‘The case against Lt. Milo Radulovich’
Lodi man triggered the legendary battle at the center of Good Night, and Good Luck
Imagine an America where journalists who question the government are branded leftist or, worse, communists. Where scientific research is suppressed and academics fired for espousing unpopular views. A time when government workers and members of the armed services are told: “Denounce your family members or face public humiliation and the end of your careers.”
Milo Radulovich remembers vividly how it began, how his case hit the front page and then network television. It’s not easy for him to forget, after all, with a couple of dozen books about his life and now a new film directed by George Clooney, Good Night, and Good Luck, releasing nationwide on Friday.
The Lodi resident and retired meteorologist recalls the day an Air Force major approached him at the University of Michigan and handed him a letter; he was being drummed out of the reserves. The letter gave no reason, but what Radulovich discovered was that the only charge against him was his ongoing association with his father and sister, alleged subversives.
The year was 1953, the nation was caught up in the red scare, Senator Joseph McCarthy of Minnesota was stirring up the furor, and Radulovich soon found himself to be a target.
“It was an unjust situation. I couldn’t take it and slink off with my tail between my legs,” Radulovich, now 79, said. He decided to do what few had the courage to do at that time: challenge the government’s case against him. When his story hit the newspapers, CBS producer Fred Friendly brought it to the attention of legendary broadcaster Edward R. Murrow.
“My case was the trigger Murrow was looking for,” Radulovich explained. “It is what incited the confrontation of Murrow and McCarthy.”
The new film is a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the See It Now documentaries Murrow and Friendly produced attacking first McCarthyism and later the senator himself. The eventual showdown between Murrow and McCarthy, played out before the American viewing public, is one of the great moments in broadcasting history.
Radulovich recently returned from a special screening of Good Night, and Good Luck in San Francisco, where he fielded questions from the audience. His connection to the film began when Clooney asked him to participate in script readings with the cast. The film stars David Strathairn as Murrow, Clooney as Friendly and Frank Langella as CBS Chairman Bill Paley. Radulovich makes an appearance in the film in original footage shot by CBS.
Clooney, who co-wrote the script with producer Grant Heslov, elevates Murrow to an iconic figure.
Clooney’s father was a news anchor for 30 years, and Murrow, Clooney has said, was considered a hero to his family. Between the news program See It Now and the celebrity show Person to Person, Murrow appeared five nights a week on the country’s televisions. His slick black hair, deep sonorous voice and ever-present cigarettes were as much a network trademark as the CBS eye. His live broadcasts from London of the Nazi blitz established him as a star, and he enjoyed a privileged status at the network as a producer and member of the company’s board of directors. “In American cultural history, Murrow is a giant,” noted Bob Calo, associate dean of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. “It was Murrow who ushered in the era of the great anchors—Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather—which is only now coming to a close.”
But even Murrow hesitated when it came to challenging the powerful and erratic McCarthy. In preparing “The Case Against Lt. Milo Radulovich, A0589839,” the journalist understood he was testing his relationship with CBS and his friend Paley.
Radulovich was 26 when the broadcast aired, and he and his wife, Nancy, were depicted as simple Americans up against a faceless system. The Air Force, invited to participate in the show, had declined.
See It Now described the proceedings against Radulovich, The evidence against him and his family had been brought into a hearing room in a sealed envelope and placed before him on a table—where it remained sealed.
The Air Force refused to disclose its case, and only after some hectoring from his attorney did the officers agree to allow Radulovich to examine a single page from the documents. It claimed that his father, a Serbian immigrant unschooled in English, had subscribed to a socialist newspaper printed in the language.
Years later, Radulovich recalled a particularly Kafkaesque moment from those proceedings when the Air Force’s legal officer took him aside: “He told me, ‘You’re embarrassing us. Disown your father and sister, and everything will be all right.’ They were asking me to denounce myself, to condemn my own DNA.”
The Radulovichs were not among the millions who watched the broadcast—the CBS affiliate in Detroit had blacked out the show—but they received hundreds of congratulatory letters, and within a month the Air Force announced, on See It Now, that the young officer was not a security risk and would retain his commission.
McCarthy was another matter. Murrow struggled with how to take on the self-righteous ideologue. The only answer, he concluded, was to let the senator speak for himself. McCarthy was shown in characteristic rant, berating witnesses and gesturing wildly. Clooney faced the same problem in casting for the part and decided to follow the Murrow lead. No one, it turns out, is as effective at capturing McCarthy’s particular brand of lunacy as McCarthy himself.
Audiences had never experienced anything like it, Calo said. “The brilliance of Murrow’s strategy to let McCarthy speak for himself demonstrated like never before the openness of TV, which was about more than just words, but body language as well. You could even smell the fear.”
If McCarthy was undone by television, Murrow was ultimately silenced by his own success. The network switchboard lighting up with enthusiastic or infuriated viewers of See It Now was the last thing Paley wanted for a company that sold entertainment and advertising. He pulled the plug on See It Now about the time the network introduced the quiz show.
And for Milo Radulovich, fame meant unemployment. His vindication on See It Now, only attached more controversy to his résumé, and months passed before a small a weather-research firm in the Bay Area gave him a chance. He traded up to the National Weather Service, where he was sent out into the field to predict weather conditions for firefighters. He has a spent a lifetime, it seems, braving the storm.
“I represent a hell of a lot of people who didn’t have the same luck as I did, who didn’t have the press to take up their cause. To this day, no matter how I criticize the press in America, it has a very special place in my heart.”