CBS’ Walter Cronkite spent his entire career convincing America “that’s the way it is.” There are few people of a certain age who can’t remember some of Cronkite’s most legendary orations, whether it was announcing the death of President Kennedy or the monumental news that man had set foot on the moon.
Perhaps his most famous — and divisive — moment as an anchor came on Feb. 27, 1968, after the end of the infamous Tet Offensive in Vietnam. Cronkite, stepping out of his role as an objective news reporter, delivered a withering commentary in which he questioned the ability of the United States to win in Vietnam.
The effect of Cronkite’s editorial upon those in favor of the Vietnam conflict was swift, brutal and demoralizing. “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America,” President Lyndon Johnson is reported to have said. It seemed to mark a turning point that led, gradually but certainly, to the chaotic retreat from Saigon in 1975.
Yet, according to WND, Cronkite was singing a different tune about Vietnam just two weeks earlier. In a “lost” clip from Feb. 13, as the Tet Offensive was drawing to a close, Cronkite offered a starkly different view that has been almost totally overlooked by historians.
For those who are too young to remember, the Tet Offensive took place in late January and early February of the annus horribilis of 1968. Normally, both the North and South Vietnamese armies would hold an informal ceasefire during Tet, the Vietnamese lunar new year celebration. In fact, Hanoi had announced in October of 1967 that there would be a truce from Jan. 27 to Feb. 3, leading South Vietnam to send many of its troops on recreational leave. That gave the North Vietnamese a prime opportunity to pounce.
The attack led to initial gains for the North Vietnamese, with 80,000 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong attacking 36 of 44 provincial capitals. However, once American and South Vietnamese forces regrouped, they quickly repelled the attack.
“The first surge of the offensive was over by the second week of February,” WND notes. “The U.S. estimated that during the first phase (Jan. 30-April 8) approximately 45,000 North Vietnamese soldiers were killed and an unknown number were wounded. The South Vietnamese suffered 2,788 killed, 8,299 wounded, and 587 missing in action. U.S. and other allied forces suffered 1,536 killed, 7,764 wounded, and 11 missing. Later, American estimates showed that of the 84,000 North Vietnamese soldiers and Viet Cong guerrillas involved in the entire offensive, a staggering total of 58,000, or 72.5 percent, had been killed by South Vietnamese, American and other allied forces.”
On Feb. 13, Cronkite delivered his less-famous assessment of the Tet Offensive.
“First and simplest, the Viet Cong suffered a military defeat,” Cronkite reported.
“Its missions proved suicidal. If they had intended to stay in the cities as a negotiating point, they failed at that. The Vietnamese army reacted better than even its most ardent supporters had anticipated. There were no defections from its rank, as the Viet Cong apparently had expected. And the people did not rise to support the Viet Cong, as they were also believed to have expected.”
“There is no question that the communists suffered one of the greatest military defeats in history at Tet,” said Gen. Patrick Brady, a Vietnam war hero who remains the most decorated living U.S. military figure. “The North was about to quit — Cronkite helped change that.”
And he managed to change it all in a short editorial which closed his nightly newscast on Tueday, Feb. 27, 1968.
“Tonight, back in more familiar surroundings in New York, we’d like to sum up our findings in Vietnam, an analysis that must be speculative, personal, subjective,” Cronkite said. “Who won and who lost in the great Tet Offensive against the cities? I’m not sure. The Viet Cong did not win by a knockout, but neither did we. The referees of history may make it a draw.”
Yet, two weeks earlier, it was clear the U.S. and South Vietnam had won a 4-1 knockout. That wasn’t enough for Cronkite, however.
“For it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate,” the news anchor told America.
“To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past. To suggest we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion … 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.”
“The two reports by Cronkite, broadcast so close to one another, raise a number of questions,” said Richard Botkin, author of Vietnam War book “Ride the Thunder”.
“First, why are they so starkly contradictory? Why did Cronkite change his mind about who won the battle? What made Cronkite change his mind in a matter of a few days? And why is Cronkite’s report in New York so famous and so pivotal while the other report was buried, forgotten, lost to the history of the last 50 years?”
In the fast-moving year of 1968, the answer is simple — the media establishment, long wary of any military action designed to contain communism, had turned against both the Vietnam War and those who were fighting it. For what was almost certainly the first time, the media became a fifth column of the antiwar movement and the American left, throwing aside facts and figures for pure sentiment.
Whether or not the Vietnam War was justified or not, or whether it was winnable over the long term, will always be a matter of debate. What is clear is the fact that the media decided America shouldn’t achieve its objectives in Southeast Asia and manipulated its coverage to that effect.
If you think liberal media bias is anything new, think again. It’s something as old as electronic media — and even figures as venerable and trustworthy as Walter Cronkite weren’t immune to it, either..
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