Friday, October 02, 2009

The view from Walter Cronkite

My lovely and courageous daughter Hillary favored me with Walter Cronkite's informal autobiography, A Reporter's Life for my birthday, and I brought it along on our trip. It's a lot of fun if at times ahistorical: Cronkite expresses astonishment that Hitler trusted Stalin in the Nazi-Soviet pact (why is it not the German-Soviet pact or the Nazi-Communist pact?) of 1939, which allowed Germany room to start WWII, when it was Stalin who was the trusting one, right up until Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941; Cronkite also suggests that the US breaking of the Japanese code provided advance warning of the Pearl Harbor attack--my reading suggests that the Japanese maintained almost complete radio silence about the mission and that American intelligence, though believing an attack on American possessions to be likely in early December 1941, had no firm data showing a raid on the Hawaiian Islands.

These lapses notwithstanding, many of Cronkite's insights cast light on details of our national life from the 1940's forward.

"Cut short as it was, the Kennedy administration left little that was noteworthy for the history books, but his charm, his style--personal and political--and his rhetoric captured the hearts and the imaginations of a generation of Americans to a degree unmatched by any other occupant of the White House in this century [the book came out in 1996], and I'm not forgetting the great popularity of the Roosevelts, Franklin and Theodore."

To which I would add that the great achievement of Kennedy was to build on the growing frustration that followed the passivity of Americans after WWII to inspire great things like the Peace Corps, capitalize on and advance the Civil Rights movement, and lead to the cultural phenomenon that was the '60's. Kennedy's inspiration permitted not only the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but also set the stage for something that was not, as far as I know, thought of during this life: Lyndon Johnson's tragically short War on Poverty. Although that effort was the idea of LBJ, without the acceptance of activist government that his predecessor advanced, the attempt to eradicate poverty would never have got started. And even in our time, Barack Obama profited from the memory of those of us who remember JFK; many times when canvassing, I told voters that Obama reminded me of no political leader since Kennedy, to be met with a nod or knowing smile.

Another interesting observation:

"Dwight Eisenhower expressed to me his total frustration in dealing with the government bureaucracy. He was appalled that his direct orders had a way of disappearing into thin air without action ever being taken."

This comment is surprising, because it exactly confirms what Harry Truman said during the transition from his administration to Eisenhower's: "Poor Ike. He's going to sit here and issue orders, and then wonder why nothing happens."

More from an American in Paris (for too short a time) later.

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