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The Way It Wasn’t: Cronkite and Vietnam

In the remembrances of Walter Cronkite’s remarkable career, none of his television reports has attracted more attention than his famous broadcast about the Tet Offensive in February 1968 in which he concluded that the Vietnam War was “mired in stalemate.” In reaction, President Lyndon B. Johnson reportedly declared, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.”

Many commentators, including the Washington Post’s Tom Shales (July 18, 2009), have asserted that this influential broadcast was an example of Cronkite’s ability to move the nation. “His persona became so prominent in American culture,” Shales wrote, “that he was credited with massive swings in public opinion, most notably earning credit for turning the public against the Vietnam War after a visit there.”

Cronkite’s colleague, Morley Safer, reached a similar judgment (“That’s the Way It Was: Remembering Walter Cronkite,” CBS, July 19, 2009). “It is remarkable,” Safer said of Cronkite’s Vietnam broadcast, “that one anchorman, one reporter, one journalist . . . could really affect the political fate of the country.”

The problem with these assessments is that public opinion had turned against the Johnson administration’s Vietnam policies long before Cronkite declared that the war was unwinnable.

For Cronkite, the most essential element in reporting was getting the story right. We owe it to his memory to get the history right–not to perpetuate myths about the way it wasn’t.

Like a majority of Americans, Cronkite had supported U.S. policies in Vietnam when President Johnson committed the first U.S. combat forces. Cronkite visited Vietnam in July 1965, flew on a combat mission, and even expressed embarrassment about some skeptical, younger reporters who questioned the accuracy of official information about the U.S. war effort.

Yet Johnson did not count Cronkite as a friendly–or even fair–reporter. When the “CBS Evening News,” which Cronkite anchored, showed a film report in August 1965 by correspondent Safer from the village of Cam Ne in which U.S. Marines used a cigarette lighter and flame thrower to burn the huts of allegedly hostile villagers, Johnson complained about Cronkite, “He’s out to get me.”

 Johnson worried that any critical TV report would jeopardize public support for the war effort. He assumed that television, because it was a visual medium, had a powerful effect on public attitudes toward the war, although he had little, if any, evidence to sustain his belief. Even though many television reports from Vietnam emphasized U.S. military success, the president paid far more attention to stories about difficulties on the battlefield or problems with pacification. He became so convinced that television news coverage of Vietnam–America’s first television war–was slanted and sensationalist that he told journalists at a dinner party in March 1967 that CBS and NBC were “controlled by the Vietcong.”

Opinion polls soon confirmed that LBJ had good reason to be concerned about public support for his handling of the U.S. war effort. As early as January 1967, according to the polls, critics of administration Vietnam policies outnumbered supporters. By August of that year, Johnson’s approval rating on Vietnam had fallen to just 32 percent. Some of these critics were “doves” who advocated a negotiated settlement. Others were “hawks” who favored a stronger military effort, including intensified bombing, to win the war. Most Americans were discontented with a war that had grown progressively larger and more deadly, with more than 100 U.S. combat deaths each week and with no end in sight. During the summer of 1967, some correspondents in Vietnam began to report that the war was a stalemate.

The president was irate over the news reports about stalemate. He responded by ordering his aides “to get a better story to the American people” and to “sell our product.” The result was a new administration effort to prove that U.S. troops were indeed making progress in the war.” This progress campaign reclaimed some public support for administration policies by early 1968. Then the Tet Offensive occurred.

Cronkite’s reaction to the Tet Offensive was much like many other Americans–shock, disbelief, and bewilderment. “What the hell is going on,” he asked when the news of the first attacks reached him. “I thought we were winning the war.”

Cronkite went to South Vietnam to find out how the enemy could launch attacks at more than 150 locations–including the U.S. embassy in Saigon and the South Vietnamese presidential palace–when the president and his top aides insisted that the war was going well. He presented his findings in a one-hour evening broadcast on February 27, 1968.

Cronkite questioned the credibility of American officials who saw “silver linings” in the “darkest clouds.” Yet he cautioned against yielding to “unreasonable pessimism,” settling instead for “the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory conclusion.” The war was stalemated and “the only rational way out” was through negotiation.

For Johnson, stalemate was no longer a fighting word as it had been the previous summer. Instead, the president’s reaction was despair, even resignation. LBJ did not watch Cronkite’s broadcast on the night it aired; instead he saw a recording. It is also doubtful that LBJ actually said that he had lost “middle America,” a term that gained popularity only after Johnson’s presidency. According to press secretary George Christian, to whom the president made his famous comment, the president probably lamented the loss of “the American people.”

Johnson, however, had ample evidence that public confidence in his war leadership had diminished before Cronkite reached his sobering assessment. Polls showed new declines; critics both outside and within the administration called for a reassessment of U.S. policies in Vietnam. Only after March 31, when Johnson announced a new initiative to secure negotiations to end the war as well as his startling decision not to seek another term as president, did the polls go up.

Cronkite, then, did not shift public attitudes on the Vietnam War. The American people had turned against LBJ’s policies more than a year earlier. The Tet Offensive only deepened popular disillusionment.

Remembering Cronkite’s special broadcast accurately helps us see its real significance. Cronkite made a bold decision to step out of his familiar role as impartial anchor and to express views that he said were “speculative, personal, subjective.” Yet he was speaking for more than himself. He reflected the widespread discontent with the war and the administration’s misleading efforts to sell it. Cronkite worried that he was putting his reputation on the line on that February evening more than forty years ago. Indeed, he was. This broadcast–and many others–help us understand why he so many people considered him the most trusted man in America.