Hans v. Kaltenborn Papers, 1883-1964


Since the introduction of the crystal set, Kaltenborn has been on hand to analyze the news. Historical events around the world have been carefully studied and interpreted by this reporter, and his penetrating commentaries have helped bring into focus the intimate relationship of the American people to world events. The history of radio news presentation owes a great deal to Hans v. Kaltenborn.

H. v. Kaltenborn is the son of Rudolph and Betty (Wessels) von Kaltenborn. Rudolph, a member of the German aristocracy, was a lieutenant in the Hessian Guards. Hans was later to thrill at being addressed as “Baron” when he visited his father's homeland. Betty Wessels, born and raised in Bremen, met Rudolph aboard a liner bound for the United States where she planned to teach German. The Kaltenborns moved to Milwaukee in 1872. It was here, on July 9, 1878, that Hans was born, the second of two children. Later the family moved to Jenny, now Merrill, Wisconsin.

The townspeople of Merrill who remember the Kaltenborn family agree that Hans “knew what he wanted.” He was an energetic youth who was always ready for a debate and eager to report what he saw. Once, after a “Century Bicycle Tour,” Hans filled two columns of the Merrill Advocate with his observations. When the Spanish-American War broke out Kaltenborn joined the Fourth Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry in training in the south, and was soon sending news items to the Advocate, the Milwaukee Journal and the Lincoln County Anzeiger, a local German paper printed in Merrill. H. v. Kaltenborn got a brief taste of what he wanted - an opportunity to report the news.

Merrill didn't look the same to Hans when he returned from the war and a couple of years as city-editor of the Advocate, combined with a brief period of lumber-jacking, didn't change things much. With the money he'd saved in these pursuits, he set out for New York, the first leg of his journey to France and the World's Fair of 1900. Hans reached Paris after a dreary passage as a working hand on the cattle boat, Georgia. Here he enjoyed the sights of the fair, experienced his first association with foreign customs, and spent his last franc. At this point the foreign correspondent of the Merrill Advocate was forced to turn to the “want ads.” As luck would have it, an American firm in Paris was looking for a stereoscope salesman. The fact that the applicant's French was far from polished meant little to his new employers. They furnished him with a printed sales talk. La petite invention americaine, that showed Niagara Falls and the New York City skyline in three dimensions, helped Hans eke out a living in Paris, enabled him to learn French, and convinced him that a fellow can do almost anything once he's made up his mind to it.

The idea that one makes his own breaks helped form an outlook that was to color the life of H. v. Kaltenborn. After a brief period with the Brooklyn Daily Eagle he became convinced that a college education is vital to one who wants to reach the top. Taking a leave of absence from the Eagle, Kaltenborn enrolled at Harvard College as a “special student,” since his high school education was incomplete. Here he proved his capacity to tackle a tough assignment and master it as he graduated with an honors degree in his hand and a Phi Beta Kappa key in his pocket.

During Kaltenborn's junior year at Harvard, he secured parttime employment as Professor William H. Schofield's secretary. When the professor went to Berlin in 1907 as an exchange teacher, Kaltenborn accompanied him, and on the return trip he met his wife to be, Baroness Olga von Nordenflycht, daughter of the German consul in New Orleans. Unable to afford marriage, he obtained a job as tutor for John Jacob Astor's son, Vincent. This assignment took him to Europe as Vincent's traveling companion and to the Caribbean on the Astor yacht, Nourmahal. The trip to the Caribbean was almost his undoing. Caught in a tropical storm, the Nourmahal was given up for lost and the Brooklyn Eagle ran a fine obituary on its “former” reporter. When Hans made his reappearance, the Eagle was happy to print a retraction and announce shortly thereafter his marriage instead. Hans and Olga married in Berlin, honeymooned in Vienna, and returned to Brooklyn where he resumed his fulltime duties with the Brooklyn paper.

Kaltenborn worked for the Eagle from 1910 to 1930. He gathered experience in political and economic reporting as Washington reporter for a time and observer at the League of Nations meetings in Geneva. Kaltenborn continued to travel, conducting Brooklyn Eagle tours throughout the United States, South America, Hawaii, Alaska and Europe. “Keep them fed and keep them moving,” was the key to leading successful tours, he learned. Kaltenborn's star was rising. He graduated from the financial page to associate-editor with the Eagle in what to many would seem like meteoric success. But Kaltenborn's fame and fortune was not to lie in newspapers, but in a phenomenal new device whose capabilities he was about to explore.

H. v. Kaltenborn's first association with radio came in 1921 when he went to Newark, New Jersey, to give an address which was broadcast to the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce meeting in Brooklyn. When Kaltenborn returned he was met by friends anxious to tell him that they had heard and understood every word. This was only the beginning. On April 4, 1922, Kaltenborn presented an address from the Army Signal Corps Station in New York. It was enthusiastically received by hundreds of listeners in and around the city and marked the first time an editorial opinion had been given on the air.

