Alistair Cooke

Alistair Cooke

Alistair Cooke, the son of a art metal worker, was born in Salford on 20th November, 1908. He won a scholarship to Jesus College, Cambridge, where he studied under Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. While at university he edited Granta.

In 1930 he moved to the United States. While studying at Harvard University he met Charlie Chaplin who offered him a job as assistant director on the film Modern Times. He refused as he wanted to write about the subject and in 1934 became a film critic for the British Broadcasting Corporation. He also wrote about the United States for The Times and the Daily Herald.

In 1946 Cooke began his radio series, Letters From America. He was given 15 minutes to talk about anything that interested him. Originally it was devised as a 13-week series but eventually ran for over 55 years.

After the war the Manchester Guardian employed him as its United Nations correspondent. Soon afterwards he became the newspaper's chief US correspondent. This included covering the trials of Alger Hiss. A staunch opponent of McCarthyism, Cooke published A Generation on Trial in 1950. During this period he also be came a close friend of Adlai Stevenson.

He covered all the main political events and won praise for his coverage of the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King.

Cooke also appeared regularly on television. He was employed by WGBH to provide introductions for classic British shows (1971-1992). His 1972 his series, America, was a great success. Comprising of 13 episodes, it was shown in 30 different countries. The accompanying book, America, also sold in great numbers and is still in print. He was also the author of Six Men (1977).

Alistair Cooke died on 30th March, 2004.

Primary Sources

(1) Alistair Cooke, Trial of Alger Hiss, Manchester Guardian (1st June, 1949)

The trial will be haunted at every turn by the great political issue that bedevils the conscience and well-being of every responsible citizen of a democratic country. Has a democrat the right to be a communist and to keep his job and a good opinion of society?

Across the square in which Mr Hiss will be tried, the trial of 11 communist leaders goes on to try to establish for the first time a court test of whether a communist is ipso facto a man dedicated to overthrow by force the government of this country. In the public mind the two trials set up a riptide in the ocean of fear and distrust that washes across all American discussion of communism. It is the sense of this embroilment in a conflict of belief that is happening to lesser men now suspect in their fields of scholarship or government, and the degree of mystery that surrounds the personal relationship of two brilliant young men, that has made this trial fascinating to people uninterested in the legal issue and made it read so far like an unwritten novel by Arthur Koestler.

(2) Alistair Cooke, The Civil Liberties Struggle, Manchester Guardian (7th June, 1950)

The supreme court of the United States handed down yesterday a decision on race relations as historic as anything since the famous case of Dred Scott versus Sanford, which was - among other things - one of the causes of the civil war. In its last decision of the spring term, the supreme court held that the segregation of Negro students in white universities, and of Negroes in railway dining-cars, is unconstitutional in that it denies Negroes the "equal protection of the law" due to all citizens of the United States and guaranteed to them in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which in 1868 proclaimed the citizenship of Negroes, by defining citizens as "all persons born or naturalised in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof ..."

Some states have already given notice that they will defy the court's ruling and seek a rhetorical and more acceptable interpretation of the 'separate but equal' doctrine. Governor Herman Talmadge of Georgia announced in Atlanta yesterday: "As long as I am your governor, Negroes will not be admitted to white schools." In the end, Talmadge and his like will lose. But between the opening of the floodgates of new test cases and the peaceable end of segregation, the old South might well make a final and bloody stand.

(3) Alistair Cooke, Smoking and Cancer, Manchester Guardian (15th February, 1954)

For thirty years or more the scandal sheets have printed articles on "The Tobacco Habit" as a mild variation on their standard high-voltage treatment of such shockers as prostitution, political graft, and the traffic in dope. Most of these pieces, furtively hinting at heart trouble and even tuberculosis, were about as medically convincing as the "Methodist" credo that smoking stunts the growth. The tobacco companies paid only sidelong heed to them, with bold hints that, on the contrary, a cigarette was a relaxant, a soothing syrup, and a social grace. The manufacturers were not much better than the Puritans in their respect for the known scientific facts about tobacco and have tended to meet every impromptu accusation with an equally flip defence. In the social history of our time, it may well be that the "Reader's Digest" will come to claim a decisive part in dating the fashion of cigarette smoking.

