Hubert Renfro Knickerbocker, the son of Rev. Hubert Delancey and Julia Catherine Knickerbocker, was born in Yoakum, Texas, on 31st January, 1898. After graduation from Southwestern University in 1917 he served briefly with the United States Army on the Mexican border.
Knickerbocker went to Munich with the intention of studying psychiatry, but after witnessesing Adolf Hitler failed Beer Hall Putsch on 8th November, 1923, he decided to return to journalism. In 1926 he began work with Dorothy Thompson. Her biographer, Susan Hertog, has argued in Dangerous Ambition (2011): "Her assistant Knickerbocker, a serious journalist, lacked her clout but matched her in energy, discipline, and will to succeed."
Knickerbocker became the Moscow correspondent for International News Service in 1928. While in the Soviet Union Knickerbocker became a close friend of William Duranty, who worked for the New York Times. The two men began collaborating on a series of short stories. They agreed to write one a week. They then exchanged their stories and edited one another's work. The plan was to submit the stories they wrote together under Duranty's name, since it was better known than Knickerbocker's name.
In 1927 Knickerbocker was posted to Berlin but they continued to write stories together. On 27th June Duranty wrote to Knickerbocker: "I have just had a foul and bitter disappointment. That lousy bastard in New York wrote me a pompous and idiotic letter the upshot whereof was that he was sending the stories back without even trying to place any of them. I still don't really understand why, because he said they were splendidly written." According to Duranty the agent complained the stories "resembled episodes from real life rather than short stories and also deal with persons and events alien to American life." Duranty dismissed these views because it was "highbrow nonsense about the form and function of the short story... I suppose the blighter has never heard of Maupassant or disapproves of him".
In November 1927, William Duranty received news that one of his stories written with Knickerbocker, The Parrot , had been accepted for publication in the women's magazine, The Redbook. Knickerbocker was overjoyed: "Upon receipt of your letter I went into a trance during which I consumed half a bottle of Scotch... By God it would be great to get out of this grind of newspaper work. Once we have sold, say, twelve in a row, we could afford to talk about throwing up our jobs. But not until then." The story only made the men $40 but it did win the respected O. Henry Award for the year's best short story. Unfortunately, it was published under Duranty's name and Knickerbocker received none of the glory. Duranty wrote a letter of apology saying it was "awfully unfair that I should get the credit alone... and I'll be glad to sign any letter to the O. Henry people you care to suggest". However, it never happened and Knickerbocker was never acknowledged as the co-author of the story.
Knickerbocker's critical views on the Soviet Union were generally well received in Germany. His book, The Red Trade Menace, was published in 1931. Later that year he won the Pulitzer Prize for his articles describing and analyzing the Soviet Five-Year Plan. His strong opposition to fascism meant that he was deported from Germany when Hitler gained power in 1933. The following year he published, Will War Come to Europe?
Knickerbocker also reported on the Spanish Civil War and according to Paul Preston "his articles in the Hearst press chain during the early months of the war, had done much for the Francoist cause". He wanted to join the African columns moving north from Seville. Juan Pujol, the head of the Gabinete de Prensa in Burgos, wrote to General Francisco Franco recommending him as an "outstanding figure of North American journalism, who has done great work with his always accurate reports of our Movement". However, Franco decided against giving him permission to be with his troops. The American Ambassador, Claude Bowers, reported to Washington: "I can only interpret this denial to mean that there must be something in the present situation that General Franco does not care to have blazoned to the world. I find Knickerbocker completely flabbergasted by the changed situation." Knickerbocker tried to enter Spain illegally and was caught and imprisoned in San Sebastián for 36 hours.
In April 1937 Knickerbocker interviewed Captain Gonzalo de Aguilera Munro. The article appeared in the Washington Post on 10th May, 1937. Aguilera claimed that Franco's forces intended to catch execute Manuel Azaña and Francisco Largo Caballero: "We are going to shoot 50,000 in Madrid. And no matter where Azaña and Largo Caballero and all that crowd try to escape, we'll catch them and kill every last man, if it takes years of tracking them throughout the world." Knickerbocker's article was quoted extensively in the US Congress by Jerry O'Connell of Montana.
In the interview Aguilera argued: "It is a race war, not merely a class war. You don't understand because you don't realize that there are two races in Spain - a slave race and a ruler race. Those reds, from President Azaña to the anarchists, are all slaves. It is our duty to put them back into their places - yes, put chains on them again, if you like. Modern sewer systems caused this war. Certainly because unimpeded natural selection would have killed off most of the 'red' vermin. The example of Azaña is a typical case. He might have been carried off by infantile paralysis, but he was saved from it by these cursed sewers. We've got to do away with sewers.... All you Democrats are just handmaidens of bolshevism. Hitler is the only one who knows a 'red' when he sees one... We must destroy this spawn of 'red' schools which the so-called republic installed to teach the slaves to revolt. It is sufficient for the masses to know just enough reading to understand orders... We must restore the authority of the Church. Slaves need it to teach them to behave... It is damnable that women should vote. Nobody should vote - least of all women." Paul Preston, the author of We Saw Spain Die: Foreign Correspondents in the Spanish Civil War (2008): has argued that Knickerbocker's "account of what sort of society the military rebels planned to establish in Spain... based on Aguilera's anti-Semitic, misogynistic, anti-democratic opinions... was a significant propaganda blow against the Francoists, coming as it did shortly after the bombing of Guernica."
