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The Myth of Walter Cronkite and Vietnam

[ 38 ] October 10, 2012 |

Symbols are often mistaken for causes.   As a Supreme Court scholar, it’s striking to me that probably the two most famous Supreme Court decisions of the 19th Century are Marbury v. Madison and Dred Scott.   It’s striking because neither one mattered very much.   Even college-level textbooks now generally tell a story in which John Marshal straightforwardly established judicial review in Marbury, but in fact the role of Marbury in establishing judicial review was negligible.   (It was never even cited by the Supreme Court until after judicial review had already been established).   If you’re interested in how strong judicial review was established, you’d be much better off starting with an examination of how and why the Republican Party transformed from the party of the Repealer Act and manipulating the size of the Supreme Court to being the party of government-by-injunction.    Dred Scott was perhaps more consequential, but not very much.   It’s a powerful symbol of the evils of Jacksonian politics, but because of this its actual impact on American politics has been vastly exaggerated.    There was no chance that the Democratic coalition was going to survive Bleeding Kansas no matter what the Supreme Court did, and to the extent that it mattered at all Dred Scott probably made the survival of the Democratic coalition marginally more likely (which is why Buchanan and the Democratic leadership in Congress wanted Dred Scott decided the way it was.)  At any rate, before 1860 Congress wasn’t going to pass any legislation restricting slavery in the territories, after 1860 Lincoln completely ignored the ruling, and then it was overturned by two constitutional amendments.   Had the Supreme Court decided Dred Scott narrowly or ducked the case nothing important would have changed, and had the Supreme Court decided Dred Scott correctly on the merits it would have been a disaster (secession with nearly a full term of Buchanan ahead — we’d probably all be speaking Alabaman now.)    Taney was a minor Jacksonian villain compared to Buchanan, Pierce, Polk, Calhoun, Jackson, etc. etc.

Another example of this phenomenon is the exaggeration of the influence of CBS News.   One of the many puzzles of The Newsroom is why Sorkin thinks that having an MSNBC in which the anchors won every debate with the same arguments Aaron Sorkin would have made would actually change anything about American politics.    Well, as national treasure Louis Menand points out, in the first episode the Sam Waterson character asserts the middlebrow conventional wisdom that Sorkin presumably takes as gospel: “”Anchors having an opinion isn’t a new phenomenon.  Murrow had one and that was the end of McCarthy. Cronkite had one and that was the end of Vietnam.”

As Menand explains, however, the idea that Cronkite’s (rather timorous) criticism of the Vietnam War significantly affected public opinion, or caused LBJ not to run again, collapses on actual inspection:

The trouble with this inspiring little story is that most of it is either invented or disputed. Johnson’s reaction to the broadcast appears to have been first reported in Halberstam’s big book on the news media, “The Powers That Be,” which came out in 1979. Halberstam said that Johnson watched the broadcast in Washington, then said to his press secretary, George Christian, that “if he had lost Walter Cronkite, he had lost Mr. Average Citizen. It solidified his decision not to run again.” “It was the first time in American history that a war has been declared over by an anchorman,” Halberstam wrote. Brinkley quotes the sentence with approval.

But, as W. Joseph Campbell, following up on research by David Culbert, explains in “Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misrepresented Stories in American Journalism” (2010), Johnson did not see “Report from Vietnam” when it was broadcast. He was in Austin, attending a birthday celebration for Governor John Connally. When Cronkite delivered his commentary, Johnson was giving a toast. There is no solid evidence that Johnson ever saw the show on tape, either, though the White House did tape it.

Interviewed about the incident in 1979, Christian was unable to recall exactly which comments of Cronkite’s Johnson might have been reacting to, or when, or what exactly Johnson had said. Later, in an oral-history interview, Christian was presented with the claim that Cronkite’s program was pivotal to Johnson’s decision not to run, and replied, “I don’t buy that. It didn’t quite happen that way.” Johnson’s speeches on Vietnam after February 27th were as hawkish as ever. Not only is there little evidence that the broadcast had an effect on Johnson; there is little evidence that it had an effect on public opinion. Opinion-poll numbers on Johnson and the war had already begun to shift. Even in the mainstream media, the view that the war could not be won was becoming conventional wisdom by 1968. The Times and the Wall Street Journal had already carried pieces suggesting that the conflict was unwinnable. (Brinkley implies that it was Cronkite’s commentary that emboldened the Journal to criticize the war, but the Journal editorial appeared four days before the broadcast.) On March 10th, three weeks before Johnson’s withdrawal, NBC broadcast a report on which Frank McGee said not that the war was “mired in stalemate,” which is what Cronkite had said, but that it was being lost.

