W. Joseph Campbell

Cronkite biographer on the ‘Cronkite Moment’: A bit muddled

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths on May 20, 2012 at 8:53 am

Historian Douglas Brinkley will be out soon with an 800-page biography of Walter Cronkite, the prominent CBS News anchorman from 1962-1981.

In a cover story in the latest issue of American Heritage, Brinkley indicates how his biography will treat the mythical “Cronkite Moment” of 1968, when the anchorman’s televised “mired in stalemate” assessment about the Vietnam War supposedly sent shock waves through the administration of President Lyndon Johnson.

Judging from the American Heritage article, Brinkley’s take on the “Cronkite Moment” is a bit muddled.

And even somewhat misleading.

Brinkley writes, for example, that Cronkite’s opinion about the war “was widely quoted in the press …. Even the conservative Wall Street Journal’s editorial page said, ‘The whole Vietnam effort may be doomed.'”

But the Journal took no leads from Cronkite. It published its “may be doomed” editorial four days before the Cronkite program.

The editorial appeared February 23, 1968, and said “everyone had better be prepared for the bitter taste of a defeat beyond America’s power to prevent.”

Strong stuff.

Far stronger than the fairly tepid “Cronkite Moment” commentary, which the anchorman offered on February 27, 1968, near the close of a 30-minute special program, “Report from Vietnam.”

Cronkite declared that night: “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.”

Brinkley’s article notes that Cronkite’s “calling the war a ‘stalemate’ was a middling position in 1968.” Indeed, it was hardly novel. As I point out in my latest book, Getting It Wrong:

“By late February 1968 … Cronkite’s ‘mired in stalemate’ assessment was neither notable nor extraordinary.” I point out that “nearly seven months before the program, the New York Times correspondent R.W. Apple Jr. had cited ‘disinterested observers’ in reporting that the war in Vietnam ‘is not going well.’ Victory, Apple wrote, ‘is not close at hand. It may be beyond reach.’

“Apple’s analysis was published on the Times’ front page, beneath the headline: ‘Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.'”

The Times’ analysis also noted: “‘Stalemate’ is a fighting word in Washington. President Johnson rejects it as a description of the situation in Vietnam. But it is the word used by almost all Americans here, except the top officials, to characterize what is happening” in the war.

While Brinkley concedes the unremarkable character of “mired in stalemate,” he nonetheless writes that “Cronkite’s ‘Report from Vietnam’ represented a turning point.”

To support that claim, Brinkley turns to the exaggerated assertion in David Halberstam’s The Powers That Be, that the Cronkite program marked “the first time in American history that a war had been declared over by a commentator.” (In my edition of Halberstam’s book, the closing portion of that sentence reads: “the first time in American history a war had been declared over by an anchorman.”)

Of course, though, the war dragged on for years.

In no way was the “Cronkite Moment” anything approaching a turning point. American public opinion notably had clearly begun shifting against the war by fall 1967, months before the Cronkite report on Vietnam.

And as journalist Don Oberdorfer noted in December 1967, the “summer and fall of 1967 [had] been a time of switching, when millions of American voters — along with many religious leaders, editorial writers and elected officials — appeared to be changing their views about the war.”

So if anything, Cronkite’s program trailed the shifts in American public opinion.

It is often said that Cronkite’s “stalemate” assessment exerted a powerful effect on Johnson, that the president exclaimed upon hearing the anchorman’s interpretation:

“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America” (or, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the war”; or, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country”; or something to that effect).

But it’s quite clear Johnson did not see the Cronkite report when it was shown on CBS and there is no certain evidence that he ever saw it later, on videotape.

The night of the Cronkite program, the president was on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin, at birthday party for Governor John Connally, a longtime political ally.

About the time Cronkite was intoning his “mired in stalemate” assessment, Johnson was offering light-hearted remarks about Connally’s age, saying: “Today you are 51, John. That is the magic number that every man of politics prays for — a simple majority.”

Even so, Brinkley’s article speculates that “Johnson must have known that the Cronkite broadcast — while stating the obvious — had done him major political damage.”

But Cronkite for many years rejected the notion that his “Report from Vietnam” had had much effect on Johnson. Indeed, Brinkley’s article quotes Cronkite as saying as much:

“‘No one has claimed, and I certainly don’t believe, that our broadcast changed his mind about anything. I do believe it may have been the back-breaking piece of straw that was heaped on the heavy load he was already carrying.'”

But even the “piece of straw” metaphor seems to overstate the effects of a program the president did not see, and never discussed with Cronkite.

Brinkley’s article does include intriguing references to Cronkite’s having
“given speeches promoting Johnson’s Great Society domestic policies, including Medicaid-Medicare, wilderness preservation, civil rights, and a hopper full of antipoverty measures.”

I was unaware that Cronkite had been such an open advocate of Johnson’s domestic policy initiatives.


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