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M. Radulovich, 81; airman’s case played key role in helping to end McCarthy era

Times Staff Writer

Milo Radulovich, an Air Force reservist caught in the net of 1950s communist hunters, whose case was championed by CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow in a historic television program that led to the collapse of the McCarthy era, died Monday in Vallejo, Calif. He was 81.

The cause was complications from a stroke, said his sister, Margaret Fishman.

In 1953 Radulovich was threatened with discharge from the Air Force Reserve because of allegations that he was a security risk.

What aggrieved him -- and eventually thousands of other Americans who learned of his plight -- was that his own loyalty was never questioned. He stood accused of politically incorrect ties -- namely, his “close and continuing association” with his Yugoslavian immigrant father, who subscribed to a Socialist newspaper from the old country, and his left-leaning activist sister, who had demonstrated against war and racial discrimination.

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On Oct. 20, 1953, Murrow devoted an entire installment of his documentary show “See It Now” to Radulovich, who appears in a clip from the program in “Good Night, and Good Luck,” the 2005 Oscar-nominated movie about the battles at CBS over whether Murrow should take on Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his anti-communist crusade.

That program, Murrow’s producer Fred Friendly wrote in the foreword to Michael Ranville’s 1997 book “To Strike at a King: The Turning Point in the McCarthy Witch-Hunts,” “peeled back the wretched excess of communist witch-hunts” to reveal that one of its latest victims was no more and no less than a hardworking father of two who was studying on the GI Bill to become a meteorologist.

The show blew open the floodgates of public opinion -- for Radulovich and against the hysteria of the era and its main instigator, McCarthy.

Five months later, Murrow went after McCarthy himself in a show that, according to Friendly, could never have succeeded had they not first aired “The Case Against Lt. Milo Radulovich.” McCarthy, a Republican from Wisconsin, never recovered from the attack, destroyed by his own words and the power of television entering its golden age.

“The downfall of Joe McCarthy began with the Radulovich story as told by Murrow and Friendly,” National Public Radio commentator Daniel Schorr, a former colleague of Murrow’s, told The Times on Tuesday.

Radulovich’s nightmare began with a knock on his door.

His wife was at work as a telephone operator and Radulovich, then 27, was at home in Dexter, Mich., baby-sitting their two small children. He was holding down two jobs and carrying a full load as a physics major at the University of Michigan.

He opened his door to two Air Force officers bearing a letter demanding that he forfeit his rank, pay and benefits as a lieutenant with 10 years of service and appear at a hearing to air charges against him.

When he learned what the charges were, he was incredulous.

“I had done nothing,” he recalled in a 1994 CBS News interview. “I was related to people. And this stuff was happening in the Soviet Union and in Nazi Germany . . . guilt by blood, of all things.”

Radulovich was born in Detroit and attended a high school for honors students. When he was 17 he joined the Air Force cadet program. In 1943 the Air Force sent him to a secret base in Greenland for a year.

His father was from Montenegro, which was part of Yugoslavia at various points in its history, and was as proud of his Yugoslav roots as he was of being a naturalized American. He worked in an auto plant in Detroit and barely spoke English, a fact that made Radulovich laugh years later when he told Ranville his story.

“He said if his old man was spreading communist propaganda, he was spreading it in Serbian and no one could understand him,” Ranville said in an interview Tuesday. “The charges were so preposterous.”

His father was no communist, but his sister was a radical. The activity that the Air Force focused on was her participation in a protest at a Detroit hotel that had refused to admit Paul Robeson, the African American singer, actor and activist who was pilloried for his pro-Soviet stands.

When Radulovich was accused of endangering the security of the nation, he tried to find a lawyer to represent him and was repeatedly turned away. One lawyer advised him that his best defense would be to disavow his father and sister, but that was unthinkable.

“My brother wasn’t political,” Fishman said, “but he was brought up in a home where honor and family were very important.”

He finally found a lawyer named Charles Lockwood to take his case. Lockwood argued that their only chance for success was if they could get public opinion on his side. Radulovich agreed to talk with a reporter from the Detroit News, which ran a series of stories about him.

By the time those stories caught Murrow’s eye in early 1953, McCarthy’s anti-communist campaign had been going on for three years. Murrow and Friendly had been waiting for the right moment to take him on. “See It Now” tackled major issues by focusing on one person caught in its storm, what Friendly called “the little picture.”

When Murrow read about Radulovich, he approached his producer with an impish grin on his face. As he thrust a copy of the Detroit News article at Friendly, he said, “This could be the little picture for your McCarthy story.”

Friendly agreed, and the two promoted it against the wishes of many CBS News executives, including Chairman William Paley.

The CBS reporter who was sent to Dexter to interview Radulovich was Joe Wershba, now 87 and living on Long Island. He remembered the young reservist as “the All-American boy . . . very pleasant, very articulate.” When Friendly saw the film of the interview, he told Wershba, “I’m fired, Ed’s fired, but we’re going to turn out the greatest broadcast ever done on television!”

It was Murrow’s most memorable hour.

“We believe that the son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, even though that iniquity be proved and in this case it was not,” Murrow said on the program about Radulovich. “Whatever happens in this whole area of the relationship between the individual and the state, we will do ourselves. It cannot be blamed upon [Soviet Premier Georgi] Malenkov or Mao Tse-tung or even our allies. And it seems to us . . . that this is a subject that should be argued about endlessly.”

The public reaction, Wershba said, “was phenomenal. We got 12,000 letters,” the vast majority outraged about the injustice to Radulovich.

“It was the first viable blow struck against Joe McCarthy,” Ranville said. “The historical significance is that this wasn’t some college professor or someone from the ACLU. This was a common man who was frightened about being able to support his family. And he was not someone from Los Angeles, Chicago or New York, but Dexter, Mich., population 1,500.”

A month after the broadcast, the Air Force cleared Radulovich and allowed him to keep his commission. Several months later, in 1954, the Senate censured McCarthy. He died three years later of alcohol-related illness at age 48.

Murrow, who with Friendly had paid out of his own pocket to advertise the show when the network wouldn’t, ultimately suffered from the show’s success. Paley was not eager for shows that offended advertisers, and “See It Now” went off the air in 1958. Disgusted by the growing commercialism of the medium, Murrow left journalism in 1961 and died of lung cancer in 1965 at age 57.

When Radulovich was exonerated by the Air Force on Nov. 24, 1953, he felt “like a helium balloon in weather floating up to the sky,” he told an interviewer last year. Getting his life back on track was a struggle, however. His first marriage disintegrated under the stress of the hearings. His father died of cancer within a year, and Radulovich believed his death was hastened by the ordeal.

Even though his record had been cleared, Radulovich had difficulty finding a good job in his field. Months passed before he found a small weather forecasting company in Northern California that would hire him. He eventually was hired by the National Weather Service, which often sent him into the field to predict weather patterns for firefighters. He retired from the service in the mid-1990s.

In addition to his sister, he is survived by three daughters, Kathy Radulovich and Janet Sweeney of Sacramento and Diane Berner of Bishop, Calif; and a grandson.

He was a consultant on the screenplay for “Good Night, and Good Luck,” the George Clooney-directed movie that starred Clooney as Friendly and David Strathairn as Murrow, and approved of the final product.

“I consider myself really lucky,” Radulovich told the Detroit News in 1999. “It is only by the grace of public opinion that I was able to carry on my fight. . . .

“Where else but in this country can you find a free press that is willing to express itself to save a little man?”

elaine.woo@latimes.com


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