A look at Cronkite’s War: His World War II Letters Home

By Charlotte Hough ’14

It all began in the woods. In late August of 2007, Publius Virgilius Rogers Professor of American History Maurice Isserman first connected with Walter Cronkite IV ’11 on an Adirondack Adventure trip associated with the Adventure Writing course he would teach that fall.

“When you’re on AA with your students and they see you roll out of your sleeping bag at six in the morning, and grumpily drink your morning coffee, eat your morning oatmeal, they know you in a way that’s different from the classroom experience,” says Isserman of his first encounter with Cronkite. The relationship they would form on that trip and later during Cronkite’s first year would bring them close enough to eventually coauthor a book, Cronkite’s War: His World War II Letters Home. The book weaves a contextual narrative on the war with letters that the student’s grandfather, famed CBS news-anchor Walter Cronkite, Jr., wrote home to his wife, Betsy.

The idea for the book surfaced when Walter IV and his father came to Isserman with copies of wartime letters that they had found among his grandfather’s papers. They had been tucked away in a box at Cronkite Jr.’s alma mater, the University of Texas-Austin, neglected and forgotten after having been donated to the school upon Cronkite’s death in 2009. Both father and grandson had spoken to Walter Jr. about WWII — “it had been a very formative experience for him,” Isserman says — but during these conversations, the recent Hamilton alumnus’ grandfather had never mentioned the letters.

“They really form a record of his wartime experience in London, where he was covering the air war … and then on the continent, where he was able to go after the invasion,” Isserman says. “They are a very exciting collection of letters. They also make it clear how much he adored his wife and missed her.”

Walter IV and his father approached Isserman, intrigued, but unsure about the historical significance of the letters or what they should do with them. “I thought they told a great story about the war and about wartime journalism, and also about this relationship,” Isserman says, recalling fondly the reassuring voice of “Uncle Walter” that had nightly echoed through his home, delivering news on important events such as the Kennedy assassination and the Reagan inauguration. “For someone of my ­generation … it was fascinating to see this younger Walter Cronkite emerge from the letters when he was just starting out as an ambitious, young reporter.” After the initial conversation, Isserman took a trip to Austin with Walter IV to collect the ­letters and other supplementary materials, and they put together a book proposal.

“The nice thing about [the Adventure Writing course] and about Hamilton is that you tend to be closer with your students than if you were at a big anonymous institution,” Isserman says. “We worked together very comfortably because we knew each other very well, just from our classroom experience.”

Cronkite’s War illuminates the daily challenges a wartime correspondent can face while abroad: homesickness, adjusting to life in a new city and living on a budget. Cronkite chronicled how the city of London had been transformed by the war — crowded on the weekends by the influx of Americans, Canadians and British on leave, but also forced to ration and follow ­blackout procedures at the threat of German bombing raids. Cronkite worked long hours and spent his free time stopping for drinks with friends and writing home to Betsy, a fellow journalist.

He would share with her daily living challenges as well as professional concerns. Often Cronkite would have to struggle to get a story through the military censors before a competitor could. On his way back from covering Operation Torch, the British-American invasion of French North Africa in 1942, he hitched a ride on an observation floatplane to beat a rival correspondent from the International News Service. At the same time, he maintained friendly relationships with his colleagues, a habit that his grandson finds notable.

“The most interesting part for me was, as a young, aspiring journalist myself at the time, seeing what he did right in his career and what he was worried about,” says Walter IV, now an associate producer for CBS News. “I learned from him through those letters.”

Levitt election poll makes mark with national media

Results of a recent political survey by the Arthur Levitt Public Affairs Center received wide national attention after its release this spring. Among those reporting on the poll — “The 2012 Election and the Sources of ­Partisan Polarization: A Survey of American Political Attitudes” — were MSNBC’s Hardball with Chris Matthews; NBC’s First-Read, the network’s news and analysis daily summary from the NBC News Political Unit; the political website Political Wire; The ­Washington Times; BusinessWeek; and UPI.

All questions in the Hamilton component of the survey were designed by students in Professor of Government Philip Klinkner’s Political Parties and Elections course. Some of their major ­findings:

  • Racial resentment significantly influenced the presidential vote in 2012, with President Obama winning overwhelmingly among the approximately ­one-third of voters with the least amount of racial resentment, running about even among those with moderate levels of resentment and losing in a landslide among those with the highest levels of racial resentment.
  • After the 2012 election, fears about voter fraud abated among Democrats but skyrocketed among Republicans, with a majority of Republicans not confident about the fairness of the election.
  • The majority of Republicans believed that only blacks and Latinos have benefited from Obama’s policies. On the other hand, the majority of Democrats think that whites, blacks, Latinos and the middle class have benefited from those policies.
  • Asked, “Do you believe that God has a plan for the USA?” a large majority (72 percent) of Republicans agreed to some extent, compared to the majority of Democrats (51 percent) who disagreed.

