July 18th, 2009

Cronkite and Vietnam: Part I

[NOTE: This is a repeat of a previous two-part post. Part II is here.]

Cronkite’s famous post-Tet broadcast of February 27, 1968, delivered on the CBS Evening News, is widely regarded as a turning point in the Vietnam War, as well as broadcast journalism. It caused President Johnson to famously say, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country,” and was apparently instrumental in Johnson’s decision to drop out of the 1968 Presidential race.

Those too young to remember may find such a set of circumstances almost impossible to believe. But Walter Cronkite,”the most trusted man in America” during his 18-year tenure as the anchor for the CBS evening news, is widely regarded to have had great influence on public opinion.

Take a moment to mull that one over and contemplate how the times they have a’changed: it would not seem possible for a major network anchor to be the “most trusted man in America” today (and, by the way, that “most trusted” designation wasn’t just hyperbole; Cronkite was actually judged that in a Gallup Poll of the time. And, of course, today it would be “the most trusted person in America.” But I digress.)

The avuncular Cronkite (and it seems no piece on Cronkite can avoid that perfect description of the man: “avuncular”) held America’s trust for most of his time at the job. Was it simply a more naive era? The fact that so many Americans got their news from that TV half hour (which Cronkite was instrumental in making a full half hour rather than the 15 minutes he originally inherited) through either CBS, or NBC’s rival Huntley-Brinkley, made it seem as though the truth were being told there—after all, there were few competing stories to hear.

And do not underestimate Cronkite’s voice and demeanor, perfect for television. Never slick, not handsome, he seemed profoundly sincere, with a deep and resonant voice and a slight (at least to me) resemblance to another familiar and fatherly icon of the times with the same first name, Walt Disney. Cronkite had distinguished himself during his coverage of the Kennedy assassination, displaying controlled but moving emotion as he took off his glasses to announce the President’s death. It was a deep bonding with the US public through a traumatic time.

Cronkite earned his trust the hard way: by reporting the unvarnished news. In this 2002 radio interview (well worth listening to for insight into his thought process at the time) Cronkite describes his orientation towards his job prior to that watershed moment of the Tet offensive broadcast.

Previously the top brass at CBS, as well as the reporters there, had understood their function to be reporting “the facts, just the facts.” Editorializing was kept strictly separate; at CBS, it was a function of Eric Sevareid, and clearly labeled as such.

The president of CBS news, Dick Salant, was a man of almost fanatical devotion to the principles of non-editorializing journalism, according to Cronkite’s interview. Cronkite said that, till Tet, he “almost wouldn’t let us put an adjective in a sentence” when reporting, he’d been such a stickler for “just the facts.”

But, according to Cronkite, as the Vietnamese War had worn on, and because of the confusion of the American people about the war, reflected in letters to the station, Salant sent Cronkite on a trip to Vietnam with the idea of doing a piece of opinion journalism when he came back, in order to help the American people “understand” what was going on by explicitly editorializing and advising them.

One can speculate long and hard about why Salant decided it was time to make such a drastic change. From Cronkite’s interview, it appears that the brass at CBS was part of the turmoil of the 60s with its “question authority” ethos. If you listen to Cronkite (and he expresses not a moment’s ambivalence about his actions), you may hear, as I did, an anger at a military that seemed heedless of the difficulties of the Vietnam endeavor, and too sanguine–similar to the “cakewalk” accusation towards the present Iraq War.

Another fact that becomes apparent in the Cronkite interview is that he felt personally betrayed by the military men he’d talked to as Vietnam churned on. He’d been a war correspondent in the Second World War, and that conflict, in which the press had been heavily censored, had featured public pronouncements of public optimism but private “off the record” discussions with the press that were more realistic and often more gloomy. Cronkite had been privy to these. But during Vietnam, when there was no official censorship, the military self-censored when talking to the press—they were profoundly optimistic, because they knew everything they said would be reported. Cronkite seemed miffed that he wasn’t given the inside info, as he had been in WWII.

