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Remarks by Walter Cronkite

Upon receiving the West Point Sylvanus Thayer Award
United States Military Academy - September 23, 1997

For me to simply say that I am honored today is to do a gross injustice to my emotions. To stand here to receive this award that has in the past gone to so many persons of real distinction is to take a place on a Pantheon to which I never, in my wildest dreams, could have aspired. To even suggest that whatever qualities I possess of duty, honor, country compare with the least of them is to stretch rationality.

Yet my humility is not about to dictate that I turn this precious award back to you. But even if I did, the grandest part of this day is irretrievable. Locked securely in my memory is the experience of just being in the presence of this magnificent Corps. Looking out among your ranks, is not just a review of America’s hopes for tomorrow, but a review of America’s history that you all, by your service here and in the future, carry in your genes. I am as proud of you as you have every right to be of yourselves.

I’m proud, but also a little envious. Even at my advanced age, I can dream of being among you. I held that dream through most of my boyhood – the dream of coming to the Point, of becoming an officer in the United States Army. Flat feet and color blindness crushed the dream. If they hadn’t, for all I know my scholastic record might have. I learned that it takes a lot to get here – and a lot, as we know, to make it here.

How great it must be to be a part of the Corps. To know the camaraderie of discipline, of manners, of courtesy, of human sensibility, of one’s duty to his fellow man. To master the ability to identify that fine line between personal independence which we all honor, and the duty to sacrifice for the greater good of the unit. How much more tranquil, how much more secure our country would be if those lessons inculcated here could be spread through our entire society!

I’m particularly pleased with this Thayer Award because I feel that the presentation of it to a journalist speaks – or whispers, at least – of a reconciliation between the media and the military. Or perhaps I would be more accurate in putting that – between some in the media and some in the military.

We got off on a bad foot in Vietnam. Although the Army’s own study established that it was NOT the media that forced our withdrawal from Vietnam, there are many of my friends high in the service who will go to their rest convinced that the newspaper, and particularly the television, reports of the war undermined public support for it.

Actually, I think that, to a degree at least, they probably are right – that watching the horrors of the war on their screens each night did help turn a large majority of the populace against the war. I am even more certain of two other points – that , regardless of the effect of their work, it was not a motive of the television teams (reporters and cameramen) to influence the public’s attitude one way or another on the war effort, and, second, that it was as much our duty to show the war as it was, as it was for the military to be there fighting it.

You see, I have a theory in which I strongly believe. It seems to me that if our citizens are willing to send the nation’s young people into combat, they have both the right and the duty to share as nearly as they can what those young people will face. Television now makes it possible for them to experience combat, vicariously, of course – mighty vicariously. It seems to me that the salutary effects of this exposure far outweigh whatever negative effects may be alleged.

In the first place, the public will see first hand, in effect, the team work of our armed forces, from the platoon level on up. They’ll see the need for the training for which they have been asked to pay. They’ll see the effectiveness, and the need, of the weapons for which they have been asked to pay. And they’ll see the sacrifice which they have asked the troops to pay. They will see, too, the sort of minute-by-minute heroism that marks life in the foxhole but is otherwise unremarked in the official records.

The sacrifice, the blood-letting, is cited by some of our military and political leaders as the disadvantage of permitting television cameras in combat areas. I have a contrary view. I think that this shock treatment of our civilian population can be healthy for our future as a nation and a civilization.

I have had the great good fortune to know many of our military leaders from World War II through the Gulf War. I have been with some of them in their moments of pain as they heard of the battle’s casualties, and I have heard them philosophize about the horrors of combat – heard their hearts speak even as all of us observers admired their daring leadership and courage that under fire could be taken as zest for the fight. And I have known none who believed that war is anything other than the terrible result of failed diplomacy.

While I did not discuss my theory with them, I feel that they would grant that I have a valid argument. It is simply that, before we ask our forces to engage in combat, not just our soldiers but we civilians should understand as nearly as it is possible the nature of the commitment. In an ever more complex world where the likelihood is high that ours, the world’s strongest nation, will be called on ever more frequently to keep the peace or restore it, our public must know what that means in the ultimate eventuality of full-scale war.

There are some in our nation’s leadership who fear that this public caution would restrict the options of the President and the Congress when international crises develop. By extension, this suggests that our leaders would commit our forces to a cause they recognized did not have popular support.

Our leadership at the Pentagon, the CIA, the White House and the Congress are far more aware of the threats to our national interests than we civilians are ever likely to be, but it is up to the authorities to be open with the public, to share as much information as they can. This would sharpen the public’s awareness before the crisis impends. Then, with the full knowledge of what military commitment can mean because we have seen it in actuality on the screen, we can make the judgement to which a democracy is entitled – the most precious decision it ever can make: To send its young men and women into the face of danger.

How many pillars there are on which democracy rests might be debatable, but we know there are two: Our defensive military forces, and our free press. Of course, the physical reality is that any structure isn’t very stable with just two pillars of support.

At least a third is needed. Let me suggest that the third pillar is trust between us – the military forces and the responsible press. Even as many in the military felt that our depiction of the war in Vietnam undermined their ability to do their job, we in the press have felt since Vietnam that the military leadership lost its trust in us and our mission. Onerous censorship was enforced in Grenada and Panama and, particularly, in the Gulf War. The access of newsmen and cameras to the fighting zones was severely restricted.

There was misunderstanding on both sides. Some television news executives argued, and still argue today, that we should be permitted to transmit live pictures from the front. That is ridiculous, of course. Can one imagine the opposing general sitting in his bunker a mile behind the front as his monitors pick up the pictures from behind our lines.

Clearly that has a degree of farce that can’t be matched for idiocy. Censorship is mandatory and television tape of the action from our frontline cameramen must be cleared. That should be done as soon as operational military circumstances permit, and there should be a citizen review process when the press feels that the military is delaying release of material for other than problems of military security.

But timeliness is not as important as the fact that civilian cameramen have recorded the action, and the people’s right, and duty to know has been preserved.

The defense of this nation is of such critical importance that the military can expect the closest observation by the news media in peace and in war. The free press serves the unquestioned right of a democratic people to know what their government is doing in their name. When our forces liberated the Nazi concentration and extermination camps, German civilians from the surrounding villages wept tears and claimed they didn’t know what went on behind those prison walls. Well, perhaps they didn’t, but they stood as guilty as those who did because most of them had applauded lustily when Hitler closed down the free press. When they gave up their right to know what their government was doing in their name, they signed their confession to that government’s vile misdeeds.

No such heinous behavior is expected in our country, but the principle is the same: The public has a right to know what the government does in its name, and the press has the duty to see that it gets that information. Anything less is no democracy.

Since both the military and the media are, after all, collections of human beings, we both will make our mistakes at times to the embarrassment of each, and we have every right to complain loud and out loud when we feel that we have been mistreated by the other. That is fair and it is part of that same democratic principle of free press – and free speech. But despite occasional discomfort and disagreement, fundamentally we must believe in each other and in the essential roles we each fulfill. Our democracy can’t survive if we don’t. It is as simple – and as complex – as that!

For some time now there have been intensive discussions between military and media to satisfy the military requirements for operational security and the media’s duty to keep the public informed. I have high hopes for these negotiations.

I take this honor you have bestowed upon me today as evidence that you share with me that necessary trust between us and the appreciation of the vital role each of us must play.