Although three separate reports were published here in 1949, suggesting a plausible relationship between smoking and cancer of the lung, they were folded away inside the pages of medical journals. But a year later the "Digest" ran an article with the resounding title "Cancer by the Carton." This started a lot of talk in America and a noticeable adjustment of cigarette advertising to remind the customer that the tobacco companies keep a 24-hour laboratory watch on every chemical intruder that might possibly sully his breath, tickle his throat or otherwise impair his health and comfort. A few of the tobacco companies had in truth been financing quiet research, but it was concerned with heavier matters than a sore throat or an acrid taste. And, since Americans went on buying cigarettes by leaping billions, the manufacturers maintained their code of contemptuous silence, which is almost as rigid as the taboo of a Victorian dinner-table on the mention of the female leg. Two years later the "British Medical Journal" published a weightier study and it began to look as if the cigarette manufacturers would never be shut of the nuisance.

Last November their long golden age - twenty years of continuously soaring sales - exploded in a bombshell prepared by Dr. Ernest Wynder of New York and Dr. Evarts Graham of St Louis. They reported that they had produced skin cancer in 44 per cent of the mice they had painted with tobacco tar condensed from cigarette smoke. This study was hardly as comprehensive as the British study of nearly fifteen hundred human lung-cancer patients, but it was piquant. It sprouted the joke that "It only goes to show: mice shouldn't smoke." But the newspapers sat up and took notice, in their heartless disinterested way, when the Institute of Industrial Medicine of this city, an incomparable branch of the New York-Bellevue Medical Center, examined all the tumours reported in the Wynder-Graham study and declared them to be malignant.

Last December 9 the papers carried the report of two speeches made by Dr. Wynder and Dr. Ochner, Chief of Surgery at Tulane University School of Medicine, before a meeting of New York dentists.

Dr. Wynder quoted thirteen American and foreign studies, to conclude that "the prolonged and heavy use of cigarettes increases up to twenty times the risk of developing cancer of the lung." Dr. Ochner was bolder still. He foresaw that the male population of the United States might be decimated within fifty years by this type of cancer if cigarette-smoking increases at its present rate. Within an hour of the opening of the Stock Exchange that day big blocks of tobacco stocks were up for sale. One stock, which opened at 65 3/4, dropped to 62. Others lost between two and three points. By the first of this year the horrid truth was out that the sale of cigarettes in the first ten months of 1953 was off 2.1 per cent. It seems a negligible fraction in the face of the triumphant record that in the past twenty years cigarette sales have gone up from 100,000 millions to over 400,000 millions. But nothing gets to feel so normal as unrelieved luxury, and a desperate tobacco executive reflected that if every American smoker used "one cigarette less a day, our sales would drop by 5 per cent," which is to say three million packs a day, or an annual loss of $255.5 millions.

(4) Alistair Cooke, Castro in Control of Cuba, Manchester Guardian (3rd January, 1959)

All of Cuba to-day was under the precarious control of Fidel Castro, the 31-year-old rebel whom the Batista Government pictured to its graceless end as a ragamuffin hiding in the scrub hills of Oriente Province.

Castro to-day chose his birthplace, Santiago de Cuba, as provisional capital until such time as he could safely install in the Presidential palace at Havana the man he has proclaimed provisional President. He is Manuel Urrutia Lleo, a 58-year-old judge unknown to fame until, after 31 years on the bench, he faced last year 150 youths charged with inciting to revolt. He set them free on the brave principle that the Batista Government had left Cubans no other means to defend their constitutional rights. He became a revolutionary hero and today he has his reward. His first act was to declare a general strike so as to curb the rioting and to demonstrate, through the patrols of the revolutionary militia, that Castro is indeed the Government in fact.

The Batista Government and most of its lackeys are already in the United States or in one of several Caribbean havens. A plane load of 92 of them landed at Idlewild last night and a Cuban merchant ship sailed for the Dominican Republic, where Batista is safe in the embrace of his former ward and enemy, the dictator Trujillo.

The last act of Batista's abortive junta was to tell the Government troops to lay down their arms. They appear to have done so, but Castro broadcast to-day an order to his forces everywhere to go armed and fire on sight at all looters, agitators, and pockets of resistance.

Most Cubans, and certainly the onlooking dictators of Nicaragua, Paraguay, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, find it hard to believe that Batista's domain could be conquered by an angry, though wealthy young man, whose first putsch against the island on December 1, 1956, left him with only twelve of the original force of 93 men.

Castro may doubt it too, but he is taking no chances. The mob, which yesterday tooted and rejoiced through the streets, betrayed him in an outbreak of pillage and rioting. This morning the streets of Havana were reported to be empty, except for the Castro patrols, cruising in the cars that were chasing them only two days ago.

But by midday a radio dispatch said that the city was taking on again "a dangerously lively air." Units of rebel militia were ordered to the Manzana de Gomez block of buildings, where groups of followers of Senator Rolando Masferrer, a leading Batista supporter, were hiding. Fighting went on for two hours, watched by crowds of spectators.

