Walter Cronkite was months behind media rivals in characterizing the war in Vietnam as a military “stalemate.” He shifted his views about the conflict well after public opinion had begun to turn against the war. And Cronkite’s reporting for CBS News at supposedly a crucial moment in 1968 was tepid and far less adamant than that of some competing news media.
Whether movie director Steven Spielberg is aware of those aspects of the back story to the mythical “Cronkite Moment” of 1968 is not known.
But it may matter, given a report from Hollywood that Spielberg is contemplating a movie that effectively would embrace the myths that have grown up around the presumed effects of Cronkite’s on-air assessment.
Deadline Hollywood said yesterday at its online site that the Cronkite-movie project, while tentative, would “focus on Cronkite’s relationship with the Vietnam War and the role that America’s most trusted newsman played in turning public opinion against the increasingly un-winnable conflict. So influential was the CBS Evening News anchor that then-President Lyndon Baines Johnson is believed to have remarked, ‘If I’ve lost Walter Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.'”
If that’s even a rough outline of the prospective Spielberg project, the resulting movie would be steeped in media myth. Indeed, Deadline Hollywood’s descriptive paragraph quoted above incorporated no fewer than three myths, specifically about:
- “Most trusted”: It was not until 1972 when Cronkite began to be called the “most trusted” newsman; even then, the characterization was the inspiration of the CBS advertising department and based on research that can only be described as flimsy.
- Public opinion: Evidence is scant at best that Cronkite’s pronouncement about Vietnam in February 1968 had any effect in turning American public opinion against the war. Indeed, Cronkite was more follower than leader in the public’s shifting views about Vietnam.
- The president’s reaction: There is no evidence that Johnson ever said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” Or anything to that effect.
It is known that Johnson did not watch Cronkite’s report about Vietnam when it aired on February 27, 1968. The president then was in Austin, Texas, attending a black-tie birthday party for Governor John Connally, a long-time political ally who turned 51 that day.
About the time Cronkite was intoning his “mired in stalemate” assessment, Johnson was jesting about Connally’s age; he wasn’t lamenting the loss of an anchorman’s support. “Today, you are 51, John,” the president said. “That is the magic number that every man of politics prays for — a simple majority.”
As I noted in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, Johnson in the days and weeks following the Cronkite report was adamantly and publicly hawkish about the war, asserting in a speech in mid-March 1968, for example:
“Make no mistake about it. … We are going to win.”
What’s more, Cronkite said nothing in his report about the war that hadn’t been said previously by leading journalists. By early 1968, “stalemate” was an exceedingly unoriginal way of characterizing the conflict.
In August 1967, for example, the New York Times published a lengthy analysis that declared “the war is not going well. Victory is not close at hand.”
The analysis also said:
“‘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 [in Saigon, capital of what was South Vietnam], except the top officials, to characterize what is happening.”
The Times report was published on its front page beneath the headline:
The Times, moreover, seemed to anticipate Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” statement by asserting in an editorial published February 8, 1968, three weeks before Cronkite’s program:
“Politically as well as militarily, stalemate increasingly appears as the unavoidable outcome of the Vietnam struggle.”
In his report on February 27, 1968, Cronkite declared:
“To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion.”
Cronkite’s assessment was far less assertive than the observations offered less than two weeks later by Frank McGee of the rival NBC network. “The war,” McGee said on an NBC News program that aired March 10, 1968, “is being lost by the [Johnson] administration’s definition.”
Not stalemated. Lost.
And four days before Cronkite’s report, the Wall Street Journal said in an editorial that the U.S. war effort in Vietnam “may be doomed” and that “everyone had better be prepared for the bitter taste of defeat beyond America’s power to prevent.”
Interestingly, Cronkite for years dismissed the notion his “mired in stalemate” commentary was of great consequence.
In his 1997 memoir, Cronkite said his “stalemate” assessment was for Johnson “just one more straw in the increasing burden of Vietnam.” Cronkite repeated the analogy in the years immediately afterward, saying in 1999 on a CNN program:
“I think our broadcast simply was another straw on the back of a crippled camel.”
Not until late in his life did Cronkite embrace the supposed impact of the presumptive “Cronkite Moment,” telling Esquire in 2006: “To be honest, I was rather amazed that my reporting from Vietnam had such an effect on history.”
As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, popular support for the war had begun slipping months before the Cronkite report. The shift in opinions had become apparent by Fall 1967.
A Gallup poll conducted in October 1967 found for the first time that a plurality of Americans — 47 percent — believed that sending troops to fight in Vietnam had been a mistake.
Slightly more than two years earlier, only 24 percent of respondents said they thought it was a mistake to have deployed American forces to Vietnam.
Gallup asked the question again in a poll completed on the day that Cronkite’s program aired: Forty-nine percent of the respondents said U.S. military intervention in Vietnam had been a mistake; 42 percent said it had not been.
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.
Moreover, print journalists had detected a softening of support for the war well before Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” assessment.
In December 1967, for example, a national correspondent for the Knight newspapers, Don Oberdorfer, noted that summer and fall that year 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.”
More from Media Myth Alert:
- Misreading the ‘Cronkite Moment’ — and media power
- Obama’s ‘Cronkite Moment’? ‘Salon’ dials up a media myth
- Maureen Dowd misremembers the ‘Cronkite Moment’
- Chris Matthews invokes the ‘if I’ve lost Cronkite’ myth in NYT review
- WSJ columnist, trying to explain Trump, trips over Cronkite-Johnson myth
- Newsman tells ‘a simple truth,’ changes history: Sure, he did
- ‘Mired in stalemate’? How unoriginal of Cronkite
- Public opinion, Vietnam, and ‘Cronkite’s untouchable aura of authority’
- Wasn’t so special: Revisiting the ‘Cronkite Moment,’ 44 years on
- Disputed? Use if anyway: NYTimes invokes Cronkite-Johnson myth
- WikiLeaks disclosure no ‘Cronkite Moment’
- ‘When I lost Cronkite’ — or ‘something to that effect’
- Why is he biopic worthy? Movie planned about Watergate’s ‘Deep Throat’ source
- Check out The 1995 Blog
- ‘Getting It Wrong’ goes on ‘Q-and-A’