Knickerbocker remained in Europe and covered critically the efforts of Neville Chamberlain to appease Adolf Hitler. After the outbreak of the Second World War, he moved to Paris and after the defeat of France in 1940, he settled in London and covered the Battle of Britain and the Blitz. Knickerbocker also toured the United States where he argued that "we should go into war today." His strong views on the subject appeared in his book, Is Tomorrow Hitler's? (1941).
As Knickerbocker was a strong opponent of fascism, Ernest Cuneo, who worked for President Franklin D. Roosevelt and an agent of the British Security Coordination, recommended him for receiving information from British military sources. Jennet Conant, the author of The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington (2008) argues that Cuneo was "empowered to feed select British intelligence items about Nazi sympathizers and subversives" to friendly journalists such as Knickerbocker, Walter Winchell, Drew Pearson, Walter Lippman, Dorothy Thompson, Raymond Gram Swing, Edward Murrow, Vincent Sheean, Eric Sevareid, Edmond Taylor, Edgar Ansel Mowrer, Ralph Ingersoll, and Whitelaw Reid, who "were stealth operatives in their campaign against Britain's enemies in America".
After Pearl Harbor Knickerbocker, followed Allied troops into North Africa, reporting for the Chicago Sun and acting as the official correspondent for the First Division of the United States Army. He remained in Europe for the rest of the war.
General Franco is becoming more and more intolerant towards war correspondents with his armies. He turned them all away when the attack on Malaga began. The men he then turned away had been with him for months and had written the most pronounced pro-Franco articles. No war correspondent with him could have been more satisfactory to him than Knickerbocker who was convinced of his early and inevitable victory when I saw him frequently five months ago. He returned to America three months ago and has now been ordered back. I have seen him twice in Saint-Jean-de-Luz at my home. He was waiting for a permit to cross the border and to rejoin the army. He has just been informed that he `cannot continue his journey to Spain'. I can only interpret this denial to mean that there must be something in the present situation that General Franco does not care to have blazoned to the world. I find Knickerbocker completely flabbergasted by the changed situation.
It is a race war, not merely a class war. You don't understand because you don't realize that there are two races in Spain - a slave race and a ruler race. Those reds, from President Azaña to the anarchists, are all slaves. It is our duty to put them back into their places - yes, put chains on them again, if you like. Modern sewer systems caused this war. Certainly because unimpeded natural selection would have killed off most of the 'red' vermin. The example of Azaña is a typical case. He might have been carried off by infantile paralysis, but he was saved from it by these cursed sewers. We've got to do away with sewers.... What you can't grasp is that any stupid Democrats, so called, lend themselves blindly to the ends of "red" revolution. All you Democrats are just handmaidens of bolshevism. Hitler is the only one who knows a "red" when he sees one... We must destroy this spawn of "red" schools which the so-called republic installed to teach the slaves to revolt. It is sufficient for the masses to know just enough reading to understand orders... We must restore the authority of the Church. Slaves need it to teach them to behave... It is damnable that women should vote. Nobody should vote - least of all women.
I want now to turn back to 1938 and the Munich crisis. I was on vacation and in Europe when it came to a head, so that I did not handle its development in my broadcasts. But I knew the gravity of what was happening and turned up in Prague on the very day that Czechoslovakia mobilized as a protest against the surrender of the Sudetenland to Nazi Germany. There I encountered colleagues hard at work, among then, some of my good friends, such as H. R. Knickerbocker, M. W. Fodor, John Whitaker, and Vincent Sheean. They were in constant touch with the Czech Foreign Office; they all knew President Eduard Benes well, and Ambassador Jan Masaryk in London even better. They understood fully the infamy of the Munich agreement and its evil portent for the future of Europe.
On the evening of my arrival, my colleagues and I occupied a large hotel room with a balcony overlooking Wenceslaus Square in the heart of the city. Hundreds of young men already were marching and shouting in the square. Knickerbocker explained to me the position. Benes had given in to the French and British on the Sudetenland issue, but his ministers had rejected the decision, as he foresaw, until it could be ratified by parliament. Benes then told the French and British that he was powerless and could not keep his promise. There-upon, the French and British told him that if he did not, Czechoslovakia would be branded as the "guilty" party in any trouble to follow, and France's treaty to defend Czechoslovakia against aggression would not go into operation. Benes thereupon called in his ministers again, and they bowed to the decree from Paris. Knickerbocker said that Czechoslovakia would have to fight, not only for itself, but for all of us and our children. Apparently, Benes had intended to delay acceptance so as to force Hitler to attack his country. Then both France and the Soviet Union would be required to defend Czechoslovakia by their treaties with that country. But he had not succeeded.