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The Myth of Walter Cronkite and Vietnam

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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.

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