The Man Who Saw Through Mussolini : THE VIOLENT DECADE by Frank Gervasi (W. W. Norton: $25; 629 pp.)

The fateful days of which Frank Gervasi writes in "The Violent Decade" burst upon an America already reeling from the shattering blow of the Great Depression.

Citizens still groggy from the events of 1929 and what followed now faced a new menace--the destruction of the world they had been accustomed to.

"The Violent Years" is Gervasi's account of what he saw of the rise of the dictators--Hitler and Mussolini, Franco of Spain and the enigmatic shadow of Stalin in Russia. Gervasi himself was a product of the Depression and knew its taste in working-class Philadelphia where he grew up.

The years from 1935 through 1945 would test the fortitude of Americans and transform their unsophisticated lives and that of their political leaders. It was the country's extraordinary good fortune that to report and interpret the events swirling out of Germany, Russia, Italy and Asia there appeared a generation of correspondents, men like Gervasi, possibly the best in the history of American journalism.

The names of William L. Shirer, Edward R. Murrow, Dorothy Thompson, Edgar Snow, William Stoneman, Edgar and Paul Mowrer, Frank Gervasi, H. V. Kaltenborn, Eric Sevareid and Herbert Matthews became almost household words.

The distinctive quality of these correspondents lay in their ability to stay ahead of the news. Long before some of the world's statesmen became aware of the danger of the rise of men and movements like Mussolini's Fascism and Hitler's Nazism, Gervasi and his colleagues were on the scene, seeking to blast a trail through propaganda and censorship to give Americans some notion of which way the wind was blowing and what might be the consequences.

We didn't always get the message, as Gervasi was to find in his trips back to the United States; but, by and large, America shed its national adolescence, listening to Kaltenborn describe the Nazi takeover of Czechoslovakia and hearing and reading William L. Shirer from Berlin.

As "The Violent Decade" clearly demonstrates, Gervasi was tireless in his efforts to alert his countrymen to what was happening, moving from country to country, now in Spain, now in Italy, now in Germany, occasionally in London or Paris, penetrating the Balkans and, then, more and more concentrating on the Mediterranean, particularly Cairo and the Middle East.

Most American correspondents of those prewar days had little or no preparation for reporting on the world beyond our shores. Gervasi was different. His parents had come from Sicily, and he had never lost interest in Italy and his Italian roots. He had knowledge of the language, the history and the politics, and when he finally became a foreign correspondent in the mid-'30s his ambition was to go to Italy.

It took Gervasi a year or so to get to Rome, but once he arrived, no one was more alert in observing and recording the macabre quadrille that Mussolini was beginning to dance with Hitler, nor more aware of its global implications. Gervasi was strongly attracted to Pope Pius XI and faithfully recorded the Pope's unending efforts in behalf of peace and his revulsion at Fascist rule.

Gervasi's dispatches from Italy for Universal Service and International News Service (the Hearst wire agencies) provided a reliable guide to the evolution of Mussolini from a local nationalist dictator to junior partner of Hitler, copying his master's style and programs, including the repression and extermination of Italy's tiny Jewish population.

Gervasi's task was not the easiest in the world. William Randolph Hearst, like many others, admired Mussolini and warned Gervasi not only to be supportive of Il Duce but to put his news facilities at the dictator's disposal. Gervasi almost resigned but was persuaded by his more-sophisticated superiors to keep his head down and go on covering the news. This he did, paying no heed to the pandering instructions of the boss.

In the rush of events since World War II we sometimes forget how uninformed and uninterested the United States was until men like Gervasi began to educate us to the dangers that lay behind the posturing of the dictators and their despicable plots and ploys.

Gervasi conveys in rich detail the life of the foreign correspondent in the 1930s and 1940s. He also makes clear the time, attention and financial resources that editors and publishers not otherwise noted for public service lavished on developing and maintaining first-class foreign correspondents. This was true of the Hearst service, of the Scripps-Howard chain and of many newspapers outside the New York-Washington axis, notably the three Chicago papers of the time--the Tribune, the Daily News and the Sun.

Things are different today. Even a great newspaper chain such as Gannett does not possess a foreign staff of the quantity and quality fielded by Hearst then. Nor, despite their extraordinary achievements, do the networks possess a line-up like the one Edward R. Murrow assembled for CBS on the eve of World War II.

And we have lost one whole arm of the information media. When Gervasi left Hearst he went to Colliers Magazine, a weekly devoted to popularizing serious news. It boasted such writers as Gervasi himself, Leland Stowe, Ernest Hemingway (at times), Quentin Reynolds, Theodore White and Martha Gellhorn. The magazine role has been almost entirely replaced by electronics. But even "60 Minutes" does not match the high performance level of the special news magazines of "The Violent Decade." Gervasi's fine book is not only a memoir of critical times well served by American correspondents but a memorial to a media excellence unmatched today.

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