Kaltenborn continued to broadcast his views on the news, but it took 'a great deal of courage to do so. His gesticulations seemed ridiculous to him at first, considering the lack of an audience, and the urge to pace up and down, as if he were on a platform, was curbed by the necessity of having to stand directly before the old carbon mike. All his speeches were extemporaneous, a practice he maintained for years. No one knew what he was going to say or how long it would take, although there was a general agreement that the talk would last about thirty minutes. If he finished before his thirty minutes was up, a pianist would fill in with an appropriate tune; if he needed a couple of additional minutes to make his conclusion, they were granted. Sponsors were apt to be more strict than radio engineers in the early twenties and extremely sensitive to the mail which started to pour in in response to Kaltenborn's discussion of controversial issues and criticisms of public officials. Severe rebukes and frequent dismissals resulted. Kaltenborn enjoys recalling that he was known as the “wandering voice” of radio. As time went on and stations became wealthier and more independent, however, editorializing was accepted.

The adventures of H. v. Kaltenborn over the next decade read like the tales of Richard Haliburton. In 1927 he climbed Mount Fujiyama in Japan and was nearly hanged by Chinese soldiers in Canton (Guangzhou). In 1929 he visited Russia to observe the results of the first “five year plan.” In 1932 he covered the Democratic National Convention for the Columbia Broadcasting System and in Europe talked with Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini. The following year found him in England covering the London Economic Conference. When civil war broke out in Spain, H. v. Kaltenborn headed for the scene. Broadcasting from northern Spain he gave the American people their first on the spot radio report from a battle front. An interview he had with the Spanish philosopher, Miguel de Unamuno, made a deep and lasting impression on Kaltenborn, and served to inspire him for years in his role as editor of the air. Noting that the famed thinker had remained on the Franco side of the lines, he asked: “Does this mean that you want to see a Fascist government in Spain?” “Certainly not,” replied Unamuno, “I am going to be against whatever side wins the war because the victorious side will need restraint.”

With this experience in reporting, meeting world leaders, and analyzing world events, Kaltenborn was ready to give the public valuable service when, in 1938, the peace of the world hung in precarious balance in Munich. For eighteen days, from September 12 to September 29, 1938, Kaltenborn ate and slept in his CBS studio in New York City. During this period he gave almost one hundred broadcasts, some over complex overseas hookups. He was there to interpret Hitler's speeches and analyze the meaning of the news in the light of current events. The American people became accustomed to his voice and his mail increased a hundred fold. In his book, I Broadcast the Crisis, Kaltenborn has reproduced many of his broadcasts and thoughts of the period. Among the latter is one which seems most significant. “We were saved from war, I am convinced, by the mobilization of world opinion for peace. The response (from the people) was a demand for peace which even the most hardened dictator could not but obey. The medium was radio.”

As the United States prepared to join the Allies in World War II, Kaltenborn became the chief critic of national defense policy. He denounced strikes and severly criticized labor leaders. Labor fought back. President H.M. Dawes of Pure Oil Company, Kaltenborn's sponsor, wrote to complain that he had “a minor riot on hand in connection with [his] recent broadcasts referring to labor.” Kaltenborn urged sacrifices from the American people and championed the drive for scrap metals and rubber to the point where a retired army nurse sent in her medals to be added to the heap. He denounced Army pilot training policy because of its high accident toll, and became a firm believer in a smaller army that would leave a sufficient number of men in the factories and on the farms. He called for “Peoples' Lobbies” to counteract “private interest groups” that were allegedly blocking defense efforts; people wrote to find out how to organize. In reply to an irrate listener who complained of his constant crusading, Kaltenborn replied that advisors to the President had told him that his broadcasting helped to crystalize public opinion and helped the President to act.

Although broadcasting five times a week over the National Broadcasting System kept him extremely busy, Kaltenborn still had time during the war to make several trips to the battlefronts, organize and preside as an officer of the Association of Radio News Analysts in 1942, and champion the cause of displaced Japanese-Americans from the west coast. On election eve in 1948 Kaltenborn predicted victory for Governor Thomas E. Dewey. When re-elected, President Harry S. Truman mimicked him before news reel cameras; many of Kaltenborn's devoted fans wrote to sympathize with him. When he lambasted Senator Joseph R. McCarthy in 1951 his support was not as great, but he continued to call the Senator's charges “reckless and exaggerated.”

H. v. Kaltenborn's long and valuable service to radio has won him a DuPont Award, two honorary degrees, and the title, “Dean of American Commentators.” Possibly he will be remembered best, however, for his determination to analyze the news as he saw it. He believed that by so doing he was advancing the cause of peace. “It is our task,” Kaltenborn writes, “to fight the good fight. The happy millennium of peace on earth, good will to men, will not come in our time, but if we can bring it only a little nearer, those of us who believe in the new order will have justified our faith.”