The “Cronkite Moment” — that legendary occasion in February 1968 when a CBS News special report by Walter Cronkite supposedly altered the course of the Vietnam War — is one impressively dogged, tenacious media myth.
As I noted in a recent post, the “Cronkite Moment” knows few bounds. It supposedly “turned the tide of American public opinion” against the U.S. war effort in Vietnam and “influenced Lyndon Johnson not to seek reelection” to the presidency.
And just the other day, the TVWeek online site claimed:
“President Lyndon Johnson once famously said about his support of the Vietnam War that once he had lost Walter Cronkite he had lost America. Johnson was referring to a report Cronkite once did where he said the war could not be won.”
Where to start?
First, there is no evidence Johnson ever saw Cronkite’s special report about Vietnam, which aired February 27, 1968. At the close of the program, Cronkite claimed the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam.
As I write in my forthcoming book, Getting It Wrong, Johnson at the time was not in front of a television set but on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin, attending a party marking the 51st birthday of Governor John Connally.
There is no evidence Johnson later saw the Cronkite program on videotape.
Second, Cronkite did not say in that special report that “the war could not be won.” What the anchorman did say was that the time might be approaching when the United States might seek a negotiated settlement to the war.
As I note in Getting It Wrong, “a close reading of the transcript of Cronkite’s closing remarks reveals how hedged and cautious they really were.”
Cronkite in those remarks held open the possibility that the U.S. military efforts might still force the North Vietnamese to the bargaining table, and suggested the U.S. forces be given a few months more to press the fight in Vietnam.
In addition, the TVWeek item represents a minor addition to the varied accounts of what Johnson supposedly said in response to Cronkite’s closing assessment.
The most common version has Johnson saying: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”
Another version quotes him this way: “I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.”
And another has it this way: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the American people.”
And: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the war.”
And “If we lose Cronkite, we lose America.”
The TVWeek item indirectly quotes Johnson as saying that “once he had lost Walter Cronkite he had lost America.”
Version variability of such magnitude is a strong signal of implausibility.
And of a media-driven myth.