The end fast approaches for the last “big” anniversary of the end of World War II, marked by Japan’s signing of the formal instrument of surrender aboard the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay on September 2, 1945. By the time the centenary rolls around in 2045, virtually all of today’s commentariat on such things, this writer included, will have passed from the scene, just as virtually all of the war years’ firsthand witnesses have already. Before we all go, we should not be remiss in saluting a singular monument to the power of the recorded voice as it was experienced by millions in those times, when listening, not watching, was our primary connection to great events and, as we used to say, to the great men who for better or for worse made history happen.
The monument rests on my record shelf: an album now brittle with age containing five twelve-inch discs that play for about forty-five minutes total, at an old-fashioned 78 RPM. They weigh in at about four and a half pounds. I Can Hear It Now was the brainchild of two of the last century’s most famous figures in the then new field of “broadcast journalism”: Fred Friendly (née Ferdinand Friendly Wachenheimer, a future president of CBS News) and Edward R. Murrow, with the key production know-how of Murrow’s business manager, J. G. Gude. Friendly’s idea was to recycle and resell in record form famous commercially aired radio news broadcasts from the years 1933 to 1945, from Hitler’s and FDR’s ascent to power to Douglas MacArthur’s acceptance of the Japanese surrender on the Missouri seventy-five years ago this week.
To early post-war America’s record-buying public, these years were times past but not long past: events that Americans had one way or another lived through themselves and of which, Friendly figured, they might desire a permanent record in sound. It was “their history” after all, and I Can Hear It Now was a palpable way to remember and to honor that past without having to crack open a book. Friendly’s marketing instincts proved correct. His recruitment of the already famous Murrow (who was part of the history being recalled; Murrow had broadcast from London during the Blitz in 1940) as the narrator was inspired. Plus, the relatively new technology of magnetic-tape recording made affordable the massive editing necessary to reduce five hundred hours of actual broadcasts to a manageable, marketable package. It was a good bet. Finished in 1948 and released at Thanksgiving 1949, I Can Hear It Now snagged a quarter million sales in the first year and inspired Friendly and Murrow to conjure several sequels. The Library of Congress reports it to have been “the recording industry’s most successful spoken-word/non-musical album” ever. In digital form, it is still “in print.”
My parents numbered among those first buyers. Neither had been “in the war,” but everyone then was “of the war”; there was no escaping it. They would have purchased I Can Hear It Now in a mood of amazed gratitude shared widely then: “We lived through all that—some of the roughest times that life can serve up—and we survived.” The Depression’s much-feared return did not happen, and by the late Forties life in America was lightening up. Young people married and had families (this writer thanks them), found jobs, built houses, made lives. It is my suspicion that my parents listened to Murrow and company, on their brand-new mahogany Magnavox, once or twice and then respectfully left it on the shelf, in peace (with, in time, Churchill’s history of the Second World War). In the eighteen years I spent in their household, I never heard it played once. Rediscovering it now, I find near-virgin discs, the voices captured there rendered in all the static-y immediacy that recording technology seven decades ago conveyed.
What voices came back to them then? What do we hear now? First, they are all the actual voices: no actors were employed; it is an “original cast” recording in every sense. Will Rogers starts it off with jokes about the Depression; a newly inaugurated FDR talks about “fear itself”; Edward VIII whines out his abdication; Chamberlain surrenders at Munich and calls it victory; Hitler excoriates the Czechs; Stalin celebrates the October Revolution as Russia is overrun; Lindbergh warns against war; Blitzkrieg rolls up Poland, then the Low Countries and France; Murrow describes the London Blitz; princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose buck up the children of empire; Churchill mobilizes the English language for battle. The reporter John Daly’s description of Pearl Harbor, the emotional high point of I Can Hear It Now for American listeners, is enhanced for dramatic effect by the addition of music from the New York Philharmonic—as if interrupted—a rare example of artistic license taken by the producers. We hear Ike on D-Day; Roosevelt reports on Yalta and soon after dies; Truman announces Germany’s surrender; the army chaplain Robert Downey prays before the take-off of Enola Gay; the newsman Robert Trout announces that Japan has quit; MacArthur accepts formal surrender on the deck of the Missouri: “These proceedings are closed.”
It is a thrilling forty-five minutes of listening, though we may hear it differently with the passage of time. My parents heard I Can Hear It Now with pride and relief and likely with little reflection: that’s just the way it was. My generation, let us be honest, hears it these days especially with some nostalgia, hungry to reaffirm that in the most dispiriting of times our nation once pulled through together. How my children’s generation and their children’s will hear these voices, I dare not say. I will say, with confidence, that sharing the medium of voice recording brings us all closer to those whose moment in history we seek to memorialize in this anniversary observance.
Murrow and Friendly thought the events of 1933–45 were apprehended by ear more than any other dimension, and they were right: “There were more ear witnesses to Dwight D. Eisenhower on D-Day than there were witnesses at Gettysburg, Waterloo, Thermopylae, Carthage, and the Battle of Jericho and all the other battles of history combined.” Those events are also best remembered that same way: by ear. Of course, there were pictures back then, in LIFE and the newsreels, but the balance toward the image had yet to tip decisively. War had not yet come visually into our living rooms and would not do so until Vietnam. The need to listen demands a degree of imaginative attentiveness that we have all but lost. I Can Hear It Now affords an opportunity to get a bit of it back. Throw in a song or two—say “We’ll Meet Again” or “The White Cliffs of Dover”—from that Sweetheart of the Forces, Vera Lynn (who died at 104 on June 18), in between VE Day and VJ Day, and you will have caught the moment in full.
As the curtain comes down on this last-for-many-of-us big anniversary of the war’s end, and if you are tempted to let it pass with the usual handwringing at the ambiguities of Hiroshima and Dresden, then spend forty-five minutes with I Can Hear It Now. You will hear there, in all its scratchy reality, a babel of human frailty and folly, of resolution and endurance. It may not seem so long ago, at that. Take heart.