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.