Cronkite is up-front about these differences in his interview. I think it’s ironic that, if there had been more censorship during the Vietnam War, war correspondents such as Cronkite might have understood better where the military was coming from and might have cut them some slack. However, that’s mere speculation. What actually happened is that Cronkite felt betrayed, and he and Salant thought the American people had been betrayed, and they felt it was important enough that they needed to break their own long-standing rule and spill the beans to the American people.

It never seems to have occurred to them, of course, that in reacting to Tet as they did they were participating in a different falsehood, the propagation of North Vietnamese propaganda about the situation.

Whatever Cronkite’s motivations may have been, it’s hard to overestimate the effect it had when he suddenly stated on air that the meaning of Tet was that the situation in Vietnam was hopelessly stalemated and the war could not be won. We’re used to this sort of thing now, and many of us have learned to brush it off. But then, to much of America, Cronkite’s was the voice of trusted authority that could not be denied—despite the fact that he had no special expertise to make such a proclamation.

Of course, we are reaping the fruit of that moment today. Journalism has changed, and not for the better, mixing opinion and facts in messy attempts to influence public opinion rather than inform. In connection with that radio interview, for example, see this statement, rather typical of the genre:

It was a bold move for Cronkite, and it was an seminal moment for journalism, to go beyond the reporting of events, to tell a conflicted people a higher truth, something beyond the cataloguing of casualties or shifting front lines.

To tell a conflicted people a higher truth. That seems to say it all, does it not?

[ADDENDUM: Here is the text of Cronkite’s Tet statement:

“Report from Vietnam,” Walter Cronkite Broadcast, February 27, 1968.

Tonight, back in more familiar surroundings in New York, we’d like to sum up our findings in Vietnam, an analysis that must be speculative, personal, subjective. Who won and who lost in the great Tet offensive against the cities? I’m not sure. The Vietcong did not win by a knockout, but neither did we. The referees of history may make it a draw. Another standoff may be coming in the big battles expected south of the Demilitarized Zone. Khesanh could well fall, with a terrible loss in American lives, prestige and morale, and this is a tragedy of our stubbornness there; but the bastion no longer is a key to the rest of the northern regions, and it is doubtful that the American forces can be defeated across the breadth of the DMZ with any substantial loss of ground. Another standoff. On the political front, past performance gives no confidence that the Vietnamese government can cope with its problems, now compounded by the attack on the cities. It may not fall, it may hold on, but it probably won’t show the dynamic qualities demanded of this young nation. Another standoff.

We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds. They may be right, that Hanoi’s winter-spring offensive has been forced by the Communist realization that they could not win the longer war of attrition, and that the Communists hope that any success in the offensive will improve their position for eventual negotiations. It would improve their position, and it would also require our realization, that we should have had all along, that any negotiations must be that-negotiations, not the dictation of peace terms. For it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. This summer’s almost certain standoff will either end in real give-and-take negotiations or terrible escalation; and for every means we have to escalate, the enemy can match us, and that applies to invasion of the North, the use of nuclear weapons, or the mere commitment of one hundred, or two hundred, or three hundred thousand more American troops to the battle. And with each escalation, the world comes closer to the brink of cosmic disaster.

To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past. To suggest we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion. On the off chance that military and political analysts are right, in the next few months we must test the enemy’s intentions, in case this is indeed his last big gasp before negotiations. But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.

This is Walter Cronkite. Good night.]

[Part II here.]

22 Responses to “Cronkite and Vietnam: Part I”

  1. nyomythus Says:

    The media had something of a monopoly for projecting an equally monopolizing icon, today we have right of center news outlets like FoxNews, and venues like radio for right wing voices to speak and be heard.

    INTELLECTUAL DIVERSITY (THE ONLY DIVERSITY THAT MATTERS) IS ONE OF OUR GREATEST CULTURAL TREASURES!!!

