The Sage of Black Rock

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On February 6, 1965, Vietcong guerrillas attacked the U.S. base at Pleiku, killing eight American soldiers and wounding 126. The Johnson administration quickly retaliated, commencing another vicious cycle of lightning reprisals and military escalations. Suddenly U.S. “advisers” in Vietnam were recognized as combat troops; 23,000 U.S. personnel grew to 181,000 by the year’s end. On March 8 CBS Reports broadcast an hour-long debate between pro-war Sen. Gale McGee (D-WY) and antiwar Sen. George McGovern (D-SD). Hosted by Charles Collingwood, “Vietnam: Hawks and the Doves” became a symbolic showdown as many Americans chose sides.

Walter Cronkite didn’t—or couldn’t—choose. Even though the 48-year-old CBS anchor was “disturbed” by the lack of candor in the current administration, he was still pro-war. He was anxious for the CBS Evening News to start covering Vietnam in earnest—and to start detangling the increasingly complex conflict. The Vietnam conflict began with widespread public support but became increasingly controversial as the war sucked up ever larger numbers of troops and matériel. For U.S. soldiers it meant jungle combat as brutal as any in the history of warfare. For antiwar protestors, particularly on college campuses, it reeked of imperialism and warmongering. For most American conservatives and many of moderate political beliefs, it represented a crucial battlefield in the Cold War confrontation with the Soviet Union and China. For African Americans, Hispanics, American Indians, and poor whites, it stood for class hypocrisy as their children were sent to Southeast Asia while many rich youth received special deferments or cushy stateside assignments in the National Guard. For CBS News it meant catching up with NBC News, which aired Vietnam Weekly Review, a series dedicated to Johnson’s war.

Over the next three years, as Cronkite sorted through the conflicting perspectives and positions swirling around the war, he would undergo a personal transformation that would deeply color Americans’ understanding of Vietnam. In those trying times, with the help of a cadre of talented CBS News producers, cameramen, and correspondents, he indelibly shaped the archetype of the objective television news anchor. Yet at a critical moment in the war, he stepped out of his news anchor role and spoke his mind to the American people. That choice would not only help shape public opinion but lead in part to the rampant editorializing in television news today.

The War Heats Up

Almost a month after the Vietcong attack at Pleiku, National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy recommended a three-stage escalation of the bombing in North Vietnam. That July Cronkite traveled to South Vietnam for the first time. By then Gen. William Westmoreland had launched the first serious offensive operation by U.S. ground forces into territory just northwest of Saigon. Cronkite wanted to see the on-the-ground effect.

The U.S. military and the CIA rolled out the red carpet for the CBS newsman in Da Nang. They let him shoot assault rifles, fly planes, detonate mines, and throw grenades. Along with producer Ron Bonn and cameraman Walter Dombrow, he spent a couple of weeks touring the countryside, where he was treated to a velvet-trimmed version of the war, complete with private briefings, Jeep trips, helicopter rides, and more than a few gourmet French meals. Privately he met with a brigadier general with the 173rd Airborne Brigade who thought the Vietcong were “cowards.” On July 18 Cronkite even obtained an exclusive interview with Prime Minister Nguyen Cao Ky of South Vietnam, excerpts of which appeared on Face the Nation.

Toward the end of Cronkite’s tour, CBS News correspondent Morley Safer and a Special Forces officer buttonholed the anchorman and gave him a “grunt’s eye view of the world” that was “completely different from what the generals had told him.” In his memoir Flashbacks, Safer wrote that he set up at least a few meetings for Cronkite to learn the unvarnished truth about America’s failures in Vietnam, to counter all the “lies and bogus optimism” that were being pitchforked his way.

To Cronkite, smart reporters such as Safer, whom he admired, needed to help the American military win the war, as he had done during World War II. “The truths I told him didn’t come as a complete shock,” Safer recalled. “But it was just difficult for him not to be supportive of the American troops in the field.” During World War II Cronkite had worked for the United Press and regularly participated in Eighth Air Force bombing sorties. He and the other reporters wrote copy that sought to boost civilian morale and aid the Allies’ efforts. It was difficult for Cronkite to take a different approach to war reporting during the early years of the Vietnam conflict.

The 1965 trip didn’t change Cronkite’s opinion of the war, although Safer’s sobering analysis continued to echo in his mind. He sensed that the Pentagon was playing a “numbers game” with the public, inflating statistics so that it appeared that American forces were winning battles decisively. Cronkite also believed that President Johnson was downplaying the U.S. government’s commitment to South Vietnam’s nation-building effort. He had seen the huge U.S. construction projects around Da Nang, and such infrastructure suggested long-term commitment. “I returned from that first trip to Vietnam,” Cronkite recalled, “with the feeling that the evidence in the field seemed to support the contention of the high command and the administration in Washington that we were making progress.” Cronkite praised Johnson’s “courageous decision that communism’s advance must be stopped in Asia and that guerrilla war as a means to a political end must be finally discouraged.”