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The Sage of Black Rock
CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite underwent a dramatic change of heart during the Vietnam War—and in doing so, changed the face of broadcast journalism
Spring 2012 | Volume 62, Issue 1
Cronkite went to see CBS News President Richard S. Salant about reporting on Tet from Saigon. Cronkite, who epitomized the political center, had decided even before he pitched Salant that he wanted to “try and present an assessment of the situation as one who had not previously taken a public position on the war.” No longer would he be impartial. The time had come to weigh in. From a TV ratings perspective, it was a calculated risk; he might end up driving the hawks away from the CBS Evening News for good.
Each time Cronkite mentioned the Pentagon’s exaggerations, Salant cringed. He had never before seen Cronkite so animated. His initial response was that he was overreacting to Tet. “But if you are going to go,” Salant said, “I think you ought to do a documentary about going, about why you went, and maybe you are going to have to say something about where the war ought to go at that point.”
Under Salant, CBS News enforced an ironclad rule that its journalists never editorialized. If he detected a single verb or adjective that lurched toward opinion on the CBS Evening News, the reporter would be immediately reprimanded. The strength of CBS’s brand rested on its perceived impartiality. Now, to Cronkite’s utter astonishment, Salant was willing to break the network’s golden rule.
“You have established a reputation, and thanks to you and through us we at CBS have established a reputation for honesty and factual reporting and being in the middle of the road,” Salant told Cronkite. “So if we’ve got that reputation, maybe it would be helpful, if people trust us that much, trust you that much, for you to say what you think. Tell them what it looks like, from you being on the ground, what is your opinion.” Salant and Cronkite settled on doing a primetime CBS News Special Report that would be called “Report from Vietnam: Who, What, When, Where, Why?”
Along with producers Ernie Leiser and Jeff Gralnick, Cronkite reached the troubled city of Saigon on February 11, 1968. Bombs were bursting, whooshing, and screaming around the city’s outskirts. Long-range artillery fire sounded in the distance. The faces of the Vietnamese street children, frightened by self-propelled rockets and recoilless rifles and mortars, were disfigured with terror. Cronkite had seen the same hollowed-eye look in displaced persons at the end of the Second World War in Belgium and the Netherlands. Saigon was a combat zone.
After only a few hours on the ground, Cronkite hustled up an interview with General Westmoreland, commander of U.S. forces. It didn’t go well. The general was brash and dismissive. To Cronkite’s amazement, Westmoreland claimed that Tet was an American victory. While the North Vietnamese had failed in their military objectives, the strength of the enemy force, as well as its resolve, was far greater than the general and his staff were willing to concede. Twelve days into the offensive, U.S. troops were indeed winning back territory, but nearly 1,000 Americans had died. Westmoreland mildly scolded Cronkite: the Vietcong had been prevented from sacking Saigon, and therefore it was clear as day that the U.S. Army was winning the war. With one caveat: 200,000 more troops were needed.
Westmoreland told Cronkite, in no uncertain terms, that the Army of the Republic of Vietnam and three U.S. Marine Corps battalions had defeated more than 10,000 entrenched People’s Army of Vietnam and Vietcong at Hue. As Cronkite and company headed to Hue up Highway 1 (the main north–south road of Vietnam, running the length of the country from the Chinese border to the Mekong Delta), they realized that Westmoreland had lied brazenly. The Marines were still trying to take the city. Explosions sounded even in the center of town. “The battle was still on in Hue when I got up there,” Cronkite recalled.
Reporters working for the AP, the New York Times, and Reuters welcomed the renowned anchor. Like the younger correspondents, he slept on the bare floor of a Vietnamese doctor’s house that had become a pressroom, and he walked the bombed-out streets. He ate C-rations and used the overflowing latrines. Nobody thought he acted like a bigwig. Like a prosecuting attorney gathering facts, he interviewed everyone from orphaned children to traumatized U.S. soldiers. He went on a Marine patrol to survey the perimeter roads around Hue. Besides interviewing Vietnamese citizens, Cronkite managed face time with South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu, opposition leader Nguyen Xuan Oanh, and U.S. Lt. Gen. Robert E. Cushman Jr.
That February, the full meaning of Tet began to come into focus for Cronkite. The South Vietnamese government had lost its credibility and was therefore condemned to negotiate a peace accord as quickly as it could. Cronkite now understood the extent to which his own network had bought into Westmoreland’s military propaganda between 1965 and 1968. Along with NBC and ABC, CBS had erroneously reported Hue as a U.S. victory. (In the end, Hue would indeed prove a U.S. victory, but only after a protracted battle that lasted into March.)
Cronkite left Hue on a transport chopper with a dozen dead Marines in rubber body bags. Hadn’t Westmoreland told him that U.S. forces had pacified Hue? The general’s deception wasn’t abstract now to Cronkite; it hung palpably inside the helicopter jammed with bodies. On the flight Cronkite grieved not only for the American dead but for the thousands of American veterans who had gotten their arms and legs blown off. And then there were the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians, and Thais killed in what he now believed was an impossible and unnecessary war.