Cronkite's 1968 Dissent on Vietnam Helped Save Thousands of Lives

While his anchoring of the JFK assassination and moon landing drew more viewers, his broadcast upon returning from Vietnam was his most important TV news moment.
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I probably failed to watch the late Walter Cronkite's most important TV news moment: his famous February 1968 commentary (so out of character) after returning from Vietnam in which he cast strong doubt on our mission there and its chances for success. Yes, the JFK assassination and moon landing drew more viewers but this broadcast would help save many thousands of lives, U.S. and Vietnamese, perhaps even a million.

I may have missed it at the time because I was then leading my campus Clean for Gene McCarthy campaign. McCarthy was about to drive Lyndon Johnson out of the race with a surprisingly strong second place finish in the New Hampshire primary. Surely, Walter had softened up LBJ for the kill.

In fact, perhaps the most famous quote about Cronkite was Johnson saying that if he'd "lost Cronkite" on Vietnam he'd lost "Middle America."

Cronkite also earned my gratitude later that year when he grew visibly upset on screen -- telegraphing his disgust -- when CBS showed images of protesters getting beaten up in streets of Chicago near the Democratic Convention gathering. I was out there, myself, though not beaten. When Dan Rather was roughed up on the floor of the convention, Cronkite denounced the "thugs" who were doing it.

Of course, the war continued for years, we even invaded Cambodia, and Vietnamese kept perishing in horrid numbers. But a U.S. "surge" in troop levels -- let alone the nuclear option -- was no longer thinkable. American troops eventually started to come home as Vietnamization and negotiation (along with much aerial bombing) eventually took center stage.

Thirty-five years later, Cronkite opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and continued his criticism in the years the followed, making some links to Vietnam. When hawkish Rep. John Murtha called for a U.S. retreat from Iraq some called it a "Cronkite moment." But, as we knew then (and even more so since), John Murtha was no Walter Cronkite.

Anyway, I can't think of a greater tribute to Cronkite than simply reprinting the transcript of the February '68 Vietnam commentary. It follows.

Tonight, back in more familiar surroundings in New York, we'd like to sum up our findings in Vietnam, an analysis that must be speculative, personal, subjective. 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. The referees of history may make it a draw. Another standoff may be coming in the big battles expected south of the Demilitarized Zone. Khesanh could well fall, with a terrible loss in American lives, prestige and morale, and this is a tragedy of our stubbornness there; but the bastion no longer is a key to the rest of the northern regions, and it is doubtful that the American forces can be defeated across the breadth of the DMZ with any substantial loss of ground. Another standoff.

On the political front, past performance gives no confidence that the Vietnamese government can cope with its problems, now compounded by the attack on the cities. It may not fall, it may hold on, but it probably won't show the dynamic qualities demanded of this young nation. Another standoff.

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. They may be right, that Hanoi's winter-spring offensive has been forced by the Communist realization that they could not win the longer war of attrition, and that the Communists hope that any success in the offensive will improve their position for eventual negotiations. It would improve their position, and it would also require our realization, that we should have had all along, that any negotiations must be that -- negotiations, not the dictation of peace terms.

For it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. This summer's almost certain standoff will either end in real give-and-take negotiations or terrible escalation; and for every means we have to escalate, the enemy can match us, and that applies to invasion of the North, the use of nuclear weapons, or the mere commitment of one hundred, or two hundred, or three hundred thousand more American troops to the battle. And with each escalation, the world comes closer to the brink of cosmic disaster.

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 we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet 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.

This is Walter Cronkite. Good night.

Greg Mitchell''s latest book is "Why Obama Won." He is editor of Editor & Publisher.

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