Bill Downs

American journalist (1914-1978)

William Randall Downs, Jr. (August 17, 1914May 3, 1978) was a Kansas City-born American broadcast journalist for CBS Radio and later ABC. He was best known for his work with Edward R. Murrow and was one of the original Murrow Boys.


  • Just think! If we survive them, these will be the good old days!
    • Quote recalled by Walter Cronkite while ducking in the trenches to avoid heavy mortar fire, from Douglas Brinkley's Cronkite.
  • Okay, Ed, now I've gotten the ice. When are you gonna stand up to McCarthy?
    • Challenging a reluctant Murrow to take on Senator Joseph McCarthy on his new television show See It Now (1953 or 1954), as quoted in A.M. Sperber's Murrow: His Life and Times.
  • Go back, go back, you silly bastards. This ain't our kind of war. This one is for the birds.
    • Speaking about the Korean War to Murrow when Murrow arrived in Tokyo, as quoted in A.M. Sperber's Murrow: His Life and Times.
  • This seems to me to be more a day for a searching of the human soul perhaps than for any kind of scientific celebration.
    • In discussing the Ivy Mike thermonuclear tests in an appearance on See It Now, November 2, 1952
  • A single, isolated battle that ranks in magnificence and courage with Guam, Tarawa, Omaha Beach. A story that should be told to the blowing of bugles and the beating of drums for the men whose bravery made the capture of this crossing over the Waal possible.
  • Perhaps the greatest good that will emerge from this Far Eastern crisis is an awareness that freedom-loving men of all races and all nations will have proved that they can and must work and fight together if their freedom is to survive.
    • Stated on "Edward R. Murrow with the News" on December 26, 1952.
  • The fault of democracy everywhere, including the United States of America, is that too few people make use of it.
    • CBS radio broadcast from Berlin on March 2, 1949
  • You want me to tell Ed Murrow what to say or what not to say?...I'll tell him you said so, Governor, and thank you very much for your opinion.
    • Downs to Governor of Connecticut Abraham Ribicoff at the 1960 Democratic National Convention after being literally shaken down by the man due to his anger over Murrow's criticism of Joseph McCarthy, as quoted in A.M. Sperber's Murrow: His Life and Times.
  • At least I can shout to the world this--I'm my own midget. The mistakes will be my mistakes--the failures will have my fiat--the successes, if any or none, will not be subject to people who worry about thick lenses, long noses, or advertising agency or affiliate bias.
    • Describing his frustration with his treatment by the new CBS management (1962), The Murrow Boys: Pioneers on the Front Lines of Broadcast by Stanley Cloud and Lynne Olson.

Blood at Babii Yar - Kiev's Atrocity Story (1943)Edit

Article featured in the December 6, 1943 edition of Newsweek. Full transcript
  • The first act in the tragedy took place in September 1941, a few weeks after the Germans captured Kiev. One day they ordered all Jews to report at the Lukyanovka district and bring their valuables with them. Thousands of men, women, and children marched out to Lukyanovka, thinking they probably would be evacuated. Instead, Nazi SS troops led them to Babii Yar.
  • At the wide shallow ravine, their valuable and part of their clothing were removed and heaped into a big pile. Then groups of these people were led into a neighboring deep ravine where they were machine-gunned. When bodies covered the ground in more or less of a layer, SS men scraped sand down from the ravine walls to cover them. Then the shooting would continue. The Nazis, we were told, worked three days doing the job. However, even more incredible was the actions taken by the Nazis between Aug. 19 and Sept. 28 last. Vilkis said that in the middle of August the SS mobilized a party of 100 Russian war prisoners, who were taken to the ravines. On Aug. 19 these men were ordered to disinter all the bodies in the ravine. The Germans meanwhile took a party to a nearby Jewish cemetery whence marble headstones were brought to Babii Yar to form the foundation of a huge funeral pyre. Atop the stones were piled a layer of wood and then a layer of bodies, and so on until the pyre was as high as a two-story house. Vilkis said that approximately 1,500 bodies were burned in each operation of the furnace and each funeral pyre took two nights and one day to burn completely. The cremation went on for 40 days, and then the prisoners, who by this time included 341 men, were ordered to build another furnace. Since this was the last furnace and there were no more bodies, the prisoners decided it was for them. They made a break but only a dozen out of more than 200 survived the bullets of the Nazi tommy guns.

