W. Joseph Campbell

‘Lyndon Johnson went berserk’? Not because of Cronkite

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Year studies on July 21, 2010 at 1:13 pm

President Lyndon Johnson supposedly “went berserk” when he heard Walter Cronkite’s on-air assessment in 1968 that the U.S. war effort in Vietnam was “mired in stalemate.”

So claims Tom Hayden, the 1960s antiwar activist in a commentary posted yesterday at the online site of the Nation magazine.

Johnson, unberserk

Hayden’s commentary invoked what often is called the “Cronkite Moment” in saying:

“Cronkite went to Vietnam in April 1968 to survey the state of that war, just as [MSNBC's Rachel] Maddow spent time in Afghanistan investigating the current reality. When Cronkite pronounced Vietnam as ‘mired in stalemate,’ it is said that Lyndon Johnson went berserk.”

It’s a striking way of describing the mythical “Cronkite Moment”: I’ve never before read that Johnson supposedly “went berserk” in response to Cronkite’s characterization.

In any case, Hayden’s descriptions of Cronkite’s program and Johnson’s reaction are in error.

The trip to which Hayden refers took place not in April 1968 but in February that year. Cronkite went to Vietnam then to gather material for a special report that aired on CBS on February 27, 1968.

Johnson, however, did not see the Cronkite program when it aired.

As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, my new book debunking the “Cronkite Moment” and nine other media-driven myths, Johnson was in Austin, Texas, at the time Cronkite intoned his “mired in stalemate” assessment.

Johnson wasn’t going “berserk” on that occasion. Rather, he was offering light-hearted remarks at the birthday party for Texas Governor John Connally, a longtime political ally.

“Today you are 51, John,” the president said. “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 Johnson later saw the Cronkite program on videotape, he “gave no indication of having taken the anchorman’s message to heart,” I write in Getting It Wrong. The show represented no epiphany for the president, no occasion for going “berserk.”

Not long after Cronkite’s program, Johnson delivered a rousing speech in Minneapolis, in which he urged “a total national effort” to win the war in Vietnam. That speech was given March 18, 1968, and in it, the president declared:

“We love nothing more than peace, but we hate nothing worse than surrender and cowardice.”

He criticized war critics as wanting the United States to “tuck our tail and violate our commitments.”

Johnson’s aggressive remarks are quite difficult to square with his supposedly downcast, self-pitying reaction to Cronkite’s assessment about Vietnam.

Moreover, Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” assessment about Vietnam was an unremarkable characterization by early 1968. Mark Kurlansky said as much in his well-received year-study about 1968.

Indeed, nearly seven months before the “Cronkite Moment,” the New York Times published on its front page a news analysis that said victory in Vietnam “is not close at hand. It may be beyond reach.”

The Times analysis was published in August 1967 beneath the headline “Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.”

I’ve noted at Media Myth Alert that former NBC newsman Frank McGee in March 1968 offered an analysis about Vietnam that was more direct and punchier than Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” characterization.

“The war,” McGee said on an NBC News program that aired March 10, 1968, “is being lost by the [Johnson] administration’s definition.”

No hedging there about the war effort being “mired in stalemate.”

Lost.

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