33. Editorial Note
On March 3, 1981, President Ronald Reagan took part in an interview with Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) Evening News anchor Walter Cronkite. The interview took place in the Oval Office from 1:14 until 2:34 p.m. and was videotaped for broadcast on the CBS television network at 8 p.m. that evening. (Reagan Library, President’s Daily Diary) Cronkite first addressed the U.S. commitment in El Salvador, asking if Reagan saw “any parallel in our committing advisers and military assistance to El Salvador and the early stages of our involvement in Vietnam.”
The President responded: “No, Walter, I don’t. I know that the parallel is being drawn by many people. But the difference is so profound. What we’re actually doing is, at the request of a government in one of our neighboring countries, offering some help against the import or the export into the Western Hemisphere of terrorism, of disruption. And it isn’t just El Salvador. That happens to be the target at the moment. Our problem is this whole hemisphere and keeping this sort of thing out.
“Now, we have sent briefing teams to Europe, down to our Latin American neighbors with what we’ve learned of the actual involvement of the Soviet Union, of Cuba, of the PLO, of, even Qadhafi in Libya, and others in the Communist bloc nations to bring about this terrorism down there.
“Now, you use the term ‘military advisers.’ You know, there’s sort of a technicality there. You could say they are advisers in that they’re training, but when it’s used as ‘adviser,’ that means military men who go in and accompany the forces into combat, advise on strategy and tactics. We have no one of that kind. We’re sending and have sent teams down there to train. They do not accompany them into combat. They train recruits in the garrison area. And as a matter of fact, we have such training teams in more than 30 countries today, and we’ve always done that—the officers of the military in friendly countries and in our neighboring countries have come to our service schools—West Point, Annapolis, and so forth. So, I don’t see any parallel at all.[Page 111]
“And I think it is significant that the terrorists, the guerrilla activity in El Salvador was supposed to cause an uprising, that the government would fall because the people would join this aggressive force and support them. The people are totally against that and have not reacted in that way.”
Cronkite responded: “Well, that’s one of the questions that’s brought up about the wisdom of our policy right at the moment. Some Latin Americans feel that President Duarte has control of the situation. The people have not risen. This last offensive of the guerrillas did not work, and therefore aren’t we likely to exacerbate the situation by American presence there now, therefore sort of promoting a self-fulfilling prophecy by coming down there and getting the guerrillas and the people themselves upset about ‘big brother’ intervention, and therefore losing the game instead of winning it.”
Reagan said: “Well, no, and we realize that our southern friends down there do have memories of the ‘great colossus of the North’ and so forth—but no, his government has asked for this because of the need for training against terrorist and guerrilla activities, has asked for materiel such as helicopters and so forth that can be better at interdicting the supply lines where these illicit weapons are being brought in to the guerrillas, and this is what we’ve provided. And some of these teams that have been provided are also to help keep those machines in the air and on the water—patrol boats and so forth—to try to interdict the supply by water of weapons and ammunition. They need help in repair. They get laid up for repairs, and they don’t have the qualified technicians.”
Cronkite then asked: “What really philosophically is different from our going down to help a democratic government sustain itself against guerrilla activity promoted from the outside—Soviet and Cuban aid, as we believe it to be; your administration says it is—and Afghanistan? El Salvador is in our sort of geopolitical sphere of influence. Afghanistan, on the border of the Soviet Union, is certainly in their geopolitical sphere of influence. They went in with troops to support a Marxist government friendly to them. Why isn’t that a parallel situation?”
Reagan replied: “Well, I don’t think there can be a parallel there, because I was in Iran in ’78 when the first coup came about, and it was the Soviet Union that put their man as President of Afghanistan. And then their man didn’t work out to their satisfaction, so, they came in and got rid of him and brought another man that they’d been training in Moscow and put him in as their President. And then, with their armed forces, they are trying to subdue the people of Afghanistan who do not want this pro-Soviet government that has been installed by an outside force.
“The parallel would be that without actually using Soviet troops, in effect, the Soviets are, you might say, trying to do the same thing in El Salvador that they did in Afghanistan, but by using proxy troops [Page 112] through Cuba and guerrillas. And they had hoped for, as I said, an uprising of the people that would then give them some legitimacy in the government that would be installed—the Communist government—but the people didn’t rise up. The people have evidenced their desire to have the government they have and not be ruled by these guerrillas.”
Cronkite then moved to the issue of Cuban involvement: “Secretary of State Haig has said that we’ll not have a Vietnam in El Salvador, because the United States will direct its action toward Cuba, which is the main source of the intervention, in his words. But Cuba is a client state of the Soviet Union. It’s not likely to stand by and let us take direct action against Cuba, is it?”