  2. gcotharn Says:

    This has stuck in my head, though I cannot recall it’s provenance (and for all I know it came from neo-neocon):

    Cronkite was hired at CBS, in part, b/c of his liberal worldview. When Cronkite was being considered for hire, the CBS executive who had to sign off on the decision was told: “he’s one of us.”

  3. Wolla Dalbo Says:

    I am old enough to remember when Cronkite was thought to be the fount of wisdom. Luckily, we now have a number of alternative voices, so that we can compare and contrast, and one guy can’t have a chokehold on the “Truth.”

    Despite the Michael Jackson-like coverage and sickening, over the top accolades, I believe that lefty Cronkite had much to answer for, because of his false editorializing and reporting–although I am sure he would have denied it as he looked in the mirror each day—about Tet and the Vietnam War, he had the blood of hundreds of thousand of people in Southeast Asia and in the U.S. on his hands.

    Some good, though, has come from his time on this earth and his actions, since we no longer trust such anchormen as we did before.

  4. 11B40 Says:

    Greetings:

    Quoting: “mixing opinion and facts in messy attempts to
    influence public opinion rather than inform.”

    Not to nitpick, but I would add “emotionalizing” (in way Mr. Cronkite could never be accused of) the content of their broadcasts. It has gotten to the point where I would believe that they have acting classes in today’s Journalism Schools. My best example would be Mr. Gibson of ABC with his performance in interviewing Governor Palin during last year’s presidential campaign.

  5. Amused Observer Says:

    Mr. Cronkite is the perfect example of the road to hell being paved with good intentions. A good man who was responsible for some bad things.

    The standards of journalism have dropped so far that the old media is dying. The chokehold on the public’s ability to be informed created the vacuum for the vastly increased diversity of sources now available. Cronkite’s legacy has many different aspects to it, including much destruction that is overlooked. The law of unintended consequences never seems to be successfully repealed.

  6. grackle Says:

    Cronkite and Vietnam1

    … today we have right of center news outlets like FoxNews, and venues like radio for right wing voices to speak and be heard.

    Make that news outlet, in the singular. FoxNews is the only major news source on television that is not Progressive-oriented. CNN, MSNBC, NBC, ABC, CBS, PBS and CBP are all Lefty. Together they dwarf Fox.

    The right wing radio voices are important, to be sure, but they specialize in catering to folks who are already on the Right because that’s where the ratings are. They are not very adept at gaining converts to the cause – which is needed as never before at the present. Many of them are too extreme in content or style to be palatable to the general population.

    Of the major newspapers whose circulation is over or near a million, all are lefty except for WSJ and the New York Post. The Chicago tribune, which used to be centrist, endorsed Obama for President.

    The news magazines present a slightly more encouraging picture but some who used to be centrist, like the New Republic and Time, turned Lefty some time ago.

    Crossover sites on the Web, like this blog, which present the other side in a measured, un-hysterical style, may do more to give the message a wider distribution than conservative talk radio.

    The MSM controls opinion. Those of us who seek out the other side are a distinct minority. Most of the public view television, read newspapers and may occasionally read a magazine to get their news. Garbage in, garbage out. The wonder is that as many voted for McCain as did in the last election.

    … he[Cronkite] had the blood of hundreds of thousand of people in Southeast Asia and in the U.S. on his hands.

    Yes, yes and yes again. He was an important man and got miffed because he didn’t get the perks he expected – and South Vietnam went down the drain without a backward glance as a result. But why so little regret? Well, when you make a decision that results in a truly terrible result perhaps it is simply too horrible to contemplate. Maybe you have to rationalize in order to keep that enormous guilt at bay.

    I have a theory also that the old guard felt the hot breath of youth breathing down their neck. I believe this cut across all the opinion making professions. They wanted to be young, to be “with it,” to be “now,” to be “happening,” to be a part of the youth movement that first arose during the sixties and the youth was definitely anti-Vietnam. A sad and silly episode in our cultural history that is still playing out.

