A legendary moment in network news came 44 years ago tonight, when CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite pronounced at the close of special report that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam and said negotiations might offer a way out.
Cronkite’s report aired February 27, 1968, and examined the Tet offensive that communist forces had launched across South Vietnam four weeks earlier.
At the White House that night, President Lyndon B. Johnson supposedly watched the Cronkite report. Upon hearing the popular anchorman’s downbeat assessment, Johnson realized his war policy was a shambles. The report was, the story goes, an epiphany for the president.
Johnson snapped off the television set and said to an aide or aides:
“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”
Except the “Cronkite Moment” wasn’t so special. Cronkite’s assessment about the war wasn’t novel or particularly insightful.
It was, if anything, a rehash of what other news organizations had been saying for weeks and months. “Stalemate” was much in the news back then.
The New York Times, for example, wrote “stalemate” into the headline over a news analysis about the war that was published on its front page in August 1967 — nearly seven months before Cronkite’s televised report. The Times headline read:
“Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.”
The Times analysis, which was filed from the South Vietnamese capital, Saigon, noted:
“‘Stalemate’ is a fighting word in Washington. President Johnson rejects it as a description of the situation in Vietnam. But it is the word used by almost all Americans here, except the top officials, to characterize what is happening” in the war.
So “stalemate” had been often invoked, and much-debated, by the time Cronkite turned to the word.
Even more damaging to the purported exceptionality of the “Cronkite Moment” was that Johnson did not see the Cronkite report when it aired.
As such, the president could not have had the abrupt, visceral reaction that endows the purported “Cronkite Moment” with special power and resonance.
As I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, Johnson wasn’t at the White House on February 27, 1968; he wasn’t in front of a television set, either, when Cronkite intoned his “mired in stalemate” assessment.
The president was in Austin, Texas, attending the 51st birthday party of a political ally, Governor John Connally. About the time Cronkite made his on-air editorial comment, Johnson was making light of Connally’s age, saying:
“Today you are 51, John. That is the magic number that every man of politics prays for— a simple majority.”
As I also discuss in Getting It Wrong, there is no persuasive evidence that Johnson later saw Cronkite’s report on videotape.
Even if he had, it would have made no difference to his thinking about Vietnam.
Not long after the Cronkite report, Johnson delivered a rousing speech in Minneapolis, urging “a total national effort” to win the war in Vietnam. The 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.”
Johnson, who died in 1973, did not mention the purported “Cronkite Moment” in his memoir, The Vantage Point.
For his part, Cronkite often described the program in modest terms, likening its effect on U.S. policy to a straw on a camel’s back. He turned to that analogy in writing his memoir, for example.
But in the years immediately before his death in 2009, Cronkite began to interpret the program in a somewhat grander light. He came to embrace the presumptive power of the “Cronkite Moment.”
In an interview with Esquire in 2006, for example, he said:
“To be honest, I was rather amazed that my reporting from Vietnam had such an effect on history.”
Interestingly, Cronkite also said he had never discussed the program and his famous editorial comment with Johnson.
According to a report in the Austin American-Statesman, Cronkite said in a teleconference call with a journalism class at Southwest Texas State University in 1997 that Johnson “never brought it up and I certainly never did.”
Recent and related:
- Misreading the ‘Cronkite Moment’ — and media power
- Carl Bernstein, naive and over the top
- Newsman tells ‘a simple truth,’ changes history: Sure, he did
- ‘Mired in stalemate’? How unoriginal of Cronkite
- Mangling the ‘Cronkite Moment’
- What ‘lesson’ from Cronkite?
- WikiLeaks disclosure no ‘Cronkite Moment’
- ‘When I lost Cronkite’ — or ‘something to that effect’
- The wobbly components of the ‘Cronkite Moment’
- Why they get it wrong
- Every good historian a mythbuster
- ‘A debunker’s work is never done’
- Getting It Wrong goes Majic