I wasn’t going to say anything about Walter Cronkite because I figured my recollections were no different from those of many other people my age and he didn’t have any particular influence on my decision to go into journalism or how to do that job once I got there.
But Teh Stoopid historical revisionism has reared its ugly head, suggesting that the U.S. news media in general and Walter Cronkite in particular lost the Vietnam War for the U.S. Cronkite comes in for special criticism because of his special commentary of Feb. 27, 1968, at the time of the Tet offensive by the Communists against U.S. and South Vietnamese forces. Cronkite said the war was lost, and that’s what caused America to turn against the war effort.
Only, first of all, Cronkite didn’t say that. On the basis of his own reporting in Vietnam, here’s what he did say:
… 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.
So, those folks who claim Cronkite said we lost Tet (or that the VC won) or were losing the war are lying, plain and simple. Or else misinformed, but this passage has been in the public record for 41 years so people who are misinformed are running out of excuses.
As we were reminded on the occasion of the recent death of former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, people in the highest levels of government had concluded long before Tet that the war wasn’t winnable. Walter Cronkite never said anything that McNamara hadn’t already said, at least to himself, years before.
And keep in mind that the immediate events that prompted Cronkite to look into all this in the first place had nothing to do with whether we won, lost or tied in the Tet offensive. The issue was that the Tet offensive happened at all — despite strong reassurances from our government and military that the enemy was incapable of any such thing.
Some of the anti-media types are arguing that given the change of command and approach post-1968, we might well have won the war if we’d hung in there long enough. I think that’s by no means certain, but let’s assume for the purpose of discussion that it is true. So what? We won the Mexican-American War and the Spanish-American War, but there’s damn good reason to think neither of those wars should have been fought, either. Being winnable doesn’t make a war right. Besides, the government had told so many lies to the American people by 1969 that even a guarantee of a slam-dunk would have been an extremely difficult proposition to sell to the American people … and rightly so. (Cronkite delicately called the government liars “the optimists who have been wrong in the past,” because of which you can credibly argue that he even pulled his punches a bit.)
The bigger problem is that we never should have been in that war, in the role we were in, in the first place. The Vietnam War arose out of the post-World War II anticolonialist movement against France … whom the U.S., mistakenly, backed. The Communist leader Ho Chi Minh actually approached the U.S. for help, and if you want to talk about what might have been, think about what might have happened if we had not supported the French so strongly for so long, if we had looked, perhaps, for a way to co-opt Ho instead of fighting him.
As for these people who seem to think journalists shouldn’t be allowed to report indepenendently on the military, I must ask the same question I’ve been asking since the issue first arose during secret military operations during the Reagan years: What is it about the freedom to know and report on what our government is doing that makes these people want to make that into something it isn’t? What is it that scares these people into wanting to piss away the rights so many of us fought and died for?
What is it that makes them hate America?