Drug Policy

Cronkite on the Drug War

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After Walter Cronkite died last week, I don't think anyone here mentioned that late in life (starting around 1995) he publicly condemned the war on drugs, working on TV projects that highlighted its human costs and helping the Drug Policy Alliance raise money. DPA's Ethan Nadelmann exaggerates a bit when he says Cronkite "got it early"; drug prohibition is nearly a century old, and Cronkite contemporaries or near-contemporaries such as Milton Friedman and William F. Buckley questioned it decades before he did. Yet Cronkite deserves credit for putting his considerable prestige on the line by taking what remains an unpopular position. Here is how he put it a few years ago on The Huffington Post:

I covered the Vietnam War. I remember the lies that were told, the lives that were lost—and the shock when, twenty 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….

What is the impact of this policy?

It surely hasn't made our streets safer. Instead, we have locked up literally millions of people…disproportionately people of color…who have caused little or no harm to others—wasting resources that could be used for counter-terrorism, reducing violent crime, or catching white-collar criminals.

With police wielding unprecedented powers to invade privacy, tap phones and conduct searches seemingly at random, our civil liberties are in a very precarious condition.

Hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent on this effortwith no one held accountable for its failure.

Amid the clichés of the drug war, our country has lost sight of the scientific facts. Amid the frantic rhetoric of our leaders, we've become blind to reality: The war on drugs, as it is currently fought, is too expensive, and too inhumane.

As that last sentence ("as it is currently fought…") suggests, Cronkite was no libertarian on this issue. But he described the truth of the situation as he saw it, which is more than you can say for the Obama administration.

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  1. Good of uncle Walter to admit that. It would have been nice if he would have done so when he still mattered and had a platform to use.

  2. Quite a few “old guys” are ignored in this arena. George Shultz and Hugh Downs spring to mind. We’ll see what happens with celebrity nausea treatment down the line.

  3. And he championed world government. Of course he’s against the drug war: in a world government, there are only crimes, not wars, because no-one is sovereign.

  4. Does this mean he was for it before he was against it? If so he might have had a career in politics.

  5. Maye that explains this: Walter Cronkite jamming with Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead and Mike Gordon of Phish at an Earth Day concert in 2006. Walter shows at about the 1:38 mark.

  6. Yeah, it would have been nice if he covered LP candidate Ed Clark in 1980, on this issue at least, instead of labelling the Libertarians as “evil.”

  7. While I approve of what Uncle did on this issue, I find it revealing that he can’t help but relive proudly the moment when he did more than his bit to turn a victory by the military arms of the US into a defeat.

  8. Yet Cronkite deserves credit for putting his considerable prestige on the line by taking what remains an unpopular position.

    BULLSHIT!
    What did he put on the line? Coming out in support of an unpopular position only counts when your “considerable prestige” still matters. Once you’ve decided to rest on your laurels, it isn’t courage, it’s more like the opposite.

  9. “and the shock when, twenty years after the war ended, former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara admitted he knew it was a mistake all along.”

    Really Cronkite, shocked that a government shill would lie to the public about a war that he helped originally push for?

  10. I agree with Cronkite that the War on Drug Users is bad. However, I don’t think that manditory “treatment” is much better.

  11. when you’ve lost cronkite, you’ve lost the nation… so how bout giving up on the drug war

  12. Really Cronkite, shocked that a government shill would lie to the public about a war that he helped originally push for?

    I’m no fan of Cronkite but I liked his language there in regard to McNamara. If you recall how the disgusting mainstream media treated what McNamara said and how they covered his passing, you would have thought McNamara was a brave soul speaking truth to power.

  13. I’m against the war on drugs, but if Cronkite was against it, that’s a pretty good argument in its favor.

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