Broadcast from Normandy (1944)Edit

From a broadcast on June 18, 1944. Audio recording on YouTube.
  • The Hindenburg and Bleecker bastions were so strong that it was decided to bypass them on D-Day, and let this group of Nazis stew in their own juice. There was no hurry; the Germans couldn't do much damage there. They were completely isolated and could be cleaned out at will. Yesterday, the order came to blast them out.
  • By this time we had reached the trench system. On both sides of us men were going along the trenches with their Tommy guns. A tank assaulted one of the trenches and behind it was a young radio operator calmly chewing a stalk of wheat, waiting to flash the words that the bastion had been taken. Shouts of “come on out of there you Nazi 'so-and-so's'" and "keep your hands up you 'such-and-such'" announced the arrival of the First Troop. Then they began to pop up like prairie dogs.

Broadcast from liberated Hamburg (1945)Edit

From a broadcast on May 5, 1945, two days after the liberation of Hamburg. Full transcript.
  • Right now I could take you in my jeep for a ride of any 25 miles through the streets of Hamburg and pay you dollar for every undamaged house you could point out. I don’t believe I would lose a five dollar bill in doing so. There is acre after acre of nothing but bricks and rubble. Particularly in the port and manufacturing area do you see nothing but twisted steel and shattered walls and broken bricks.
  • People who evacuated their homes to get away from the bombings are beginning to come back. However, many have a strange conception of the meaning of unconditional surrender. Often they find their homes have been occupied by the slave workers who have been forced to withstand the bombing. They come to the military government and ask for authority to evict these people. But they get unsympathetic answers...the forced laborers stay put until they can be sent back to their homes...and the Germans look for billets.
  • Driving to the studio today, I passed a big football field. I had to look twice before I realized that the stands were jammed with people...thousands of them. I looked out on the playing field, and there wasn’t a soul. And then I realized that this crowd were war prisoners. I went into the field, and there was a quiet, docile atmosphere about the place…the sort of atmosphere you get in an American football crowd between halves. Germans of every description sat quietly, chatting to their neighbors and doing nothing in particular. Bored British sentries stood around looking like ushers equipped with Tommy guns. It was that quiet.

A Cake of Soap (1948)Edit

Essay in the collection As We See Russia, 1948.
  • In Russia during the war, you seldom spoke of Communism versus capitalism. In the first place, we were then comrades-in-arms and the subject was not important. In the second place, the official line of the inevitable struggle between capitalism and Communism was a bit confused. Marshal of the Soviet Union Josef Stalin had indicated to Commander-in-Chief Franklin Roosevelt that the two systems could live in Diplomat-at-Large Wendell Willkie's One World side by side.

The British Crisis (1948)Edit

CBS broadcast essay, September 20.
  • The United States State Department will tell you that American aid is given to preserve the things for which we stand, to promote the basic freedoms of mankind, not necessarily to promote individual governments. That is our justification for sending help to a Greek government that, for a time at least, could by no means be called democratic. In the case of Britain, the nation is marching on the road towards Socialism. But the ingrained liberty and freedom of the individual has been proved by men like Churchill who still speak out against the government and by the men like the transport workers and miners who tell the government which they voted for to go to blazes. And between these fires, the British government--no matter what its political shadings--has the job of getting the country back on its feet.

