W. Joseph Campbell

Long reach of the ‘Cronkite Moment’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking on August 1, 2010 at 8:33 am

The long reach and international appeal of the mythical Cronkite Moment–when in 1968 the words of Walter Cronkite supposedly altered U.S. war policy in Vietnam–is reconfirmed by the anecdote’s appearance today in a Sri Lankan newspaper.

Johnson in Austin

I’ve periodically noted at MediaMythAlert how media-driven myths, those dubious and improbable tales about the American news media, often find application in contexts abroad. The Sri Lanka newspaper, the Nation, invoked the “Cronkite Moment” in a commentary about last week’s WikiLeaks disclosure of military documents about the war in Afghanistan.

The commentary stated:

“When anchor and newsman Walter Cronkite, called the most trusted man in America, reported from Vietnam in 1967 [sic] that the war cannot be won, JFK’s successor, President Lyndon Johnson famously remarked to an aide, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost America.’

“The WikiLeaks revelations may not have a similar effect on the war in Afghanistan,” the commentary adds, “but it would surely make the task of victory, or even honourable withdrawal, even more difficult for the United States and its coalition partners.”

The Nation commentary certainly is on target about the impact of the WikiLeaks disclosure: Its effect has been notably modest.

But, then, so was the impact of the “Cronkite Moment,” when the CBS anchorman asserted in a special report broadcast February 27, 1968, that the U.S. war effort was “mired in stalemate.”

As I note in Getting It Wrong, my new book debunking media-driven myths, Cronkite’s assessment about the U.S. predicament in Vietnam was scarcely original or exceptional in early 1968.

The New York Times’ television critic, Jack Gould, noted in a review of the Cronkite’s program that the anchorman’s assessment “did not contain striking revelations” but served instead “to underscore afresh the limitless difficulties lying ahead and the mounting problems attending United States involvement.”

The power of the “Cronkite Moment” flows from its purported effect on Lyndon Johnson who, as the Nation commentary says, supposedly watched the program and as it ended uttered something to the effect of: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost America.”

A more common version has Johnson saying, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” But the accounts of what the president said vary markedly.

In any case, 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 (see photo, above).

Moreover, 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.”

Johnson’s change of heart on Vietnam, I note in Getting It Wrong, “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. And Johnson appeared shaken by the advice.

The counsel of the Wise Men represented a tipping point in Johnson’s deciding to seek“peace in Vietnam through negotiations. And 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.

He also announced then he would not seek reelection to the presidency.

WJC

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