A 1958 promotional photo for Howard K. Smith's "World Affair Report." Learn more »
Born on May 12, 1914, in Ferriday, Louisiana, Howard K. Smith was one of America’s best-known broadcast news commentators from the 1940s through the 1970s. He described himself modestly as “a professional observer of events.”
His father, also called Howard K. Smith, was the scion of plantation gentry fallen on hard times and worked as a night watchman. His mother, Minnie Gates, was Cajun. Seeking employment, the family moved in 1927 to New Orleans, where Smith excelled academically. He edited his high school newspaper, which won a trophy as the state’s best, and earned the annual scholarship to Tulane granted by the mayor of New Orleans for the public school student with the highest academic achievement. As a student-athlete at Tulane, Smith earned three track letters and was captain of the team as a senior in 1936. He still holds the Tulane record in the 120-yard high hurdles at 14.5 seconds and was inducted into the Tulane Athletics Hall of Fame in 1983. He served as his class president for his sophomore, junior, and senior years, and also wrote for The Hullabaloo student newspaper and the Jambalaya yearbook.
Graduating from Tulane in 1936 with a journalism degree, Smith wrote for the New Orleans Item, won a summer scholarship to Germany’s Heidelberg University, and also won the Rhodes Scholarship that brought him to England to study at Oxford University’s Merton College. At Oxford, Smith became chairman of the Labour Club and organized protests against Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasing Hitler.
In January 1940, Smith joined the United Press agency and was dispatched to their office in Berlin, Germany. Eventually, he became Berlin correspondent for the New York Times and CBS, where he enjoyed his first taste of broadcast journalism. He became one of the original “Murrow’s Boys,” a group of correspondents who reported to legendary pioneering broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow. In Berlin, Smith met his future wife, the Danish reporter Benedicte Traberg. Under increasing pressure from Nazi censors, Smith fled to Switzerland on December 6, 1941, one day before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Stranded in the neutral nation, he continued to cover the war for the Times and CBS and wrote a bestselling account of his experience in Germany, Last Train from Berlin. In 1944, he was able to leave Switzerland and reported on the liberation of France and the fall of Berlin.
After the war, Smith covered Europe for CBS from the network’s London office and authored The State of Europe (1949), an assessment of the continent critical of both U.S. and Soviet policy at the dawn of the Cold War. After returning to the United States, he lived in Bethesda, Maryland; anchored the first televised presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon in 1960; and hosted a Sunday morning news analysis program for CBS, “Behind the News with Howard K. Smith” (1959–1961). He left CBS after a dispute over his “on-air editorializing” in a documentary on the civil rights struggle in Birmingham, Alabama. Smith ended his documentary by quoting an aphorism attributed to Edmund Burke, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Smith later declared that his hatred of discrimination stemmed from living in the racially segregated American South and from witnessing actions by the Nazis in Europe.
Smith moved to ABC, where he courted controversy during his half-hour news analysis program “Howard K. Smith News and Comment” (1962–1963). He was seen often on the Sunday news program “Issues and Answers” and was live on the air during the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy (1968). In 1969, Smith joined Frank Reynolds (and later Harry Reasoner) as co-anchor of the ABC nightly news in an attempt by the network to emulate the success of Chet Huntley and David Brinkley on NBC. With his son Jack Smith serving in Vietnam, Smith departed from his reputation as a liberal and took a pro-war stand on the Vietnam War in his on-air commentaries, which briefly endeared him to his former foe, Richard Nixon. Later, Smith would call for Nixon’s resignation over Watergate. In 1975, Smith exited as co-anchor but remained as a regular commentator until 1979, when he retired, complaining about the shrinking amount of time devoted to serious news coverage by the networks.
Smith died from pneumonia on February 15, 2002, at his home in Bethesda, Maryland, at the age of 87.
Cite This Entry
Chicago Manual of Style
Jeansonne, Glen, and David Luhrssen. "Howard K. Smith." In KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana, edited by David Johnson. Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 2010–. Article published December 20, 2012. http://www.knowla.org/entry/1399/.
Jeansonne, Glen, and David Luhrssen. "Howard K. Smith." KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana. Ed. David Johnson. Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 20 Dec. 2012. Web. 18 Jun. 2013.
Would you like to learn more about this topic from books and other reading materials?
McNeil, Alex. Total Television. New York: Penguin Books, 1996.
Smith, Howard K. Events Leading Up to My Death: The Life of a Twentieth Century Reporter. New York: St. Martins Press, 1996.
Smith, Howard K. Last Train from Berlin: An Eyewitness Account of Germany at War. New York: Phoenix, 2001.