Walter Cronkite and the CIA
by Richard Poe
Tuesday, February 26, 2008
3:43 pm Eastern Time
FORMER CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite is 91 years old and ailing. Poor health prevented him from accepting his Lifetime Achievement Award in person on January 19. At such a moment, I would prefer to speak charitably of Cronkite. But the times call for candor. Cronkite’s intrigues have cost the lives of countless American soldiers. Even worse, it appears that our Central Intelligence Agency assisted Cronkite in his betrayals. Americans need to know why.
Born in Saint Joseph, Missouri, Cronkite grew up in Kansas City and Houston, Texas. He dropped out of the University of Texas in 1935 to become a journalist.
Cronkite covered World War II for the United Press. He reported from North Africa; landed at Normandy in 1944; flew B-17 bombing raids over Germany and landed in a glider behind German lines in Holland. After the war, Cronkite covered the Nuremberg Trials, and served as Moscow bureau chief from 1946-48.
Then he got into television. In her 1979 book Katharine the Great: Katharine Graham and Her Washington Post Empire, investigative journalist Deborah Davis reports that CIA co-founder Allen Dulles brokered a deal between the Washington Post and CBS News in 1948. Through this arrangement, the Washington Post became sole owner of all CBS radio and TV outlets in our nation’s capital. The Post‘s CBS affiliate WTOP-TV hired Cronkite in 1950, giving him his first job in television.
Allen Dulles — who served as Director of Central Intelligence from 1953-61 — carefully nurtured his ties with the two media companies he had brought together. Davis writes:
“The Post men continued to see Paley and Cronkite every Christmas at a dinner given by Allen Dulles at a private club called the Alibi. … in the middle of downtown Washington…”
Investigative reporter Carl Bernstein wrote in 1977:
“CBS was unquestionably the CIA’s most valuable broadcasting asset. CBS President William Paley and Allen Dulles enjoyed an easy working and social relationship. Over the years, the network provided cover for CIA employees… Paley’s designated contact for the Agency was Sig Mickelson, president of CBS News between 1954 and 1961. … [CBS News president Richard] Salant… continued many of his predecessor’s practices…”
Sig Mickelson was Cronkite’s first mentor at CBS. Richard Salant appointed Cronkite anchorman for CBS evening news in 1962.
In my last column, “How the CIA Lost Vietnam“, I recounted Cronkite’s infamous conduct following the communist Tet Offensive of 1968. American and South Vietnamese forces had routed the enemy. North Vietnamese Colonel Bui Tin later wrote in his memoirs:
“Our losses were staggering and a complete surprise. … Our forces in the South were nearly wiped out by all the fighting in 1968. It took us until 1971 to re-establish our presence…”
Cronkite reported the opposite. “We are mired in stalemate,” he told Americans on February 27, 1968. America’s only hope, said Cronkite, was to “negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who… did the best they could”.
Cronkite’s message reached Hanoi loud and clear. The communists understood that Cronkite spoke for official Washington. In their darkest hour, he gave them hope. They resolved to fight on.
Nearly 30,000 American soldiers would die in Vietnam over the next five years. Then Nixon ended the war with the Paris Peace Accords of January 17, 1973. South Vietnam was safe. As long as Nixon remained in office, the communists did not dare break the treaty.
But the press had another trick up its sleeve; Watergate. Early Watergate reports in the Washington Post aroused little interest. Then Cronkite stepped in. “The story was fading from the papers and we thought we needed to revive it”, Cronkite told PBS’s Frontline in 1996.
Under Cronkite’s direction, CBS News aired a twenty-two-minute, two-part summary of the Watergate scandal in October 1972. It rekindled the scandal, forcing President Nixon’s resignation on August 8, 1974.
“A former CBS correspondent, Sam Jaffe, said that the CIA had gotten him a job at CBS and that the list of current and former journalist-spies included Walter Cronkite. Cronkite heatedly denied that…”
In theory, I see no reason why journalists should avoid helping the CIA in matters of national interest. But who defines the national interest? The tragic story of Walter Cronkite teaches us that CIA spymasters may be poor judges at best.