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William N. Oatis

William N. Oatis

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William Nathan Oatis was an American journalist
Journalism is the practice of investigation and reporting of events, issues and trends to a broad audience in a timely fashion. Though there are many variations of journalism, the ideal is to inform the intended audience. Along with covering organizations and institutions such as government and...

 who gained international attention when he was charged with espionage
Espionage or spying involves an individual obtaining information that is considered secret or confidential without the permission of the holder of the information. Espionage is inherently clandestine, lest the legitimate holder of the information change plans or take other countermeasures once it...

 by the Czech
Czechoslovakia or Czecho-Slovakia was a sovereign state in Central Europe which existed from October 1918, when it declared its independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, until 1992...

 government in 1951. He was subsequently jailed until 1953.

Early life

Born in Marion, Indiana
Marion, Indiana
Marion is a city in Grant County, Indiana, United States. The population was 29,948 as of the 2010 census. The city is the county seat of Grant County...

, Oatis began his journalism career with his high school newspaper, studied at DePauw University
DePauw University
DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, USA, is a private, national liberal arts college with an enrollment of approximately 2,400 students. The school has a Methodist heritage and was originally known as Indiana Asbury University. DePauw is a member of both the Great Lakes Colleges Association...

 for one year and in 1933 returned to Marion, where he worked for the Leader-Tribune. In 1937, he started working for the Associated Press
Associated Press
The Associated Press is an American news agency. The AP is a cooperative owned by its contributing newspapers, radio and television stations in the United States, which both contribute stories to the AP and use material written by its staff journalists...

 in Indianapolis
Indianapolis is the capital of the U.S. state of Indiana, and the county seat of Marion County, Indiana. As of the 2010 United States Census, the city's population is 839,489. It is by far Indiana's largest city and, as of the 2010 U.S...

, Indiana
Indiana is a US state, admitted to the United States as the 19th on December 11, 1816. It is located in the Midwestern United States and Great Lakes Region. With 6,483,802 residents, the state is ranked 15th in population and 16th in population density. Indiana is ranked 38th in land area and is...


Oatis served in the U.S Army during World War II
World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...

, studying Japanese
Japanese language
is a language spoken by over 130 million people in Japan and in Japanese emigrant communities. It is a member of the Japonic language family, which has a number of proposed relationships with other languages, none of which has gained wide acceptance among historical linguists .Japanese is an...

 at the University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota
The University of Minnesota, Twin Cities is a public research university located in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, United States. It is the oldest and largest part of the University of Minnesota system and has the fourth-largest main campus student body in the United States, with 52,557...

 in Minneapolis. In 1950, he married Laurabelle Zack, who worked in the AP's reference library in New York. The marriage took place in London.

Arrest and detention

Oatis was working as the AP bureau chief in Prague
Prague is the capital and largest city of the Czech Republic. Situated in the north-west of the country on the Vltava river, the city is home to about 1.3 million people, while its metropolitan area is estimated to have a population of over 2.3 million...

, Czechoslovakia
Czechoslovakia or Czecho-Slovakia was a sovereign state in Central Europe which existed from October 1918, when it declared its independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, until 1992...

 when he was arrested on April 23, 1951. Deprived of sleep and subjected to continuous interrogation for 42 hours, Oatis signed a statement confessing to the charge of espionage. The case made international headlines, as well as leading to trade and travel embargo
An embargo is the partial or complete prohibition of commerce and trade with a particular country, in order to isolate it. Embargoes are considered strong diplomatic measures imposed in an effort, by the imposing country, to elicit a given national-interest result from the country on which it is...

s against Czechoslovakia. On July 4, 1951, a Czech court sentenced Oatis to ten years in prison. He was released May 16, 1953, shortly after the death of Joseph Stalin
Joseph Stalin
Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin was the Premier of the Soviet Union from 6 May 1941 to 5 March 1953. He was among the Bolshevik revolutionaries who brought about the October Revolution and had held the position of first General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union's Central Committee...

 and after an angry letter from President Dwight D. Eisenhower
Dwight D. Eisenhower
Dwight David "Ike" Eisenhower was the 34th President of the United States, from 1953 until 1961. He was a five-star general in the United States Army...

 to the Czech government. The Czech government said it had been moved to pardon Oatis by a poignant plea from Oatis' wife, Laurabelle. A Czech court cleared him of all charges in 1959, but the decision was reversed in 1968 after the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia
Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia
On the night of 20–21 August 1968, the Soviet Union and her main satellite states in the Warsaw Pact – Bulgaria, the German Democratic Republic , Hungary and Poland – invaded the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic in order to halt Alexander Dubček's Prague Spring political liberalization...

. In 1990, after Czechoslovakia's "Velvet Revolution
Velvet Revolution
The Velvet Revolution or Gentle Revolution was a non-violent revolution in Czechoslovakia that took place from November 17 – December 29, 1989...

" the previous year, he was cleared again.
The Voice of America
Voice of America
Voice of America is the official external broadcast institution of the United States federal government. It is one of five civilian U.S. international broadcasters working under the umbrella of the Broadcasting Board of Governors . VOA provides a wide range of programming for broadcast on radio...

 called Oatis "the first American martyr to press freedom behind the Iron Curtain
Iron Curtain
The concept of the Iron Curtain symbolized the ideological fighting and physical boundary dividing Europe into two separate areas from the end of World War II in 1945 until the end of the Cold War in 1989...

." The United States Department of State
United States Department of State
The United States Department of State , is the United States federal executive department responsible for international relations of the United States, equivalent to the foreign ministries of other countries...

 denounced the Czech verdict as a ludicrous travesty and the U.S. press said Oatis was condemned for no more than doing his job as a reporter. The case's Orwellian
"Orwellian" describes the situation, idea, or societal condition that George Orwell identified as being destructive to the welfare of a free society...

 overtones were highlighted by the prosecution's assertion at the show trial that Oatis, a careful reporter, was "particularly dangerous because of his discretion and insistence on obtaining only accurate, correct, verified information." Oatis contracted tuberculosis
Tuberculosis, MTB, or TB is a common, and in many cases lethal, infectious disease caused by various strains of mycobacteria, usually Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Tuberculosis usually attacks the lungs but can also affect other parts of the body...

 during his imprisonment and sought treatment shortly after his release.

Later career

Oatis went on to cover the United Nations
United Nations
The United Nations is an international organization whose stated aims are facilitating cooperation in international law, international security, economic development, social progress, human rights, and achievement of world peace...

 for three decades and retired in 1984 after a 47-year career at the AP. He was elected president of the United Nations Correspondents Association
United Nations Correspondents Association
The United Nations Correspondents Association was founded in New York City in 1947. It was the successor organisation to the League of Nations Journalists’ Association. It has 180 members from approximately 50 nations. It is well-known for presenting the annual UNCA Excellence in Journalism...

 in 1970. In 1992, Oatis was inducted into the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame.

Oatis died September 16, 1997 at Long Island College Hospital
Long Island College Hospital
Long Island College Hospital is a teaching hospital situated at Hicks and Amity Streets in Cobble Hill section of Brooklyn, New York.Founded in 1858, the hospital has 506 beds. In 1860 it introduced the practice of bedside teaching and it later became the first U.S. hospital to use stethoscopes...

 in Brooklyn, New York
Brooklyn is the most populous of New York City's five boroughs, with nearly 2.6 million residents, and the second-largest in area. Since 1896, Brooklyn has had the same boundaries as Kings County, which is now the most populous county in New York State and the second-most densely populated...

 from complications of Alzheimer’s disease. He was survived by his wife Laurabelle and their sons Jonathan and Jeremy.

Further reading

External links