As a Wake Forest University journalism student in 1977, Mary Llewellyn McNeil knew the teacher of her First Amendment class as the former editor and publisher of the Winston-Salem Journal and Sentinel.
But that’s all she knew until decades later when she read a book by Lynne Olson: “Citizens of London: The Americans Who Stood With Britain in its Darkest, Finest Hour.” Her former teacher, who died in 2002, appeared throughout those pages as director of the London bureau of the United Press wire service during the harrowing WWII bombing of Britain
In a 2018 Wake Forest Magazine article headlined “My Mysterious Teacher: Wallace Carroll,” McNeil, a writer and editor in Washington, D.C., said she was surprised by Carroll’s wartime work. “So I Googled him, and I’ve been fascinated ever since,” she wrote. “I intend to write a book about him.”
And now she has. It’s “Century’s Witness, The Extraordinary Life of Journalist Wallace Carroll.”
“Carroll was a humble man, and his story is perhaps not well known because, unlike many of his contemporaries, he did not seek the limelight,” McNeil writes. “Shunning radio and television journalism, he remained dedicated to the written word and to a form of journalism that was grounded in the idea of public service.”
Carroll’s life deserves to be rescued from obscurity. As a journalist reporting from Europe, his dispatches were read in papers across the United States. As deputy editor at the New York Times’ Washington bureau, he directed star reporters of the 1950s and early ‘60s. As publisher and editor of the Winston-Salem Journal, he supported integration and led the paper when it received the 1971 Pulitzer Prize for exposing a plan to strip mine in the North Carolina mountains.
In addition to his own accomplishments, Carroll was the father of the late newspaper editor John Carroll, who led the Los Angeles Times during a period when it won 13 Pulitzer Prizes.
Wallace Carroll was a witness to historic events and acquainted with a host of historic figures. In addition to writing and editing during the London Blitz, he visited the Russian front during Germany’s ill-fated invasion and arrived by happenstance at Pearl Harbor just days after the attack, where he filed the first reports on the extent of the losses. Later in the war, he worked in the U.S. Office of War Information where he developed ways to conduct “psychological warfare” against the Germans,
Carroll knew Dwight Eisenhower as a general and Winston Churchill as he led Great Britain. He was friends with Secretary of State Dean Acheson and CIA Director Richard Helms. From a hotel roof, he watched the bombs fall on London with famed war correspondent Ernie Pyle, and worked across the hall from his colleague Edward R. Murrow, known for his dramatic radio reports from London under siege. At the New York Times’ Washington bureau, he worked under his friend James Reston.
McNeil admires Carroll, but she is candid about his two major mistakes. In a book published 1942, he was supportive of Russia and oblivious to the horrors Stalin was already unleashing. And his reports from Pearl Harbor wrongly blamed local Japanese for helping to set up the attack. Yet Carroll also wrote a famous editorial that is credited with persuading President Lyndon Johnson to seek peace with North Vietnam.
Overall, Wallace Carroll’s story is an American story of rising from humble roots to live among some of the world’s most powerful people. And it’s a story of journalism’s transformation from coverage that supported the government to post-Vietnam skepticism about the motives and competence of government leaders.
Through it all, Wallace Carroll kept trying to find things out, to understand and explain and serve the public. His was, as the book’s title says, an extraordinary life. And the effort by a student impressed by that life deftly brings the reader back to an extraordinary time.
Mary Llewellyn McNeil will discuss “Century’s Witness” at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh at 7 p.m. Oct. 5.
Associate opinion editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-829-4512 or nbarnett@ newsobserver.com