At first, Cronkite himself didn’t think the program had made much of an impact. CBS did not receive an unusual number of letters after the show, he wrote in “A Reporter’s Life,” and “there was no reaction from the administration, official or unofficial.” He says that he later learned that the President “and some of his staff” had watched the broadcast with Christian and Bill Moyers. “The president flipped off the set,’ Moyers recalled, ‘and said: ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America,'” Cronkite wrote. Cronkite doesn’t say where Moyers said this, but Moyers was no longer working in the White House in February, 1968. He had left in 1967 to become publisher of Newsday.

Contrary to what Halberstam seemed to suggest, Johnson did not make his decision to withdraw from the race for President after hearing Cronkite’s report. He had been contemplating it for some time: on the day he delivered the January, 1968, State of the Union address, he carried a piece of paper announcing his withdrawal in his pocket but decided not to use it. A much more likely catalyst for Johnson’s announcement on March 31st was Kennedy’s entry into the race. Theodore White’s account of Johnson’s decision to withdraw, in “The Making of the President 1968,” makes no mention of Walter Cronkite.

Did Cronkite expedite Kennedy’s decision? The claim that Cronkite told Kennedy that he had “a duty” to run has been around for a while. Martin Plissner, who was involved in CBS’s Presidential campaign coverage for many years, repeats it, without attribution, in “Control Room: How Television Calls the Shots in Presidential Elections” (2000). The only source Brinkley provides for that journalistically inappropriate conversation is a column published in the Washington Post, in 2009, by the man who was Kennedy’s press secretary at the time, Frank Mankiewicz. Mankiewicz, who is reportedly writing his memoirs, is now eighty-eight. Pressed about his story, in an interview with Brian Lamb, on C-SPAN, Mankiewicz was vague about when the lunch took place. Lamb showed him a clip of Cronkite’s Vietnam broadcast; Mankiewicz said he thought the meeting happened before that.

The same thing is true of Murrow’s alleged direct role in taking down McCarthy. The “See It Now” shows were aired after McCarthy’s power was waning and he was already coming under substantial criticism from other media sources and prominent politicians. The Army-McCarthy hearings were far more important, would have happened without the Murrow broadcast, and CBS didn’t even televise them. For a certain generation, the role of the Truth-Telling Broadcaster has been greatly exaggerated, and to think that the largely imaginary speaking-truth-to-power of broadcasters from the days of the Big 3 could reassert itself in the age of fragmentation is bizarre.

As Charles notes in comments, his review of The Newsroom had plenty of related good stuff.


Comments (38)

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  1. mark f says:

    I thought the story was that Cronkite slapped his thigh and announced that the only thing he ever wanted to accomplish was to embolden America’s enemies?

  2. Martin says:

    Are you trying to tell me that Halberstam’s exclusive reliance on the oral memories of the participants does not always yield bedrock truth?

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      I’m reminded of Bill James wondering whether the countless howlers in his shitty baseball book reflected Halberstam not really taking the subject seriously, or if Halberstam had always been that shoddy and few people noticed. I wonder…

    • mark f says:

      Now I’m eagerly awaiting the release of Halberstam’s unpublished Clinton manuscripts.

    • Murc says:

      Wait, what?

      I’ve only read three Halberstams; the Best and the Brightest, War in a Time of Peace, and The Coldest Winter.

      I don’t know about the first, but I found the other two, especially Coldest Winter, to be incredibly well-sourced from a documentary evidence or a ‘there were a ton of witnesses’ standpoint. He did have a lot of oral history in there, but…

      Those were later Halberstam, though. Maybe he was worse when he was younger? I do seem to recall that Best and Brightest relied a lot on hearsay. I’d just never really thought about that before.

      • ploeg says:

        Best and the Brightest had a somewhat different chain of events: Gene McCarthy came in second in the NH primary, which exposed Johnson’s weakness in the Democratic Party. Johnson’s organization also relayed the news that Johnson was weak against McCarthy in WI, the next state to have a primary. And when Bobby Kennedy threw his hat in the ring four days after NH, Johnson knew that his time was up and decided to withdraw so that he could concentrate on winning in Vietnam and preserving his legacy. Even if the Cronkite story was true or had some basis of truth, Johnson was still in the 1968 race in March 1968, so Johnson could not have withdrawn because of the Cronkite quote. The main determining factor in Johnson’s withdrawal was his demonstrated political weakness in the Democratic Party hierarchy.

