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He Was There

June 2024
18min read

An Interview With Walter Cronkite

As the editors discovered right at the outset of planning this issue, it is all but impossible to think about the course of the past forty years without also thinking about Walter Cronkite. He helped invent broadcast journalism, brought it to a level of professionalism that has never been surpassed, and for decades on “The CBS Evening News” explained to the nation the events that have since coalesced into history. Along the way, he made history too: his powerful reports in the wake of the Tet offensive, for instance, were pivotal in the country’s lone disengagement from the Vietnam War and may have played a role in bringing about President Johnson’s decision not to seek re-election in 1968.

During his years as a broadcaster, he was the most trusted figure in American public life; a 1973 poll put the figure at 73 percent, with the President trailing by a good fifteen points. He retired a decade ago, but today, in his late seventies, he still speaks with the calm authority that made him the dean of his profession, and he still pursues the sailing that has long been his chief avocation; indeed, he had just returned from happily contending with fifty-knot winds off the Maine coast when we spoke in the offices here last September.


I thought we might start by asking you a bit about your early career. I know that at the time America entered World War II, you, though still quite a young man, were one of the first correspondents to be accredited.

United Press brought me to New York City almost immediately after Pearl Harbor and sent me right down to 90 Church Street and I was given credentials with the Navy as a correspondent. But I’m not sure I was one of the first. That has appeared elsewhere, and I don’t know whether I, in a moment of braggadocio, suggested I was. But it was early on in the war, certainly. We still hadn’t moved any troops to Europe. The big story, as far as the war in Europe went, was that our Navy was beginning to escort merchant ships and then the first big convoy that took the elementary units of the 8th Air Force overseas. And on the convoy I was the only correspondent.

How long had you been a newspaperman at that time?

I’d started newspapering while I was still in college at the University of Texas, and actually I had worked as a copy boy in Houston during my high school years. So I had been in news full-time since 1936, and parttime before that.

What got you started in the first place?

Well, there was a magazine called American Boy , which was in competition with the Boy Scouts’ magazine, Boy’s Life . I bought both of them every month. And American Boy ran a series of novelettes that were intended as sort of career-guidance material. They took a career and glamorized it quite considerably. The only two careers that interested me at all were journalism and mining engineering. I thought I might be a mining engineer until I flunked physics. I couldn’t figure out how a pulley worked. I still don’t know why a pulley works. And I decided that if you don’t know how a pulley works, you better not go down a mine. So I took up journalism. I was terribly lucky: I was in a high school that, rare in that period, had a journalism course. An editor from one of the newspapers had convinced the Houston public school system that he should teach a course in the five high schools there, and he was a brilliant teacher, I thought. Fred Birney was his name, and he captured my imagination immediately. He was also the sponsor for the school paper; he saw that it got put out on a regular basis and was done well. He had a great devotion to accuracy and to the truth. I think he was the inspiration for my career.

You had an extraordinarily active war.

I was very lucky in that regard too. I covered the Battle of the Atlantic when it was still a major story, although it was very hard to tell anything about it, the secrecy was so great. Then I covered the air war from England, when that was the major story from Europe.

You went on an early bombing raid, didn’t you?

I did the first raid in which they permitted correspondents over Germany, along with Andy Rooney and Homer Bigart and a couple of others. I didn’t land on D-day—I was overhead in a bomber—but I came in on D plus four. And then I was recalled to England to prepare for an airborne operation that was going to be the greatest assignment of the war. We were to drop in Rambouillet Forest and take Paris. But, unfortunately, politics got in the way. De Gaulle insisted that the French forces go into Paris first. He took a terrible chance. It’s possible Paris could have been lost over that. The Germans had orders, as we know, to burn Paris, and they were preparing to do it when we finally got there. But we had held off for a couple of days because de Gaulle insisted that we wait for Leclerc’s forces to come in and lead the parade down the Champs-Elysées. So we didn’t drop then, but we kept getting set up for other airborne operations, and finally, in September, we were called up for what turned out to be Market Garden in the Netherlands. I stayed on the Continent and covered the Battle of the Bulge and then after the war set up the United Press bureaus in the Low Countries and covered the Nuremberg trial. And then to Moscow for two years.

“We were to drop in Rambouillet Forest and take Paris. But, unfortunately, politics got in the way.”

All this as a newspaperman, but you came home and went into radio. Why?

[Laughs.] Well, for the money. I had tried a little radio before the war and hadn’t been terribly impressed with it at the time. I thought it was pretty schlock. I didn’t feel it had the same principles that print did. I came home from Moscow with a plan that had been detailed to me by United Press: to return to London as General European News Manager. I loved press-service work and still think it’s one of the most exciting aspects of the news business. I was perfectly prepared to go, but we’d come home from Moscow because Betsy was having our first child, who later took some umbrage that we’d had her in Kansas City, Missouri, instead of Moscow. Thought it would be wonderful to have Moscow on her passport. But Betsy considered Kansas City the Paris of the Middle West.

