and was hospitalized at George Washington University Hospital in Washington, D.C., until he died on May 18 of that year.
For More Information
Burlingame, Roger. Don't Let Them Scare You: The Life and Times of Elmer Davis. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott, 1961.
Davis, Elmer H. But We Were Born Free. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1954.
Davis, Elmer H. Two Minutes Till Midnight. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1955.
"Elmer Davis: Defender of American Liberties." Indiana Historical Society. http://www.indianahistory.org/pub/traces/edavis.html (accessed on July 21, 2004).
Elmer Holmes Davis
Elmer Holmes Davis
Elmer Holmes Davis (1890-1958) was a respected newspaper journalist, novelist, essayist, and radio announcer. His insightful and candid commentary on Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) Radio provided the people of the United States with a trusted voice of reason and authority during the tumultuous years of World War II. Later, during the 1950s, Davis helped rally popular opinion against the Communist conspiracy theories of Senator Joseph McCarthy.
Davis was born on January 13, 1890, in Aurora, Illinois. His father, Elam Holmes Davis, was a cashier at the First National Bank of Aurora and his mother, Louise (Severin) Davis, was the principal of a local high school. Davis began his lifelong career in the news industry after his freshman year in high school, landing a summer job with the Aurora Bulletin as a printer's devil. In 1906, at the age of 16, Davis entered Franklin College, where he served as editor of the school newspaper. That same year, he sold his first story to the Indianapolis Star for $25 and subsequently began work as the paper's Franklin correspondent. Davis earned a bachelor of arts degree from Franklin College in 1910, graduating magna cum laude.
Upon graduation, Davis was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Queen's College at Oxford University. While at Oxford, Davis studied Greek language, literature, and history. In 1911 he was awarded a master's degree from Franklin College for courses completed while in residence. Despite cutting his Oxford experience short by a year because of his father's deteriorating health and subsequent death, Davis managed to graduate from Oxford with a bachelor of arts degree in 1912. He was also able to spend a significant amount of time traveling around Europe.
Began Newspaper Career
Returning to the United States in 1913, Davis took a job as an editor for Adventure magazine. However, in early 1914, after only a few months on the job, he was offered a position as a junior reporter for the New York Times. Over the course of ten years, Davis moved from sports writing to become a foreign correspondent and editorial writer. He covered Henry Ford's 1915 Peace Ship voyage, which was aimed at putting an end to World War I. In 1920 he created the cartoon Godfrey G. Gloom, who was a columnist and political commentator. Gloom became a popular character whose quick-witted remarks were highly popular among readers until Davis retired the cartoon in 1936. On February 5, 1917, Davis married Florence MacMillan from Mount Vernon, New York, whom he had previously met during his travels across Europe. The couple had two children, a son and a daughter.
Along with working for the New York Times, Davis also began writing stories, novels, and political and historical essays. He published The Princess Cecilia (1913), History of the New York Times (1921), and the popular novel Times Have Changed (1923). On December 31, 1923, Davis quit his job with the Times to become a freelance writer. As a freelancer, Davis contributed stories and essays to such publications as Saturday Review of Literature, New Republic, Harper's, Liberty Magazine, and Collier's. He also continued to write novels, publishing nine fictional titles by 1936, several of which proved to be popular if not critically acclaimed, including the novel Love Among the Ruins (1935). During the early 1930s his political commentary focused on the domestic issues surrounding the Great Depression and President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. In 1940 he published his first collection of essays entitled Not to Mention the War.
Joined CBS Radio
In 1936, with the world's eyes focused on Hitler's military aggression in Europe, Davis's attention turned to foreign affairs. In 1937 and 1938 he published a series of articles in Harper's that examined the deteriorating political situation in Europe. In August of 1939, while working on a mystery series for the Saturday Evening Post, Davis was invited by the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) to fill in for popular radio broadcaster H. V. Kaltenborn, who had gone to Europe to cover the news. Leaving his mystery serial unfinished, Davis, who had filled in for Kaltenborn briefly during the summer of 1937, stepped in front of the microphone to become a radio news analyst. What had been intended as a temporary assignment soon became Davis's new career.
With the onset of World War II, radio news became increasingly important. For the first time radio networks were deploying reporters overseas to keep the public informed with accurate, up-to-date news. Thus, when Nazi Germany invaded Poland just ten days after Davis joined CBS, he was in the right place at the right time to be heard by millions of American listeners who relied on radio broadcasts to stay in touch with the dramatic happenings in Europe. Davis quickly became popular among listeners who found his commentary insightful. His monotone voice tinted with a Midwestern accent also helped endear him to the nation. Before long he had an audience of more than 12 million listeners, and CBS responded by offering him a permanent position. According to Alfred Haworth Jones in his essay "The Making of an Interventionist on the Air: Elmer Davis and CBS News, 1931-1941," published in the Pacific Historical Review, "Davis's nightly five-minute news summary became the standard of the profession. [Radio commentator Edward R.] Murrow claimed that no one else could explain the why of the news in such brief compass; and even Davis's rivals conceded his ability to condense effectively more information into less time than any other newscaster."
Before long Davis's voice could be heard in mid-morning and during the peak listening hours of early evening. He also frequently anchored CBS's international report, "World News Roundup," and provided occasional 15-minute commentaries on foreign affairs. He continued to contribute written commentary to such publications as Harper's and the Saturday Review. Although he prided himself on maintaining an objective stance during his broadcasts, he advocated a policy of nonintervention in his essays. Having covered World War I, he believed that no good would come from sending American troops to Europe once again. He published articles explaining his position, including "The War and America" and "We Lose the Next War." Underlying Davis's noninterventionist opinion was the belief that the Allies could win the war without the direct involvement of the United States. However, as the Germans marched across Europe, advancing on Norway and Denmark, taking over France, and attacking England, Davis was challenged to retain his isolationism.
