Cronkite Speaks Out on Vietnam
When communist forces launched nationwide attacks against U.S. and South Vietnamese troops during the Tet holiday in January of 1968, the news media mostly portrayed the offensive as a communist victory. The American public, generally believing that the war was being prosecuted successfully, was stunned to see headlines indicating otherwise.
A few weeks later, on Feb. 27, CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite – "the most trusted man in America" – ended a special broadcast with a rare editorial. Having just returned from a trip to South Vietnam, Cronkite told viewers that the war could not be won:
To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion. … 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.
Upon hearing Cronkite's editorial, President Lyndon B. Johnson is said to have told an aide, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost Middle America." Although it is known today that the Tet offensive was a crushing military defeat for the communists, public support for the war effort began to erode in the months that followed. The United States withdrew combat forces from South Vietnam in 1973, and in April of 1975 South Vietnam fell.
The ageless conflict between the public's need to know and the military's need for secrecy will be described in the Newseum's News History gallery when it opens soon. The display will include the story of the Tet offensive and will feature images and actual newspapers from the era.