Column: 50 years ago, a journalist changed history

COURTESY PHOTO Walter Cronkite. When he turned against American involvement in the Vietnam War, LBJ knew it was a lost cause.
COURTESY PHOTO Walter Cronkite. When he turned against American involvement in the Vietnam War, LBJ knew it was a lost cause.

Fifty years ago this month, Walter Cronkite stepped out of character and took a public stand on the most divisive issue of that era – the war in Vietnam. It was the only time in his long and distinguished career that he used his anchor chair as a bully pulpit.

In today’s media world, with its loosey-goosey, anything-goes standards of conduct, that may not seem like such a big deal. But Cronkite was a traditionalist and in the universe he inhabited, impartial reporting was the coin of the realm.

In 1968, Cronkite was at the top of his profession. He was then in his sixth year as anchorman of the CBS Evening News, and through that stretch, reports from Vietnam had been a kind of running story – almost a nightly staple – on his broadcast and other network news shows. (The conflict even became known as “the living room war.”)

During the early years of the war, the U.S. commitment in Vietnam had the overwhelming support of Congress and the country at large, and for the most part, news reports reflected that solid consensus.

But as the years passed and the war dragged on – and on – with no end in sight,

the consensus began to crack. By 1967, antiwar demonstrations were attracting large numbers of mainstream Americans, and in the fall of that year, polls revealed that the country was split right down the middle.

For the first time, President Lyndon Johnson could no longer rely on a firm base of support for his war policies, and by then it was clear that Vietnam had become a national obsession, the most devisive ordeal to afflict the republic since the Civil War.

It was against this distressing background that the decisive moment in the war came to pass.

On January 30, 1968, Communist forces launched the Tet offensive, an orchestrated series of attacks that extended across the length and breadth of South Vietnam. More than 100 cities and towns came under assault, and for the better part of a month, enemy troops controlled large areas of the country.

Among other things, the tidal wave of assaults shattered – once and for all – the recurring mantra of smug predictions by military leaders in Washington and Saigon that U.S. forces were on the verge of winning the war in Vietnam.

From his anchor desk in New York, Walter Cronkite watched the Tet offensive unfold with mounting dismay and alarm. Whether the wave of assaults ultimately succeeded or failed, their sheer magnitude was enough to convince him that this was a breakthrough event, a critical turning point in the war, and not the one that he and other Americans had been led to expect.

As the Tet offensive persisted through the early days of February, Cronkite began to push the idea that he should go to Vietnam and report on the fighting himself. He discussed that prospect with Dick Salant, the president of CBS News, and with other colleagues whose judgment he valued.

To a man, they heartily endorsed the proposal. Salant, in particular, argued that since Cronkite was the premier correspondent of CBS News, the network’s leading voice of authority, he almost had an obligation to cover a story that could determine the outcome of a confusing war that had so bitterly divided the American people.

That was all the encouragement Cronkite needed, and a few days later he was on a plane to Saigon. Traveling with him was Ernie Leiser who, until recently, had been the executive producer of the CBS Evening News. His current assignment was to produce a special report on the Tet offensive that would be anchored by Cronkite in prime time.

Their first official stop in Saigon was at the U.S. headquarters where they were briefed by the commander of the American forces, General William C. Westmoreland, who – as usual – was unwavering in his jut-jawed optimism.

He told Walter that he really shouldn’t have bothered to make the trip because contrary to what he might have heard, the so-called Tet offensive was all over. The enemy had been firmly repulsed, and everything was now under control.

But Cronkite didn’t buy into that, and with good reason. Although he and Leiser had been in Vietnam only a few hours, they already had seen or heard enough on the streets of Saigon to know that it wasn’t over and everything wasn’t under control. They even had trouble landing in Vietnam because the major airports were closed.

Still, Cronkite did not directly challenge Westmoreland’s assertion. He merely told the general that he was eager to head up-country to see for himself how this latest phase in the war was going.

He discussed various destinations with his film crew and they eventually decided on the old imperial city of Hue, which had been a major battleground since the early hours of the Tet offensive. And they stuck with that plan even after Westmoreland assured Cronkite that the battle for Hue was over. Elaborating, he said that enemy troops there had been routed into submission, and the Marines had regained control of the city.