CBS News Mid-Century Roundup (1950)Edit

CBS roundtable broadcast from January 1, 1950.
  • Nations don't make twelve-inch guns to shoot quail. They don't drop bombs in mid-Pacific lagoons to kill fish. War is inevitable until the time comes when nations give up their sovereign right to make war and learn to settle their problems peacefully.

This I Believe (1951)Edit

Full transcript and audio recording at This I Believe.
Cynicism also is the touchstone of a reporter's alchemy through which he hopes to discover that nonexistent load called "objectivity." For as a set of philosophers, the only true objective reporter is the dead one.
  • Among other things, we are supposed to spot the toes of clay splaying out from under the pearl-gray spats, or the cloven hoof encased in the jackboot, before anyone else. Cynicism also is the touchstone of a reporter's alchemy through which he hopes to discover that nonexistent load called "objectivity." For as a set of philosophers, the only true objective reporter is the dead one.
  • I believe that the only protection that man has against himself is the trust and confidence of his friends. For example, my cynicism tells me that the man who makes a career of "people-hunting" or "people-hating" is a man who desperately fears being chased or not loved.
  • My favorite story on this subject is the one that was being whispered in Moscow when I was assigned there for CBS back in 1943. It concerns a hapless individual, running down the street in a Russian village, his clothing flung over one arm and a loaf of bread tucked under the other. "Pavel," a friend calls, "where are you running to?" "Haven't you heard?" Pavel replies. "Tomorrow they're going to sterilize all kangaroos." "But there are no kangaroos in the Ukraine," the friend declares. "Yes," answers Pavel, "but can you prove that you’re not one?" I am personally ashamed that men have to prove that they are not “kangaroos.” When bigots attack a colored man, I ashamed that my skin also is white. During the War, in Amsterdam, I felt shame because a starving mother wept over a can of beans for her child. I was ashamed of my fat. And on D-Day, and again later in Korea, I had a sense of shame at being alive when so many around me had to die. When this kind of shame is banished from the Earth, then perhaps we will have that civilization man has been striving for, for so many centuries.

Years of Crisis (1955)Edit

  • We've lost, or appear to be losing, the international title as the greatest revolutionary power in the world; and we seem to be losing it to a revolutionary form of totalitarianism. Maybe the American revolution is over.

Quotes about DownsEdit

  • He feels it has to go now. It's got a time element to it. There's one thing. I know you've got the shows that are set and this wouldn't be true of everybody, but just remember this, when Bill Downs feels deeply about something, you'd better put it on. It's got to be good.
  • Downs was so apoplectic all the time, I found it hard to get along with him. It got to the point where I gave up on him. I didn't see him anymore.
    • Howard K. Smith describing Downs' frustration with his treatment by the new CBS management as quoted in The Murrow Boys: Pioneers on the Front Lines of Broadcast Journalism (1996) by Stanley Cloud & Lynne Olson
  • However, even that didn't top Bill Downs, one of the Murrow Boys, reporting from one of the two inaugural balls in Washington on the eve of Jack Kennedy being sworn into office that: 'Both the President's balls are in full swing tonight.' Did he get chewed out? No, everyone was so convulsed with laughter that had they 'chewed him out' they might have choked.
    • Don Hewitt recalling this anecdote in the Huffington Post article "Remembering Edward R. Murrow" (February 2009)
  • Well...when Downs first arrived he inherited the secretary that Larry LeSueur had when he worked here for CBS. Larry was a friendly soul. No one called him anything but Larry, even Lilly Israelevich, his secretary. Mr. Downs thought he'd have a little dignity in his office. He didn't go for that first-name business. One night we were in Walter Kerr's room, all of us. Downs was boasting how well he had Lilly trained. Just then the phone rang. It was Lilly. Walter answered the phone. Lilly shouted so we could all hear her, 'Hello, Walter, I'm looking for Downs. If he's down there tell him to hurry right up to the office.' Yeah, Downs had her trained fine.
    • Eddy Gilmore of the Associated Press quoted in The Curtain Rises (1944) by Quentin Reynolds

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