Cronkite's Vietnam Blunder

The reporter's story after Tet had dramatic repercussions. And his conclusions were based on a grave misinterpretation.

Douglas Brinkley’s new biography of Walter Cronkite has sparked an intriguing controversy about the CBS anchorman’s famous trip to Vietnam in February 1968. That’s when, as legend has it, Cronkite was so shocked at the devastation of the communists’ Tet offensive that he went over to see for himself what was really going on. And he concluded the war was a stalemate, probably unwinnable.

Brinkley buys the argument, put forth by the late David Halberstam in his characteristically portentous manner, that Cronkite’s February 27 broadcast, "Report from Vietnam," played a major role in turning Americans against the war and inducing President Lyndon Johnson to abandon his reelection campaign.

Cronkite’s report, writes Brinkley, was "immediately seen as a catalyst by pundits in the Monday newspapers. . . . Cronkite turned dove, and the hawk Johnson lost his talons." This tracks with what Halberstam wrote in his 1979 book, The Powers That Be: "It was the first time in American history that a war has been declared over by an anchorman." Lyndon Johnson was said to have watched the broadcast and exclaimed to his press secretary, George Christian, "If I have lost Walter Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America."

Harvard’s Louis Menand, writing in The New Yorker, has an interesting take on this. "The trouble with this inspiring little story," he says, "is that most of it is either invented or disputed." He cites W. Joseph Campbell’s 2010 book, Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misrepresented Stories in American Journalism, as noting that Johnson did not see the Cronkite report when it was broadcast. Menand recalls a 1979 quote from Christian saying he really didn’t recall what Johnson said in response to whatever or if he said anything at all like what was then being quoted. And Menand questions whether Cronkite’s broadcast had anything approaching the impact now attributed to it.

This is all great fun and the kind of thing the intelligentsia loves to kick around. But it misses a fundamental point that goes to the heart of America’s Vietnam tragedy. If Cronkite did in fact have a major impact on the American consciousness back in the winter of 1968 (and he very well may have), that impact was based on a fanciful interpretation of events.

Stashed away in Menand’s New Yorker piece is a parenthesis that contains this off-hand sentence: "In the end, Tet was a military disaster for the North, but it was a political victory for them in the West." It is now conventional wisdom among American intellectuals of both Left and Right that the Vietnamese communist forces suffered a tremendous blow in that military effort, but the spectacle of such an all-out effort obliterated domestic support for the war in the United States.

Think about this for a minute: Why would a great U.S. military victory in a war undermine domestic support for that war? To probe this question, we must review briefly the details of the Tet offensive.

In the late-January calm of a Lunar New Year cease-fire, seventy thousand communist troops shattered the celebration, attacking more than a hundred South Vietnamese cities and towns. They struck along the coast, then presumed secure. They shelled the big U.S. complex at Cam Ranh Bay and stormed numerous towns in the central highlands. They attacked the mountain resort of Dalat and invaded thirteen of sixteen provincial capitals in the Mekong Delta. They captured the ancient northern capital of Hue and carried the war into the heart of Saigon—even into the U.S. embassy compound.

This was the most daring operation of the war, and Americans watched in horror as the bloody spectacle unfolded on their television screens. They had been told the military situation was in hand, and now those assurances lay shattered in the American consciousness.

But Tet had been a desperation move by North Vietnam, beset by a relentless American killing machine. And the Allied response was awesome. The communists lost ten thousand men in the first few days of the offensive, compared to 249 Americans dead and five hundred South Vietnamese. Overall, throughout the months-long battle, the communists lost nearly forty-eight thousand men. The North Vietnamese had sought to deliver the decisive military blow that would knock the Americans out of the region. They failed.

They failed so miserably that they lost their ability to wage war in the South. Even a year later, as Richard Nixon assumed the presidency, CIA director Richard Helms told Newsweek columnist Stewart Alsop that the communist main force in Vietnam had been decimated in the 1968 fighting so thoroughly that it would take considerable time for Hanoi to rebuild its forces.

Into this military drama, in the first weeks of Tet, comes Walter Cronkite of CBS News. He travels around, talks to people like a real reporter, presumably takes notes. And then he goes home and delivers a report to the American people that totally misses the story. At this pregnant moment of the war, when prospects of victory never looked brighter, he concludes that the war is a stalemate and probably unwinnable.