Joseph C. Harsch: a Journalist With the 'Vision of an Age'

Patterns of Diplomacy

Joseph C. Harsch did not fit the modern mold of a journalist. He was not a specialist, as many of today's reporters are. Indeed, the word "breadth" defined his writing, which covered everything from the rise of Hitler to the problems of the dispossessed of the 1990s. Nor was he a blow-dried deliverer of sound bites, despite his extensive broadcasting career. His words usually seemed both simple and weighty. He could explain geopolitics to an eighth-grader.

In his later years he didn't even particularly look like a journalist. He favored clothes that were both rumpled and expensive, giving him the appearance of a yachtsman who had stumbled into the Monitor newsroom on his way to the club for lunch.

But for much of this century Joe Harsch, who passed away Wednesday, helped define quality American journalism. He was a giant of the profession, as were his friends William Shirer and Edward Murrow. He brought analysis, rigor, and dispassionate objectivity to everything he did.

Moreover, he seemed to be everywhere, or at least everywhere something important was happening. He was in Berlin for the rise of the Nazis, in Warm Springs, Ga., with Roosevelt, with Eisenhower in France. He helped capture Hitler's architect, Albert Speer, in the bathroom of a German castle.

His nose for the right place was a talent that was somehow not related to conscious planning. Take early December 1941: Harsch and his wife, Anne, were in Hawaii for a break, on their way to Moscow via the Asian mainland. Adm. Husband Kimmel, head of US Pacific forces, had assured him the Japanese wouldn't attack. So when loud sounds awoke Harsch in his hotel room the morning of the 7th, he woke his spouse. "I said, 'Listen to this dear,' " he later wrote. " 'You have often asked me what an air raid sounds like. This is a good imitation.' "

A month later, he hitched a ride on the carrier USS Enterprise. As they left the harbor, he met Vice Admiral William Halsey (a future hero of the war) on deck.

"There were tears in his eyes - whether from the wind whipping in over the lip of the deck or from depth of feeling was the unanswered question...," Harsch wrote.

Harsch was born in 1905 in Toledo, Ohio. He attended Williams College in Massachusetts, then spent two years in England, at Cambridge. His primary goal in acquiring a Cambridge education "was to get some of those lovely English blazers," he once told an interviewer.

He also wanted a grounding in history, which he got. The Monitor hired him in 1929. He worked for the paper until 1988.

Along the way he moonlighted as a broadcaster, working for all three major US networks and the BBC. Harsch's "Pattern of Diplomacy" was a Monitor constant, lucidly dealing with everything from the causes of the Vietnam War to the Middle East.

As a reviewer of his memoir, "At the Hinge of History," once wrote, many journalists are "voyeurs of the moment." But Harsch possessed "the vision of an age."

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