A Harrowing Tale Of Cold War Escape And Suppression In 'The Tunnels' A new book explores a time in the early 1960s when two groups of diggers built tunnels under the Berlin Wall that were filmed and financed by U.S. television networks.
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A Harrowing Tale Of Cold War Escape And Suppression In 'The Tunnels'

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A Harrowing Tale Of Cold War Escape And Suppression In 'The Tunnels'

A Harrowing Tale Of Cold War Escape And Suppression In 'The Tunnels'

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The Berlin Wall was a barrier, a scar, a cruel concrete and barbed wire boundary that divided a great city, families, east and west, communism and capitalism, tyranny and democracy. People died trying to cross it, climbing and jumping, and others labored to carve out tunnels beneath that wall. Greg Mitchell has written a book about a time in the early 1960s when two groups of diggers built tunnels that were filmed and financed by U.S. television networks, who wanted to turn acts of daring into primetime specials. But when the U.S. government discovered those projects, the Kennedy administration moved to suppress them. His book - "The Tunnels: Escapes Under The Berlin Wall And The Historic Films The JFK White House Tried To Kill." Greg Mitchell joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

GREG MITCHELL: Oh, thank you, very happy to be here.

SIMON: We think of the Berlin Wall as this coarse, gray symbol of the cruelty of East German communism. But as your book makes plain, the Kennedy administration was kind of happy to see it go up, in a way.

MITCHELL: Berlin, of course, had been divided since the end of the '40s. And it was a tremendous pressure point between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. So when the wall came, there was, in many quarters, a certain sense of relief because it not only stopped the refugee flow, but it signaled that the Soviets were maybe not going to try to take West Berlin. And it was tough luck for for those in East Berlin.

SIMON: How did there get to be an NBC tunnel and a CBS tunnel anyway?

MITCHELL: Well, this was the golden age of television documentaries, prime-time documentaries. CBS and NBC were in a dogfight for ratings. ABC was still kind of the upstart. So both NBC and CBS were in a battle to become the first to film one of these tunnels from the inside. These tunnel escapes were getting a certain amount of press, and so they wanted to get - be the first to get a scoop. And it turned out that NBC was alerted first in June of 1962 and was able to start filming after they paid - a controversial move - paid thousands of dollars in funds to the tunnel organizers. And meanwhile, Daniel Schorr of - the CBS legend, the later NPR legend...

SIMON: We know the name here, yeah.

MITCHELL: (Laughter) He was a Berlin correspondent for CBS, and so he had put the word out that he wanted to film a tunnel. And on August 1, he was alerted to a smaller tunnel and the promise was to bring over up to 100 escapees. It would have been the biggest escape ever in Berlin. And so he was extremely excited about this and sent a camera man to start filming and was gearing up for an August 7 mass escape that would be one of his most spectacular stories in his entire career.

SIMON: Except he got a call from just about the highest councils.

MITCHELL: Yes, he did. Well, the State Department found out about it. They alerted Dean Rusk, who was the secretary of state, and Dean Rusk immediately ordered them to try to bully Daniel Schorr into not going ahead with this. And the reasoning was that this could be a spectacular incident, whether it was a success or a failure, could set off reverberations with the Soviets, raise tensions is the words they always used to use or endanger lives either in the short run or the long run. And again, in the book, I'm able to detail day by day this operation because of recently declassified documents. You're right in the room there with Dan Schorr as he's being (laughter) being pressured by the State Department to drop this project. You can imagine, knowing Dan, how that went down.

SIMON: Oh, no, I'm sure he said what a wonderful idea.

MITCHELL: Right, that's right.

SIMON: I wish it occurred to me.

MITCHELL: Absolutely.

SIMON: No, Dan was ultimately very resistant, but he didn't have backup at the home office.

MITCHELL: Right. He was still probably planning to go ahead and then knowing there - they had failed to bully him, the State Department pressured Dan's boss, Blair Clark, to come to Dean Rusk's office just before midnight on the eve of the escape where Dean Rusk - and there were three CIA officials in the room - laid down the law. And so Blair Clark, around midnight in Washington, calls Dan Schorr. Dan Schorr has to go to the U.S. mission on a secure line, and there's his boss on the line saying, you cannot do this. You have to call this off, and of course it turned out, as Schorr well knew, Blair Clark was a very close friend of John F. Kennedy. They'd gone to Harvard together. Dan never quite got over this. Later - even to the end of his life, he was saying how much this still made him angry and that - especially that a friend of the president was able to be told to kill the show and ultimately did it.

SIMON: Yeah. CBS shelved their film. NBC didn't show it until weeks after the Cuban missile crisis. And however, the escapes went ahead.

MITCHELL: The difference with the NBC tunnel was that our government didn't know about it, so it went through. Twenty-nine people escaped. NBC was there to film it all. Again, the State Department then found out about it. And we see the pressure on NBC to kill this program. And ultimately they succeeded in having it postponed. And then about seven weeks after it was postponed, NBC kind of slipped it onto the air, and it became a landmark in television history. It won three Emmy Awards, including the - becoming the first documentary to ever win program of the year. But, you know, it came extremely close to not seeing the light of day.

SIMON: Were the CBS and NBC projects responsible? Were they documenting news, or by throwing money around, were they manufacturing it?

MITCHELL: (Laughter) Well, in both cases, the tunnels were underway when the networks found out about them. So you can't say they were manufacturing the story or the tunnels. In the case of CBS, Dan Schorr found out about it very near the end. That tunnel was going to go ahead no matter what. The NBC tunnel was a little different. And they needed the funds. So NBC did not create that project, but certainly the argument could be made that without the NBC money it never would've gone to completion.

SIMON: Greg Mitchell - his book, "The Tunnels." Thanks so much for being with us.

MITCHELL: Thank you, Scott.

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