        • From what I’ve read of LBJ, the only reason he would ever have withdrawn was if he believed he would lose. Whether he was right not, he believed he would lose so he quit.

          The Democratic Party was being torn apart in those days. The Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts and all that. Plus, both parties, and the country as a whole, were divided on Viet Nam. That is why the terms ‘hawk’ and ‘dove’ were used. Unlike now, when all Republicans but one or two support any and every war, there were Republican doves.

          LBJ screwed himself and his country with his Viet Nam policy.

  3. Semanticleo says:

    Cronkite and Murrow were far from friendly, just as Fred Friendly was noxious.

    Cronkite had an ego the size of a tube-fired computer, and was pulling strings behind the scenes to get Eisenhower elected. But he had no fear of the TV camera, unlike his former Radio bigshots who sweated profusely at the thought of looking at that big eye. He threw his weight around with alacrity based on his glowing presence.

  4. Joe says:

    had the Supreme Court decided Dred Scott correctly on the merits it would have been a disaster

    I don’t know what this means exactly. I think arguably the “correct” ruling could have been Nelson’s concurrence on narrow grounds. The state court’s ruling on his status stands.

    The stuff about blacks should have been mostly left out. Curtis’ dissent was no major advancement of liberty on that front anyhow. As to the territories, if anything, that was bad for the Dems since Taney didn’t even accept the Douglas popular sovereignty approach.

    The ‘correct’ approach there would probably be to say Congress had the power over slavery, which could be a problem, but since that could be protecting it (which Southerners wanted and ultimately split with Douglas on), that too might not have been some sort of “disaster.”

    Correct also could have been simply not to decide the issue and some argued the whole discussion on the point was dicta anyhow.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      Well, if that’s the correct ruling, then it would have made no difference whatsoever. The Supreme Court ducking the case makes keeping the Democratic coalition together harder rather than easier, which is why congressional Democrats — including Douglas — wanted the ruling Taney issued.

  5. rea says:

    In what respect did Lincoln ignore the Dred Scott decision? Slavery was ultimately abolished by constitutional amendment. The emancipation proclamation was carefully shaped as a military measure, within the president’s power as commander in chief of the armed forces (hence no abolition in areas not in rebellion).

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      His administration granted a passport to an African-American — as part of an explicit policy rejecting the idea that African-Americans could never be citizens — and he signed a law banning slavery in federal territories. If that’s not repudiating Dred Scott, what the hell would be?

      • rea says:

        Well, (1) passports are issued to non-citizen nationals (there are still a few Samoans falling into this catagory for the US), and (2) the DC abolition was compensated emancipation, e. g., an exercise of the eminient domain power. Lincoln could and did, reconcile these moves with Dred Scott.

        • Scott Lemieux says:

          Lincoln could and did

          I’d love to see the cite for that.

          • rea says:

            Giving you a cite involves rather more work than I’m prepared to do for a blog comment, but look–emancipating slaves (but not making them citizens) by treating them as property and buying them from their owners doesn’t violate Dred Scott, particularly in DC, where the federal government is exercising the powers of a loal government. When Lincoln wanted to try a similar program in Delaware, it failed because he could not get the state government to agree.

            • Scott Lemieux says:

              1)I didn’t say that he signed a ban on slavery in the states. That wasn’t at issue in Dred Scott. I said he signed a ban on slavery in federal territories, an act Dred Scott plainly held to be unconstitutional.

              2)I find it implausible in the extreme that Lincoln would reconcile any of his actions with Dred Scott, since he said both before and after becoming president that he did not consider himself bound by the constitutional reasoning of Dred Scott. Hence, I’ll believe your assertion when you point me to the evidence for it.

  6. rea says:

    Halberstam said that Johnson watched the broadcast in Washington, then said to his press secretary, George Christian, that “if he had lost Walter Cronkite, he had lost Mr. Average Citizen. It solidified his decision not to run again.”

    If Johnson really said this, I suspect what he meant is not that Cronkite had somehow made the war untenable through his pronouncemnts on TV, but that Cronkite’s views mirrored those of middle America. It was losing middle Amercia, not Cronkite, that was decisive–losing Cronkite was a symptom, not a cause.

    • Auguste says:

      Not being well-read on the Cronkite/CBS News situation (until now), simply catching the “Johnson” “quote” here and there, I’ve always assumed this to be the case, actually.

    • FlipYrWhig says:

      I never thought it could have meant anything but that. Cronkite as barometer of middle-of-the-road opinion. IOW, “if I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve _already_ lost Mr. Average Citizen.”

