Walter Cronkite Knew a Failed War When He Saw One: Vietnam and the War on Drugs


Everyone knows Walter Cronkite was "the most trusted man in America" and someone whose rare expressions of personal opinion -- such as on the Vietnam War -- could powerfully influence the views of Middle America. But fewer are aware of a passion of his that he came to relatively late in life -- ending the nation's disastrous war on drugs.

I first learned of Cronkite's interest in the drug war back in 1995, when a producer for The Cronkite Report -- an occasional series on the Discovery Channel -- called to ask for my help on a documentary that he and Cronkite were doing on the drug war. The one-hour report that resulted provided a devastating critique of the nation's drug policies.

Focusing on the lives of three women who had been sentenced to many years in Bedford Hills prison in New York, the program revealed the utter waste of human lives and taxpayer dollars that define the drug war.

Neither Cronkite nor the women involved suggested that they had done nothing wrong. But the extraordinary lengths of the prison terms to which they had been sentenced, for relatively minor participation in the illicit sale of drugs, combined with the impact on their children and families, and the absurd amount of money being spent to punish rather than help and treat -- all this shaped Cronkite's devastating indictment of the drug war.

Walter Cronkite got it -- and he got it early. He knew a failed war when he saw one.

I didn't know, however, if that would be his last word on the subject. Fortunately, it wasn't. In 1998, he joined other prominent individuals in signing a public letter to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan that stated: "We believe that the global war on drugs is now causing more harm than drug abuse itself."

Two women played a pivotal role in Cronkite's involvement thereafter with my organization, the Drug Policy Alliance. The first was Marlene Adler, his longtime assistant, who appreciated Cronkite's commitment to this issue, and I think shared his views as well.

The second was Dr. Mathilde Krim, a friend and neighbor of the Cronkites' in New York, the founder and co-chairwoman of amfAR, the HIV/AIDS research and advocacy organization, and a board member of the Drug Policy Alliance. It was at her home that I first met Cronkite in person. And it was with Krim's and Adler's assistance that Cronkite agreed to join DPA's honorary board and also to sign the fundraising letter that has helped DPA recruit tens of thousands of new members.

He wrote:

I remember. I covered the Vietnam War. I remember the lies that were told, the lives that were lost -- and the shock when, 20 years after the war ended, former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara admitted he knew it was a mistake all along.

Today, our nation is fighting two wars: one abroad and one at home. While the war in Iraq is in the headlines, the other war is still being fought on our own streets. Its casualties are the wasted lives of our own citizens.

I am speaking of the war on drugs.

And I cannot help but wonder how many more lives, and how much more money, will be wasted before another Robert McNamara admits what is plain for all to see: the war on drugs is a failure.

While the politicians stutter and stall -- while they chase their losses by claiming we could win this war if only we committed more resources, jailed more people and knocked down more doors -- the Drug Policy Alliance continues to tell the American people the truth -- "the way it is."

Few allies have been as important. Cronkite's involvement with DPA and our drug-policy-reform movement raised the sorts of eyebrows that most needed raising. It helped legitimize our cause. And he brought home, both with his words and the mere fact of his commitment, the powerful analogy between the failure of the Vietnam War and the failure of America's longest war -- the war on drugs.

I know he got a kick out of the reactions to his fundraising letters for DPA, whether it was to be attacked by Bill O'Reilly or quoted favorably (just a few weeks ago) by John McLaughlin on his TV show, the McLaughlin Group.

I once asked Cronkite -- at a dinner at Krim's home a few years ago -- whether he had ever tried marijuana. As I recall, he laughed, and said not exactly, except for the "contact high" he might have gotten around CBS's offices back in the 1960s, when smoking was still allowed and not everything smoked was tobacco. Perhaps he said something too about some youthful experiences during World War II -- but I don't remember exactly.

But of course, the issue for him was never about the drugs and whether people used them. What mattered was intellectual honesty, sensible moral judgment and the obligation to speak truth to power, no matter how unwelcome or inconvenient that truth might be. That he was almost 80 years old when he first took on this cause is a testament to his vitality and integrity and an inspiration to me and so many others.

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