The Life and Work of Edward R. Murrow an archives exhibit

About This I Believe

Only six years before the first broadcast of “This I Believe” the world was concluding a second World War; the rise and fall of fascism in Europe, Adolph Hitler, Benito Mussolini; had seen the horrific destruction in Japan caused by two nuclear bombs; and George Gallup could ask Americans if they knew what a television is (Steinberg 85).

The following year Harry Truman outlined his foreign policy and opposition to the spread of Communism in what would come to be known as the “Truman Doctrine” and Jackie Robinson played major league baseball, the first African American to do so. In 1948, Harry Truman was reelected, Jackson Pollock’s expressionist paintings hit the New York art world, the Marshall Plan was approved by Congress to help European recovery, and the Berlin Airlift was dropping supplies into Berlin which had been blockaded by Russian forces. Russia detonated its first atomic bomb in 1949, and The People’s Republic of China was founded, Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” appeared on Broadway and Berlin was divided. 1950 saw the Korean War begin; Marilyn Monroe garnered attention for her role in John Houston’s The Asphalt Jungle, 9% of U.S. households owned a television (Steinberg 86). and Joseph McCarthy claimed to have the names of Communists in the U.S. State Department.

By 1951, the Cold War was in full swing and Joseph McCarthy had begun his anti-communist campaign, The Golden Age of radio was approaching its end and television was coming on fast. Marlin Brando was nominated for his first Oscar for his performance in “A Street Car Named Desire;” J.D. Salinger published “Catcher in the Rye;” the Shah of Iran had been removed by a popular movement fueled, in part, by anti-British sentiment; and the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, limiting the term of the U.S. Presidency.

Thus, it was not just hyperbole or histrionics Edward R. Murrow had in mind when he first introduced “This I Believe” with these words:

There is a physical fear, the kind that drives some of us to flee our homes and burrow into the ground in the bottom of a Montana valley like prairie dogs to try to escape, if only for a little while, the sound and the fury of the A-bombs or the hell bombs or whatever may be coming. There is a mental fear which provokes others of us to see the images of witches in a neighbor’s yard and stampedes us to burn down his house. […]

It has become more difficult than ever to distinguish black from white, good from evil, right from wrong. What truths can a human being afford to furnish the cluttered nervous room of his mind with when he has no real idea how long a lease he has on the future?”

Murrow was thinking specifically of the uncertainty and confusion created by recent events in the United States and the World and as one listens to these essays a sense of hesitation and trouble does emerge. However, that does not mean the essays are pessimistic or forlorn. In fact, they were intended as a remedy to the uncertainty from which they were born and they conclude by offering inspiration and hope for a troubling and worrisome period in time, which is precisely what four men had in mind two years prior, during a conversation about the state of affairs of their times, when the concept for “This I Believe” was born.

“This I Believe” was first conceived of in 1949 at a meeting in Philadelphia between Edward Murrow, Ward Wheelock, a Philadelphia advertising executive, William S. Paley, the Chief Executive of CBS, and Don Thornburgh, president of WCAU Philadelphia (“Successful Men and Women Tell Creeds on Unique Radio Show with No Sponsor” 3). The conversation at the meeting turned to the values and uncertainty so many people were feeling at the time and the difficulty of holding on to beliefs. Out of this discussion the concept for “This I Believe” was born and the work began to turn this concept into a reality.

After a year and a half of preparation “This I Believe” was first broadcast March 19, 1951 as a trial on Philadelphia’s WCAU and aired twice a day, five days a week. The show became immediately popular and on September 24, 1951 expanded its broadcast to WEEI, Boston; WCBS, New York; WCCO, Minneapolis; KNX, Los Angeles; WTOP, Washington; and was also printed in local papers of the broadcasting cities. “This I Believe” was then offered to local stations around the country for broadcast. If stations chose to air “This I Believe” they were expected to commit to a regular schedule to air the program, and they were not to accept any sponsorships for the program. In return stations were provided with a free record of broadcasts for the year. In addition local stations were encouraged to enhance the broadcasts with the inclusion of local essays from important local citizens, and were also permitted to offer the print version to the local paper of their choice, free of charge. Local essays would have to be approved by the “This I Believe” editorial board, but once they were approved Edward Murrow would record an introduction and wrap-up that would be edited with the local recording and then sent back to the station for broadcast. All of this was to be done with no charge to the station.