INTERVIEW WITH WALTER CRONKITE
(Preliminary talk not transcribed)
INTERVIEWER: Mr Cronkite, can I ask you first off: at the beginning of the Sixties, how do you think America perceived Russia, the Soviet Union?
WALTER CRONKITE: Well, at the beginning of the Sixties we were long past any thought of the Russians as being allies. The Soviet Union, as one of the partners in defeating Hitler - that idea had disappeared entirely from any of our thoughts in this country. The Soviet Union was the enemy, undoubted enemy. It was the only other nation that had the atomic bomb, had missiles capable of presumably delivering that bomb to the United States soil, and ideologically it was absolutely opposed to everything that we thought we believed in the United States, in our democracy. It also had violated what we had been led to believe was an agreement at Yalta that there would be a division, an East and West, but that neither side would dominate in the fashion that the Soviet Union had by dropping the Iron Curtain, as Winston Churchill called it, across Europe. So this was an actual concept of enmity between the nations, with the dang through the atomic bomb, of developing into a war, perhaps overnight, perhaps without warning, that would destroy humanity. It was that serious.
INT: Excellent answer. So was it a feeling, and I'm thinking here specifically about Cuba, that the spread of communism was a definite and distinct danger to America?
WC: The rise of Fidel Castro in Cuba, his successful revolution against Batista and the previous regimes, was a terrible shock to the American people. This brought communism practically to our shores. Cuba was a resort land for Americans; we went over there by boat from Key West, Florida, a few hours, and it was just a part of America, we kind of considered it part of the United States - of course, it is part of America - we considered it part of the United States practically, just a wonderful little country over there that was of no danger to anybody, as a matter of fact was a rather important economic asset to the United States. The sugar plantations there, the tobacco plantations there were all US owned for the most part, the hotels were U.S. owned. The country was a little colony. Suddenly, revolution, and it became communist and allied with the Soviet Union. This created considerable alarm in the United States. Having a communist nation of this type, and arming, as it did quite openly and an ally of the Soviet Union, right off of our shores - it was frightening.
INT: In 1961, Kennedy authorised the Bay of Pigs operation. What was the media's reaction when it discovered, first of all, the bombing raids and then the total collapse of what the intended invasion was?
WC: All of this considerable concern and fear about the communists being right off our shores in Cuba, led to something called the Bay of Pigs, which is a geographical location in the western side of the Cuban island, where American-led forces, American-trained forces would land on the shores and take back the government from Castro. The plot land there had been discovered by newspeople just before the landings were to take place - that is, within a few... I don't remember whether it was a week or a couple of weeks or so... and a New York Times reporter had really stumbled on it, and then others began to pick it up as well; but they were persuaded, for the most part, by the Administration, the Kennedy Administration, that this was such a matter of national security that it should not be printed. The New York Times editors, from that time down to today, have regretted that decision, as even President Kennedy himself later regretted it. He said, "If the New York Times had printed that, perhaps we would never have gone to the Bay of Pigs." They did not, however; they yielded to the appeal to patriotism to not print it. I know we at CBS had a hint of it as well, and we chose not to use it at that particular time, although I was not personally involved, I am sure there were entreaties from the White House to not use it. The Bay of Pigs took place and was a disaster. The Cubans... the Castro people were advised of the coming of troops, and it was just one vast trap. The troops, of course, were all Cubans. They there were, I do not believe, any US citizens involved as soldiers, at any rate. They were trained mostly in Mexico and in southern United States. They were entrapped and killed or captured, and it was a major military disaster a major diplomatic disaster. That only increased, of course, the enmity between Castro and the powers in Washington. Any hope that we had had of perhaps a rapprochement between the two capitals, I think disappeared probably with the Bay of Pigs. It wasn't very long after that, we only learned many years later that the CIA... they indulged in a plot against Castro's life.
INT: How did Kennedy come out of the Bay of Pigs in the public eye?
WC: The Bay of Pigs was a terrible blow to the young President Kennedy, who was just beginning to feel his way in office. He had come directly from the Senate as the youngest President ever at that time, and people were still waiting to see him tested, and particularly in the cauldron of the Cold War. To have this military disaster so soon after he took office, was a terrible blow to his credibility among the people. It was only his charisma - a word that was practically invented for Kennedy - his charm, his personality that got him over that hump. He went before the people on radio and television, and in a rather frank admission of failure of this and frank admission of our culpability in participating in the planning of it and operating it. That candour helped him regain a great deal of the public's faith in him.
INT: The following year, in 1962, obviously the infamous Cuban missile crisis occurred. When did you and the media first start to get a sense of something that was going on in Cuba?
WC: Of course, the Cuban missile crisis, as it's called, came the next year. We were still very much concerned, obviously, in this country about Castro, and even more concerned now that we knew that he had military strength and there was a running series of stories on the build-up of Soviet military strength in Cuba. When the missile crisis itself broke... I'm afraid it's lost in my memory a bit... the first story I recall that really was the banner line in the newspapers and led all of our evening news broadcasts, was the White House news conference at which they displayed pictures, taken by spy aircraft, of the missile sites, and pointed out that these were missiles actually there in Cuba, pointed obviously at the United States. This excited in the United States almost panic. The Government participated in this, in suggesting that we now look to our civil defences, look to where we would hide in case these missiles started falling upon us, giving us advice about... and a suggestion of exercises that we could conduct. Children dug in under their school desk when the air raid sirens went off; the electrical people and telephone people showing up in neighbourhoods, erecting on poles, the light poles, the sirens that would send the alarm. I remember in my family we had a five-year-old boy at that time, and we wondered whether... we live in this city of New York in a so-called brownstone house that doesn't have a basement - our ground floor is our basement, but we do have a utility room where the furnaces are, and we wondered whether we could make that into a bomb shelter of some form. We were learning for the first time the time that we would have after the explosion, before the fumes, the killing fumes, killing heat and so forth, would reach us. Well, we were wondering about this, and I know there was my thought at the time that it would just be our luck to be having a birthday party of five-year-olds at the time when the siren went off, and we'd be cooped up in that basement with ten five-year-old boys for two weeks; and so we decided not tbuild one. (Laughs) But it was that kind of thinking that went on all over America. I remember our daughter was in school up country, in Massachu, and there at her school they did build a protective area in the basement of the church, I think it was, and it was a small community, and the question was whether the principal... and they'd put up a little notice on the front door that only students would be... and teachers would be permitted in that basement, and the question was: would the principal stand in the door with a shotgun, keeping citizens of the town from using that shelter? That kind of moral question suddenly was foisted upon us, as otherwise peace-loving peoples. It was quite a dramatic, traumatic time.
INT: Was the information coming out of the White House to the media good? Were you being kept informed on a daily basis, or what was happening?
WC: Well, we read one-sided reports pretty much, what was happening in Washington, and even there it was only limited to what the White House wanted to have the people know. No, there was a great deal that was going on there that we were not privy to in the press, from the Moscow side, of course, with the Soviets' total censorship. I served two years in Moscow after the war; I know that censorship is absolutely total. We were getting nothing out of the Soviet Union as to what the real situation was.