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Selective what now?


From the “Let Me Google That For You” file, here’s Jack Moss complaining about Rick Perlstein’s outstanding piece in the Post, wherein he notes that — unlike today — news anchors of years past never felt obligated to provide airtime to people with dissenting views on the shape of the earth:

Of course this is selective amnesia that ignores how Cronkite’s “editorializing” of the Vietnam War, calling a victory at Tet a “defeat” lead [sic] to American withdrawal and the wasted sacrifice of over 50,000.

Sigh. If you’re the sort who likes to accuse someone of “selective amnesia,” you’d do yourself a favor to actually look up the relevant historical text. Here’s Cronkite, 27 February 1968:

Who won and who lost in the great Tet Offensive against the cities? I’m not sure. The Vietcong did not win by a knockout but neither did we. . . .

Both in Vietnam and Washington to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds. For it seems now more certain than ever, that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past.

To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, if unsatisfactory conclusion. On the off chance that military and political analysts are right, in the next few months we must test the enemy’s intentions, in case this is indeed his last big gasp before negotiations.

But 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 lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.

So far as the substance of the claim goes, Moss — like most conservatives who try to write about the Vietnam War — hopelessly wrong. Leave aside the weird notion that a single editorial contributed to the US withdrawal and the “wasted sacrifice” of 50,000 lives; as Chester Pach wrote after Cronkite’s death, the popularity of the war had been sliding long before Tet and was not visibly altered by Cronkite’s editorial. In mid-1967, Gallup was polling Johnson’s handling of the war at less than 50 percent approval, and the perception of the war as a “stalemate” was widespread enough that reporters had begun using the term in print and on the air. In fact, Cronkite’s analysis of the situation actually shadowed the consensus among the most important analysts and officials in the Johnson administration, as well as dissenters from the Kennedy administration who had originally advised against an escalation of the conflict seven years earlier.

As it happened, Cronkite’s last sentence was prophetic, at least to the extent that it described the actual conditions under which the US would belatedly leave South Vietnam five years later. Had Johnson been able to negotiate an end to the war, or if Nixon had followed the abundantly sane course advocated by Cronkite and others, more that 20,000 American lives — to say nothing of the much greater numbers of Vietnamese and Cambodians — would have been spared. It’s not surprising that self-professed conservatives, who interpret body counts as an measure of virtue, would view such advice as cowardly.

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