The survey was part of a Cooperative Congressional ­Elections Study, conducted as an online survey by YouGov/Polimetrix in two waves: pre- and post-election.

School reform ideas flow at ‘smackdown’

The U.S. continually ranks relatively low in quality of education, even though the nation spends more money per student than any other. Students under Professor Gary Wyckoff, director of the Public Policy Program at Hamilton, worked in teams during the spring to devise effective and feasible policy proposals to address this challenge; they presented their projects to a panel of alumni who work in education in May.

Alumni panelists for this “smackdown,” as Wyckoff termed it, included Rob Banzer ’88, assistant superintendent for instruction at Brockport (N.Y.) High School; Jared Fox ’03, a science teacher at the Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School in New York City; and Kecia Hayes ’89, director of the Teachers College Partnership Schools Consortium at Columbia University in New York City.

The U.S. National Reform Team, comprising Alicia Rost ’15, Austin Engros ’15, Fiona Wissell ’15, Matt Billet ’15, Will Haslun ’15 and Teddy Black ’15, presented a plan for holistic, sweeping change across the entire education system from the standpoint of the federal government. Their goals included universal preschool, firing ineffective teachers and boosting funding for extracurricular activities.

The New York State Reform Team, comprising Candice McCardle ’15, Caroline Glover ’15, Kevin Petrick ’13, Joe Rausch ’15, Mike DiMare ’14 and Patrick Donadio ’15, focused on education reform on a smaller, more local scale. They stressed the need for constructivist, choice-centered learning in the classroom as well as better teacher-preparation programs and alternative assessment methods.

Though meant to function as an academic exercise, the policy proposals demonstrated major issues that face the education system and the type of innovative thinking required to find solutions. And while the two groups targeted different areas in their proposals, increasing student creativity and critical thinking clearly played a central role for both. When Fox asked the U.S. National group what they believe to be the purpose of education, one member explained that he hoped their plan would inspire the type of lifelong skills and cognitive abilities that Hamilton students develop on the Hill.

Students research religion by Jitney

Visiting Associate Professor of Religious Studies S. Brent Plate subscribes to the philosophy that religion is best understood through direct interaction rather than distanced study. During the spring semester, he helped students gain first-hand inter­actions with religion in Oneida County through his course Religion in the U.S.

Nearly every week the class visited a new location — such as the Oneida Mansion House, the Oneida Indian Nation’s Shako:wi Cultural Center and the Bosnian Islamic Association’s mosque — and toured the site with a member of the staff.

Plate was inspired to teach the course when he began investigating Oneida County’s religious landscape and discovered a wealth of diversity that he had not expected. Upon first moving to the area five years ago, he was not aware of the rich religious history in Hamilton’s backyard, and he teaches this course to pass his learning experiences to students. “Utica is at a unique place in history where everyone is pretty much getting along [on a religious front] without issue,” he says. Ultimately, Plate hopes to combine the class’ findings into a multimedia project that will follow the religious landscape of the area through time.

As for the present moment, perhaps Lewis Leone ’15 sums it up best: “Being able to stand in a place of worship, experiencing the sights, smells, sounds and other sensory aspects of the site, is a valuable and enlightening experience that you can’t get out of a textbook or lecture.”

Follow the money

New grants and what they’re doing
Fourth Grant for Chinese Language Programs

For the fourth year, Hamilton was the recipient of STARTALK funding to operate two summer programs for Chinese language — a Chinese teacher development program and a week-long intensive learning Chinese immersion course for middle-school students. Hong Gang Jin, the William R. Kenan Professor of East Asian Languages and Literature, who serves as the STARTALK program director and director of the Associated Colleges in China program, was also honored in the spring with the 2013 Walton Award, given by the National Council of Less Commonly Taught Languages.

Plate Awarded Two Grants 

Visiting Associate Professor of Religious Studies S. Brent Plate recently received grants for two projects. A Franklin Research Grant from the American Philosophical Society will support his research at the Smithsonian Institution on drums and drumming in religious traditions for his book project, A History of Religion in 5 1/2 Objects, forth­coming from Beacon Press. The second grant was given by the Central New York Humanities Corridor from an award by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Plate and Jim Watts of Syracuse University are co-principal investigators on a working group titled “Remediating Sacred Scripts.” The funds will offset travel expenses for scholars contributing to a symposium this fall, including Professor of History Tom Wilson and Assistant Professor of Religious Studies Abhishek Amar.

Libraries Join for Music Program

The Kirkland Town Library and Hamilton’s Burke Library are joint recipients of a $2,500 National Endowment for the Humanities grant to fund “America’s Music: A Film History of Our Popular Music from Blues to Bluegrass to Broadway.” The grant will enable the libraries to host a six-week series, beginning in September and featuring documentary film screenings and scholar-led discussions of 20th-century American popular music.

For full information on faculty research, publications and presentations, go to www.hamilton.edu/news/tags/faculty.

Help us provide an accessible education, offer innovative resources and programs, and foster intellectual exploration.

Site Search