- Historic Sites
He Was There
An Interview With Walter Cronkite
December 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 8
Yes, indeed. There was no censorship in Vietnam and therefore much was reported and photographed that did not please the military. But the American people got a full picture of that conflict without any sanitizing by the military, and I do not know of any claims by the military that the press revealed any secrets to the enemy that affected the Army’s security. Vietnam, with its smallscale guerrilla actions, however, was a vastly different sort of war than we had ever been involved in before, or since. The important thing, the only important thing, is that civilian correspondents not beholden to the military or to the political structure are permitted to cover our troops in action. The first consideration is not that their pictures and dispatches be printed without delay. Some delay can be tolerated in the interest of the events being recorded accurately for history.
After Grenada, Caspar Weinberger, the Secretary of Defense, was concerned with the press’s complaints, and about how it was handled. He had a few of us oldtimers, World War II types, over to the Pentagon, and we had dinner with him on two or three occasions. He called in his military people and appointed a commission to study how things could be handled in the future. It came up with a quite acceptable system of pool correspondents. But then they got to Panama, and they just threw the book out the window.
Well, I think politics. I don’t think that any of those generals who signed off on the commission really expected to adhere to it. Thought it would never work.
How do you think it looks for the future?
Oh, gosh, I don’t know. I thought, most of my life, I was the guy who saw the glass half full. I’m beginning to look at that other half of the glass that’s empty these days. You know, it just defies me how men of good will can’t seem to sit around the table and settle our problems with intelligence. Some years ago I was talking with the great microbiologist René Dubos at the Rockefeller Institute, about pollution. This was in the early days of the environmental crisis. He was saying that something which bothered him was that we were taking so many poisons into our bodies, through the air and through the doctored foods we eat. He said these poisons affect the muscles first, and the brain is a muscle. And he said, “I am concerned that we will suffer a very slow deterioration, and there will come a point where we will not recognize that we can’t think our way out of a problem. We’ll go on thinking that we can, but we will have passed the point of no return.” With that he did that professorial thing of looking out the window, and muttering, sotto voce, “Or maybe we’ve already passed that point.”
When you think about the consequences, the stupidity of war, one wonders whether we have passed that point of no return, and can’t think our way out of a problem.
Looking back over the past forty years, is there anything that gives you cause for hope at this point?
Oh, yes. Sure. Man doesn’t stand still. We’ve made a great deal of progress. We’ve made a lot of technological progress; obviously, incredible progress in medicine and high technology, communications particularly. We’ve made some progress in the humanities. We have inspired covenants on human rights, which is a great step forward, thanks to Jimmy Carter, who was roundly laughed at for assaying this great problem. He should have been awarded the Nobel Prize for it. Maybe he will be, someday. There has been progress made in the recognition that dictatorship is not the way man is meant to live, which is the important underlying factor in the collapse of the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe.
We’ve made progress, no doubt about it. Women’s rights, civil rights in our own country—excellent progress. Not nearly enough, as we know, but good progress. Yes, we’ve made headway. But it just isn’t nearly fast enough for some of us.
All in all, are you glad you got hold of that copy of American Boy?
[Laughs.] Oh, yes, I am. I wouldn’t want to be anything but a journalist. It’s a high calling, I think.