CRONKITE WARNS: IRAQ CONFLICT WILL CAUSE WORLD WAR 3
By CHRISTOPHER FERRELL
Bryan/College Station Eagle
Walter Cronkite, the veteran newsman who covered almost every major world event that took place during his six-decade career, on Sunday warned that if the United States takes action against Iraq without support from the United Nations it could set the stage for World War III.
“The threat from the White House is to go in anyway,” Cronkite said. “Our only ally would probably be Great Britain. That is not good enough. I see the possibility if we do that of really setting forth World War III.”
Cronkite spoke at Texas A&M University’s Rudder Auditorium on Sunday afternoon as part of the Wiley Lecture Series. Donnis Baggett, editor and publisher of The Bryan-College Station Eagle, interviewed Cronkite, asking him about his views on issues including America’s war on terrorism, the U.S. economy and the perception of the media’s liberal bias.
Cronkite said he believes the best way to handle the situation with Iraq would be through a two-stage resolution adopted by the United Nations. It should first call for weapons inspections and then an invasion if inspectors are not allowed or they meet interference. Such a strategy could help the United States gain other allies, especially Russia and France, he said.
“The legitimacy of our actions would be endorsed through the United Nations,” Cronkite said.
If the United States goes in without worldwide support, however, other countries in the region such as Iran and Pakistan could retaliate against the U.S., Cronkite said. He said the threat of nuclear exchanges between India and Pakistan could be increased if a conflict arises.
Cronkite, who began anchoring the CBS Evening News in 1962, said the country is at a very critical point in its history. The only other decade that compares, he said, is the 1960s, which saw the beginning of the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement come to the forefront and the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers.
“That was a tough 10 years,” he said. “But this period, with the threat of war with Iraq on tap, economic difficulties and terrorism are something we must be terribly concerned about.”
Cronkite said he fears Americans are learning less and less about what their government is doing, and worse, they do not seem to care.
He cited recent presidential elections that have seen less than half of registered voters go to the polls. The result has been leaders who are chosen by about a quarter of the electorate.
“That means we don’t have a democracy,” he said. “We’ve got an oligarchy here, not a democracy. Our democracy is in some danger if we don’t concentrate on educating the populace.”
Educating Americans should rest with the media, he said. But more often than not, nightly newscasts and the networks’ magazine-style shows focus more on entertainment than hard news. Cronkite said this approach is the result of directives from the companies that own the networks to make things more “interesting.”
He said the ability to get the news, especially during times of war, also is becoming more difficult.
Since the Vietnam War, Cronkite said, the media has not been allowed to take its cameras, pencils and notepads into the field with the soldiers to give an accurate account of what is happening.
During World War II, reporters were in fox holes, and during the Vietnam War they were on the battlefields.
In many cases during WWII, the reports would have to go through intelligence officers all the way up the ladder to London, where top military censors decided if the information could be released. If security reasons prevented its release, the news was held until the threat passed. But information was not kept from the American public.
Cronkite said Americans may have thought they got the full story during Operation Desert Storm, but the media was denied much of the type of access it had been granted in the past.
“[In past conflicts], you wrote it to be the history,” he said. “We have no history now of the Persian Gulf War. We have only what the military reporters wrote and that’s what their bosses told them. That’s not good enough.”
Cronkite admitted that in some cases, such as the recent congressional report that outlined the country’s homeland security weaknesses, he wonders whether or not reporting all the facts is in the country’s best interest.
“It seems to me that as citizens, we should get this info so we can shout to Washington, ‘Let’s get this game going,’” he said. “But at the same time, there’s a terrorist cell sitting there saying, ‘That’s how we do it.’”
But for a country’s citizens to be truly free and the government to be held accountable, he said people must have a free press that gathers all the facts.
He said an example of the alternative would be a situation like what he witnessed after WWII, after the Nazi concentration camps were freed. The people who lived in nearby towns cried at the sights of the persecuted Jews and told reporters they had no idea of what was going on behind the walls of the camps.
Many were probably telling the truth, he said, but that did not make them any less responsible.
“They applauded as Hitler closed down the independent newspaper and television stations and only gave them his propaganda,” Cronkite said. “When they did not rise up and say, ‘Give us a free press,’ they became just as guilty.”