A provocative new book on the 1968 Tet offensive, titled This Time We Win, devotes a chapter to “The Walter Cronkite Moment,” that mythical occasion when the CBS anchorman’s on-air assessment that the war in Vietnam was “mired in stalemate” supposedly had decisive effect on the U.S. president.
The “Cronkite Moment” also is a chapter in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, which debunks 10 prominent media-driven myths–those dubious and improbable tales about the news media that masquerade as factual.
I note in Getting It Wrong that the “Cronkite Moment,” under scrutiny, “dissolves as illusory—a chimera, a media-driven myth.”
This Time We Win is the work of James S. Robbins, an editorial writer on defense issues for the Washington Times. Robbins doesn’t exactly embrace the “Cronkite Moment,” but offers it instead with qualification, writing:
“It is said that after watching Cronkite’s documentary President [Lyndon] Johnson said to his aides, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.’ Five weeks later Johnson decided not to run for reelection based on this belief. So the legend goes. This is the Holy Grail for a reporter, that a documentary, newscast, article, picture, or other product shapes history on a grand scale.”
Robbins further writes:
“But did Johnson lose Middle America? Did sensationalistic or misleading press coverage turn the country against the President and against the war?”
His answer: “In a word, no.”
He’s quite right about that.
But Robbins might well have asked a more direct, searching, and relevant question:
“Was there really a ‘Cronkite Moment’ at all?”
The answer is, in a word, no. The anecdote’s pivotal, defining, and most delicious element is in error.
Cronkite certainly did take to the air on February 27, 1968, in a special report about Vietnam, where U.S. forces and South Vietnamese allies had repelled a broad offensive that the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong launched a month before, at the Tet lunar new year.
Cronkite closed his report that night with an editorial comment that said the U.S. war effort was “mired in stalemate.” He suggested that a negotiated settlement might eventually be the way out.
Central to the anecdote’s power and enduring appeal is that Johnson, at the White House, was watching the program and, upon hearing Cronkite’s assessment, snapped off the television set and muttered to an aide or aides:
“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”
It supposedly was an epiphany for the president, a burst of clarity and insight about an unwinnable war.
But as I write in Getting It Wrong, “Scrutiny of the evidence associated with the program reveals that Johnson did not have—could not have had—the abrupt yet resigned reaction that so often has been attributed to him.”
Johnson was not at the White House that night.
He wasn’t in front of a television set, either.
Johnson then was in Austin, Texas, at the 51st birthday party of Governor John Connally, one of his political allies.
About the time Cronkite declared the war “mired in stalemate,” Johnson was offering light-hearted banter, saying: “Today you are 51, John. That is the magic number that every man of politics prays for—a simple majority.”
Johnson’s memoir, The Vantage Point, is silent about the Cronkite program, offering no clue about whether the president ever saw it on videotape or, if he did, what he thought of it.
And as I note in Getting It Wrong, “The power of the ‘Cronkite moment’ resides in the sudden, unexpected, and decisive effect it supposedly had on the president.
“Such an effect would have been absent, or greatly diminished, had Johnson seen the program on videotape at some later date.”
Moreover, in the days and weeks immediately following Cronkite’s pessimistic assessment, Johnson remained outwardly hawkish about the war.
On March 18, 1968, for example, he delivered a rousing speech in Minneapolis in which he urged “a total national effort” to win the war in Vietnam. The president also declared:
“We love nothing more than peace, but we hate nothing worse than surrender and cowardice.”
He criticized critics as wanting the United States to “tuck our tail and violate our commitments” to South Vietnamese allies.
Johnson’s aggressive remarks are difficult to square with his supposedly downcast, self-pitying reaction to Cronkite’s assessment about Vietnam.
“Seldom, if ever, do the news media exert truly decisive influences in decisions to go to war or to seek negotiated peace,” I note. “Such decisions typically are driven by forces and factors well beyond the news media’s ability to shape, alter, or significantly influence.”
So it was in Vietnam.