Media eulogies for Walter Cronkite – including from progressive commentators – rarely talk about his coverage of the Vietnam War before 1968. This obit omit is essential to the myth of Cronkite as a courageous truth-teller.
But facts are facts, and history is history – including what Cronkite actually did as TV’s most influential journalist during the first years of the Vietnam War. Despite all the posthumous praise for Cronkite’s February 1968 telecast that dubbed the war "a stalemate," the facts of history show that the broadcast came only after Cronkite’s protracted support for the war.
In 1965, reporting from Vietnam, Cronkite dramatized the murderous war effort with enthusiasm. "B-57s – the British call them Canberra jets – we’re using them very effectively here in this war in Vietnam to dive-bomb the Vietcong in these jungles beyond Da Nang here," he reported, standing in front of a plane. Cronkite then turned to a U.S. Air Force officer next to him and said: "Colonel, what’s our mission we’re about to embark on?"
"Well, our mission today, sir, is to report down to the site of the ambush 70 miles south of here and attempt to kill the VC," the colonel replied.
Cronkite’s report continued from the air. "The colonel has just advised me that that is our target area right over there," he said. "One, two, three, four, we dropped our bombs, and now a tremendous G-load as we pull out of that dive. Oh, I know something of what those astronauts must go through."
Next, viewers saw Cronkite get off the plane and say: "Well, colonel, it’s a great way to go to war."
The upbeat report didn’t mention civilians beneath the bombs.
That footage from CBS Evening News appears in War Made Easy, the documentary film based on my book of the same name. Routinely, audiences gasp as the media myth of Cronkite deconstructs itself in front of their eyes.
Also in 1965 – the pivotal year of escalation – Cronkite expressed explicit support for the Vietnam War. He lauded "the courageous decision that Communism’s advance must be stopped in Asia and that guerilla warfare as a means to a political end must be finally discouraged."
Why does this matter now? Because citing Cronkite as an example of courageous reporting on a war is a dangerously low bar – as if reporting that a war can’t be won, after cheerleading it for years, is somehow the ultimate in journalistic quality and courage.
The biggest and most important lie about an aggressive war based on deception is not that the war can’t be won. The biggest and most important lie is deference to the conventional wisdom that insists the war must be fought in the first place and portrays it as a moral enterprise.
From the War Made Easy film transcript [.pdf]:
NORMAN SOLOMON: "A big problem with the media focus is that it sees the war through the eyes of the Americans, through the eyes of the occupiers, rather than those who are bearing the brunt of the war in human terms."
WALTER CRONKITE: "We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders both in Vietnam and Washington to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds."
SOLOMON: "In early 1968, Walter Cronkite told CBS viewers that the war couldn’t be won."
CRONKITE: "It seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate."
SOLOMON: "And that was instantly, and through time even more so, heralded as the tide has turned. As Lyndon Johnson is reputed to have said when he saw Cronkite give that report, ‘I’ve lost middle America.’ And it was presented as not only a turning point, quite often, but also as sort of a moral statement by the journalistic establishment. Well, I would say yes and no. It was an acknowledgment that the United States, contrary to official Washington claims, was not winning the war in Vietnam, and could not win. But it was not a statement that the war was wrong. A problem there is that if the critique says this war is bad because it’s not winnable, then the response is, ‘Oh yeah, we’ll show you it can be winnable, or the next war will be winnable.’ So, that critique doesn’t challenge the prerogatives of military expansion, or aggression if you will, or empire."