A giant in American journalism in the vanguard of "The Greatest Generation" reveals his World War II experiences in this National Geographic book. Walter Cronkite, an obscure 23-year-old United Press wire service reporter, married Betsy Maxwell on March 30, 1940, following a four-year courtship. She proved to be the love of his life, and their marriage lasted happily until her death in 2005. But before Walter and Betsy Cronkite celebrated their second anniversary, he became a credentialed war correspondent, preparing to leave her behind to go overseas. The couple spent months apart in the summer and fall of 1942, as Cronkite sailed on convoys to England and North Africa across the submarine-infested waters of the North Atlantic. After a brief December leave in New York City spent with his young wife, Cronkite left again on assignment for England. This time, the two would not be reunited until the end of the war in Europe. Cronkite would console himself during their absence by writing her long, detailed letterssometimes five in a weekdescribing his experiences as a war correspondent, his observations of life in wartime Europe, and his longing for her.
Betsy Cronkite carefully saved the letters, copying many to circulate among family and friends. (Regrettably she didn't save her own responses.) More than a hundred of Cronkite's letters from 1943-45 (plus a few earlier letters) survive. They reveal surprising and little known facts about this storied public figure in the vanguard of "The Greatest Generation" and a giant in American journalism, and about his World War II experiences. They chronicle both a great love story and a great war story, as told by the reporter who would go on to become anchorman for the CBS Evening News, with a reputation as "the most trusted man in America."
Illustrated with heartwarming photos of Walter and Betsy Cronkite during the war from the family collection, the book is edited by Cronkite's grandson, CBS associate producer Walter Cronkite IV, and esteemed historian Maurice Isserman.
Walter Cronkite IV is an associate producer with CBS News.
Maurice Isserman is the James L. Ferguson Professor of History at Hamilton College. His most recent book is the prize-winning Fallen Giants: A History of Himalayan Mountaineering from the Age of Empire to the Age of Extremes (Yale, 2008), co-written with Stewart Weaver, which the New York Times called "the book of a lifetime...an awe-inspiring work of history and storytelling.
Foreword by Tom Brokaw
By the end of the 20th century, Walter Cronkite was one of the most famous Americans of his time. He carried the coveted title “the Most Trusted Man in America,” and to generations of younger viewers, he was known as Uncle Walter, the steady and wise man guiding the country through so much tumultuous change from his anchor desk on CBS Evening News.
To those of us who shared his profession, he was a role model as a journalist and also as a family man, a father and the husband of the incomparable Betsy, a winsome woman he met in the early stages of his career in Kansas City. To their many friends (and I was proud to be in that company), they were simply “Walter and Betsy,” a matched pair with a zest for lifewhether it was a sailing vacation, an opening night on Broadway, box seats at the Kentucky Derby, or at a sing-along after a dinner party.
Their sense of adventure started early, for they were married in 1940, on the cusp of World War II, when the future of the free world was to be determined in what some military historians have called “the greatest single event in the history of mankind.”
By 1942 Walter was headed for that war as a correspondent for the United Press. The next year he was based in London and covering the war on a daily basis, primarily by reporting on the dangerous bombing missions of the Eighth Air Force.
London, that most elegant of cities, was on a full-time war footing, blacked out at night to discourage German air strikes, living on reduced rations, and trying to accommodate the crush of newcomers who poured into the British capital to launch the counterattack against Nazi Germany.
In this remarkable collection of personal letters from Walter to Betsy, the reader is transported back to the pivotal years of 1943–45, when the push against Hitler’s war machine was beginning to have its effect. Betsy was back in New York with their beloved cocker spaniel, Judy, for what would prove to be a long separation.
In the straight-ahead, honest prose he later became famous for as ananchorman, Walter mixed the momentous, the personal, and the ordinary in his dispatches to Betsy, worrying about how to make his meager salary cover room, meals, and wardrobe. War correspondents in those days wore special uniforms, which they had to purchase, and they drew rations such as one big Tootsie Roll, vanilla wafers, cheese niblets, a carton of cigarettes, and a box of razor blades. At one point he let her know that his share of a room was $18 a week, explaining that the price may seem exorbitant (!) but that space was scarce.
Walter’s days and nights were long and irregular, and he often told Betsy of his exhaustion, brought on by working through the night to hammer out an account of a bombing raid and then to get it through the censors and onto the wires for transmission to the United Press (UP) newspaper clients in the U.S.
It wasn’t all work and no play, however. Walter came to be a drinking pal with Clark Gable, the big Hollywood star who had enlisted and flew combat missions with the Eighth Air Force. He began a lifelong friendship with Andy Rooney, and his UP boss was Harrison Salisbury, a legendary journalist for my generation. A bar was always open somewhere, and it’s plain that Uncle Walter enjoyed a nightcap.
His most famous assignment that year was also the most dangerous. The gifted young men who covered the Eighth Air Force persuaded Army brass that they should be able to accompany a bombing mission over Germany. Remember, this was at a time when casualty rates were high because the bombers didn’t have adequate close-air support and the German homeland was laced with air defense weapons. Cronkite flew in the Plexiglas nose cone of a B-17 during the raid and later admitted that he manned the .50-caliber machine gun against German fighter planes when they were attacked over the target. His bomber made it back safely, but a plane carrying a New York Times reporter was shot down and his body never was recovered.
Cronkite’s first-person account of the raidthe first ever written by a journalist along for the ridereceived wide play and high praise across the United States, but in his letters to Betsy he remained characteristically matter-of-fact in describing the stack of congratulatory messages he received.
As I read these letters, I longed to see Walter and Betsy again so that I could tell them how much I enjoyed them and how much I admired their unconditional love, which comes through after all these years.
The letters to Betsy also reminded me of how the two of them and all of their friends from that time kept up their enthusiasm for taking life head-on. Think about it: They were front and center for World War II. And yet, when it ended, they were on to the next big story, and the one after that, and the one after that, a gregarious couple from America’s heartland who relished all their opportunities and loved each other deeply until the very end of their quintessential American story.
Finallyand I’m sorry, I can’t help myself “That’s the way it was.”
- Tom Brokaw