W. Joseph Campbell

Rare sighting: Prominent media myths in back-to-back paragraphs

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers, Television on August 5, 2017 at 8:40 am

I noted the other day how unusual it is to find two media myths incorporated into the same article or essay. A media myth twofer, as it were.

An essay posted yesterday at the Daily Beast accomplishes a feat even more rare: Prominent media myths in back-to-back paragraphs.

February 28, 1968

The Beast’s essay recounts President Lyndon Johnson’s purported reaction to Walter Cronkite‘s special report in 1968 about the Vietnam War and invokes the hoary myth of Richard Nixon’s mythical “secret plan” to end the conflict.

Specifically, the essay says “the iconic CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite returned from a week-long reporting trip to Vietnam and declared the war essentially unwinnable, upending months of false optimism from the administration. ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America,’ the president said.

“When Richard Nixon rode to the White House proclaiming a ‘secret plan to win the war in Vietnam’ any expected honeymoon with the press did not last long.”

Myth fairly drips from those unsourced claims.

Taking Nixon’s “secret plan” first: Simply put, it’s a campaign pledge Nixon never made.

Had Nixon, during his run for the presidency in 1968, proclaimed to have a “secret plan to win the war in Vietnam,” the country’s leading newspapers surely would have reported it.

They didn’t.

That much is clear from examining search results of a full-text database of leading U.S. daily newspapers in 1968. The titles include the Baltimore Sun, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and Chicago Tribune.

The search terms “Nixon” and “secret plan” returned no articles during the period January 1, 1967, to January 1, 1969, in which Nixon was quoted as saying he had a “secret plan” for Vietnam. (The search period included the months before, during, and immediately aft Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign.)

Their silence about a “secret plan” signals it was not a plank of Nixon’s campaign.

Moreover, Nixon pointedly dismissed the suggestion he had a “secret plan.” In an article published in the Los Angeles Times on March 28, 1968, Nixon was quoted as saying he had “no gimmicks or secret plans” for Vietnam.

“If I had any way to end the war,” he was further quoted as  saying, “I would pass it on to President Johnson.” (Nixon’s remarks were made shortly before Johnson announced he would not seek reelection.)

As for Cronkite, he did not exactly say the war “essentially unwinnable” following his reporting trip to what then was South Vietnam.

The anchorman said at the close of a special report on February 27, 1968, that the U.S. military effort was “mired in stalemate” — a decidedly an unremarkable observation.

“Stalemate” had been circulating in the U.S. news media long before Cronkite’s on-air appraisal. In August 1967, for example, R.W. (Johnny) Apple of New York Times reported from Vietnam that the war “is not going well.”

Victory, Apple said in his dispatch, “is not close at hand. It may be beyond reach.”

He also wrote:

“‘Stalemate’ is a fighting word in Washington. President Johnson rejects it as a description of the situation in Vietnam. But it is the word used by almost all Americans here, except the top officials, to characterize what is happening.”

Apple’s downbeat analysis was published on the Times’ front page beneath the headline:

Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.”

As I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, Cronkite hedged in his closing remarks on February 27, 1968. He “held open the possibility,” I write, “that the U.S. military efforts might still force the North Vietnamese to the bargaining table and suggested the U.S. forces be given a few months more to press the fight in Vietnam” in the aftermath of the Tet offensive, a coordinated assault launched by the communist North Vietnamese and their Viet Cong allies across South Vietnam at the end of January 1968.

Here’s what Cronkite said in his equivocal conclusion:

“On the off chance that military and political analysts are right, in the next few months we must test the enemy’s intentions, in case this [Tet offensive] is indeed his last big gasp before negotiations. But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.” (Emphasis added.)

LBJ: Not watching Cronkite

Notably, Johnson did not see Cronkite’s report when it aired.

The president at the time was in Austin, Texas, attending a black-tie birthday party for Governor John Connally (see photo nearby), and there is no certain evidence as to whether, or when, the president may have viewed the program on videotape.

As such, Johnson’s purported downbeat reaction — “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America” — is suspect. Especially so because Johnson did not alter his Vietnam policy in the days and weeks immediately after Cronkite’s report.

In fact, he doubled down on that policy, mounting an aggressive and assertive defense of his war policy that made clear he had not taken the anchorman’s message to heart — if he even heard it.

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 declared, 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 Honor to two Marines, Johnson stated:

“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 about Vietnam with even more 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 address 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, in what the Washington Post described as “a brief, tough talk” at the State Department, Johnson declared:

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

Two days afterward, 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 — nearly a month after Cronkite’s special report — 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. He remained, I write in Getting It Wrong, “openly and tenaciously hawkish on the war.” He was similarly adamant about Vietnam on the day Cronkite’s delivered his report.

As I note in Getting It Wrong (an expanded second edition of which is now available), Johnson “invoked Churchillian language” that day at a midday speech in Dallas, saying:

“I do not believe that America will ever buckle” in pursuit of its objectives in Vietnam.

“I believe that every American will answer now for his future and for his children’s future. I believe he will say, ‘I did not buckle when the going got tough.’”

He further declared:

“Thousands of our courageous sons and millions of brave South Vietnamese have answered aggression’s onslaught and they have answered it with one strong and one united voice. ‘No retreat,’ they have said. Free men will never bow to force and abandon their future to tyranny. That must be our answer, too, here at home. Our answer here at home, in every home, must be: No retreat from the responsibilities of the hour of the day.”

Johnson’s speech in Dallas is seldom recalled in discussions about the presumptive “Cronkite Moment.” But it was covered the next day on the front pages of major newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune, New York Times, and Washington Post.

The Los Angeles Times also reported Johnson’s speech on its cover (see image above), beneath a bold, top-of-the-page headline that read:

“NO VIET RETREAT.”

As in all discussions about history, context matters. To embrace the mythical “Cronkite Moment” as accurate is to suspend recognition of context and to ignore what Johnson said about Vietnam before and after Cronkite’s decidedly unoriginal “mired in stalemate” assessment.

WJC

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