Did Cronkite and CBS offer assistance to anti-war movement?

Many conservatives still have not forgiven Walter Cronkite for editorializing in early 1969 that the Vietnam War would end in a “bloody stalemate,” encouraging the S to abandon the fight at a time when the Communists appeared ready to throw in the towel.  If a recently-released FBI file is true, Cronkite may have gone farther than editorializing.  According to an FBI informant, Cronkite offered advice and CBS resources to assist the anti-war activists, including a helicopter to fly Edmund Muskie to a protest that CBS would then cover:

Legendary CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite allegedly collaborated with anti-Vietnam War activists in the 1960s, going so far as to offer advice on how to raise the public profile of protests and even pledgingCBS News resources to help pull off events, according to FBI documents obtained by Yahoo! News.

The documents, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, say that in November 1969, Cronkite encouraged students atRollins 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 documents.

The claims are contained in an FBI memo recounting a confidential informant’s report on a November 1969 meeting of a Rollins College protest group called Youth for New America. The group was planning rallies near Cape Kennedy on Nov. 13 and 14 — the latter being day of the Apollo 12 launch from Cape Kennedy, which President Nixon would be attending — as part of a nationwide Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam. That protest action culminated in a huge march on Washington on Nov. 15.

The file includes the following testimony, while redacting the name of the activist leader who related the offer to the group, including the informant:

“[Redacted] told group he had been to CBS Channel Six in Orlando prior to meeting to speak to newsmen about Vietnam moratorium activities. [Redacted] related that while at TV station, Walter Cronkite, nationally known radio and television commentator, spoke to him by telephone for approximately forty five minutes and that Cronkite reportedly told [redacted] that CBS would have thirty six hours of coverage on Vietnam moratorium with ‘open mike’ to give demonstrators a chance to be heard. Cronkite noted, according to [redacted], that Senator Edmund Muskie would be in Orlando, Fla., November 13 instant for Democratic fund raising dinner. According to [redacted], Cronkite suggested that [redacted] attempt to Muskie to come [sic] to Cape Kennedy to speak at Kelly Park rally to be held November thirteen instant. Cronkite allegedly told [redacted] that CBS would rent helicopter to take Muskie to and from site of rally at Kelly Park.”

Explosive — if true, which requires a couple of levels of faith.  First, the FBI itself may or may not have been telling the truth.  This seems like a story that would have been custom-made for the Nixon administration’s paranoia, and more importantly, J. Edgar Hoover’s own dislike of the media. Bear in mind that at this time, the FBI had serious issues of politicization, especially in regard to political dissent and organized opposition to government policies.  One cannot dismiss the FBI reports out of hand, but one must also remember the full context of the FBI’s activities at the time.

Second, even if the FBI reliably transmitted what the informant said, the informant may have been creating a tall tale in order to keep the FBI interested.  And even if the FBI and the informant were trustworthy, the group leader may have been blowing smoke to support his own power within the group.  After all, having a 45-minute conversation with the most trusted name in television news at the time would have been a very impressive feat.

In fact, the entire tale seems so fantastic that Cronkite’s son dismisses it out of hand:

Chip Cronkite, Walter Cronkite’s son, told Yahoo! News it’s highly unlikely that his father would ever have made such an offer. “It doesn’t have the ring of a reliable story to me,” he said. “Particularly at a time when FBI informants often told the FBI what they wanted to hear. I think it would be outside of what we know about Walter Cronkite and CBS News’ practices.”

It seems a little fantastic to me as well.  Cronkite may have sympathized with the movement, and may have offered advice — but unless he was working a story, spending 45 minutes talking to a rally organizer doesn’t sound realistic.  Neither does an offer to foot the bill for a helicopter to fly Muskie to the rally, a move that the FBI would have exposed as soon as they were aware of it, and one which CBS bosses would almost certainly have refused.  Unless Cronkite was prepared to pay for it out of his own pocket (or was blowing some smoke himself), it’s hard to believe.

That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, of course, and it would be interesting to see how deeply Cronkite involved himself in anti-war protests, if at all.  This is one piece of evidence, but it’s at best third-degree hearsay.  Perhaps we will see more direct evidence later, but at the moment, this is more of a curio than anything else.

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