Anyway, I went to UP to negotiate whatever raise I expected to get in London, and I was told not only wouldn’t I get a raise since, they claimed, I was making more than any other of our foreign correspondents at the moment, but there was actually a cutback in the cost-of-living allowance. And just at the same time, by some kind of happy coincidence, an old friend of mine who ran a radio station in Kansas City became convinced by what I was telling him about what I thought they needed to make their radio news really important to the community. I had no intention of doing it myself, but he decided he should have a Washington correspondent and he asked what it would cost to send me there. I tripled my UP salary and he said, “That’s fine.” I suddenly realized there was money in radio.

So I took the job, and they sold this Washington bureau service I rendered to ten stations in five Midwestern states. I was doing that at the time the Korean War began, and Ed Murrow called and asked if I wanted to cover it for CBS. I did, so I joined them. But I never got to Korea. While I was filling in for those who had already gone, CBS acquired a television station in Washington that they hadn’t expected the FCC would give them so quickly. They clearly weren’t prepared to take over, but the first thing Bill Paley wanted was well-done news. So I was the only person available around the bureau to do it.

You were sent in to organize CBS’s Washington broadcastnews bureau?

Just to do a television show. Nobody in the Washington bureau had any experience doing that.

Had you ever done it before?

No, no. Never seen a television camera before. [Laughs.]

What was the state of television journalism at that point?

There really wasn’t much. It had started in 1948 and this was only 1950. It was a studio presentation done with whatever newsreel they could purchase. We had slides with pictures and some film and some voice on film. But it was a very, very primitive performance compared with what we have today.

What did you do, faced with this entirely new canvas?

Well, first of all, we did the news. That was different from what developed later. I took the news of the day, and with a director I worked with all day, I would say, “What can you do to illustrate this?” The words came first, illustration came second—it was really a kind of pictorial radio news. But it was informative because we were concentrating on the story and not on the pictures. We were following the old news standards with the competitive eagerness that came from United Press, which helped a lot too.

In 1952 you covered the first televised presidential campaign.

Well, television had been there in ’48, but they didn’t have anywhere to send their pictures. There weren’t many stations linked. So in effect ’52 was the first one.

That year you wrote something I’m sure you’ve had thrown back at you a lot because it’s a prophecy of almost uncanny accuracy: “Television will force a middle ground between personality and politics. The politician who can command the highest Hooper ratine is likely to achieve office and the power that goes with it. And once in office, he stands the best chance of being able to keep the public informed.” Well, that came true with a vengeance, didn’t it?

Yes, it sure did. Broadcast news followed an almost inevitable course. Every step of the way could have been predicted, except perhaps the miniaturization of equipment, and then the satellite and the tape. Of course, when I started everything was on film. It had to be developed, printed, and so forth. With tape we skipped all those steps, and that gave it an immediacy that we hadn’t achieved before. When we found that we could transmit by microwave relay, and then later by satellite, that also brought a facility to the medium that most of us hadn’t expected. So for a long time words dominated the medium, and while that perhaps was unsatisfactory for a visual medium, it did provide greater concentration on the stories themselves, rather than on the presentation of the stories.

Presentation became dominant as the capabilities increased, to the degree that in a lot of cases I felt the importance of the stories was lost. We went for the stories that could be illustrated and left alone the ones that required careful examination through text. This distorted the whole value of television news, to my mind. And distorts it to this day. I’m afraid—and I said this early on—that those who expected to be fully informed by television expected what could not be, and the fact that television was being accepted as the principal news source by a greater and greater percentage of our population was creating considerable difficulties for the democracy. An uninformed democracy is dangerous. Thomas Jefferson told us that the country that expects to be ignorant and free expects what never can and never will be. We are perpetuating ignorance by making television news so easily assimilated that people do not go to print any longer. This is dangerous.

“History is the drama, for heaven’s sake, of human existence. . . . And it’s never taught this way.”

And you feel this is where we stand today?

Yes, I do. I am disappointed. I said from the beginning that there was no way in a half-hour to include everything that needed to be said that day. The number of words spoken on a half-hour news broadcast by all those who participated in it equaled approximately two-thirds of a standard newspaper page. Well, you just can’t tell people all they need to know in that amount of time. We really must go to print to get all of that. I also predicted that the day would come when news would garner just as good a rating as entertainment, because entertainment would drop in the ratings. There would be a point where it would make more economic sense to do news in prime time than to do entertainment. I said that in a speech ten years ago. Well, it’s happened, and now we’ve got this profusion of magazine programs. I thought that with those we would finally get in-depth presentation of matters of great importance to the democracy. Unfortunately, we see that in most cases they go tabloid.

There were times when, in reporting history, you had an influence on it. Perhaps the most famous was in 1968, when you came from covering the war in Vietnam and the aftermath of the Tet offensive. Everyone remembers your broadcast after that. Had you gone into the trip skeptical?

