Losing Cronkite, the country after the Tet Offensive

CBS newsman Walter Cronkite speaks in February 2004 at a ceremony at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington.


In a 1996 interview, Walter Cronkite remembers the effect his Feb. 27, 1968 editorial had on President Johnson, who was reported to have said, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost Middle America."

By MIKE STOLL | Austin Daily Herald, Minn. (Tribune News Service) | Published: January 31, 2018

Tuesday marked a golden anniversary that few remembered. There was no ceremony, no remembrance.


But Jan. 30, 1968, was a significant day.

On that day, U.S. military personnel in central South Vietnam did whatever they could to pass the time. The Vietnamese were celebrating their lunar new year, Tet, and a ceasefire had been arranged between the two sides for the duration of the celebration.

It proved to be the perfect cover for a military offensive for which the U.S. and its allies were completely unprepared. That night, combined forces of the Viet Cong and the People’s Army of Vietnam attacked 13 cities and numerous military outposts in central South Vietnam, hoping to inspire an uprising among the South Vietnamese while delivering a decisive blow to U.S. forces.

More than 120 attacks were launched, taking the allied forces completely by surprise.

In Saigon, Viet Cong soldiers were able to infiltrate the courtyard of the complex housing the American embassy before being destroyed by U.S. forces.

In the city of Hue, a bloody battle began that lasted until Feb. 26, when allied forces regained control of the city.

The offensive lasted until March 28, 1968.

From a tactical standpoint, the Tet Offensive was a military disaster for the North Vietnamese. They had failed to get the uprising they had hoped for and had taken heavy losses in the process. The Viet Cong, who had been fighting a guerilla war against the Americans since the war escalated in 1964, was virtually destroyed.

But the Tet Offensive would prove to be a strategic victory for the North Vietnamese. General William Westmoreland, the commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam who had assured the American leadership that combat in Vietnam was coming to a close, warned that fighting would continue for a long time. Images and footage of the fighting was broadcast all over the news. The allies had suffered 9,000 killed and 35,000 wounded. These casualties, which accounted for approximately 20 percent of Americans killed in Vietnam in 1968, increased the anti-war sentiment that had been stirring on the home front.

Then, on Feb. 27, 1968, Walter Cronkite, the most influential reporter of the day, uttered the following words:

“Who won and who lost in the great Tet Offensive against the cities? I’m not sure. The Viet Cong did not win by a knockout but neither did we … it seems now more certain than ever, that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate… 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.”

In other words, the war was unwinnable.

After Cronkite said this, President Lyndon Johnson, who was seeking re-election in 1968, told Press Secretary George Christian, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.” Johnson withdrew from the presidential race on March 31.

It was one of the clearest examples of the power of the press, shadowed perhaps only by the Watergate scandal and the explosion of the USS Maine.

In the end, Cronkite was right. Protests against the war escalated in 1969, the year U.S. military strength in Vietnam reached its peak of 550,000 men. That same year, newly-elected President Richard Nixon intensified bombings of North Vietnam, but began “Vietnamization,” that is, gradually reducing the U.S. military presence in Vietnam and handing military responsibility over to the South Vietnamese.

In January 1973, representatives from the U.S. and North and South Vietnam signed a treaty in Paris, ending direct U.S. involvement in the war.

The Tet Offensive was a turning point in the Vietnam War. Of all the casualties suffered by the Americans, the most influential was Cronkite’s belief it could be won.

©2018 the Austin Daily Herald (Austin, Minn.)
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