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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
Gralnick, Cronkite’s close associate for many years, couldn’t predict how his boss was going to play the CBS Special Report once they got back to New York. They had spent unforgettable times together in Hue, Khe Sanh, and Saigon, seen a lot of collateral damage, and met scores of soldiers and reporters. But Cronkite continued to be circumspect. “He held his cards close,” Gralnick recalled.
Back in New York, working closely with Salant, Socolow, Gralnick, and Leiser, Cronkite shaped his Vietnam material, extracted from his notebooks. “It was Walter’s writing,” Gralnick explained. “We just helped frame the argument, keep the language harnessed. It was Walter who insisted on using ‘stalemate’ to describe Vietnam.” The primary objective was to make sure viewers didn’t think Cronkite had rushed to judgment.
Wearing a dark suit with matching tie, Cronkite took to the airwaves on February 27, 1968, at 10 p.m. In the half-hour “Report from Vietnam,” he calmly and objectively presented the facts, providing a penetrating illustrated briefing that covered everything from U.S. air raids to villages in ruin. Millions of Americans tuned in.
After the last commercial break, Cronkite turned to look straight into the camera from behind his New York desk, indicating his desire to speak “personally” to the viewers in a speculative and subjective fashion. In his closing words, delivered in strong, reasoned tones, he told the American people what he now firmly believed: from a U.S. military perspective, the Southeast Asian war was unwinnable. (See the sidebar on p. 70 for the full address.)
Cronkite’s editorial wasn’t radical: in many ways, calling the war a “stalemate” was a middling position in 1968. But in the highly polarized national dialogue on Vietnam, it placed Cronkite squarely as a dove. He had lent his august name to the antiwar movement and thereby put it into mainstream America.
His words resonated deeply with millions of viewers. His opinion was widely quoted in the press, opening the door for NBC’s Frank McGee to take a similar stand in a documentary on Vietnam that aired two weeks later. Even the conservative Wall Street Journal’s editorial page said, “The whole Vietnam effort may be doomed.”
Perhaps the most memorable evidence of the report’s impact was the apparent reaction from President Johnson, who purportedly said after the show, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.” (A scholarly debate has emerged recently over whether Johnson ever really uttered those words—he probably didn’t.) Nobody in the Johnson family believed that the Cronkite commentary was startling to the president—he had been grappling with the post-Tet conditions himself for weeks. But as a political pro, Johnson must have known that the Cronkite broadcast—while stating the obvious—had done him major political damage. The president’s real concern was that Senators Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy had both signaled their determination to challenge him for the Democratic nomination that year. The passions over the war threatened to disrupt national life.
Reflecting on Cronkite’s dissent, Newsweek noted that it was as if Lincoln himself had ambled down from his white marble Memorial seat and joined an anti–Vietnam War rally. With his honest commentary, Cronkite had vaulted into the annals of American journalism history.
Cronkite’s “Report from Vietnam” represented a turning point. “It was the first time in American history,” David Halberstam wrote, “that a war had been declared over by a commentator.” The war, however, was far from over in fact. It still had years of anguish, death, and tragedy in store.
Robert Kennedy Challenges Johnson
A little over two weeks after Cronkite’s broadcast, Robert F. Kennedy formally announced his candidacy for president. All hell broke loose in the Democratic primary field. Less than two weeks later, on March 31, President Johnson scheduled a televised message about limiting U.S. involvement in Vietnam by declaring a partial halt in bombing missions. The Oval Office was set up with cameras for the speech. As Johnson entered, he muttered to a CBS technician, “Cronkite isn’t going to like this.” As LBJ stared at the White House television camera, he looked uneasily at the lens for a second or two and then began speaking about Vietnam in his distinctive Texas Hill Country twang. But, then, quite unexpectedly, he announced, “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.”
That Sunday LBJ’s face seemed to disintegrate on millions of home screens as if melting from within. It was a shocking national announcement. A pressing question that immediately made the rounds was whether the “Report from Vietnam” had contributed to Johnson’s decision. The president later insisted in an interview with Cronkite that he could have won a second full term in 1968, but by that March he was a tired man, facing medical problems and a crisis of confidence across the country. Extracting America from the Vietnam quagmire would be a formidable job. His energies were needed at the White House, not gallivanting around to Democratic fund-raisers. So, with the encouragement of his devoted wife, Lady Bird, the president abruptly bowed out of the 1968 presidential contest. “We had not expected,” Cronkite wrote, “that the president himself would react like he did. No one has claimed, and I certainly don’t believe, that our broadcast changed his mind about anything. I do believe it may have been the back-breaking piece of straw that was heaped on the heavy load he was already carrying.”