Washington — It was good to see father-figure Walter Cronkite last week on the five-part CBS series. "The Defense of the United States." He was recorded in the Soviet Union, and millions who watched him must have shared his deep concern over the present nuclear arms race. The show began with two flashbacks of candidate Reagan in 1980, the first declaring that "nothing is immoral" to the Russians "if it furthers their cause," and the second urging the present US arms buildup to reach a "point that no other nation on this Earth will ever dare raise a hand against us, and in this way we will preserve world peace."
Mr. Cronkite was chary of direct opinions, in his interviews with Russians and a trio of English-speaking newsmen in Moscow. The impression he conveyed was that the Russians are as scared of us as we are of them. "A hundred hospitals could be built for the cost of one rocket," observed Alexander Bovin, a confidant of President Brezhnev. "For seven years we worked together on SALT II," Bovin continued, "yet you refuse a minimal agreement that would curtail the building of arms. We cannot understand this."
President Reagan, of course, rejected the SALT II treaty on the grounds that it was a giveaway. The ratification attempt was shelved by Mr. Carter himself when Russia invaded Afghanistan.
Mr. Cronkite did not defend Russia, but he recalled that it lost 20 million killed, 1941-45; it was physically invaded; it was faced down by the Kennedy nuclear threat in the Cuban missile crisis, and it retains the humiliating memory of its former inferiority. Russia now requires two years' military service from 18- year-olds and despite its power still feels threatened or encircled. Ethnic minorities make up half its army, and a large part don't speak Russian. The USSR has nuclear-armed Western Europe on one border (with uncertain Warsaw Pact allies like Poland) and China on the other side (to which the US has just agreed to sell military hardware). In a word, Russia is anxious.
Mr. Cronkite interviewed veteran Western correspondents in Moscow who depicted Russia as a powerfully armed and expansionist nation. They noted its econ omic, demographic, and social problems. It offers itself as the "standard-bearer of communism" to the world, but this is largely window-dressing , they think; Russian belief in living socialism as a way of life, the correspondents told Cronkite, has all but disappeared.
"You can get yourself pretty frightened looking at all of the administration's maps and charts of Soviet aggression and military spending," observed Mr. Cronkite summing it up, after showing Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger on the screen. "But like so many of our perceptions of the Soviet Union, it tells you only half the story -- the half the administration uses to press its case for higher and higher defense budgets. This is the other half of the story: since 1960 Soviet influence around the world actually has declined. Their so-called gains, like Afghanistan and Angola, take on a different perspective, particularly when they're measured against losses, like Egypt and China."
It is an enigmatic picture, any way it's interpreted -- the Russians telling Cronkite that the US is the aggressor, the Americans hurling back the charge and planning to double their military expenditures.
"If their perception of America is as flawed as we believe it is," observed Cronkite at the close of a thoughtful TV presentation, "then our perceptions of the Soviet Union just could be flawed t oo."