To-day in Ciudad Trujillo, Batista admitted the absurdity of his rout by an amateur but said that the first men sent to wipe out the rebels were "soldiers of the rural guard who were not prepared for guerrilla warfare. When the rebels extended their operations and met the army in open battle they were well armed and their weapons were superior to ours."

The last excuse is doubted by Latin American experts and business men who say that up to the end Batista was receiving planes and arms from Big Powers. What doomed him, they agree, was the treachery of his own leaders, widespread desertions in the Army, and the final dash for safety of men bound to him only by bribery.

Late this afternoon one of Castro's lieutenants took over the Havana remnants of this faithless army and passed the cue to Castro to begin his triumphal entry into the capital city. If he subdues it without much bloodshed he must quickly repair the heavy damage to the railroads, highways, and sugar farms in three provinces, set the economy flowing again, and keep the people quiet until he can arrange free elections.

Then he must answer the question that confronts all resting heroes who have raised their flags in the capital and put the tyrants to flight: how free dare the elections be? Castro has advertised an elaborate and drastic Socialist programme. He proposes to nationalise all utilities; to give their working land to tenant farmers, who make up 85 per cent of the farming population; to distribute to the employees of every business in Cuba 30 per cent of the profits; to confiscate all the property of "corrupt" (i.e. former) Government officials; to modernise the island's industries and begin a huge rural housing and electrification project.

In a country where Army officers on the winning side instantly inherit palaces, where there is little experience of parliamentary government, and where the idea of a loyal Opposition is tantamount to treason, Castro may, like others before him, come to demand a rubber stamp and permit only token opposition.

At the moment, though, all is joy and glory. The liberals among the South Americans in the United Nations are toasting the great day and calculating the present arithmetic of tyranny in Latin America. The present score seems to be, as one man put it, "four down and four to go."

(5) Alistair Cooke, President Kennedy Assassinated, Manchester Guardian (23rd November, 1963)

President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, was shot during a motorcade drive through downtown Dallas this afternoon. He died in the emergency room of the Parkland Memorial Hospital 32 minutes after the attack. He was 46 years old. He is the third President to be assassinated in office since Abraham Lincoln and the first since President McKinley in 1901.

In the late afternoon the Dallas police took into custody a former Marine, one Lee H. Oswald, aged 24, who is alleged to have shot a policeman outside a theatre. He is said to have remarked only, "It is all over now." He is the chairman of a group called the "Fair Play for Cuba Committee," and is married to a Russian girl. He is described at the moment as "a prime suspect."

The new President is the Vice-President, Lyndon Baines Johnson, a 55-year-old native Texan, who took the oath of office in Dallas at five minutes to four at the hands of a woman judge and later arrived in Washington with the body of the dead President.

This is being written in the numbed interval between the first shock and the harried attempt to reconstruct a sequence of fact from an hour of tumult. However, this is the first assassination of a world figure that took place in the age of television, and every network and station in the country took up the plotting of the appalling story. It begins to form a grisly pattern, contradicted by a grisly preface: the projection on television screens of a happy crowd and a grinning President only a few seconds before the gunshots.

The President was almost at the end of his two-day tour of Texas. He was to make a lunch speech in the Dallas Trade Mart building and his motor procession had about another mile to go. He had had the warmest welcome of his trip from a great crowd at the airport. The cries and pleas for a personal touch were so engaging that Mrs Kennedy took the lead and walked from the ramp of the presidential plane to a fence that held the crowd in. She was followed quickly by the President, and they both seized hands and forearms and smiled gladly at the people.

The Secret Service and the police were relieved to get them into their car, where Mrs Kennedy sat between the President and John B. Connally, the Governor of Texas. The Dallas police had instituted the most stringent security precautions in the city's history: they wanted no repetition of the small but disgraceful brawl that humiliated Adlai Stevenson in their city when he attended a United Nations rally on October 24.

The motorcade was going along slowly but smoothly three muffled shots, which the crowd first mistook for fireworks, cracked through the cheers. One hit the shoulder blade and the wrist of Governor Connally who was taken with the President to the hospital, where his condition is serious.

The other brought blood trickling from the back of the sitting President's head. His right arm flopped from a high wave of greeting and he collapsed into the arms of Mrs Kennedy, who fell unharmed. She was heard to cry "Oh, No" and sat there all the way cradling his head in her lap. As some people bayed and screamed and others fell to the ground, and hid their faces, the secret service escort broke into two groups, one speeding the President's car to the hospital: and another joined a part of the heavy police escort in wheeling off in pursuit of a man fleeing across some railroad tracks. Nothing came of this lead.