In March of 1941 CBS sent Davis to England for five weeks. During this time, Davis, often accompanied by Murrow, toured the war-torn city of London and outlying areas, reporting back to the United States what he had seen in nightly broadcasts. The experience was a turning point for Davis, who came to believe that the United States was under a direct threat from Nazi German. He returned to the United States now believing that for the Allies to defeat Hitler, the direct involvement of the United States would be necessary. Davis's broadcasts helped rally support for the war even though the majority of Americans, like Davis himself, had previously wished to remain militarily uninvolved. For his opinions, Davis incurred the wrath of isolationists, including Senator Gerald P. Nye, a Republican from North Dakota and a member of the America First Committee, which later called for an investigation into interventionist propaganda in radio.
Director of the U.S. Office of War Information
During a March 1942 broadcast, Davis, who had consistently complained on air about the chaos of governmental news dissemination, advocated the creation of a government organization that could coordinate the war news. As a result, in June 1942 President Roosevelt established the U.S. Office of War Information (OWI) and named Davis as its director. Although Davis had not considered himself the best choice, he rather reluctantly accepted the position out of a deep sense of national duty. According to Allan M. Winkler in The Politics of Propaganda: The Office of War Information, 1942-1945, "Davis['s appointment] was welcome in all quarters. The fifty-one-year-old Hoosier with the white hair, black brows, and dark eyes behind horn-rimmed glasses inspired confidence and seemed to be the perfect man to bring order out of the information mess." With a budget reaching nearly $25 million and some 30,000 people on staff, Davis developed a federal news agency that employed the services of writers, editors, advertisers, lawyers, and publicists. The staff also included sociologists, psychologists, playwrights, and poets.
With the slogan "This is a people's war, and the people are entitled to know as much as possible about it," Davis began his job at the OWI. However, obtaining reports from military officials who wished to guard information pertaining to the war proved to be a serious obstacle for Davis. Charged with the task of keeping the public well informed, Davis was only moderately successful in prying loose information from the Army, Navy, and Air Force. With minimal support from Roosevelt, who had created the agency only because of public pressure to do so, Davis was without authority to demand the information he wanted. The military consistently invoked silence on the grounds that releasing information would threaten forces in the field by giving away military tactics and strategies to the enemy.
Davis seemingly proved himself correct about not being the best person for the OWI directorship. He had no managerial experience, and his tendency to look for compromises allowed those within the organization with stronger personalities to take advantage. Along with squabbles among the personnel, there was the larger issue of ideology. Davis believed his job was to do as he had done as a news commentator: provide the public with objective, accurate accounts of events related to the war. Others, however, saw the OWI as a vehicle for propaganda that could serve the war by enlisting and retaining the support of the American public. Thus, during the three and a half years of the OWI's existence, Davis spent much of his time being stonewalled by the military and doing damage control within his organization. He also came under attack from congressional members who declared that he was a pawn of the Roosevelt administration; some even wildly suggested Davis was a Communist. The OWI's image improved toward the end of the war as an Allied victory appeared imminent. With only successes to report, the military opened its communication lines, and Davis was able to put the OWI into more effective service.
In September of 1945, with the war at an end, the OWI was dissolved and Davis returned to radio as a commentator for the American Broadcasting System (ABC), later becoming a television broadcaster with the ABC network. During the 1940s Davis tried to strike a balance in his understanding of Communist aggression that was feared by much of the American public. Although he condemned Communism and abhorred the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, he understood there to be a difference between external aggression and internal, popular revolution, such as the Chinese communist revolution. He strongly condemned the House Un-American Activities Committee for attempting to rout out supposedly subversive individuals. Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin set off a massive, nationwide campaign against Communism with the announcement on February 9, 1950, that he could name 205 Communists within the State Department. Davis felt it his duty to speak out against what became known as McCarthyism. During 1953 he traveled across the United States to advocate for rational thinking, defend freedom of thought, and promote the need for civil liberties. Davis won the George Foster Peabody Radio Award in 1951.
In 1954 Davis published the bestseller But We Were Born Free, a collection of his speeches and essays. Throughout the book he expounds on the need for optimism, clear-headed thinking, and the courage to stand against those who wished to tear the country apart through intolerance and willful ignorance. As Gerald Weales noted in his essay "The Voice of Elmer Davis," published in the Virginia Quarterly Review, "There is never any doubt about the urgency of his message, but he gives it in a deliberate, intelligent, unhurried, and unharried voice, one—his work always is—with wit and irony." But We Were Born Free sold almost 100,000 copies. By the end of 1954 McCarthyism had come to an end after the Army-McCarthy hearings resulted in the denouncement and congressional censorship of McCarthy. In 1955 Davis published his last book, an examination of the threat of nuclear war entitled Two Minutes Till Midnight. In March 1958, Davis suffered a stroke. He died two months later on May 18, 1958, in Washington, D.C.
American National Biography, edited by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, Oxford University Press, 1999.
Dictionary of American Biography, supplement six, edited by John A. Garraty, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1980.
Encyclopedia of American Biography, 2nd ed., edited by John A. Garraty and Jerome L. Sternstein, HarperCollins, 1996.
Winkler, Allan M. The Politics of Propaganda: The Office of War Information, 1942-1945, Yale University Press, 1978.
Pacific Historical Review, February 1973.
The Virginia Quarterly Review, summer 1995. □