It has been an extremely unsettling experience witnessing the public geysers of adulation rising up and over the life and times of Walter Cronkite for many reasons, but the myths and lies being re-perpetrated about the 1968 Tet Offensive, which figure so prominently in the making of Cronkite's outsized prominence on the American stage, deserve special mention.
In obituary after obituary, the media have made the glib, matter-of-fact, even approving link between Cronkite's Tet "stalemate" broadcast and LBJ's "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost middle America" reversal on Vietnam without ever noting that Tet, contrary to Cronkite's and other MSM reports, was a military and political fiasco for North Vietnam -- not for the US and South Vietnam. At least not until the the story was turned into the Big Lie back in the US., and psychological and proganda victory for the communists ensued.
Such historical ignorance on Tet is evident among pretty much all our public pronouncers, including conservative(ish) media as well, whether it's Bill O'Reilly and Bernard Goldberg on Fox News, as Cliff Kincaid has noted, or James Taranto at the Wall Street Journal, who, quoting his own paper's "stalemate"-to-LBJ-"lost Cronkite-lost America" progression, seizes on Cronkite's editorialing as his only sin, never noting that his editorializing was based on false information about Tet delivered, uncorrected, across the Cronkite-led MSM. Writing in the Wash Post, Kathleen Parker does gloss over the conflict over Tet, but fails to note any ramifications for the war, and further implies it is partly just a partisan squable, writing:
Cronkite's critics and others now say that the Tet Offensive was a defeat for the North Vietnamese and blame him for the birth of media bias that has undermined American faith in journalism ever since.
That said, she blithely, incomprehensibly concludes:
Whether one judges Cronkite right or wrong in that respect, he brought dignity to news delivery and helped guide a period without cynicism or smugness.
He brought dignity to news delivery? Behold the MSM in full beatification-mode.
I sat reading the late Peter Braestrup's massive and meticulous analysis of Tet (mis)coverage in Big Story for a few days this week before writing the column (below), and grew angry all over again with my fellow journalists then and now for their prominent role in distorting not just the news, of course, but the fate of the war itself. The Braestrup book is now out of print -- naturally -- and my paperback edition lists online for something like $80, $90, but it should be mandatory reading in both US history and all journalism courses. And certainly for all working journalists.
Another piece of writing I came across this week was by Gen. Frederick C. Weyand (USA ret.), someone Braestrup' described as "widely respected among newsmen" in Vietnam, where Weyand spent five years. In 2000, Weyand received the George C. Marshall Medal from the Association of the US Army, and, in his acceptance speech, made the following remarks:
After Tet, General Westmoreland sent Walter Cronkite out to interview me. I was in Command of the Forces in the South around Saigon and below and I was proud of what we'd done. We had done a good job there. So, Walter came down and he spent about an hour and a half interviewing me. And when we got done, he said, “Well you've got a fine story. But I'm not going to use any of it because I've been up to Hue. I've seen the thousands of bodies up there in mass graves and I'm determined to do all in my power to bring this war to an end as soon as possible.”
It didn't seem to matter that those thousands of bodies were of South Vietnamese citizens who had been killed by the Hanoi soldiers, and Walter wasn't alone in this because I think many in the media mirrored his view.
And then this from Weyand:
When I was in Paris at the Peace Talks, it was the most frustrating assignment I think I ever had. Sitting in that conference, week after week listening to the Hanoi negotiators, Le Duc Tho and his friends lecture us. Reading from the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Herald Tribune, the Atlanta Constitution, NBC, CBS, you name it. Their message was always the same. “Hey, read your newspapers, listen to your TV. The American people want you out of Vietnam. Now, why don't you just go ahead and get out?” So finally a Peace Agreement was signed that everyone knew would be violated and with no recourse or hope of enforcement on our part.
Now, I am in no way blaming the media for the loss of South Vietnam; the blame, if you can call it that, is very widespread....
Widespread, indeed, from the Johnson administration on down, and don't forget the anti-war movement. But that doesn't mean the media shouldn't claim their share.
"Cronkite's Offensive HIstory"
It's time for a post-Cronkite post-mortem, but not on the late "icon" himself -- the "most trusted man in America," the "voice of God," "the gold standard," the "proxy for a nation," or, in plainer English, the lush-lived celebrity "anchor" who died this month at age 92. No, the Cronkite post-mortem that's needed is for the zombies who conjured up the hollow rapture and the living dead who fell for it.
Harsh words? You bet. But I don't know how else to begin to assess a nation that sees fit to celebrate, crown, even worship a man who said his "proudest moment" was when he declared on CBS, having misinterpreted the 1968 Tet offensive as a victory for North Vietnam, that the Vietnam war was unwinnable for the United States. "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost middle America," almost every Cronkite obituary approvingly quoted President Lyndon B. Johnson as having said in response -- never mind that Cronkite was flat-out wrong in his reporting.
This was the infamous "stalemate" broadcast in which Cronkite editorialized in unprecedented manner: "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 ... did the best they could." Despite his obit-omnipotence, Cronkite alone wasn't responsible for LBJ's offer again to negotiate with Hanoi, his decision not to run for re-election, the ultimate flagging of America's commitment to South Vietnam, or one million-plus boat people who fled the communist regime, but the famed broadcaster was without doubt a key influence in persuading the nation, particularly its elites, to accept, if not court, American defeat in Vietnam.
So, to use his own words, was Walter Cronkite an honorable journalist who did the best he could?
No. What may -- may -- have resulted from forgivable misimpressions due to the "fog of war" long ago crystallized into obdurate lies. Cronkite never clarified the record, never admitted that the Tet offensive -- the Vietcong's surprise holiday attack on cities across South Vietnam -- resulted in a military and political fiasco for North Vietnam.
This was becoming apparent even before the dust had settled in 1968, as we learn in Peter Braestrup's indispensable "The Big Story" (1977), one of the signal historical works of the 20th century, which meticulously analyzes the media's failure to assess Tet correctly as a defeat for North Vietnam. Even Leftist journalist Frances Fitzgerald in her Pulitzer Prize-winning "Fire in the Lake" (1972) reported that Tet had "seriously depleted" Vietcong forces and "wiped out" many of their "most experienced cadres," noting that such losses drove "the southern movement for the first time into almost total dependency on the north." Her conclusion: "By all the indices available to the American military, the Tet offensive was a major defeat for the enemy."
And the enemy agreed. In a 1995 interview with the Wall Street Journal, Bui Tin, a member of the North Vietnamese general staff who in 1975 personally received the unconditional surrender of South Vietnam, called North Vietnam's losses in Tet "staggering." Communist forces in the South, he explained, "were nearly wiped out by all the fighting in 1968. It took us until 1971 to re-establish our presence, but we had to use North Vietnamese troops as local guerillas. If the American forces had not begun to withdraw under Nixon in 1969," he added, "they could have punished us severely." And who knows? If Cronkite had not used Tet to nudge for negotiations, maybe American forces would not have begun to withdraw.
Bui Tin said North Vietnamese commander Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap told him Tet was "a military defeat though we had gained the planned political advantages when Johnson agreed to negotiate and did not run for re-election."
Well, who could blame him? The president had "lost Cronkite."
And so be it. The president lost Cronkite, the United States lost Vietnam. But why are the rest of us still stuck with Cronkite's Orwellian packaging as "America's most trusted newsman" 41 years after he totally and calamitously and obstinately blew Tet? The ongoing genuflection before "Uncle Walter" reveals something mighty weird about this body politic -- something beyond the ken of a mere journalist, something more in the line of work of a really good shrink.