Ben Bradlee at Newsweek’s Washington bureau, late 1950s. Photo: Mike Lien, The New York Times-Redux
Benjamin Crowninshield “Ben” Bradlee, former executive editor of the Washington Post, was a towering figure in American journalism with a rich family history (literally and figuratively) and a broad experience of life and the world. His family relations and close friendships included Old World royalty and New World privilege. He moved among people who made the news and then made sure they were the news. He is best known for giving Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein free rein to follow the slim story of the Watergate Apartments break-in to its damning conclusion, ultimately bringing down President Richard M. Nixon and radically remaking the journalism profession for all who followed. Bradlee not only served his country by pursuing the truth, he also served in the Pacific during World War II as an naval intelligence officer. He participated in numerous operations including the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the largest naval battle ever fought. After the war, Bradlee immediately started on his career as a reporter for the New Hampshire Sunday News, Newsweek, and the Washington Post.
Where was Ben in 1957? Through a connection at the Post, Bradlee had been assigned to the United States French embassy in 1951 as a press attaché. There he joined the staff of the U.S. Information and Educational Exchange (USIE), which produced Pro-American films, magazines, research, speeches, and news items for use by the CIA throughout Europe (propaganda, if you like). Bradlee’s official role with USIE ended in 1953 and he began reporting for Newsweek in 1954.
In 1956, Ben interviewed members of the Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN), or National Liberation Front of Algeria. The FLN was a socialist political party with a revolutionary guerilla arm fighting to liberate colonial Algeria from control by France. The war of liberation lasted from 1954 until 1962, when the French government agreed to a cease-fire, Algerian independence, and mutual cooperation between the two countries.
As a American resident of France, working as a foreign correspondent, Bradlee’s contact with Algerian forces was not looked upon favorably by the French authorities. His background in intelligence raised red flags – was he really just a reporter for Newsweek, or was something else going on? A biographer of Post publisher Katharine Graham, Deborah Davis, later described Bradlee’s actions in 1956 as having “all the earmarks of an intelligence operation.” “I flew back to Paris, and next morning went to see Ambassador Dillon to let him know what I had been up to in Algeria,” Bradlee wrote in The Good Life: Newspapers and Other Adventures, his 1995 memoir. “When I got back to my office on the Rue de Berri in a taxi, I was suddenly surrounded by cops and black Citroens. Two cops got me by the elbows, lifting me off the pavement, and asked me to come along with them.”
Bradlee’s recent marriage to Antoinette Pinchot added to the suspicion. Toni was closely tied to two CIA figures in France – her brother-in-law Cord Meyer, and James Jesus Angleton, the husband of a good friend. Ben and Toni’s circle of connections seemed to indicate that Bradlee might have been doing more with the FLN than taking notes.
Consequently, Bradlee was no longer welcome in France. He returned to Washington in 1957 and continued working at Newsweek. Ben and Toni bought a house in the prestigious Washington, DC suburb of Georgetown. Very soon after, a new power couple moved in down the street: Senator John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline. “I was on a roll being in the right place at the right time, a luck that stayed with me,” Bradlee wrote in The Good Life. For Bradlee, the year 1957 was the year he put his career on a fast track. Building an intimate friendship with future-President Kennedy would ultimately boost Ben’s professional credentials and provide insights and access into the halls of government.
Four years later, Newsweek was bought by the Washington Post. Bradlee played an instrumental role in the acquisition. Now at the Post, Ben moved up the ladder to become “the most lauded and influential American journalist of his era.”