The myth is that of the “Cronkite Moment” of February 27, 1968, when the anchorman’s on-air assessment of the war in Vietnam as “mired in stalemate” supposedly swung public opinion against the conflict, altered U.S. policy, and encouraged President Lyndon Johnson not to seek reelection.
All of which is exaggerated. All of which represents a serious misreading of history.
As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, my new book debunking prominent media-driven myths, public opinion had begun turning against the Vietnam War weeks and months before Cronkite’s special report in late February 1968.
By October 1967, a plurality of Americans–47 percent–said having sent U.S. forces to Vietnam was a mistake, according to Gallup surveys.
Moreover, Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” assessment was, I write in Getting It Wrong, “neither notable nor extraordinary,” noting that author Mark Kurlansky in his year-study of 1968 described Cronkite’s critique as “hardly a radical position” for the time.
Indeed, nearly seven months before the “Cronkite moment,” the New York Times published on its front page as 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.”
Cronkite’s assessment in late February 1968 was much less assertive than the observations offered less than two weeks later by Frank McGee of the rival NBC network.
“The war,” McGee said on an NBC News program that aired March 10, 1968, “is being lost by the [Johnson] administration’s definition.”
In any case, Johnson wasn’t much moved by such assessments–if he saw them at all.
The crucial component of the “Cronkite Moment” is that Johnson watched the program at the White House and, after hearing Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” characterization, snapped off the television set, telling an aide or aides:
“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”
That purported comment infuses the “Cronkite Moment” with power, decisiveness, and enduring appeal. The comment was reiterated just yesterday, for example, in a blog post at the New American online site, which claimed:
“When famed evening news broadcaster Walter Cronkite delivered an editorial expressing his opinion that the war in Vietnam was not winnable, Johnson is reported to have said, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.'”
But the anecdote’s defining and most delicious element is in error: Johnson did not see the Cronkite program when it aired. He was at the time in Austin, Texas, at the 51st birthday party of Governor John Connally. Thus Johnson could not have had “the abrupt yet resigned reaction that so often has been attributed to him,” I write in Getting It Wrong.
Moreover, there is no evidence that Johnson watched the Cronkite program later, on videotape.
Even if he had, the program represented no epiphany for Johnson. Indeed, not long after Cronkite’s report, the president gave a rousing speech in Minneapolis, in which he urged a “total national effort” to win the war in Vietnam.
That speech was delivered 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 difficult to square with his supposedly downcast, self-pitying reaction to Cronkite’s assessment about Vietnam.
As for Johnson’s decision not to seek reelection, the “Cronkite moment” certainly was a non-factor. Johnson’s announcement came at the end of March 1968, a month after the Cronkite program–and a couple of weeks after the president’s poor showing as a write-in candidate in the Democratic primary in New Hampshire.
What’s more, there’s evidence Johnson never intended to seek reelection, that he had privately decided in 1967 against another campaign.
He said as much in his memoirs, writing that he had told Connally early in 1967 that he had “felt certain [he] would not run” for another term.