Walter Cronkite’s remarks at the end of his February 27, 1968 evening news broadcast, four decades ago today, were a watershed in the history of the MSM’s credibility.
Unless you’re at least 55 years old, you probably don’t remember that CBS broadcast 40 years ago. The most trusted man in America had recently returned from Vietnam where he hosted a documentary on the VC/NVA TET (New Year) offensive that began January 31, 1968. Back in NYC, he closed his program that night by introducing “an analysis that must be speculative, personal, [and] subjective.” Among his comments were these:
Who won and who lost in the great Tet offensive against the cities? I’m not sure. The Vietcong did not win by a knockout, but neither did we. The referees of history may make it a draw.
It seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate.
But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could. (Emphases added)
Most evenings Cronkite ended his broadcasts with “And that’s the way it is.” That night he ended with a more somber, “This is Walter Cronkite. Good night.”
Today, it’s hard to fully appreciate the stature and status Cronkite held in 1968. He was the successor in fame to the demigod persona that had been Edward R. Murrow. When President Johnson heard of Cronkite’s comments, he was quoted as saying, “That’s it. If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.”
In January 2006, Cronkite said his statement on Vietnam was his proudest moment. When asked then if he would give the same advice on Iraq, Cronkite didn’t hesitate to say “Yes.”
At the time, Cronkite’s pronouncement added credibility and importance to all the network anchors. His was a stunning exercise of media power. But, in the perspective of history, the outcome of his pronouncement is not universally recognized as having been positive. He overtly and figuratively stepped out from behind the microphone to add his personal commentary to the news. We had not seen this before. By doing so, Cronkite issued an implicit license to his journalistic colleagues to interject personal opinions into their factual reporting of the news. The difference is that Cronkite clearly labeled it as personal opinion, while many MSM news personalities today weave their opinions into reporting. His sentiment registered with many, perhaps most, of his viewers that night. He changed opinions by offering his own. But in hindsight, his analysis was wrong – dead wrong for some.
Generally, the “referees of history” have not rendered the TET offensive a military draw. The VC/NVA suffered unexpectedly high casualties, from which it took years to recover. In particular, the ranks of the Viet Cong were decimated. General No Nguyen Giap, the Supreme Commander of the Viet Minh (NVA) forces said, in a 1989 interview with CBS’s Morley Safer,
“We paid a high price, but so did you…not only in lives and material…After Tet the Americans had to back down and come to the negotiating table, because the war was not only moving into…dozens of cities and towns in South Vietnam, but also to the living rooms of Americans back home for some time. The most important result of the Tet offensive was it made you de-escalate the bombing, and it brought you to the negotiation table. It was, therefore, a victory…The war was fought on many fronts. At that time the most important one was American public opinion.” (The Vietnam War: An Encyclopedia of Quotations, Howard Langer, 2005)
The Vietnam War did not end in a stalemate, particularly for those S. Vietnamese who, at risk and often loss of life, loyally supported the U.S. Armed Forces (not all did, but very many did). We left them in a lurch, cut off their military aid, and watched while they suffered the consequences when the North Vietnamese blatantly ignored the negotiated resolution (they never intended to honor) that Cronkite advocated.
Many of those of us who served in Vietnam do not look upon its ending as reflecting “honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy.” A compelling case can be made that we should never have sent troops to Vietnam in the first place. But we did. And then, after nearly 60,000 U.S. deaths and countless Vietnamese casualties, we bugged out. There’s no way to put an honorable face on that unavoidable truth.
Once upon a time, I lived for awhile not far from a village called Ba Chuc in An Giang Province in the Mekong Delta. After the U.S. evacuated Vietnam, there was nothing to stop old animosities between the Cambodians and Vietnamese from turning hot. Here’s a description of what happened in Ba Chuc.
“On April 30, 1977, Pol Pot’s troops launched a surprise attack on 13 villages in eight Vietnamese border provinces. Ba Chuc was the hardest hit. The massacre was at its fiercest during the 12 days of occupation, April 18-30, 1978, during which the intruders killed 3,157 villagers. The survivors fled and took refuge in the pagodas of Tam Buu and Phi Lai or in caves on Mount Tuong, but they were soon discovered. The raiders shot them, slit their throats or beat them to death with sticks. Babies were flung into the air and pierced with bayonets. Women were raped and left to die with stakes planted in their genitals.”
There were two survivors to the massacre.
Cronkite didn’t cover it on the CBS evening news.
As judged by subsequent events, Cronkite was wrong. And over time, his words became a watershed marking the place where the gradual erosion of the MSM’s credibility began.