Walter Cronkite, who died Friday, may be best known for his 1968 CBS commentaries declaring that the United States could not win the Vietnam War. Less known is that he had been a strong supporter of the war before then.
Cronkite was the consummate mainstream journalist. His thoroughness as a reporter and his smooth delivery on television earned him worldwide respect. But while holding down the CBS anchor chair, he didn’t go too far outside the political mainstream. He criticized Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley’s repression of demonstrators at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, and he raised concerns about Watergate before the 1972 election. But those were the exceptions.
Walter narrated three documentaries I produced for public radio from 2000 to 2005. So we had a chance to talk many times, and I counted him among my friends. I don’t know how he counted me.
I think he truly blossomed after he left the constraints of the anchor chair in 1981. He was able to freely express his New Deal liberal viewpoints. He opposed U.S. aggression abroad, supported a woman’s right to choose an abortion and opposed U.S. nuclear weapons policies.
I once told him that, like Jimmy Carter, he had gotten better after he left office. Walter only smiled and chuckled.
In the fall of 2002, Walter agreed to be interviewed about the then-pending U.S. invasion of Iraq. We were trying to put together something for my book “Target Iraq: What the News Media Didn’t Tell You,” co-authored with Norman Solomon. Walter opposed the war unless the United Nations voted to support it. I thought the U.S. was manipulating the U.N. and that even if the Security Council favored an invasion, war was not justified. However, before declaring his stand he wanted to wait until after a final U.N. vote, which didn’t happen before my publication deadline. So we jointly agreed not to publish the interview.
That was too bad. Looking back at the transcript seven years later, Walter’s views proved quite prescient. Here’s some of what he told me.
“President George Bush recently announced a new doctrine that gives the U.S. the right to take unilateral militarily action against any country or group that threatens our national interests. I think it is about as a dangerous foreign policy as a nation could adopt. It violates international law and the whole theory—and hopes—that world peace rests with the United Nations. It would destroy the United Nations. Why should Washington be so peremptory? Presumably, we don’t assign this same right to any other nation. I assume this policy is limited to the United States. How does that set with the rest of the world? It is aggressive and dangerously so.
... “In September and October 2002, hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated against war in both Britain and the U.S. There’s no question there is a strong anti-war mood in U.S. I think we can expect another one of those serious divisions that so wracked our nation during the time of Vietnam if this administration moves unilaterally.
... “The military leadership of Pakistan has apparently defied the majority feeling of Pakistanis who have some sympathies with the Taliban, the former leadership in Afghanistan. They see our invasion of Afghanistan as part of a war against the Arab and Muslim worlds. If that is the case, the government of Gen. Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan could be overthrown. The militant Muslims could take over the nation. That would give them control over the nuclear weapons in Pakistan.”
... “We have adopted this aggressive policy out of Washington that does not give us any real indication of how we would run the country after presumably we win a military contest there. It would depend a lot on how quickly we won, how much destruction was caused, and how many thousands of lives of civilians were lost. How serious will the bitterness be among the Iraqi people toward any conqueror who came in that fashion?
... “With commercial competition from the 24-hour channels on cable, the percentage of the American television audience that watches the network news has dropped. It was 98 percent when I was at CBS. It’s less than 50 percent today. This consequent drop in advertising revenue has caused the merged companies to cut their budgets. They’ve cut back foreign bureaus and the number of reporters covering foreign news. We are not getting adequate information from abroad about those foreign events that are going to impact the nation, which is the only remaining superpower and apparently is ready to flex that power.
... “The press always has to dig and delve for what it can find. Its only purpose is to share that information with the American people. In this democracy of ours, we should be on guard that we are not denied the facts about what the government is doing in our name. That is the basis of a democracy and particularly one that proclaims freedom of speech and press. We cannot let a veil of secrecy be pulled around the official government in Washington.”
Walter Cronkite never lost his liberal values. He felt freer to express them later in life.
Freelance journalist Reese Erlich produced three public radio documentaries with Walter Cronkite. Erlich’s latest book is “Dateline Havana: The Real Story of U.S. Policy and the Future of Cuba.”