W. Joseph Campbell

Cronkite, secret antiwar collaborator? Seems a stretch

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths on May 14, 2010 at 3:44 pm

Yahoo’s online news site has turned up FBI documents claiming that Walter Cronkite, the venerable CBS News anchorman often if mistakenly called America’s “most trusted” public figure, offered advice and suggestions in late 1969 to foes of the Vietnam War.

Redacted FBI document on Cronkite (Yahoo News)

The Yahoo report, posted this afternoon, says the documents indicate that Cronkite offered “advice on how to raise the public profile of protests and even pledging CBS News resources to help pull off events, according to FBI documents” obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

Cronkite died 10 months ago.

He made clear his mild opposition to the war on February 27, 1968, in a famous editorial comment at the close of a special report on Vietnam.  Cronkite on that occasion declared:

To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past. To suggest we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion.

Cronkite also suggested that negotiations eventually might prove to be America’s way out of the conflict.

The program that night became grist for a prominent media-driven myth, one of 10 that I discuss, and debunk, in my forthcoming book, Getting It Wrong.

Legend has it that at the White House, President Lyndon Johnson watched the Cronkite show and, upon hearing the anchorman’s dire assessment about Vietnam, snapped off the television set and exclaimed, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

Or words to that effect. Versions vary.

But as I point out in Getting It Wrong, Johnson wasn’t at the White House that night. And he wasn’t in front of a television set to watch Cronkite’s special report.

The president was in Austin, Texas, offering light-hearted banter at the 51st birthday party of a longtime political ally, Governor John Connally.

Today’s Yahoo report, while certainly provocative, seem to stretch credulity in important respects.

Cronkite, the Yahoo report says, “encouraged students at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., to invite Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie to address a protest they were planning near Cape Kennedy (now known as Cape Canaveral). Cronkite told the group’s leader that Muskie would be nearby for a fundraiser on the day of the protest, and said that ‘CBS would rent [a] helicopter to take Muskie to and from site of rally,’ according to the [FBI] documents.”

That Cronkite would even contemplate going so far as to arrange for the network to pay for a helicopter to take Muskie to the rally seems improbable.

The Yahoo report further quotes the FBI documents as saying the leader of an antiwar group in Florida said he spent 45 minutes on the telephone with Cronkite, discussing activities related to antiwar demonstrations in November 1969.

That Cronkite would spent that much time on the phone, offering advice to an activist, also seems unlikely.

And a comment posted today at the popular Romenesko online media news site offers an important reminder:

“Many Yahoo readers may be unaware that [FBI] files were full of nonsense and falsehoods by people seeking to curry favor, damage enemies, collect money and who otherwise had no interest in the truth of matters.”

The Cronkite-as-secret-collaborator story is delicious in what it suggests. Given Cronkite’s public views about the war, it’s perhaps faintly plausible.

But by no means can it be considered authoritative.


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