Photo: Credit CBS, via Getty Images
This article originally appeared at the nytimes.com.
By Mark Bowden.
One of the enduring myths of the Vietnam War is that it was lost by hostile American press coverage.
Exhibit A in this narrative is Walter Cronkite, the CBS News anchor, billed as the nation’s most trustworthy voice, who on Feb. 27, 1968, told his audience of millions that the war could not be won. Commentary like this was remarkable back then because of both custom and the Fairness Doctrine, a federal policy requiring broadcasters to remain neutral about the great questions of the day.
The doctrine was rescinded in 1987, so now we have whole networks devoted to round-the-clock propaganda. But when Cronkite aired his bleak but decidedly middle-of-the-road assessment of the war 50 years ago, immediately after the Tet offensive, it was a significant departure. It struck like revelation. From the pinnacle of TV’s prime-time reach, he had descended to pronounce:
“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 suggest we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say that were are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion.”
Hardly radical words, but the judgment resonated. President Lyndon Johnson certainly felt it. A few weeks later he announced that he would not seek re-election and would devote the reminder of his term to reducing hostilities and moving “toward peace.” Not victory, “peace.”
Cronkite’s report was significant. It contributed greatly to the shift in public opinion against the war. But there was no immediate, radical turn. Most polls would continue to show narrowing but clear public support for the war for years to come. Richard Nixon was elected later that year, and vigorously prosecuted the war for six years more. If Cronkite was wrong, if the war was in fact being won and winnable, there were ample resources, time and commitment to prove it. In fact, Cronkite was right. The war was not being won, nor would it be.
It was not a war that could be won by firepower, even overwhelming firepower. Edward Lansdale, the country’s foremost expert on counterinsurgency, and one with long experience in Vietnam, had counseled as much from the beginning. As the military historian Max Boot writes in his superb biography of the man, “The Road Not Taken,” Lansdale told Defense Secretary Robert McNamara on their first meeting in 1961, after dumping a sample of the relatively primitive weapons and rubber sandals and equipment used by the Vietcong on his desk at the Pentagon:
“The people that are fighting there on our side are being supplied with our weapons and uniforms and shoes and all of the best that we have, and we are training them. Yet, the enemy is licking our side. Always keep in mind about Vietnam, that the struggle goes far beyond the material things of life. It doesn’t take weapons and uniforms and lots of food to win. It takes something else, ideas and ideals, and these guys are using that something else. Let’s at least learn that lesson.”
We never did. Our ally in Saigon was not a democracy. It was a notoriously corrupt, one-party, authoritarian state whose only virtue, in American eyes, was that it was not Communist. It survived only through an exorbitant investment of American money, guns and lives.
But when the Tet offensive came, with enemy forces mounting simultaneous attacks throughout South Vietnam in urban centers considered beyond its reach, Cronkite — like the rest of America — was shocked. He resolved to go to Vietnam to see for himself.
He saw a lot. Initial reports from Saigon had exaggerated the significance of the surprise raids in that city. The attacks were alarming but ultimately inconsequential and not as damaging as early press reports indicated — missteps that would be documented in detail in Peter Braestrup’s influential critique “Big Story.” His work has long been cited as proof that the press conspired to turn victory into defeat.
In the long run, though, these overblown initial reports worked to the American military’s advantage. The failed effort in Saigon was, according to official accounts, emblematic. This is the story Gen. William Westmoreland, the top American commander, told Cronkite. In a one-on-one interview weeks after the Tet offensive began, he insisted that what had happened in Saigon had happened throughout the country. The enemy had everywhere been routed. He told the anchor “to do his homework properly,” according to Douglas Brinkley in his book “Cronkite.”
But even as Westmoreland spoke, 400 miles north, American troops were locked in fierce combat in and around the city of Hue, which, unlike Saigon, the enemy had completely overrun. The fighting there was nowhere near over. House-to-house, block-to-block fighting there would grind on for 25 bloody days, destroying 80 percent of the city and leaving more than 10,000 dead.
Cronkite arrived in the middle of it and saw for himself that Westmoreland had been lying. The battle was reminiscent of the worst urban fighting in World War II, which Cronkite had witnessed as a young reporter. When he got back to New York, he not only told the truth but also tried to correct the impression he himself had helped to create. And sadly, it didn’t come close to ending the war.
Those who argue today that the press, and Cronkite, lost the war are correct in only one sense. Reporters in Vietnam were not perfect. They were not completely unbiased — the horror of the war repelled many. But they told the truth more consistently than American officials, and it was the truth that ultimately turned America against the war. An authoritarian government can wage a foolish, losing war indefinitely, but not a democracy.
For that we should be grateful. I’ll take Cronkite’s legacy over Westmoreland’s any day.