W. Joseph Campbell

Johnson was ‘panicked’ by Cronkite show on Vietnam?

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths on May 11, 2010 at 1:28 pm

The flexibility and wide applicability of prominent media-driven myths is little short of astonishing sometimes.

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

Take, for example, the column in today’s Jerusalem Post, which invoked the often-told anecdote about the supposed effects of Walter Cronkite’s special report in 1968 about the Vietnam War.

As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, my forthcoming book about media-driven myths, it is widely believed that President Lyndon Johnson essentially threw up his hands in dismay upon hearing Cronkite’s pessimistic assessment about the war.

Cronkite, the CBS News anchorman, said the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam and suggested that negotiations might be a way out.

Johnson supposedly realized the war effort was now hopeless, telling an aide or aides, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

Or something along those lines. Versions of what the president supposedly said vary markedly.

Today’s Jerusalem Post column offered another variation, saying that Johnson “panicked when he lost Walter Cronkite over Vietnam….”

Panicked?

What? How so?

As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, Johnson didn’t even see the Cronkite report when it aired late in the evening of February 27, 1968.

Johnson then was in Austin, Texas, at the 51st birthday party of Governor John Connally, one of his long-time political allies.

About the time Cronkite was intoning his downbeat assessment on Vietnam, 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. Throughout the years we have worked long and hard—and I might say late—trying to maintain it, too.”

No panic there.

Nor was there any in the days that followed.

I note in Getting It Wrong that even if Johnson saw the Cronkite program on videotape, the anchorman’s assessment represented no epiphany for the president.

About three weeks after the Cronkite program, I write, “Johnson gave a rousing, lectern-pounding speech in which he urged a ‘total national effort’ to win the war in Vietnam.”

So no panic there, either.

And on the day of the Cronkite program, Johnson offered a forceful defense of his war policy, vowing in a midday speech in Dallas there would be “no retreat from the responsibilities of the hour of the day.”

Johnson declared: “We are living in a dangerous world and we must understand it. We must be prepared to stand up when we need to. There must be no failing our fighting sons” in Vietnam.

“It seems inconceivable,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “that Johnson’s views [on Vietnam] would have pivoted so swiftly and dramatically, upon hearing the opinion of a television news anchor, even one as esteemed as Cronkite.”

It’s quite improbable.

So, no, Johnson wasn’t “panicked” by Cronkite’s assessment on Vietnam.

Not at all.

WJC

<!–[if !mso]> <!– st1\:*{behavior:url(#ieooui) } –> Johnson’s speech, the newspaper said, was “perhaps his strongest public call yet for unity in pushing the Vietnam war.”[i]


[i] Sell, “No Viet Retreat,” Los Angeles Times, 1.

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  1. [...] did not see the Cronkite program when it aired. The president at the time was in Austin, Texas, making light-hearted comments at the 51st birthday party of Governor John [...]

  2. [...] Johnson was ‘panicked’ by Cronkite show on Vietnam? [...]

  3. [...] He was in Austin, Texas, at the 51st birthday party of Governor John Connally. And even if Johnson had seen the Cronkite report on videotape, the anchorman’s assessment really was no epiphany, because the president in the days and weeks immediately afterward hewed to a hawkish line on Vietnam. [...]

  4. [...] which the downbeat assessment of CBS New anchorman Walter Cronkite supposedly forced President Lyndon Johnson to understand the futility of his Vietnam War policy–turned up [...]

  5. [...] also serves to underscore the inconsequential nature of the purported “Cronkite Moment, which nonetheless remains among the hardiest myths of American [...]

  6. [...] as I note in Getting It Wrong, President Johnson didn’t even see the Cronkite program when it aired February 27, [...]

  7. [...] The other embedded myth was the allusion to the “Cronkite Moment” of February 1968. That was when Cronkite declared on-air that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam. Supposedly, Cronkite’s analysis was an epiphany for President Lyndon Johnson, who suddenly realized his war policy was a shambles. [...]

  8. [...] the White House, President Lyndon Johnson supposedly watched the Cronkite report and, upon hearing the “mired in stalemate” [...]

  9. [...] I added, the so-called “‘Cronkite Moment’ was of little importance or significance for Johnson. Especially since he didn’t even see the show when it [...]

  10. [...] telling example of this tendency is the mythical line attributed to President Lyndon Johnson — “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America” (or words to that [...]

  11. [...] did not see the Cronkite program when it aired. The president at the time was in Austin, Texas, making light-hearted comments at the 51st birthday party of Governor John [...]

  12. [...] the days that followed the purported “Cronkite Moment,” Johnson remained forceful and adamant in public statements about the war effort in Vietnam. He was not [...]

  13. [...] made the “Cronkite Moment” so powerful and memorable was its effect of President Lyndon Johnson who, upon hearing the anchorman’s assessment, purportedly [...]

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