Walter Cronkite’s death on Friday evening will doubtless fill the weekend news programs with career retrospectives and fond tributes. He was an extraordinarily accomplished newsman, and a transitional figure for the rise of television news. It is the nature of celebrities that their lives are celebrated when they pass on, so there’s nothing surprising about Cronkite receiving far more public honors than the world’s greatest baker, or neurosurgeon, could expect. There are also strong words of criticism to be spoken at Cronkite’s national funereal. He achieved much during his career, and many other print, broadcast, and Web outlets will spend the weekend recounting these achievements. His most unhealthy achievement was finding the limits of American will, ending an era of confidence that began with victory over the Axis in World War II. Some would say that confidence needed to be shattered. If you have a Ouija board, I can put you in touch with a couple of million dead Cambodians who might beg to differ.
For the conservative student of recent history, and of course for the surviving veterans of Vietnam, the nadir of Cronkite’s career was his reporting in the wake of the Tet Offensive. For the younger reader who might not be familiar with this event, the Tet Offensive was a massive, coordinated attack on all the major cities of South Vietnam, during the normally quiet Vietnamese New Year celebrations, in January and February of 1968. The U.S. Military had been making public statements of Communist weakness, so the large-scale attacks seriously undermined the military’s credibility with the American public. From a military standpoint, Tet was a disaster for the Communists, who were estimated to have suffered over 8000 casualties, severely damaging the Vietcong insurgency in South Vietnam. The operation produced no strategic gains for the North Vietnamese, who had to compensate for the decimation of the Vietcong by committing more regular army troops to subsequent combat operations. It was a huge propaganda victory, however, as Cronkite – a newsman with respect and influence far beyond any single figure in journalism today – declared the Vietnam War to be unwinnable. “We are mired in a stalemate that could only be ended by negotiation, not victory,” America’s Anchorman declared.
Cronkite’s editorial about the war represented a considerable departure from the previous journalistic ethic of reporting objective facts, and allowing the audience to make up their own minds about their meaning. It certainly wasn’t an ethic observed with unshakeable fidelity before him, but Cronkite’s stature made his reporting on Vietnam a significant moment in journalistic history. President Johnson famously declared, “if I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” The military found itself unable to sell its strategically correct assessment of Tet as a defeat for North Vietnam to the public. Consequently, their request for a troop surge, to finish the job in Vietnam, was denied by the President, who became despondent and largely stopped communicating with the media. In the wake of Cronkite’s declaration of inevitable defeat in Vietnam, public support for the war dropped fifteen to twenty points in public opinion polls… in a matter of months.
If any of this sounds familiar to you, it should. The congressional Democrats of 2006 remembered the Tet Offensive very well. You might have thought Harry Reid looked like an imbecile, desperately searching for a live al-Qaeda commander he could surrender to, and you might have considered the “General Betray Us” Moveon.org swill on the eve of the Iraq troop surge to be mindlessly stupid… but they were just trying to reproduce what Cronkite did for the North Vietnamese, the way a cargo cult hopes to bring gifts from the sky gods by building crude replicas of airports.
Cronkite’s reporting on the Tet Offensive was a signature moment in the evolution of asymmetrical warfare. The Vietcong resembled modern terrorists in many ways – they even had suicide bombers. North Vietnam realized, by the spring of 1968, that they could never defeat the American military in battle. The NVA field commander, General Giap, was said to be despondent over the failure of the Tet offensive, and felt his situation was likely to deteriorate even further. Then, as now, American soldiers were proving highly adaptable, and were developing increasing skill at countering enemy tactics, along with a naturally improved knowledge of Vietnamese terrain. The gallantry and skill of Vietnam’s soldiers paved the way for America’s astonishing battlefield victories in Operations Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom, much as tomorrow’s soldiers will study the long and painful story of the Iraqi occupation, to perfect their counterinsurgency tactics. The soldiers and commanders of 1968 were learning, too.
I will leave it to military historians to debate whether a full-scale surge of troops in the wake of Tet would have secured the defeat of North Vietnam. For myself, I think it highly likely. We’ll never know, because the age of modern terrorism – tactics designed to sap civilian will and destroy political support for a powerful military – began when Walter Cronkite took to the air on February 27, 1968, and informed the American public it should not “have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds.”
Walter Cronkite was not an active agent of the North Vietnamese, in the sense Jane Fonda was. He spent the rest of his life steadfastly insisting his editorial judgment on Vietnam represented his honest and heartfelt opinion. When measuring an event of such enormous importance, it hardly matters what his deeply felt personal reasons were. What he did not do was simply and clearly report on the outcome of the Tet offensive, and allow his viewers to decide what they made of it. The Communists came to understand the value of their propaganda victory, with General Giap later saying “The most important result of the Tet offensive was it made you de-escalate the bombing, and it brought you to the negotiation table. It was, therefore, a victory… The war was fought on many fronts. At that time the most important one was American public opinion.” (Contrary to Internet rumors that will probably start floating around again this weekend, Giap did not specifically credit Walter Cronkite with making this “victory” possible.)
Cronkite’s career saw the rise of advocacy journalism in the modern sense, along with the birth of terror warfare. The two developments are not unrelated. Terrorism benefits from access to a media that sees itself as international and “open-minded,” rather than aligned with the patriotic interests of its mother country. Journalists of Edward R. Murrow’s day would have named al-Qaeda killers as vermin, without hesitation, and applauded American soldiers for exterminating them. Cronkite decided the vermin were invincible. His descendants give interviews where they proudly state they would not warn American troops of an impending terror attack, pass along terrorist propaganda and doctored photographs as news, and dispatch reporters to search for signs of defeat when victory is imminent… provided a President of the wrong party sits in the White House, of course. Say this much for Cronkite: he didn’t care that Johnson had a (D) after his name. To Keith Olbermann, nothing else would matter.
After Cronkite came the deluge. Consider the trajectory of his successor, Dan Rather, who began his career lying about schoolchildren applauding the assassination of JFK, and ended it by trying to pass off falsified documents in a partisan hit job on President Bush during the 2004 elections. Cronkite was a powerful and accomplished newsman who made a fateful decision to become the news, instead of reporting it. His replacement was a ridiculous hack. Whatever you think of Walter Cronkite, it seems clear that his profession became smaller, and less trustworthy, after he passed through it. We would be wise to remember the lesson he taught us about the limits of American will in the Age of Terror. It’s better for us to win our battles fast and hard, and let the media weep for the enemy, than give the media time to dictate our strategy, and declare victory impossible.
Update: Thanks to ericdijon for pointing out a couple of two-A.M. spelling errors, which I have corrected.