One of the seminal events in America’s long involvement in Vietnam occurred 50 years ago this past week. CBS newscaster Walter Cronkite — often called “the most trusted man in America” — narrated a prime-time documentary that called into question the American government’s rosy predictions about the war’s progress. Cronkite did not come out against the war. Rather, he said:
“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 were are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion.”
Even this mild statement was a stunning blow to the story that the administration of Lyndon Johnson had been trying to sell to the public. Author Mark Bowden, writing for the New York Times, has an excellent article about Cronkite’s broadcast and its effects on the events that followed.
At no time did Cronkite express opposition to the war. He merely described what he saw and what people on the ground had said to him.
The war continued into the administrations of the next two presidents, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, and even intensified. Many Americans continued to support our presence in Vietnam.
Cronkite did not lead America out of Vietnam.
What Cronkite’s words did, however, was end adherence — particularly among journalists — to the optimistic, light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel view of the war that America had been getting from its government. This was a view, as we later learned, that not even Johnson administration officials held privately.
Cronkite’s broadcast was a dose of reality that America — especially its journalists — needed.
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