W. Joseph Campbell

Cronkite’s view on Vietnam had ‘tremendous impact,’ new book says: But how?

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths on June 9, 2017 at 7:20 am

A new book by prominent non-fiction writer Mark Bowden both treats skeptically and embraces key elements of the “Cronkite Moment,” a tenacious myth about media influence and the war in Vietnam.

Bowden is best known for Black Hawk Down, a well-regarded book about a bungled U.S. military mission in Somalia in 1993. Bowden devotes passing reference to the mythical “Cronkite Moment” in his latest work, Hue 1968, a detailed account of the weeks-long battle for the Vietnamese provincial capital Hue during the Tet offensive, launched by communist forces at the end of January 1968.

Cronkite in Vietnam

The offensive swept across much of what then was South Vietnam and deeply surprised the American public. The scope and shock of the assaults prompted Walter Cronkite, the anchorman at CBS News, to travel to Vietnam and gather first-hand details about the U.S. war effort.

Cronkite reported in his findings in an hour-long special report that aired at the end of February 1968. At the close of the broadcast, Cronkite offered his assessment that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam and that negotiations might eventually offer a way out.

It was a tepid appraisal; his “stalemate” observation mirrored what other American journalists had been saying for months.

But as I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting it Wrong, Cronkite’s assessment has gained the luster of decisiveness, and is often recalled as an occasion when a prominent journalist spoke truth and influenced the powerful.

As the myth has it, President Lyndon Johnson watched Cronkite’s report and, upon hearing the “mired in stalemate” assessment, said something to the effect of, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

So powerful and timely was Cronkite’s opinion that it also swung public opinion against the war.

From Google Books

Supposedly.

In Hue 1968, Bowden dismisses elements of the “Cronkite Moment,” writing that Johnson “probably never said the line that has been widely attributed to him after the broadcast — ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.’

“Nor,” Bowden adds, “is it true, as David Halberstam would later write, that ‘it was the first time in American history a war had been declared over by an anchorman.'”

Indeed, the Vietnam War dragged on seven years for after the presumptive “Cronkite Moment.”

But Bowden also writes that Cronkite’s assessment “had tremendous impact and made it much harder to dismiss those who opposed the was as ‘hippies’ or un-American.”

He provides no evidence to support the claim of “tremendous impact,” however.

In fact, popular support for the war had begun declining months before the Cronkite report. The shift became evident by Fall 1967.

A Gallup poll in October 1967 found, for the first time, that a plurality of Americans — 47 percent — believed sending troops to fight in Vietnam had been a mistake.

A little more than two years earlier, just 24 percent of respondents said they thought it was a mistake to have deployed U.S. forces to Vietnam.

Gallup asked the question again in a poll completed hours before Cronkite’s program was aired: Forty-nine percent of the respondents said “yes,” U.S. military intervention in Vietnam had been a mistake; 42 percent said “no.”

In April 1968, Gallup found that 48 percent of respondents said U.S. military intervention in Vietnam had been a mistake; 42 percent said it had not been.

Moreover, print journalists had detected softening support for the war well before Cronkite’s report.

In December 1967, for example, journalist Don Oberdorfer, wrote that the previous summer and fall had “been a time of switching, when millions of American voters — along with many religious leaders, editorial writers and elected officials — appeared to be changing their views about the war.”

So a persuasive case can be made that rather than having had “tremendous impact,” Cronkite followed rather than led U.S. public opinion on the war.

And until late in his life, Cronkite downplayed the effects of his report from Vietnam, saying in an interview in 1999 that its impact on the Johnson administration was akin to that of a “straw on the back of a crippled camel.”

Only in the years before his death in 2009 did Cronkite embrace the mistaken notion his report in February 1967 had exerted powerful effects.

A closing note about Bowden’s book: It lacks an index and bibliography, which likely curbs its value to scholars.

WJC

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