Western Correspondents Display Cold War Courage
‘I walked and cried. Death seemed a great relief but so difficult to find .... If only the interrogator would call me. I would admit anything.’
If any Associated Press (AP) correspondent had been asked about courage in journalism in the 1950's at the height of the cold war, as the tempo of arrests, show trials and death sentences mounted behind the Iron Curtain, three names would have surfaced: Leonard Kirschen in Romania, William Oatis in Czechoslovakia, and Endre Marton in Hungary. All were imprisoned for their reporting.
Throughout Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe, Western journalistic practices were regarded as a criminal, antistate activity, and all three men, aware of the dangers but doggedly pursuing their profession, fell victim to Stalinist regimes and their secret police.
Kirschen, a Romanian, the first arrested and longest held, was accused of spying for the United States and Britain. He was an experienced, British-educated reporter hired in Bucharest in the post-World War II turmoil of January 1946. He was detained, tried and sentenced to 25 years in 1950, becoming the first known AP correspondent ever imprisoned. After 10 years of cruel confinement, he was released in 1960.
His interrogations by the Romanian secret police went on, day and night, week after week, during which he was asked to write, then to rewrite, his life's history in a dingy cell. "We have methods to make you talk, and you won't like it at all," Kirschen was told. "You know, other people also tried to be clever with us and didn't talk. After we were finished they even told us everything they'd sucked in with their mother's milk during childhood." Kirschen recalled that at that moment he began to shiver. He was denied sleep and forced to keep writing the same thing over and over, as the interrogations began each afternoon and lasted until 5 a.m. Then, wearing only thin, badly holed socks, he was placed into a room six by nine feet and ordered to "walk around his cell and think." Every six hours he was told to stop walking, and he was given a straw mattress covered with urine and bloodstains from the previous walkers on which to sleep. After two hours of rest he was forced to resume walking for another six hours. He wrote:
"I walked and cried. Death seemed a great relief but so difficult to find. I bumped my head against the wooden wall, longing for it. The warder lashed out at my feet with a belt. 'Get moving. What do you think you are doing?' he shouted as I tried to drag my feet along. If only the interrogator would call me. I would admit anything."
Eventually, unable to endure the psychological and physical torture any longer, Kirschen decided to "confess," signed a statement of guilt, and was taken to the prison at Jilava, a 19th century fortress intended for 600 men but then overflowing with 2,500. In February 1960, as the international diplomatic climate changed, Kirschen was invited to apply to have his sentence suspended. Within days he was released. It had taken the U.S. State Department and the British foreign office a decade to win his release, all the while prodded by AP, which had supported Kirschen's ailing and destitute father and his wife.
Kirschen and his family moved to England, where he rejoined AP in London and developed a reputation as a commodities reporter. In an editorial appearing a few days after his death in 1983, the Times of London recalled his book, "Prisoner of Red Justice," published in 1963. "One of the best prison books amongst the many published by victims of Communism, this is also one of the least bitter," the Times wrote.
In January 1950, Czechoslovakia expelled all Western correspondents. AP's Czech nationals were ordered not to send stories abroad. The AP was allowed to reopen its bureau under William Oatis, of Marion, Indiana, later that year, but on April 23, 1951 Oatis and his entire Czech staff were arrested and charged with spying. Oatis was held incommunicado nearly 70 days before he was brought to trial. He was questioned around the clock, held in solitary confinement, and permitted no visitors, not even the U.S. ambassador.
In a staged trial before a Communist court, Oatis "confessed" to gathering facts about Czech agriculture and manufacturing production. In summing up, the prosecutor damned Oatis with remarkable praise, saying he was "particularly dangerous because of his discretion and his insistence on obtaining only accurate, correct and verified information." The U.S. State Department described the confession as nothing more than "the admission of an American reporter that in the high traditions of his profession was attempting under the most unfavorable conditions to report a true picture of conditions and events in Czechoslovakia as he saw them." He was sentenced to 10 years. His Czech staff received harsher terms. President Harry Truman denounced the trial as an attempt to intimidate the Western press.
"I was in prison in Czechoslovakia for over two years, and I can tell you this," Oatis reported later. "Living in that prison is like being buried alive. A cell there is like a tomb. And the inmate is like a man in purgatory. He is waiting, and his problem is to get through time."
The jailing of this American citizen became a major cold war incident. The United States cut off all trade with Czechoslovakia, travel there by U.S. citizens was banned, and Czech commercial flights to West Germany were prohibited. Oatis was finally released May 16, 1953 after his wife, Laurabelle, appealed personally to the Czech president. It was a seeming act of grace, but the Czechs were under heavy economic pressure, and President Dwight Eisenhower had held open the possibility of more normal relations if Oatis were freed. After recuperating from tuberculosis, contracted while he was in prison, Oatis eventually was reassigned to the UN bureau in New York, where he specialized in reporting about developing countries. He died September 16, 1997.
