The WikiLeaks disclosure of thousands of secret military documents about the war in Afghanistan has been likened–erroneously–to the mythical “Cronkite Moment” of 1968, when CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite declared the U.S. war effort in Vietnam was “mired in stalemate.”
A commentary posted today at the Huffington Post is among the latest to make the dubious connection. The commentary said Cronkite’s “assessment of the war is often credited as the turning point for American public opinion, moving opposition to the U.S.’s involvement in Vietnam into the mainstream. Reportedly, upon hearing this commentary, President Lyndon Johnson said, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.’
“I can’t help wonder if the release of the Afghan War Logs by WikiLeaks is our Cronkite moment for Afghanistan. In fact, when I consider the totality of the recent news on our efforts in Afghanistan, I can’t reach any other conclusion than that if Cronkite was still alive, he would say we have.”
Given that the WikiLeaks documents contain little that was previously unknown about the conflict, disclosure is unlikely to amount to the “Cronkite moment for Afghanistan.”
More important, the “Cronkite Moment” wasn’t very decisive at all.
It really wasn’t much of a “moment.”
As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, my new book about media-driven myths, Cronkite himself disputed the notion that his assessment about Vietnam had had much effect on Johnson or on U.S. war policy. For example, in promoting his memoir in 1997, Cronkite likened his “mired in stalemate” commentary to a straw on the back of a crippled camel.
He repeated the analogy in 1999, stating in an interview with CNN: “I think our broadcast simply was another straw on the back of a crippled camel.”
Only late in his life did Cronkite embrace the presumptive power of the so-called “Cronkite Moment,” telling Esquire in 2006: “To be honest, I was rather amazed that my reporting from Vietnam had such an effect on history.”
As I further discuss in Getting It Wrong, President Johnson did not see Cronkite’s show when it aired February 27, 1968, and therefore “did not have–could not have had–the abrupt yet resigned reaction that so often has been attributed to him.”
At the time Cronkite intoned his “mired in stalemate” assessment, Johnson was in Austin, Texas, offering light-hearted remarks at the birthday party for Texas Governor John Connally, a longtime political ally.
“Today you are 51, John,” the president said. “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 Johnson later saw the Cronkite program on videotape, he “gave no indication of having taken the anchorman’s message to heart,” I write in Getting It Wrong.
Not long after Cronkite’s program, Johnson delivered a rousing speech in Minneapolis, in which he urged “a total national effort” to win the war in Vietnam. That 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’s aggressive remarks are quite difficult to square with his supposedly downcast, self-pitying reaction to the supposed “Cronkite Moment.”