Howard K. Smith

Howard K. Smith

Howard Kingsbury Smith, the son of a nightwatchman, was born in Ferriday, Louisiana, on 12th May, 1914. He worked as a journalist for the New Orleans Item, before winning a scholarship to study German and journalism at Tulane University. After working as a deckhand he briefly attended Heidelberg University in Germany.

In 1936 Smith found work as a reporter in New Orleans before securing a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford University. He became involved in student politics and became the first American to be elected chairman of the university Labour club. He was also active in the campaign against the appeasement policy of Neville Chamberlain and his Conservative government.

On the outbreak of the Second World War the United Press sent Smith to Nazi Germany to report on the conflict. In 1941 he was recruited by Edward Murrow to work for CBS Berlin Bureau. Within a few months Smith was arrested by the Gestapo for refusing to include Nazi propaganda in his scripts being broadcast. When he was released he moved to Switzerland. The following day Pearl Harbor was bombed and the United States entered the war. For the next two years Smith reported on Germany and central Europe from Berne. He also published Last Train from Berlin (1942).

In 1945 Smith accompanied Allied troops when they invaded Nazi Germany. After the war he reported on the Nuremberg Trials. He was the only journalist to be selected to witness the execution of Wilhelm Frick, Hans Frank, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, Walther Funk, Fritz Saukel, Alfred Rosenberg, Julius Streicher, Alfred Jodl, Wilhelm Keitel, Arthur Seyss-Inquart, and Joachim von Ribbentrop on 1st October, 1946. Smith now joined the CBS London Bureau.

He was a sympathetic reporter of Clement Attlee and his Labour Government (1945-51). In 1949 Smith published The State of Europe, where he advocated a planned economy and the Welfare State for post-war Europe. Senator Joseph McCarthy denounced Smith as a communist sympathizer and in 1950 was one of those listed in Red Channels. Others named included Larry Adler, Stella Adler, Leonard Bernstein, Marc Blitzstein, Joseph Bromberg, Lee J. Cobb, Aaron Copland, John Garfield, Howard Da Silva, Dashiell Hammett, E. Y. Harburg, Lillian Hellman, Burl Ives, Zero Mostel, Arthur Miller, Dorothy Parker, Philip Loeb, Joseph Losey, Anne Revere, Pete Seeger, Gale Sondergaard, Louis Untermeyer and Josh White.

Smith returned to the United States in 1957 and three years later became head of the CBS Washington Bureau where he hosted programmes such as Eyewitness to History (1960-62) and Face the Nation (1960-63). In 1960 Smith was chosen to chair the presidential election debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, the first of its kind on television.

In 1961 Smith went to Alabama, where he witnessed the Ku Klux Klan beating up Freedom Riders in Birmingham. Smith then went on to make a television documentary on the struggle for Civil Rights. The network's head of news objected to the ending of the documentary when Smith quoted Edmund Burke: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." He claimed that Smith was guilty of editorialism and told him to delete the quote from Burke. Smith refused and when William Paley, the head of CBS, failed to support him, he resigned. Smith commented: "They (CBS) said it was against the rules to take sides on a controversial issue. I said, I wish you had told me that during World War II, when I took sides against Hitler."

Smith now joined ABC and became the presenter of Howard K. Smith - News and Comment. In November 1962 Richard Nixon was defeated in the election for California governor. Smith made a programme about Nixon's career entitled The Political Obituary of Richard Nixon. This included an interview with Alger Hiss, the state department official accused of espionage and jailed for perjury. Smith was severely criticised for including Hiss and the sponsor quickly ended support of the show and it was cancelled.

ABC recalled Smith to television three years later and he presented ABC Scope (1966-68) and ABC Evening News (1969-75). By this time his political views had become more conservative and he gave his full support to the Vietnam War. However he did take part in the campaign for Richard Nixon to resign over the Watergate scandal. Smith also appeared in several movies, including The Candidate (1972), Nashville (1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).

Smith left ABC in 1979 and in his retirement wrote his memoirs, Events Leading Up to My Death: The Life of a Twentieth-Century Reporter (1996).

Howard Kingsbury Smith died of pneumonia in Bethesda, Maryland, on 15th February 2002. David Westin, President of ABC News, pointed out: "Throughout his long and distinguished career, Howard K. Smith demonstrated his intelligence, integrity, and readiness to take on the powerful and the controversial. He was truly one of the founders of television journalism. He represented so many of the finest elements of our profession."

Primary Sources

(1) Howard K. Smith, observed the executions of ten leaders of the Nazi Party on 1st October 1946.

Hans Frank was next in the parade of death. He was the only one of the condemned to enter the chamber with a smile on his countenance.

Although nervous and swallowing frequently, this man, who was converted to Roman Catholicism after his arrest, gave the appearance of being relieved at the prospect of atoning for his evil deeds.

He answered to his name quietly and when asked for any last statement, he replied in a low voice that was almost a whisper, "I am thankful for the kind treatment during my captivity and I ask God to accept me with mercy."

The sixth man to leave his prison cell and walk with handcuffed wrists to the death house was 69-year-old Wilhelm Frick. He entered the execution chamber at 2.05 a.m., six minutes after Rosenberg had been pronounced dead. He seemed the least steady of any so far and stumbled on the thirteenth step of the gallows. His only words were, "Long live eternal Germany," before he was hooded and dropped through the trap.

Ernst Kaltenbrunner entered the execution chamber at 1.36 a.m., wearing a sweater beneath his blue double-breasted coat. With his lean haggard face furrowed by old duelling scars, this terrible successor to Reinhard Heydrich had a frightening look as he glanced around the room.

He wet his lips apparently in nervousness as he turned to mount the gallows, but he walked steadily. This was the man, one of whose agents - a man named Rudolf Hoess - confessed at a trial that under Kaltenbrunner's orders he gassed 3 million human beings at the Auschwitz concentration camp!

As the black hood was raised over his head Kaltenbrunner, still speaking in a low voice, used a German phrase which translated means, "Germany, good luck."

(2) Howard K. Smith was interviewed by the Naples Daily News about resigning from CBS in 1961.

They (CBS) said it was against the rules to take sides on a controversial issue. I said, I wish you had told me that during World War II, when I took sides against Hitler.

(3) David Westin, President of ABC News (February, 2002)

Throughout his long and distinguished career, Howard K. Smith demonstrated his intelligence, integrity, and readiness to take on the powerful and the controversial. He was truly one of the founders of television journalism. He represented so many of the finest elements of our profession.