  7. james williams Says:

    Cronkite and whoever actually wrote his words completely misrepresented the situation in Vietnam at the time of the Tet Offensive. They reported a decisive military victory for the Communists wheras in reality it was a military disaster for them. Cronkite turned the military defeat into a propaganda victory for the North Vietnamese. Whether he did that deliberately or not, he was in the vanguard of the liberal “blame America first” crowd.

  8. Occam's Beard Says:

    to tell a conflicted people a higher truth

    “A higher truth”, i.e., a lie. There is only one truth. Appealing to some vaporous “higher” standard is simply verbal cologne to excuse prevarication.

  9. Occam's Beard Says:

    I now have a much less sanguine view of Cronkite: he was of an ilk with Dan Rather, but had the good fortune to retire before the Internet. Apart from that, I suspect the two were much of a muchness.

    To this point, note Rather’s reaction to being caught out: not shame, but indignation, that his version was not taken as read. My inference: he and his comrades had long engaged in similar behavior, and did not expect to be held accountable either then or now.

  10. Tom Grey Says:

    Cronkite, wonderful voice of news — especially the Space Program.

    Mercury, Gemini, Apollo — all with Cronkite’s voice; my 60’s childhood.

    Cronkite, uncle to the Killing Fields.

    A nation can choose to fight a war, or to stop fighting and lose. One cannot choose to win — one wins ONLY when the opponent, or enemy, stops fighting.

    Cronkite helped the anti-capitalist commies win in Vietnam and Cambodia. And the Left in general has still NOT been called on their support for commie victory.

  11. Beverly Says:

    Cronkite has the blood of 800,000 South Vietnamese on his hands.

    Colonel Bui Tin, on the North Vietnamese general staff, was interviewed in 1995 about how the Communists won the war. Here’s what he said–

    Question: How did Hanoi intend to defeat the Americans?

    Answer: By fighting a long war which would break their will to help South Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh said,
    “We don’t need to win military victories, we only need to hit them until they give up and get out.”

    Q: Was the American antiwar movement important to Hanoi’s victory?

    A: It was essential to our strategy. Support of the war from our rear was completely secure while the American rear was vulnerable. Every day our leadership would listen to world news over the radio at 9 a.m. to follow the growth of the American antiwar movement.

    Visits to Hanoi by people like Jane Fonda, and former Attorney General Ramsey Clark and ministers gave us confidence that we should hold on in the face of battlefield reverses.

    We were elated when Jane Fonda, wearing a red Vietnamese dress, said at a press conference that she was ashamed of American actions in the war and that she would struggle along with us.

    Q: Did the Politburo pay attention to these visits?

    A: Keenly.

    Q: Why?

    A: Those people represented the conscience of America. The conscience of America was part of its war-making capability, and we were turning that power in our favor.

    America lost because of its democracy; through dissent and protest it lost the ability to mobilize a will to win.

    Q: How could the Americans have won the war?

    A: Cut the Ho Chi Minh trail inside Laos. If Johnson had granted [Gen. William] Westmoreland’s requests to enter Laos and block the Ho Chi Minh trail, Hanoi could not have won the war.

    And Walter Cronkite weighed in on the Communists’ side when he pronounced the Tet Offensive, which was actually a military victory for America, a defeat.

    Thus, the blood our men spilled was wasted, and the Communists’ victory enabled, and their subsequent bloodbath and tyranny.

    But, hey, Uncle Walter was such a nice man.

    Source:
    http://www.viet-myths.net/BuiTin.htm

  12. Beverly Says:

    Cronkite has the blood of 800,000 South Vietnamese on his hands.

    Colonel Bui Tin, on the North Vietnamese general staff, was interviewed in 1995 about how the Communists won the war. Here’s what he said–

    Question: How did Hanoi intend to defeat the Americans?

    Answer: By fighting a long war which would break their will to help South Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh said,
    “We don’t need to win military victories, we only need to hit them until they give up and get out.”

    Q: Was the American antiwar movement important to Hanoi’s victory?

    A: It was essential to our strategy. Support of the war from our rear was completely secure while the American rear was vulnerable. Every day our leadership would listen to world news over the radio at 9 a.m. to follow the growth of the American antiwar movement.