Endre Marton survived the first years of Soviet domination in Hungary, including his coverage in 1948 of the sensational show trial of Joseph Cardinal Mindszenty. Marton's brush with authority came later but did not deter him from covering one of the biggest stories of the cold war. He and his wife, Ilona, who worked for United Press in competition with her husband, were arrested in 1955 and charged with espionage. He was jailed by a secret Hungarian military court for 18 months, she for half that time, alternatively threatened with execution and treated with relative leniency. They were freed in the more liberal political climate prevailing in the summer of 1956, just in time to witness the bloody uprising by Hungarian freedom fighters, a pivotal moment that pitted students and workers against Soviet tanks brought in to crush the revolt.
On October 23rd, tens of thousands of Hungarians pushed into Stalin Square in Budapest shouting "Ruskies go home" and "Down with Gero," the head of the Communist Party. The demonstrations mounted the following day but Marton, his communications to the outside world cut, was unable to send out stories.
Two days later, Budapest's Parliament Square became a battleground. Marton was there when Soviet troops fired into a crowd of demonstrators. He had witnessed what he called "the story of my life," but he had no way to get it out. He pleaded with a friendly official in charge of outgoing communications for access to a government building from which he could send his story. His contact agreed, but warned Marton: "I don't think you can make it. You will be shot before you get there. It's not worth it." Marton reached the office and gave the telex numbers of several AP bureaus to a clerk. Marton waited several hours. He had never used a telex machine before. Marton described the scene this way in his book, "The Forbidden Sky":
"The nighttime silence of the large room was suddenly broken when my machine sprang to life. I stared at it, waiting to see what would happen. And then, miraculously, the words appeared on the paper: 'Associated Press, Vienna.' I sat there, with trembling fingers, and punched back: 'AP, Budapest.' Back came the message: 'Endre ... Is that really you?'"
The next day his story, the first eyewitness account, some 2,000 words long, was splashed on the front page of The New York Times and other newspapers around the world. It began:
"BUDAPEST, Hungary, Oct. 25 — Parliament Square in Budapest became a battlefield shortly after noon today when a Soviet tank opened fire on a few thousand peaceful demonstrators whose only weapons were Hungarian flags."
The story reported as many as 200 or 300 dead. The fighting escalated and spread to other towns. Demonstrators armed with Molotov cocktails, homemade grenades and small arms, clashed with Russian forces in tanks and the hated Hungarian secret police. On October 29th, the Hungarian army announced that Russian troops had begun to withdraw from Budapest. The following day, Premier Imre Nagy, the first leader in the Soviet orbit to attempt introducing "socialism with a human face," announced the one-party Communist system had been abolished. It was a Soviet ruse.
On November 2nd, Marton reported Russian tanks and soldiers had returned and encircled Budapest as Nagy pleaded on Budapest Radio for the United Nations to guarantee Hungary's independence. The Hungarian rebels had repeatedly broadcast appeals for support from the United States. The U.S. government had often spoken of "liberating" Communist countries and rolling back the Iron Curtain, but it did not intervene in Hungary. Direct intervention in Soviet controlled Eastern Europe would have been tantamount to declaring World War III. On November 4th Soviet troops overran the country. The fighting killed and wounded tens of thousands of Hungarians, and some 200,000 refugees fled to the West through Austria. On November 12th, the revolt crushed, Marton gave this overview:
"BUDAPEST, Nov. 12 (AP) — After 15 years under the heel first of Nazi Germany and then of Communist Russia, Hungary got a whiff of intoxicating freedom in late October.
"Then came Sunday, November 4th. Budapest was awakened by the roaring of guns. By authoritative estimate, the Russians had moved 4,600 tanks and between 180,000 and 200,000 men into Hungary to crush the revolution. Against this might, Hungary had nine divisions of 90,000 men or less, equipped with obsolete weapons, and kids, some with guns."
In January 1957, Marton first received warnings he might be arrested again, followed by hints there might be no objections if he left the country and, finally, word the regime would welcome his departure. The Martons and their two children decided to leave, traveling first by road to Austria and several months later moving to the United States. Marton continued his work with the AP in Washington, where he served many years as State Department correspondent. He died November 1, 2005 at the age of 95.
Larry Heinzerling is The Associated Press deputy international editor for world services. He is among a team of nearly 20 writers, editors and researchers working on a new history of The Associated Press, updating Oliver Gramling's "AP: The Story of News." The stories in this article emerged from research for this book.