The President was taken to the emergency room of the Parkland Hospital and Governor Connally was taken into the surgery. Mrs Kennedy went in with the living President and less than an hour later came out with the dead man in a bronze coffin, which arrived shortly after two priests had administered the last rites of the Roman Catholic Church.

The body was escorted by Generals Clifton and McHugh, the President's chief military and air force aides, to the Dallas Airport and flown thence to Washington.

Within an hour of the President's death, the Secret Service had found a sniper's nest inside the building from which the first witnesses swore the bullets had been fired. It is a warehouse for a school text book firm, known as the Texas School Depository, on the corner of Elm and Houston Streets.

In an upper room, whose open window commanded the route of the Presidential motorcade, the Servicemen found the remains of a fried chicken and a foreign-made rifle with a telescopic sight. Alongside it lay three empty cartridges.

(6) Alistair Cooke, Robert Kennedy Assassinated, Manchester Guardian (7th June, 1950)

An hour or so before midnight, it was already clear that a wake was setting in at the Beverley Hilton Hotel, where the youngsters for McCarthy roamed in great numbers in and around the grand ballroom.

The percentage gap between McCarthy's lead over Kennedy was shrinking every quarter hour or so, as the returns form Los Angeles County began to overtake McCarthy's anticipated strength in Northern California. It was a young and doughty crowd, gamely but hopelessly trying to keep its spirit up.

In this country, at any rate, only the very pure in heart love a loser. And it seemed a good idea to move on to the victory boy at the Ambassador. Wilshire Boulevard is one of the longest of the long straight avenues that bisect the huge east-west spread of this city, and at such a time it seemed as long as a Roman road. The hotel's driveway was a miniature freeway in a traffic jam, and the human traffic inside the foyer was almost worse.

But at last, through the strutting cops and guards and the elated crowd and the din of whistles and cheers, it was possible to reach the north ballroom, a bone-white glare of light seen at the far end of the lobby.

Security is a fighting word at the Kennedy headquarters anywhere, and not without reason. You had to have a special Kennedy press card to acquire the privilege of being suffocated in the ballroom, and no other credentials for a reporter would do. I had only a general press card, a McCarthy badge, a driver's licence, and such other absurdities. So I turned back and thought of fighting the way back home.

But just alongside the guarded entrance to the north ballroom was another door, around which a pack of ecstatic faces, black and white, was jostling for some kind of privilege view. There was a guard there, too, and a Kennedy man who recognised me, caught in the general wash, squeezed me through into an almost empty room. It was like being beached by a tidal wave.

The place was no longer than about 40 feet. It was a small private dining room, fitted out as a press room. There was a long trestle table against one wall loaded with typewriters and telephones and standing by were a few middle-aged lady operators taking a breather.

In one corner was a booming television set switching between the rumblings of defeat at the McCarthy hotel and the clamour of victory in the adjacent ballroom. A fat girl wearing a Kennedy straw hat sucked a coke through a straw. There were15 or 20 of us at most, exchanging campaign reminiscences and making the usual hindsight cracks at the Kennedys.

Kennedy's press secretary had promised that once the Senator had saluted his army he would go down from the ballroom stage and come to see us through the kitchen that separated our retreat from the ballroom.

It was just after midnight. A surge of cheers and a great swivelling of lights heralded him, and soon he was upon the rostrum with his eager, button-eyed wife and Jessie Unruh, his massive campaign manager. It took minutes to get the feedback boom out of the mikes but at last there was a kind of subdued uproar and he said he first wanted to express "my high regard to Don Drysdale for his six great shut-outs." (Drysdale is a base pitcher whose Tuesday night feat of holding his sixth successive opposing teams to no runs has made him legend.)

It was the right, the wry Kennedy note. He thanked a list of helpers by name. He thanked "all those loyal Mexican Americans" and "all my friends in the black community." Then he stiffened his gestures and style and said it only went to show that "all those promises and all those party caucuses have indicated that the people of the United States want a change."

He congratulated McCarthy on fighting his principles . He hoped that now there might be "a debate between the Vice-President and perhaps myself." He flashed his teeth again in his chuckling, rabbity smile and ended, "My thanks to all of you - and now it's on to Chicago and let's win there."

A delirium of cheers and lights and tears and a rising throb of "We want Bobby! We want Bobby! We want Bobby!"

He tumbled down from the rostrum with his aides and bodyguards about him. He would be with us in 20 seconds, half a minute at most. We watched the swinging doors of the kitchen. Over the gabble of the television there was suddenly from the direction of the kitchen a crackle of sharp sounds. Like a balloon popping.