    Visits to Hanoi by people like Jane Fonda, and former Attorney General Ramsey Clark and ministers gave us confidence that we should hold on in the face of battlefield reverses.

    We were elated when Jane Fonda, wearing a red Vietnamese dress, said at a press conference that she was ashamed of American actions in the war and that she would struggle along with us.

    Q: Did the Politburo pay attention to these visits?

    A: Keenly.

    Q: Why?

    A: Those people represented the conscience of America. The conscience of America was part of its war-making capability, and we were turning that power in our favor.

    America lost because of its democracy; through dissent and protest it lost the ability to mobilize a will to win.

    Q: How could the Americans have won the war?

    A: Cut the Ho Chi Minh trail inside Laos. If Johnson had granted [Gen. William] Westmoreland’s requests to enter Laos and block the Ho Chi Minh trail, Hanoi could not have won the war.

    And Walter Cronkite weighed in on the Communists’ side when he pronounced the Tet Offensive, which was actually a military victory for America, a defeat.

    Thus, the blood our men spilled was wasted, and the Communists’ victory enabled, and their subsequent bloodbath and tyranny.

    But, hey, Uncle Walter was such a nice man.

  13. Beverly Says:

    The previous interview was from the Wall Street Journal in 1995.

  14. Beverly Says:

    I apologize for the double post! didn’t think the top one, with link, had gone through.

  15. armchair pessimist Says:

    “Uncle to the Killing Fields” Bravo!

  16. grackle Says:

    I apologize for the double post! didn’t think the top one, with link, had gone through.

    Done it myself, many times. It was a good comment.

  17. ad Says:

    To judge from Sorley and Nagl, Cronkite’s summary was not unreasonable.

    And if the pentagon had been more trustworthy before 1968, it might have been more trusted afterwards.

  18. neo-neocon Says:

    ad: To judge from Sorley (whose book I have read) Cronkite’s conclusions were unreasonable. Sorley’s book about Vietnam is dedicated to showing that the war was quite “winnable” and in fact was on its way to being won with the change of strategy and tactics represented under Creighton Abrams. Abrams became head of the operations in June of 1968, just a few months after Cronkite made his famous speech. Therefore, Cronkite’s speech would be very analogous to those people who spoke out in opposition to the surge because they felt the Iraq War was lost already, when it was not (Harry Reid ad Barack Obama come to mind).

    Furthermore, Cronkite was completely wrong about Tet, which was the proximate cause of his broadcast.

  19. ad Says:

    But the war was NOT on its way to being won when Cronkite made his famous speech a few months before the change of strategy and tactics made by General Abrams.

    And the Army could not plausibly claim to have repudiated Westmorelands methods after he left because it had made him its chief of staff.

    So why would anyone in Washington believe that things had changed? The only people who might have known had already lost their credibility.

  20. neo-neocon Says:

    ad: Did you read what I wrote you in the comments section? And did you also pay attention to the Part II’s points about what Cronkite said about Tet even if it turned out that we learned in the next few months that Tet had represented the Communists’ last gasp? (see Part II for a full explanation).

    Once again, I will state that Conkrite showed a lack of imagination and knowledge of military affairs. To declare we could not win, even if we changed strategy and/or tactics, was premature. It was just the same as the people (Reid, Obama, et. al) who declared the surge could not succeed, and that we had already lost the Iraq War, prior to the implementation of the surge.

  21. Augean Stables » Walter Cronkite: Avuncular Advocacy Journalist and the Origins of the MSNM’s Augean Stables Says:

    […] put up a couple of years ago, and has now updated to reflect Cronkite’s passing. Below some choice passages: Cronkite earned his trust the hard way: by reporting the unvarnished news. In this 2002 radio […]

  22. Henry David Says:

    America went off the rails following the Kennedy Assassination. Reagan brought things back for a while but the hopeful positive days when I was growing up have gone forever. Oh Well

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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