Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Losing the Most Trusted Man in America: Walter Cronkite and the Vietnam War

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story." In this passage, I describe the impact of Walter Cronkite's coverage of the Vietnam War in 1968 on Lyndon Johnson's administration.

From a pure tactical standpoint, the Tet Offensive represented a disaster for the North Vietnamese military and its NLF (National Liberation Army) allies, also known as the Vietcong. Ho Chi Minh and other North Vietnamese leaders had hoped that the offensive would spark a popular uprising against the Saigon regime, but they were sorely disappointed. The communists were unable to hold positions they had taken and were forced, bloodied and disappointed, to melt back into the jungles. While the Americans had lost about 2,000 men between January 30 and early March, the highest death toll in a single campaign yet for the United States in the war, and the South Vietnamese lost 4,000, the North Vietnamese and Vietcong suffered almost a mortal wound. Credible estimates put communist deaths at 50,000 deaths in one month.

General William Westmoreland, the commander of the American forces in Vietnam, described the offensive to reporters as a failed “go for broke” move similar to the German Ardennes Offensive in 1944-1945 that led to the Battle of the Bulge. The American general celebrated a victory on the ground, but the communist leadership had additional objectives that Tet season. North Vietnamese military strategist Vo Nguyen Giap hoped the offensive would demoralize the American public and increase impatience in the United States for an end to the conflict.

“Giap’s long-range strategy was to continue to bleed the Americans until they agreed to a settlement that satisfied the Hanoi regime,” said journalist Stanley Karnow. “For that reason, the Communists were willing to endure terrible casualties during the Tet campaign, as they did throughout the war. The Tet Offensive was not intended to be a decisive operation, but one episode in a protracted war that might last ‘five, ten, or twenty years.’” Karnow noted what Ho Chi Minh had warned the French twenty years earlier. “You can kill ten of my men for every one I kill of yours. But even at those odds, you will lose and I will win.”

Considered the most trusted man in America, CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite traveled to South Vietnam in February 1968 with the objective of measuring how close the United States was truly to winning in Vietnam or whether victory was any longer possible. In the days before the Internet, in which only three television networks competed for national news audiences, an anchor like Cronkite enjoyed out-of-size influence. One politician described Cronkite as a man who “by mere inflection of his deep baritone voice or by a lifting of his well-known bushy eyebrows . . . might well change the vote of thousands of people.” On February 27, CBS broadcast "Report from Vietnam by Walter Cronkite." The Nielsen ratings service later estimated that nine million Americans watched the report. Among them was a nervous Lyndon Johnson who feared a critical broadcast. Johnson’s worst fears were realized as Cronkite editorialized at the program’s conclusion:

"It now seems more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate . . . 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 that we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion . . . [I]t 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."

Cronkite had been a supporter of the administration’s policies. The anchor’s words thunderstruck President Johnson, who said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” In fact, a substantial percentage of Americans had grown skeptical of the war before Cronkite’s broadcast. Support for the president dropped, but there was no significant increase in opposition to the war, nor a decline in support for the war. The tone of news coverage, however, permanently changed. Before Tet, war supporters appearing on network news broadcasts outnumbered critics by more than 6-1. It was only after Tet that critics and war supporters achieved parity on the evening news.

Personnel shifts at newspapers by 1968 also changed press coverage as the pro-administration and pro-war “old guard” moved out of the newsrooms to management positions or retired, their places taken by younger, more skeptical reporters. War correspondents who came of age during the height of the Cold War in the 1950s moved on and made room for a new generation of college-educated reporters more likely to have absorbed the anti-war sentiments prevailing at many college campuses.

Michael Phillips is the author of "White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, 1841-2001" published in 2006, and "The House Will Come To Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics," co-written with Patrick Cox and published in 2010 by The University of Texas Press. His essay “Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” appears in "Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations," edited by Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León and published by Texas A&M Press in February 2011.

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