The way Walter saw it, if Westmoreland was right, then the recapture of Hue was a big story and by going there, the CBS team could get first-hand information on how it was accomplished; and if the general was wrong, then it was an even bigger story.

From Saigon, they flew to an airstrip at Phu Bai, about 30 miles from Hue, and from there, they hitched a ride on a truck that was part of a convoy bringing reinforcements into the city. That in itself was an ominous sign. If the battle for Hue was over, then why the need for reinforcements?

They soon had the answer to that question. Even before they reached the outskirts of Hue, they could hear the heavy fighting going on in the heart of the city, and as the convoy rolled into Hue, Cronkite and his colleagues looked up and saw the Viet Cong flag flying defiantly over the Zenith Gate. So much for the claim that enemy troops had been routed into submission.

What Cronkite witnessed during the next few hours confirmed his worst suspicions. Far from having regained control of Hue, the Marines were engaged in ferocious, close-range combat on the main streets of the city.

Dressed in combat fatigues and wearing a steel helmet, Cronkite was determined to get as close to the action as he could. It was almost as if he wanted to be absolutely certain that what he saw in Hue was truly happening. And what he saw that day was a microcosm of the Vietnam nightmare: the reality of the war as opposed to the official version of it.

There now was no escaping the conclusion that the generals back in Saigon were either hopelessly out of touch with reality or B worse B cynical liars who were purposely deceiving the American press and public.

The CBS crew spent two days in Hue. Then they returned to Saigon where Cronkite finished some interviews for other stories he had been working on, all of which dealt with various aspects of the Tet offensive.

A few days later, Cronkite and Leiser flew back to New York and promptly went to work on the programming phase of their assignment. On four successive nights in late February and early March, the CBS Evening News ended with Cronkite’s “personal reports” on the war. Based on all his interviews and observations, the stories had a hard editorial edge that reflected Cronkite’s own feelings of pessimism and disenchantment.

The prime-time special produced by Leiser also was structured to end with a personal commentary, and in that forum Cronkite took an even stronger stand and moved even further away from the constraints of impartiality.

By this time, Leiser and other colleagues were aware that Walter was now convinced that the war could not be won, and that the Johnson Administration should abandon its policy of escalation and initiate moves to get out of Vietnam. That being the case, they urged him to drive that point home to the American people.

But Cronkite wasn’t at all sure he should go that far. He felt he was being pressured to use the power of his anchor status to call for a dramatic shift in U.S. policy, and that was the kind of license that rubbed against the grain of his journalistic scruples.

Leiser and the others were sympathetic to that concern. They knew how much Walter cherished his hard-earned reputation for impartiality, and what an asset it had been for CBS over the years. They understood that millions of Americans turned to the CBS Evening News every night because they felt they could rely on him to deliver the news without frills, without bias and without any hidden agenda of his own.

Nevertheless they argued that this was one instance in which traditional objectivity was probably the more dishonest position. And in the end, Cronkite came around to their point of view. Even though he still had serious reservations about using his power this way, he finally decided to make the leap into the perilous sphere of advocacy journalism.

And so, on the night of February 27, 1968, Walter Cronkite chose to end a CBS News special report on the Tet offensive with the following comments, uttered more in sorrow than in anger.

We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds….For it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate….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…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.

Cronkite’s criticism of the war was temperate, measured and – given the strength of his personal feelings – rather mild. He did not align himself with the militant antiwar groups, whose strident protests may have done their cause more harm than good. Instead, he reached out to his natural constituency: the moderates, the political mainstream.

He sensed that the mood across the country was moving toward disapproval of the war, and he reflected that shift even as he helped to guide it. But if his commentary was restrained in tone and content, there was no denying its impact.

Perhaps the most compelling reaction came from the White House. After watching the broadcast, President Johnson began confiding to aides that the jig was up. “If I’ve lost Walter Cronkite,” he told his press secretary George Christian, “then I’ve lost the country.”