Reagan responded: “Well, that term ‘direct action,’ there are a lot of things open—diplomacy, trade, a number of things—and Secretary Haig has explained his use of the term, the source with regard to Cuba means the intercepting and stopping of the supplies coming into these countries—the export from Cuba of those arms, the training of the guerrillas as they’ve done there. And I don’t think in any way that he was suggesting an assault on Cuba.”
Cronkite replied: “That intercepting and stopping means blockade. And isn’t that an act of war?”
Reagan said: “Well, this depends. If you intercept them when they’re landing at the other end or find them where they’re in the locale such as, for example, Nicaragua, and informing Nicaragua that we’re aware of the part that they have played in this, using diplomacy to see that a country decides they’re not going to allow themselves to be used anymore. There’s been a great showdown—we’re watching it very carefully, Nicaragua—of the transfer of arms to El Salvador. This doesn’t mean that they’re not coming in from other guerrilla bases in other countries there.”
Cronkite then asked: “You’ve said that we could extricate ourselves easily from El Salvador if that were required at any given point in this proceeding. I assume you mean at any given point. How could we possibly extricate ourselves? Even now, from this initial stage, how could we extricate ourselves without a severe loss of face?”
Reagan replied: “Well, I don’t think we’re planning on having to extricate ourselves from there. But the only thing that I could see that could have brought that about is if the guerrillas had been correct in their assessment and there had been the internal disturbance. Well, then it would be a case of we’re there at the bequest of the present government. If that government is no longer there, we’re not going there without an invitation. We’re not forcing ourselves upon them, and you’d simply leave—and there aren’t that many people to be extricated.”
Cronkite concluded his questions about El Salvador by asking: “Even if the Duarte forces begin to lose with whatever military materiel [Page 113] assistance we give them, whatever training advisers we give them, are you pledging that we will not go in with fighting forces?”
Reagan answered: “I certainly don’t see any likelihood of us going in with fighting forces. I do see our continued work in the field of diplomacy with neighboring countries that are interested in Central America and South America to bring this violence to a halt and to make sure that we do not just sit passively by and let this hemisphere be invaded by outside forces.”
Cronkite then directed the interview toward U.S.-Soviet relations, commenting that the “hard line” administration position toward the Soviet Union was consistent with statements Reagan made during the 1980 presidential campaign. Cronkite continued, “But there are some who, while applauding that stance, feel that you might have overdone the rhetoric a little bit in laying into the Soviet leadership as being liars and thieves, et cetera.”
Reagan replied: “Well, now, let’s recap. I am aware that what I said received a great deal of news attention, and I can’t criticize the news media for that. I said it. But the thing that seems to have been ignored—well, two things—one, I did not volunteer that statement. This was not a statement that I went in and called a press conference and said, ‘Here, I want to say the following.’ I was asked a question. And the question was, what did I think were Soviet aims? Where did I think the Soviet Union was going? And I had made it clear to them, I said, ‘I don’t have to offer my opinion. They have told us where they’re going over and over again. They have told us that their goal is the Marxian philosophy of world revolution and a single, one-world Communist state and that they’re dedicated to that.’
“And then I said we’re naïve if we don’t recognize in their performance of that, that they also have said that the only morality—remember their ideology is without God, without our idea of morality in the religious sense—their statement about morality is that nothing is immoral if it furthers their cause, which means they can resort to lying or stealing or cheating or even murder if it furthers their cause, and that is not immoral. Now, if we’re going to deal with them, then we have to keep that in mind when we deal with them. And I’ve noticed that with their own statements about me and their attacks on me since I answered that question that way—it is the only statement I’ve made—they have never denied the truth of what I’ve said.”
Cronkite then asked: “You don’t think that name-calling, if you could call it that, makes it more difficult when you do finally, whenever that is, sit down across the table from Mr. Brezhnev and his cohorts?”
Reagan answered: “No, I’ve been interested to see that he has suggested having a summit meeting since I said that.” (Public Papers: Reagan, 1981, pages 191–194)[Page 114]
After some additional discussion of issues in U.S.-Soviet relations, Cronkite devoted the remainder of the interview to posing questions relating to human rights, the administration’s economic program, and Reagan’s views of the presidency. The complete text of the President’s interview with Cronkite is ibid., pages 191–202. Excerpts from the interview are also printed in the New York Times, March 4, 1981, page A22. Briefing materials for the interview, which Assistant to the President and Staff Director of the White House David Gergen sent to Reagan under cover of a March 2 memorandum are in the Reagan Library, David Gergen Files, Subject File, [Briefing Material for Cronkite].
In a personal diary entry for March 3, the President wrote: “During day I did a 1 hr. interview with Walter Cronkite—his last for CBS. He spent the 1st 20 min’s. on El Salvador. He didn’t throw any slow balls but the reaction was favorable. Because of our dinner we couldn’t watch the show but I was treated to another W.H. service. They taped the program & played it back to us later in the evening.” (Brinkley, ed., The Reagan Diaries, volume I, January 1981–October 1985, page 22)