That was when CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite delivered a downbeat editorial assessment about the Vietnam War, saying the U.S. military effort there was “mired in stalemate.”
“The most followed anchorman of the American country explained to the people that war was mistaken and soon after the president, Lyndon Johnson, commented, ‘If I have lost Walter Cronkite, I have lost the moderate America’ and withdrew from the race for the White House.”
The “Cronkite Moment,” which derives its appeal and tenacity as an example of news media’s making a swift and profound difference in the conduct of American foreign policy.
But there are many reasons to doubt that the Cronkite program had much of an effect on Johnson at all.
As I note in Getting It Wrong, the president did not see the program when it aired February 27, 1968 .
Johnson then wasn’t in front of a television. He was in Austin, Texas, at the 51st birthday party of a political ally, Governor John Connally.
Even if he later saw a videotaped recording of the Cronkite program, “Johnson gave no indication of having taken the anchorman’s message to heart,” I write in Getting It Wrong, adding:
“Just three days after the program aired, Johnson vowed in remarks at a testimonial dinner in Texas that the United States would ‘not cut and run’ from Vietnam. ‘We’re not going to be Quislings,’ the president said, invoking the surname of a Norwegian politician who helped the Nazis take over his country. ‘And we’re not going to be appeasers….’”
As for Johnson’s decision against seeking reelection in 1968, the Cronkite program was of little or no consequence.
Critical to Johnson’s decision–which he announced at the end of March 1968, a month after the Cronkite program–was the advice and counsel of advisers, and the implications of Senator Eugene McCarthy’s insurgent bid for the Democratic nomination for president.
The potency of McCarthy’s antiwar campaign was demonstrated in the Democratic primary election in New Hampshire on March 12, 1968. McCarthy won 42 percent of the vote, a far greater portion than expected. Johnson won 49 percent.
Not only that, there’s evidence that Johnson never intended to seek reelection in 1968.
The appearance in Italian of the “Cronkite Moment” is a bit amusing. It’s also indicative of how deeply embedded the myth has become.
Moreover, it’s suggestive of how difficult it will be to uproot it completely.