When Walter Cronkite Pronounced the Vietnam War a ‘Stalemate’

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When Walter Cronkite assessed the military’s progress in the Vietnam War in 1968, his view departed from the government’s official optimism and influenced public opinion. Credit CBS, via Getty Images

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The doctrine was rescinded in 1987, so now we have whole networks devoted to round-the-clock propaganda.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.”

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