An exploded flash bulb maybe, more like a man banging a tray several times against a wall. A half-dozen or so of us trotted to the kitchen door and at the moment time and life collapsed. Kennedy and his aides had been coming on through the pantry. It was now seen to be not a kitchen but a regular serving pantry with great long tables and racks of plates against the wall.

He was smiling and shaking hands with a waiter, then a chef in a high white hat. Lots of Negroes, naturally, and they were glowing with pride, for he was their man. Then those sounds from somewhere, from a press of people on or near a steam table. And before you could synchronise you sight and thought, Kennedy was a prone bundle on the greasy floor, and two or three others had gone down with him. There was an explosion of shouts and screams and the high moaning cries of mini-skirted girls.

The doors of the pantry swung back and forth and we would peek in on the obscene disorder and reel back again to sit down, then to glare in a stupefied way at the nearest friend, to steady one boozy woman with black-rimmed eyes who was pounding a table and screaming, "Goddamned stinking country!" The fat girl was babbling faintly like a baby, like someone in a motor accident.

Out in the chaos of the ballroom, Kennedy's brother-in-law was begging for doctors. And back in the pantry they were howling for doctors: It was hard to see who had been badly hit. One face was streaming with blood. It was that of Paul Schrade, a high union official, and it came out that he got off lightly.

A woman had a purple bruise on her forehead. Another man was down. Kennedy was looking up like a stunned choirboy from an open shirt and a limp huddle of limbs. Somehow, in the dependable fashion of the faith, a priest had appeared.

We were shoved back and the cameraman were darting and screaming and flashing their bulbs. We fell back again from the howling pantry into the haven of the pressroom.

Suddenly, the doors opened again and six or eight and police had a curly black head and blue-jeaned body in their grip. He was a swarthy, thick-featured unshaven little man with a tiny rump and a head fallen over, as if he had been clubbed or had fainted perhaps.

He was lifted out into the big lobby and was soon off in some mysterious place "in custody." On the television Huntley and Brinkley were going on in their urbane way about the "trends" in Los Angeles and the fading McCarthy lead in Northern California.

A large woman went over and beat the screen, as if to batter these home-screen experts out of their self-possession. We had to take her and say, "Steady" and "Don't do that." And suddenly the screen went berserk, like a home movie projector on the blink. And the blurred, whirling scene we had watched in the flesh came wobbling in as a movie.

Then all the "facts" were fired or intoned from the screen. Roosevelt Grier, a 300lb coloured football player and a Kennedy man, had grabbed the man with the gun and overwhelmed him. A Kennedy bodyguard had taken the gun, a .22 calibre. The maniac had fired straight at Kennedy and sprayed the other bullets around the narrow pantry.

Kennedy was now at the receiving hospital and soon transferred to the Good Samaritan. Three neurologists were on their way. He had been hit in the hip, perhaps, but surely in the shoulder and "the mastoid area." There was the first sinister note about a bullet in the brain.

In the timelessness of nausea and dumb disbelief we stood and sat and stood again and sighed at each other and went into the pantry again and looked at the rack of plates and the smears of blood on the floor and the furious guards and the jumping-jack photographers.

It was too much to take in. The only thing to do was to touch the shoulder of the Kennedy man who had let you in and get out on to the street and drive home to the top of the silent Santa Monica Hills, where pandemonium is rebroadcast in tranquillity and where a little unshaven guy amuck in a pantry is slowly brought into focus as a bleak and shoddy villain of history.

(7) Alistair Cooke, My Lai Massacre, Manchester Guardian (15th December, 1969)

There has been nothing in the memory of living Americans like the massacre of My Lai. They cannot stay for ever in the pit of horror. They must climb out of it and find an indecent scape-goat or some bearable explanation that can restore their self-respect. For the nightly TV interviews with ordinary people show how pitifully the people feel that their youth is on trial.

Now, from Saigon, comes a brave bit of analysis from William F Buckley, the brilliant conservative columnist who for once does not feel obliged to snatch a rightwing argument and give it maximum plausibility.

He faces the progressively grim alternatives by asking how many people were guilty, because an aberration must have limits. "Jack the Ripper was not a corporation, so that we can think of him as aberrant," which we cannot do about "the Nazis under Hitler or the communists under Stalin". But if 10, 20, 50 men "concerted in the act of genocide", then we must ask why "a cross-section of young America found itself capable of utterly barbaric behaviour".

The "preferable" explanation is that "the guilty company relapsed into a kind of catatonic frenzy". The second, "the horrifying" alternative, is that "America in AD 1969 has bred young Americans who can insouciantly murder grandmothers and little children."