- Historic Sites
He Was There
An Interview With Walter Cronkite
December 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 8
No, not really. I thought it would have an immediate shock value. I was quite certain of that because we had never done anything like it before. I’d always avoided commentary. So I knew there would be some reaction. But I didn’t expect high-level reaction. Nothing else had tilted Lyndon Johnson. And I’m not sure these reports did tilt him in any way. I think they probably were just one more straw on a great bale of twigs that he was carrying on his back at that moment.
It was quite a straw, looking back on it even now from the viewpoint of a quarter of a century.
Well, I think Johnson was getting pretty upset about the very same things that were bothering the American people. I think he had become disillusioned with the military and what they’d been telling him about the nature of the war. He saw his popularity slipping, and he had to face the possibility of running and being defeated. I think all of it just gave him the idea that he’d better get out while he could.
A far happier association, of course, is yours with the space program. You basically took us to the moon along with the astronauts. You are known to have been a keen advocate of the project. Looking back on it now, does your enthusiasm remain strong?
Oh, yes, my enthusiasm for what we did then remains as strong as ever. I think it was just an incredible achievement of American technology and adventure and a nation’s dedication to what appeared to be an impossible task. To do all of that in a decade is an exceptional performance, and the astronauts themselves were an exceptional body of men.
The current state of the space program, I take it, has less luster for you?
It does, and there are good reasons. We proved we could do it—we proved it dramatically. We set the pattern for man escaping his earthly environment, and we know we can repeat that and will, if we’re willing to spend the money. What NASA needs today is to define an objective that can justify the great expense of manned flight. Further exploration of inner space can pay off in technical developments such as the Tokyo Express that Reagan held out as a promise. That plan disappeared almost immediately from the drawing boards, but the ballistic rocket plane providing that thirty-minute trip to Tokyo, that sort of progress, will come someday as a result of the exploratory sciences. There are many things to be done out there. I do have some doubt about whether the orbiting city is worth the candle at the moment. There’s a price to be paid for all of this, of course, and it’s terribly expensive. Meanwhile, there’s a lot of science to be done with unmanned vehicles. We can find out a lot about Mars without risking lives and without the terrible extra expense of building the proficiency into the machine that can protect the people aboard. So I’m inclined to bend toward unmanned exploration.
On the other hand, I went to Space City in Moscow last summer and got caught up with the space people again. I don’t know—there is such a challenge for man to do this, there’s such a kind of moral imperative for man to do what he can do. Get out there and do it. There’s so much pride in the accomplishment of that kind of exploration that I wonder if maybe it’s not worth it, after all.
Since we are a magazine of history, I’d like to touch on what was my first exposure to history on television, and which I suspect was also for a great many people in my generation—I’m forty-six—and that is your show “You Are There.” I remember your interviewing General Gage behind the lines at Bunker Hill. How did you get into that, and what did it mean to you?
I was just very lucky. It originally was a radio program called “CBS Is There.” They decided to make it into television, so they asked me if I wanted to participate, and of course I did, very much so. I had the opportunity to work with some superb people. Charles Russell, the producer, and Sidney Lumet, the director, and John Frankenheimer, who was a young assistant director at the time; our floor manager for some of the programs was YuI Brynner. And the players that we had! It was all live, out of New York, at first, and it was on a Sunday evening, when the theaters were dark. So here was an opportunity for a lot of stage people to try television without giving up their stage careers. We worked around their schedules. We blocked on Saturday morning, before their matinées, rehearsed all day Sunday, then did the show live at six-thirty. So we had a chance to work with a young actor who was coming up very fast, Paul Newman. And his wife, Joanne Woodward. And Kim Stanley, and Shepperd Strudwick, and E. G. Marshall. We called them Sidney Lumet’s stock company. Each of them would appear every three or four or five weeks, in something. One of Newman’s first roles for us was as Nathan Hale.
Did you bring a particular interest in history to this show?
Yes, I did. It had been one of my favorite subjects in school, despite the poor teaching of it, which still goes on today, I regret.
You’re not happy with the current state of history teaching?