W. Joseph Campbell

Cronkite did all that? The anchorman, the president, and the Vietnam War

In Anniversaries, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Quotes on August 23, 2020 at 6:07 am

The endless appeal of media-driven myths rests largely in affirming that journalists are powerful actors whose work and words can exert great and decisive effects on war, politics, and public policy.

Cronkite in Vietnam

This thread runs through all prominent media myths, from William Randolph Hearst’s presumptive vow to “furnish the war” with Spain at the end of the 19th century to the dominant narrative of the Watergate scandal, that exposés by two Washington Post reporters brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

The thread also defines the presumptive “Cronkite Moment” of 1968, when CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite declared on air that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in the Vietnam War.

Cronkite’s assessment, which came after he visited what then was South Vietnam in the wake of the communist-led Tet offensive, was unremarkable for the times. Even so, it has taken on legendary status as a moment of telling unvarnished truth to power, as an occasion when an anchorman’s words brought clarity to a President who, as if in an epiphany, realized his war policy was a shambles.

Journalist and author David Halberstam once wrote of Cronkite’s assessment, “It was the first time a war had been declared over by an anchorman.”

Cronkite of course had declared no such thing and the war in Vietnam ground on until 1975. But Halberstam’s hyperbole is emblematic of the mythical proportions the “Cronkite Moment” has reached.

Late August brings the anniversary and inevitable reminders of the bloody 1968 Democratic National convention in Chicago. The approach of the anniversary this year was the occasion for the Guardian of London to post an essay of reminiscences by a photographer who was there.

What particularly interested Media Myth Alert was this passage, crediting Cronkite with decisive influence and power:

“President Lyndon Johnson, mired in the years-long Vietnam war, chose not to run for re-election after a critical editorial by the CBS newsman Walter Cronkite, the man then dubbed ‘the most trusted man in America.’ Losing Cronkite’s confidence, Johnson believed he had lost Middle America as well.”

There’s much to unpack and dismantle in those two sentences, which imply that Cronkite’s assessment about the war, offered in a special report broadcast on February 27, 1968, led Johnson not to seek reelection.

But we know that Johnson did not see Cronkite’s program when it aired. The President that night was attending a black-tie birthday party in Austin, Texas, for a long-time political ally, John Connally. And it is not clear whether, when, or under what circumstances Johnson may have seen the program on videotape at some later date.

In any case, the power of the presumptive “Cronkite Moment” resides in the immediate, unexpected, and visceral effect it supposedly had on the president. Such an effect likely would have been muted or absent had Johnson seen the program, or excerpts, on videotape.

Even if he did screen the program on videotape soon after February 27, it is clear Johnson did not take Cronkite’s assessment to heart. In the days and weeks afterward, the president mounted a vigorous public defense of his war policy. In mid-March 1968, for example, he told a meeting of business leaders in Washington:

“We must meet our commitments in the world and in Vietnam. We shall and we are going to win. … I don’t want a man in here to go back home thinking otherwise — we are going to win.”

Two days later, on March 18, 1968, the president traveled to Minneapolis to speak at the National Farmers Union convention. He took the occasion to urge “a total national effort to win the war” in Vietnam. Johnson punctuated his remarks by slapping the lectern and declaring:

“We love nothing more than peace, but we hate nothing worse than surrender and cowardice.”

Not only that, but the anchorman’s characterization of “stalemate” was hardly novel in late February 1968.

The term had been invoked frequently by critics — and for months before Cronkite’s program — to describe the war. In early August 1967, the New York Times published a lengthy, front page news analysis about the war beneath the headline:

Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.”

The analysis, filed from Vietnam by R.W. Apple Jr., said in part:

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

The essay won Apple an Overseas Press Club award.

What tipped Johnson’s decision not to seek reelection in 1968 were his declining political fortunes and the views of an informal group of advisers — and not, as the Guardian essay suggests, Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” assessment.

By the end of March 1968, when he announced he would not run for another term, Johnson had come close to losing the New Hampshire primary election to an antiwar candidate, Senator Eugene McCarthy. And an even more formidable rival for the Democratic party nomination, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, had entered the race. Johnson was becoming a spent force, politically.

His informal advisers, collectively known as the “Wise Men,” had gathered in November 1967 and expressed near-unanimous support for Johnson’s war policy. They met again, at the request of the White House, in late March 1968.

Mostly, if not unanimously, the Wise Men expressed opposition to America’s escalating the war in Vietnam, as Johnson was then contemplating. “The theme that ran around the table was, ‘You’ve got to lower your sights,’” one adviser, George Ball, later recalled.

The president “was shaken by this kind of advice from people in whose judgment he necessarily had some confidence, because they’d had a lot of experience,” Ball noted.

A few days afterward, Johnson announced the United States would restrict most bombing missions over North Vietnam — and that he would not seek reelection.

The Guardian essay also claims that Cronkite was known at the time as “the most trusted man in America.”

In fact, that characterization was applied to him years after 1968 — when CBS publicists touted him as such in advertising the network’s Election Night news coverage in 1972.

Their basis? A survey conducted that year of 8,780 respondents in 18 states by the pollster, Oliver Quayle and Company. The poll sought to assess and compare levels of public trust among U.S. politicians. Oddly, Cronkite was included in the poll, meaningn that he was being compared to the likes of Nixon, Edmund S. Muskie, George McGovern, Edward Kennedy, and Spiro T. Agnew.

Cronkite topped the Quayle poll, receiving a “trust index” score of 73 percent, which as media critic Jack Shafer once noted, “seemed impressive until you considered the skunks polled alongside him.” The generic “average senator” came in second at 67 percent.

CBS publicists nonetheless embraced the survey’s results. On Election Day in November 1972, the network took out prominent display advertisements in leading U.S. newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, and the Washington Post.

The ads encouraged readers to tune into the CBS election coverage — and proclaimed Cronkite the “most trusted American in public life.”

WJC

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