W. Joseph Campbell

After the ‘Cronkite Moment,’ LBJ doubled down on Viet policy

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Washington Post on February 23, 2017 at 7:15 am

One of the most cherished stories in American journalism is also a tenacious media-driven myth.

Cronkite in Vietnam

Cronkite in Vietnam

The cherished tale/media myth is commonly known as the “Cronkite Moment” of 1968, when CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite supposedly exposed the bankruptcy of the Vietnam War. Forty-nine years ago next week, Cronkite declared in an unusual editorial comment at the close of a special report that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam and said  negotiations might offer the country a way out.

As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, an expanded second edition of which came out recently, the “Cronkite Moment” had few of the effects that are commonly, and extravagantly, associated with it.

Notable among those effects was that President Lyndon B. Johnson watched the program and, upon hearing Cronkite’s downbeat assessment, immediately recognized that his war policy was a shambles.

We know that’s not true: Johnson did not see the Cronkite program when it aired on February 27, 1968. He was in Austin, Texas, at that time, attending the 51st birthday party of a long-time political ally, Governor John Connally. It is not clear whether, or when, Johnson saw the program on videotape at some later date.

In any case, Cronkite said nothing about the war that hadn’t been said by leading journalists many times before. By February 1968, “stalemate” was a decidedly unoriginal way to characterize the Vietnam War.

It’s often claimed that Cronkite’s assessment turned public opinion against the war. But that wasn’t true, either: Public opinion had begun shifting months before Cronkite’s commentary. Indeed, Cronkite followed rather than led Americans’ changing views about Vietnam.

The second edition of Getting It Wrong, which includes three new chapters and new material elsewhere, presents additional evidence that underscores the mythical status of the “Cronkite Moment.”

This evidence elaborates on Johnson’s conduct in the immediate aftermath of Cronkite’s special report — the days and weeks when the anchorman’s assessment should have exerted greatest influence and impact, when its immediacy and vigor should have been most pronounced.

But instead of recognizing that Cronkite had shown him the light, instead of realizing that his war policy was a shambles, the president doubled down. Johnson mounted an aggressive and assertive defense of his war policy that made clear he had not taken the anchorman’s message to heart.

Just three days after the program aired, Johnson vowed in remarks at a testimonial dinner that the United States would “not cut and run” from Vietnam. “We’re not going to be Quislings,” the president said, invoking the surname of a Norwegian politician who had helped the Nazis take over his country. “And we’re not going to be appeasers.”

At a ceremony at the White House on March 12, 1968, at which he awarded Medals of Honors to two Marines, Johnson declared:

“I think if we are steady, if we are patient, if we do not become the willing victims of our own despair [about Vietnam], if we do not abandon what we know is right when it comes under mounting challenge — we shall never fail.”

Johnson spoke with even greater vigor in mid-March 1968, telling a meeting of business leaders in Washington:

“We must meet our commitments in the world and in Vietnam. We shall and we are going to win. … I don’t want a man in here to go back home thinking otherwise — we are going to win.”

Two days after that, on March 18, 1968, the president traveled to Minneapolis to speak at the National Farmers Union convention. He took the occasion to urge “a total national effort to win the war” in Vietnam. Johnson punctuated his remarks by slapping the lectern and declaring:

“We love nothing more than peace, but we hate nothing worse than surrender and cowardice.”

He also said on that occasion that “the time has come when we ought to unite, when we ought to stand up and be counted, when we ought to support our leaders, our government, our men and allies until aggression is stopped, wherever it has occurred.”

He disparaged critics of the war as being ready to “tuck our tail and violate our commitments.”

A day later, Johnson insisted in what the Washington Post described as “a brief, tough talk” at the State Department:

“We have set our course [in Vietnam]. And we will prevail.”

Two days after that, on March 21, the president said at a Rose Garden ceremony at the White House that the will of America’s Vietnamese allies did not “break under fire” during the recent Tet offensive, adding:

“Neither shall ours break under frustration.”

And on March 25, Johnson told an audience of trade unionists: “Now the America that we are building would be a threatened nation if we let freedom and liberty die in Vietnam. We will do what must be done — we will do it both at home and we will do it wherever our brave men are called upon to stand.”

So in the days and weeks after the Cronkite program, Johnson was adamant in defending his Vietnam policy. On multiple occasions during that time, the president in effect brushed aside Cronkite’s downbeat assessment and sought to rally support for the war effort. At a time when Cronkite’s views should have been most potent, the president remained openly and tenaciously hawkish on the war.

The shift in the president’s approach came not in the immediate aftermath of the “Cronkite Moment” (which was not referred to as such until many years later) but during meetings with an informal group of senior counselors who collectively were 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, and George Ball, a former under secretary of state.

The “Wise Men” had met in November 1967 and expressed near-unanimous support for Johnson’s Vietnam policy. They met again, at the request of the White House, in late March 1968.

Mostly, if not unanimously, the Wise Men expressed opposition to America’s escalating the war in Vietnam, as Johnson was then contemplating. “The theme that ran around the table was, ‘You’ve got to lower your sights,’” George Ball later recalled.

The president “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,” Ball noted a few years later.

The counsel of the Wise Men probably was the tipping point for Johnson on Vietnam. On March 31, he announced the United States would restrict most bombing missions over North Vietnam — and that he would not seek reelection to the presidency.

WJC

A version of this essay first appeared
at University of California Press blog

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  1. […] After the ‘Cronkite Moment,’ LBJ doubled down on Viet policy […]

  2. […] As my friend and col­league, W. Joseph Camp­bell, notes in his excel­lent book, “Get­ting It Wrong,” Cronkite had lit­tle influ­ence on Johnson’s think­ing. “In the days and weeks after the Cronkite pro­gram, John­son was adamant in defend­ing his Viet­nam pol­icy. On mul­ti­ple occa­sions dur­ing that time, the pres­i­dent in effect brushed aside Cronkite’s down­beat assess­ment and sought to rally sup­port for the war effort. At a time when Cronkite’s views should have been most potent, the pres­i­dent remained openly and tena­ciously hawk­ish on the war.” For more, see https://​medi​amythalert​.word​press​.com/​2​0​1​7​/​0​2​/​2​3​/​a… […]

  3. […] After the ‘Cronkite Moment,’ LBJ doubled down on Viet policy […]

  4. […] After the ‘Cronkite Moment,’ LBJ doubled down on Viet policy […]

  5. […] fact, he doubled down on that policy, mounting an aggressive and assertive defense of his war policy that made clear he […]

  6. […] episode: Walter Cronkite’s report from Vietnam was an overrated moment, inflated by the historical myth that President Lyndon Johnson had watched the broadcast and remarked, “If I’ve lost […]

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