Big Media Fought Over the Right to Film a Berlin Wall Tunnel Escape

Mike Conway

When the Berlin Wall was completed in August 1961, East German residents immediately tried to figure out ways to circumvent the barrier and escape into West Berlin.

By the following summer, NBC and CBS were at work on two separate, secret documentaries on tunnels being dug under the Berlin Wall.

The tunnel CBS chose was a disaster that resulted in arrests and court trials. NBC’s tunnel ended up being in one of the most decorated documentaries in American television history. And yet, in the fall of 1962, NBC was under tremendous pressure from both sides of the Iron Curtain to scrap its documentary altogether.

You would think that the U.S. government would be thrilled to have a film broadcast to Americans showing the desperation and resolve to escape communist East Germany. After all, when the Berlin Wall fell 30 years ago, images of East Berliners streaming across the border were broadcast around the world in what was cast as a triumph for Western democracies and capitalism.

But in my new book, “Contested Ground: The Tunnel and the Struggle over Television News in Cold War America,” I use declassified government documents to tell the story of how political pressure and naked journalistic competition nearly derailed the NBC documentary before more than a handful of people had seen a single frame of the film.

Two Separate, Secret Projects

In the 1960s, Berlin was a flash point in Cold War politics.

West Berlin was a landlocked capitalist political enclave surrounded by communist East Germany.

By the summer of 1961, up to 30,000 East Germans were escaping to the West each month, mainly through the border in Berlin. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev agreed to let East Germany close the city’s border, first through stationing troops and installing barbed wire, and then through the construction of the Berlin Wall.

Even after the completion of the wall, some East Germans, desperate to be reunited with friends and family in the West, sought ways to get to the other side.

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