The AOL Television online site today recalls as a “TV moment of 2009” the death five months ago of Walter Cronkite, the famous CBS News anchorman.
The AOL Television post recalls the so-called “Cronkite Moment” of 1968, when the anchorman’s downbeat assessment about the U.S. military effort in Vietnam was said to have had immediate and stunning effects on President Lyndon Johnson and his war policy.
The AOL post says of Cronkite: “In 1968, after extensive on-the-ground reporting, he advocated the withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam. The Johnson White House reeled.”
As I write in my forthcoming book, Getting It Wrong:
“Scrutiny of the evidence associated with the program reveals that Johnson did not have—could not have had—the abrupt yet resigned reaction that so often has been attributed to him. That’s because Johnson did not see the program when it was aired” on February 27, 1968.
Johnson then was in Austin, Texas, engaging in light-hearted banter at a black-tie party for Governor John Connally. “Today you are 51, John,” the president said in Austin, at about the time the Cronkite program was ending.
“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 he later heard—or heard about— Cronkite’s assessment, it represented no epiphany for Johnson. Indeed, soon after the Cronkite program, the president gave a rousing, lectern-pounding speech in which he urged a “total national effort” to win the war in Vietnam.
So Cronkite’s program scarcely was decisive to American war policy. It certainly did not send the Johnson White House reeling.
It is noteworthy to recall that Cronkite in his program on Vietnam did not urge the immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces.
He hedged, holding open the possibility that the U.S. military efforts might still force the North Vietnamese to the bargaining table. Cronkite suggested the U.S. forces be given a few months more to press the fight in Vietnam, in the wake of the communists’ surprise Tet offensive, stating:
“On the off chance that military and political analysts are right, in the next few months we must test the enemy’s intentions, in case this [Tet offensive] is indeed his last big gasp before negotiations. But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.”
What’s more, Cronkite’s assessment was scarcely exceptional or extraordinary.
In his year-study about 1968, Mark Kurlansky wrote that Cronkite’s view was “hardly a radical position” for the time.
Four days before the Cronkite program, the Wall Street Journal said in an editorial that the U.S. war effort in Vietnam “may be doomed” and that “everyone had better be prepared for the bitter taste of defeat beyond America’s power to prevent.” And nearly seven months before the Cronkite program, New York Times correspondent R.W. Apple Jr. cited “disinterested observers” in reporting that the war in Vietnam “is not going well.”
Victory, Apple wrote, “is not close at hand. It may be beyond reach.”