Yes, to a degree. I went into the trip planning probably on doing an editorial when I came back, but not necessarily knowing what we were going to say. I had thought from the beginning that our involvement was proper. I thought giving military advice to the South Vietnamese, in an attempt to establish a democracy there, was proper. As it became our war, I got more and more concerned about it. The pacification of the villages—what the devil?—if they’re supposedly fertile for democracy, then why do we need to pacify them? And we kept building these forces because the Vietnamese army couldn’t get itself organized adequately. All of this began to prey on me as it did on a lot of other Americans, of course. But I’d been out there, and I had been pretty well convinced by the military that we were winning this battle. And now, suddenly, after looking at the light at the end of the tunnel, to have this success of the Tet offensive. I talked to Richard Salant, the president of CBS News, about it, and I said, “You know, this country is confused, we’re all confused. How about my going out, having a look, and doing a first-person story? Just what does it look like to somebody who’s shared this growing disillusionment over these years? What does it look like on the ground?” And that’s what we did. And that led to the report I did.

Did you anticipate the effect it would have when you made it?

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?

I’m not happy with the way history has ever been taught, in any class I ever went to. I mean history is the drama, for heaven’s sake, of human existence. And history is the story of people, and how they coped, how they met problems, and of the competition between them, the rivalries between them. With all the emotions—jealously, hate, love. And it’s never taught this way. It’s taught in this dull rote—dates and places. People never come alive. All these people lived dramatic lives. Every history lesson, every hour in history class, ought to be a terribly exciting lecture on the lives and loves of these people. And their personalities. Because the personalities of these leaders, and of those who sought to be, is what affected history. But we don’t learn it that way, and as a consequence history is a course that most people hate in school. It’s just a shame.

“I didn’t expect highlevel reaction. Nothing else had tilted Lyndon Johnson.”

Let me ask you for a couple of impressions that I think might interest people. You’ve talked to the great and the near-great for . . .

For too many years.

Was there anyone who stood out or exceeded your expectations?

Well, yes. Some exceeded it. Many disappointed me. To my mind, one of the really outstanding people was Anwar Sadat. I think that his imagination for what could be was a great fire that burned within him. And with that fire he was tremendously courageous. Personally courageous and politically courageous. The combination is very rare today, unfortunately. Tito also to a degree, for much the same reasons. He was far more doctrinaire, of course —a doctrinaire Communist—but he still showed a great deal of personal courage and incredible leadership. We know now just what it meant to keep that nation together all those years. His great tragedy, which he recognized toward the end, I know—he never admitted it in so many words, but it was quite clear—was that he was desperately unhappy that he had not provided effectively for his succession.

And how about disappointments? Who disappointed you?

Oh, I hate to get into that. There are probably more disappointments in politics than there are pleasures.

As a man who has covered more wars than any correspondent I can think of, did you share in the general alarm, in the press, at the way the Gulf War was reported?

Oh, terribly. Oh, absolutely. I’ve been railing against this ever since. This democracy was seriously compromised by the way the military handled the Gulf War. We still do not have—and perhaps we will never have —an impartial history of what happened at the Gulf War. Because the military prevented the press from beins present at much of it. I do not agree, necessarily, with my colleagues who are all for live battlefield coverage, now that we have the capability in television. I don’t think that’s practical. You’ve got to have military security. I can’t imagine having a live camera behind our own lines transmitting to a satellite that can be intercepted. What might appear to be innocent to a civilian cameraman could be terribly interesting to the opposing general. I think we must have censorship.

But what must be provided are facilities for the press to be present at all times, under all circumstances. Then the material that the press gathers goes through a censoring process. And if that is operating efficiently and well, and with proper civilian monitoring, there’s no reason material can’t be released almost simultaneously with the shooting. But we’ve got to have the record.

We don’t have a record of the Persian Gulf War, because the news people weren’t permitted to be there with the fighting units, on the front line. So all we’ve got now is the military version of what happened in the Persian Gulf. If we’re going to be asked, by our government, to commit the ultimate act of a democracy —and that is to send its men to kill and be killed in pursuit of a doctrine—we, the civilians who have spawned those men, have the right to know precisely what they’re doing in our name. This is not necessary only from an emotional standpoint; it’s terribly necessary from a policy standpoint. I maintain that those nice-looking, little gray-haired German burghers, who after the war told us, weepingly, that they did not know about the concentration camps, may have been telling us the truth. But that did not absolve them from responsibility. Because they applauded, some years earlier, when Hitler seized the newspapers and the other means of communication and decided to tell them only what he wished them to know about their government. In other words, they gave carte blanche to Hitler to operate in any way he wished, without advising them of what he was doing in their name. That is what, in effect, our army did in the Persian Gulf. And in Panama and Grenada.

This is another of the legacies, I imagine, of Vietnam.

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.

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