    • greylocks says:

      It was never a popular war, and the draft and ever-increasing escalations with no clear results to show for it were wearing thin on the public’s patience. I doubt that anything Cronkite or anyone else said had a measurable effect on what was already a downward trend in popular support.

      What really undermined “middle America” support for the war was when working-class white kids started getting their draft notices.

  7. Bruce Vail says:

    CBS always tries hard to burnish the reputations of its most famous newscasters, probably in an effort to diminish legitimate criticism of its day-to-day business operations.

    This was laughably the case in the recent death of Mike Wallace. No obit of Wallace, no matter how filled with puff by CBSers, could obscure the fact that his long career at the network produced no journalistic accomplishments (as opposed to commercial accomplishments) of note.

  8. howard says:

    i would say that menand overstates the state of media conventional wisdom play “by” 1968.

    it is true that by 1968, it was becoming increasingly clear to what i’ll call the moderate hawks that the war was not winnable in a conventional sense, but since “declaring victory and leaving” was regarded as a crazy hippie idea, the fact that it was dawning on some that the war was not winnable in a conventional sense made no difference whatsoever.

    in other words, menand paints a slightly too benign picture: as i’ve noted in this space previously, had mccarthy not run, the increasing opposition to the war among democrats would never have found a voice in electoral politics at all, and the conventional wisdom would have been more or less equivalent to the media conventional wisdom on afghanistan today….

    • TT says:

      It seems to me that a good many of the Kennedy people who comprised the Democratic establishment in 1968 were keeping their powder dry in order to maintain some kind of unity through the election, but then the Democratic convention, among other factors, exposed just how badly they’d misjudged their party’s base. However, Nixon’s election made it much more respectable among opportunistic establishment Democrats (think Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., passionately opposed to the war by 1969) to oppose the war and favor complete withdrawal.

      There’s also the conservative myth that the country was strongly in favor of the war right up until that liberal pussy Johnson threw in the towel after Tet. Rubbish: public opinion in favor of the war declined steadily but markedly throughout 1967. Tet was merely the cliff at the end of a very long and precipitous descent.

      • howard says:

        tt, that’s right, if we are talking 1969 rather than 1968, then the mainstream media position is this war is going to have a negotiated endpoint….

        and yes, suddenly many dems who had hung back from association with the dreaded peace-now hippies found a basis to look to end the war more rapidly (shall we say).

  9. Semanticleo says:

    CBS always tries hard to burnish the reputations of its most famous newscasters, probably in an effort to diminish legitimate criticism of its day-to-day business operations

    The one good thing about Paley was his support for keeping the News Division out of the profit game. Exempting them, as a public service venue, was key to keeping some stories in play without undue influence. !968 was just about the time the entertainment news started to merge with actual news, and as such, has remained verklempt.

  10. Credit for ending the Vietnam war has been variously assigned to, inter alia, Walter Cronkite, Henry Kissinger, and the hippies. None of them deserve it.

  11. charles pierce says:

    I made a lot of the same points when I wrote about The Newsroom over at my joint. But, at least in the case of Murrow, it should be said that, at a time when McCarthy had what passed for a national media either in hiding or in his pocket, Murrow was the one that finally stood up. That has to count for something.

  12. wengler says:

    The most interesting thing about the Cronkite statements is how it can be perceived as having such prominence at the time and yet throwing away 20,000+ American lives after that didn’t seem to matter much.

  13. The Kenosha Kid says:

    the war was “mired in stalemate,” which is what Cronkite had said

    Does this mean that Ann-Margret isn’t coming?

  14. Reilly says:

    For a certain generation, the role of the Truth-Telling Broadcaster has been greatly exaggerated…

    And regenerated, at times, in the blogoshpere where the Truth-Telling Broadcaster mythistory isn’t so much celebrated in itself (as fanciful as it may be), as it is offered as a towering indictment of today’s media (as if we need historical comparisons, real or imagined, to process those inadequacies). For a prime example of this read Greenwald’s post Celebrating Cronkite while ignoring what he did, in which he concocts a screed stew using Halberstam, Cronkite, and strange as it seems, even MLK, in order to pummel current media stars for presuming their worthiness to commemorate Cronkite’s passing. Cronkite himself is given less ink than anybody in the piece, including Tim Russert and Lewis Lapham. Mythology as cudgel and subject as token.

  15. My oldest brother was drafted in 1966, so our family watched the news with fairly focused attention. do not recall seeing that broadcast, but we did watch CBS in our house.

    I do not trust my recollections of teenage years completely, but I feel like McNamara’s departure was a bigger deal than Cronkite’s report.

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