W. Joseph Campbell

Expansive claims for a mythical ‘moment’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking on October 24, 2011 at 1:05 am

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

The claims about the presumed power of the “Cronkite Moment” of 1968 — when CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite declared on-air that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam — are expansive and ever-expanding.

What supposedly made the “Cronkite Moment” so powerful and memorable was its effect of President Lyndon Johnson who, upon hearing the anchorman’s assessment, purportedly exclaimed:

“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

Or something to that effect.

Versions vary, markedly.

But as I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, Johnson did not see the Cronkite show when it aired on February 27, 1968. The president at the time was offering light-hearted remarks at the 51st birthday party of John Connally, then the governor of Texas.

So it’s hard to fathom how Johnson could have been much moved by a program he did not see.

Another expansive claim for the presumptive “Cronkite Moment” was that the “mired in stalemate” assessment turned American public opinion against the war.

Forbes magazine offered up that claim in a recent commentary, which declared:

“After viewing the carnage of a real war on televised nightly news for a few years, Middle America eventually agreed with CBS anchor Walter Cronkite, the ‘most trusted man in America,’ when he declared in 1968 that the war would end in stalemate.”

Agreed with Cronkite? In fact, Cronkite was following rather than leading American public opinion on the war.

As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, support for the war had begun ebbing months before the Cronkite program.

A Gallup poll in October 1967 found for the first time that a plurality of Americans — 47 percent — felt sending troops to fight in Vietnam had been a mistake.

A little more than two years earlier, only 24 percent of respondents said they thought sending American forces to Vietnam had been a mistake.

Not only that, but Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” was hardly a remarkable or original assessment.

U.S. news media had used “stalemate” to describe the war months before Cronkite used the word in his on-air editorial comment.

For example, syndicated columnist James J. Kilpatrick wrote in August 1967:

“So long as the present ground rules obtain in Vietnam, this war will drag along its indecisive way. … [T]he condition is stalemate.”

And a few weeks before Cronkite’s on-air commentary, the NewYork Times declared in an editorial:

“Politically as well as militarily, stalemate increasingly appears as the unavoidable outcome of the Vietnam struggle.”

The Times’ observation, published February 8, 1968, anticipated Cronkite’s quite similar assessment of February 27, 1968:

“To say we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion.”


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