W. Joseph Campbell

The ‘Johnson White House reeled’? Not because of Cronkite

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths on December 19, 2009 at 12:56 pm

The AOL Television online site today recalls as a “TV moment of 2009″ the death five months ago of Walter Cronkite, the famous CBS News anchorman.

The AOL Television post recalls the so-called “Cronkite Moment” of 1968, when the anchorman’s downbeat assessment about the U.S. military effort in Vietnam was said to have had immediate and stunning effects on President Lyndon Johnson and his war policy.

The AOL post says of Cronkite: “In 1968, after extensive on-the-ground reporting, he advocated the withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam. The Johnson White House reeled.”

Reeled?

Hardly.

As I write in my forthcoming book, Getting It Wrong:

“Scrutiny of the evidence associated with the program reveals that Johnson did not have—could not have had—the abrupt yet resigned reaction that so often has been attributed to him. That’s because Johnson did not see the program when it was aired” on February 27, 1968.

Lyndon Johnson at Connally's birthday party

Johnson then was in Austin, Texas, engaging in light-hearted banter at a black-tie party for Governor John Connally. “Today you are 51, John,” the president said in Austin, at about the time the Cronkite program was ending.

“That is the magic number that every man of politics prays for—a simple majority. Throughout the years we have worked long and hard—and I might say late—trying to maintain it, too.”

Even if he later heard—or heard about— Cronkite’s assessment, it represented no epiphany for Johnson. Indeed, soon after the Cronkite program, the president gave a rousing, lectern-pounding speech in which he urged a “total national effort” to win the war in Vietnam.

So Cronkite’s program scarcely was decisive to American war policy. It certainly did not send the Johnson White House reeling.

It is noteworthy to recall that Cronkite in his program on Vietnam did not urge the immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces.

He hedged, holding open the possibility that the U.S. military efforts might still force the North Vietnamese to the bargaining table. Cronkite suggested the U.S. forces be given a few months more to press the fight in Vietnam, in the wake of the communists’ surprise Tet offensive, stating:

“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 [Tet offensive] 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.”

What’s more, Cronkite’s assessment was scarcely exceptional or extraordinary.

In his year-study about 1968, Mark Kurlansky wrote that Cronkite’s view was “hardly a radical position” for the time.

Four days before the Cronkite program, the Wall Street Journal said in an editorial that the U.S. war effort in Vietnam “may be doomed” and that “everyone had better be prepared for the bitter taste of defeat beyond America’s power to prevent.” And nearly seven months before the Cronkite program, New York Times correspondent R.W. Apple Jr. 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.”

WJC

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  1. [...] thousands of Americans. With Cronkite gone wobbly on Vietnam, the Johnson White House supposedly reeled. At the end of March 1968, Johnson announced he would not seek [...]

  2. [...] the time Johnson supposedly made the comment about losing Cronkite, he was offering light-hearted banter about Connally’s age, [...]

  3. [...] The ‘Johnson White House reeled’? Not because of Cronkite [...]

  4. [...] the program’s news analyst, and discussed at some length the myth of the so-called “Cronkite Moment” of 1968, in which CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite characterized the war in Vietnam as a [...]

  5. [...] The Johnson White House ‘reeled’? Not because of Cronkite [...]

  6. [...] tenacious media-driven myth surrounding the “Cronkite Moment” has it that the anchorman’s insight was so powerful and so incisive that public [...]

  7. [...] of U.S. policy in Vietnam, swung public opinion against the war, and helped Lyndon Johnson decide against seeking reelection to the [...]

  8. [...] in stalemate” supposedly swung public opinion against the conflict, altered U.S. policy, and encouraged President Lyndon Johnson not to seek [...]

  9. [...] note in Getting It Wrong that the purported “Cronkite Moment” has become for many American journalists “an ideal, a standard that suggests both courage and [...]

  10. [...] for Johnson’s announcing he would not seek reelection, Cronkite’s program was a non-factor in that [...]

  11. [...] The anecdote’s broader point is that Cronkite was such an honest and trusted figure that his views could sway opinions of thousands of Americans. And with Cronkite having gone wobbly on Vietnam, the Johnson White House supposedly reeled. [...]

  12. [...] announced at the end of March 1968 that he would not seek reelection. It was a stunning development–but the Cronkite show had nothing to do with the president’s [...]

  13. [...] Doing so demonstrates how unexceptional Cronkite’s commentary was. And how middling it was, too. It’s scarcely the stuff of dramatic insight, scarcely the sort of comments that would have decisive effect. [...]

  14. [...] the time Cronkite was intoning his “mired in stalemate” assessment, Johnson was offering light-hearted banter in Austin, Texas, at the 51st birthday party of one of his longtime political allies, Governor John [...]

  15. [...] did not see the Cronkite program when it aired. The president at the time was in Austin, Texas, offering [...]

  16. [...] starters, Johnson did not see the Cronkite program when it aired. The president at the time was in Austin, Texas, at the 51st [...]

  17. [...] The ‘Johnson White House reeled’? Not because of Cronkite [...]

  18. [...] was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam — well, there’s no evidence that Johnson reacted by saying, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost [...]

  19. [...] the White House, President Lyndon Johnson supposedly watched Cronkite’s program about Vietnam — a special, hour-long report that [...]

  20. [...] Lyndon B. Johnson, as the myth has it, watched the Cronkite report at the White House and, upon hearing the [...]

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