Cronkite's Vietnam moment: 'US must leave Iraq'

Walter Cronkite, the former network news anchor they called "the most trusted man in America", has added his voice to those calling for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, echoing an appeal he made in 1968 to President Lyndon Johnson to cut his losses in Vietnam.

It has been 25 years since Mr Cronkite, now 89, hard of hearing and slow of gait, has presided over the nightly news bulletins for CBS, but he is still employed by the network and his status as an affable and avuncular national sage is intact. So his comments, made at a gathering of television critics in California, will reverberate.

They came as the Democrat congressman John Murtha, who shocked the White House in November by advocating a withdrawal from Iraq, reiterated his stance and predicted that all US troops would be out by year's end.

Mr Cronkite was recording a documentary for CBS in 1968 about the Tet offensive in Vietnam when he took on board advice from his bosses in New York that he should conclude it with an unusual personal note. That was when he suggested that the US was in a stalemate in Vietnam and should get out. It was a moment that many older Americans still remember and has been shown to have been a turning point in ending the struggle. President Johnson reportedly turned to an aide at the time and said: "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost Middle America".

Engaged in a question and answer session at the critics' meeting, Mr Cronkite said he considered what he said on Vietnam as his proudest achievement. When a reporter asked him whether, given the chance, he would offer similar advice on Iraq, he did not even wait until the end of the question. "Yes," he said flatly. "It's my belief that we should get out now."

Mr Cronkite added that the best time to have opted for withdrawal would have been directly after Hurricane Katrina struck America's Gulf coast, crushing communities and inundating New Orleans.

"We had an opportunity to say to the world and Iraqis after the hurricane disaster that Mother Nature has not treated us well and we find ourselves missing the amount of money it takes to help these poor people out of their homeless situation and rebuild some of our most important cities in the United States," he said. "Therefore, we are going to have to bring our troops home."

He added that the Iraqi people should have been told that "our hearts are with you" and that the United States would continue to do all it could to help rebuild the country. But he went on: "I think we could have been able to retire with honour. In fact, I think we can retire with honour anyway."

By coincidence, Mr Murtha, himself a decorated veteran of the Vietnam conflict, repeated his own pitch for withdrawal on the CBS current affairs programme 60 Minutes on Sunday. He said he was convinced that the "vast majority" of American troops would be out by the end of 2006. Mr Murtha contends that American troops in Iraq are the catalyst for continuing violence there.

Since Mr Murtha first laid out his position, the Pentagon has signalled a gradual lowering of troop numbers. Pressure for a faster pace of withdrawal is likely to build before November's congressional elections.

In his commentary on Vietnam, Mr Cronkite told viewers: "To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion ... the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honourable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy and did the best they could."

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