W. Joseph Campbell

Welcome perspective on the ‘Cronkite moment’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths on June 26, 2010 at 7:37 am

A blog post yesterday at the Atlantic Free Press offered some unusual–and refreshing–perspective about the so-called “Cronkite Moment” of 1968, when CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite declared the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam.

Johnson

The tenacious media-driven myth surrounding the “Cronkite Moment” has it that the anchorman’s insight was so powerful and so incisive that public opinion promptly swung against the war and President Lyndon Johnson immediately realized his war policy was doomed.

As has been discussed often at Media Myth Alert, neither of those characterizations is accurate. Months before Cronkite’s pronouncement, U.S. public opinion began to turn against the war. And Johnson did not watch Cronkite’s program when it aired on February 27, 1968. At that time, the president was in Austin, Texas,  at the 51st birthday party of Governor John Connally.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, my new book about media-driven myths, the power of the so-called “Cronkite moment”  lies “in the sudden, unexpected, and decisive effect it supposedly had on the president. Such an effect would have been absent, or greatly diminished, had Johnson had seen the program on videotape at some later date.”

Indeed, the power of the anecdote would have been diluted severely.

As I say, the Atlantic Free Press post offered perspective about the “Cronkite Moment” that is seldom encountered in the news media, traditional or online.

The post said that “words like ‘stymied’ and ‘stalemate’ are often applied to the Afghanistan war. But that hardly means the U.S. military is anywhere near withdrawal.

“Walter Cronkite used the word ‘stalemate’ in his famous February 1968 declaration to CBS viewers that the Vietnam War couldn’t be won. ‘We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders both in Vietnam and Washington to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds,’ he said. And: ‘It seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate.’

“Yet the U.S. war on Vietnam continued for another five years, inflicting more unspeakable horrors on a vast scale.”
It is rarely noted in discussions of the “Cronkite Moment” that U.S. combat troops were not completely withdrawn from Vietnam until 1973–despite the claim by David Halbertstam in The Powers That Be that Cronkite’s program represented “the first time in American history a war had been declared over by an anchorman.”
That’s just not so. Not at all.

WJC

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