The irresistible “Cronkite Moment” emerged again the other day, this time in a column in a Michigan newspaper claiming that “President Lyndon Baines Johnson had his Vietnam epiphany when he lost Walter Cronkite.”
The “Cronkite Moment” was a broadcast in February 1968 that supposedly was so potent that it had the effect of prompting Johnson to realize the hopelessness of his war policy in Vietnam.
The story goes that Johnson at the White House watched Cronkite’s special report on Vietnam and, after hearing the anchorman say the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” and might consider a negotiated settlement, snapped off the television set and exclaimed:
“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”
Or words to that effect.
Getting It Wrong also points out that Johnson did not see the Cronkite program when it aired. The president at the time was in Austin, Texas, making light-hearted comments at the 51st birthday party of Governor John Connally.
As I write in Getting It Wrong, “Even if he later heard—or heard about— Cronkite’s assessment, it was no epiphany for Johnson. Not long after the program, Johnson gave a rousing, lectern-pounding speech in which he urged a ‘total national effort’ to win the war in Vietnam.”
Thus in the days and weeks immediately after the Cronkite program, Johnson remained hawkish on the war.
Johnson’s “epiphany,” as it were, came not in front of a television set in late February 1968 but in discussions a month later with informal advisers at the White House.
As I write in Getting It Wrong, “Johnson’s change of heart on Vietnam came about through a complex process in which Cronkite’s views counted for little. Among the forces and factors that influenced Johnson’s thinking … was the counsel of an influential and informal coterie of outside advisers known as the ‘Wise Men.’
“They included such foreign policy notables as Dean Acheson, a former secretary of state; McGeorge Bundy, a former National security adviser to Kennedy and Johnson; George Ball, a former under-secretary of state; Douglas Dillon, a former treasury secretary; General Omar Bradley, a former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, and Abe Fortas, a U.S. Supreme Court justice and friend of Johnson.
“The ‘Wise Men’ had met in November 1967, and expressed their near-unanimous support for Johnson’s Vietnam policy. They met again, at the request of the White House, in late March 1968.”
Largely, though not unanimously, the “Wise Men,” expressed opposition to escalating the war in Vietnam.
“The theme that ran around the table was, ‘You’ve got to lower your sights,’” George Ball later recalled.
Johnson, he said, “was shaken by this kind of advice from people in whose judgment he necessarily had some confidence, because they’d had a lot of experience.”
The counsel of the Wise Men represented a tipping point in Johnson’s deciding to seek “peace through negotiations.” In a speech March 31, 1968, the president announced a limited halt to U.S. aerial bombing of North Vietnam as an inducement to the communist government in Hanoi to enter peace talks.
Johnson closed his speech with the stunning announcement that he would not seek reelection to the presidency.