When Walter Cronkite Took a Stand on Vietnam

Article excerpt

I probably failed to watch the late Walter Cronkite's most important TV news moment: his landmark February 1968 CBS commentary (so out of character) after returning from Vietnam in which he cast strong doubt on our mission there and its chances for success. Yes, the JFK assassination and moon landing drew more viewers but this broadcast would help save many thousands of lives, U.S. and Vietnamese, perhaps even a million.

I may have missed it at the time because I was then leading my campus Clean for Gene McCarthy campaign. McCarthy was about to drive Lyndon Johnson out of the race with a surprisingly strong second-place finish in the New Hampshire primary. Surely, Walter had softened up LBJ for the kill.

In fact, perhaps the most famous quote ABOUT Cronkite was Johnson saying that if he'd "lost Cronkite" on Vietnam he'd lost "Middle America."

Cronkite also earned my gratitude later that year when he grew visibly upset on screen -- telegraphing his disgust -- when CBS showed images of protesters getting beaten up in streets of Chicago near the Democratic Convention gathering. I was out there, myself, though not beaten. When Dan Rather was roughed up on the floor of the convention, Cronkite denounced the "thugs" who were doing it.

Of course, the war continued for years, we even invaded Cambodia, and Vietnamese kept perishing in horrid numbers. But a U.S. "surge" in troop levels -- let alone the nuclear option -- was no longer thinkable. American troops eventually started to come home as Vietnamization and negotiation (along with much aerial bombing) eventually took center stage.

Thirty-five years later, Cronkite -- he had started as a newspaperman and now was writing a syndicated column -- opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and continued his criticism in the years the followed, making some links to Vietnam.

In my recent book on Iraq and the media, "So Wrong for So Long," I lamented that present day anchors failed to follow in his footsteps. In fact, I note there that Brian Williams, Tom Brokaw others actually defended their wretched coverage in the run-up to the Iraq war when Scott McClellan made the charge.

Anyway, I can't think of a greater tribute to Cronkite than simply reprinting the transcript of the February '68 Vietnam commentary. It follows.____

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. 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. Another standoff may be coming in the big battles expected south of the Demilitarized Zone. …