The “voice of God” spoke, and President Lyndon Johnson trembled.
In early 1968, not long after the Tet offensive, CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite traveled to Vietnam to gauge the war’s progress. Cronkite, who before the trip had supported the escalating U.S. military campaign in Southeast Asia, returned to his desk in New York with his perspective at once enlightened and darkened.
On Feb. 27, near the end of a half-hour documentary titled “Report from Vietnam,” he delivered a sober editorial, his sonorous baritone laden with moral judgment.
“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,” he said.
“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.”
In the popular telling of the story, Johnson, after hearing the newsman’s appraisal, uttered his own grave assessment. “If I’ve lost Cronkite,” he said, “I’ve lost middle America.”
Less than five weeks later, with his approval ratings in free fall, Johnson ended his re-election campaign. Some historians ascribe his withdrawal, in part, to Cronkite’s on-air indictment, and cast his decision as proof of press coverage dictating public opinion on Vietnam. Yet the theory may provide stronger evidence of the tendency to inflate the media’s influence during the war.
A Gallup poll taken in October 1967, five months before the broadcast, showed that 47 percent of Americans believed the U.S. had erred by sending troops to Vietnam, a 15 percent jump since January that year. Likewise, between November 1967 and February 1968, when the program aired, the percentage of Americans with a favorable view of the war effort tumbled from slightly more than half to less than a third.
In other words, Cronkite’s special report didn’t jolt “middle America” so much as reaffirm its pessimism. The deified anchorman had voiced the misgivings of his unseen audience. Even so, in the decades since the war, the perception that the press sowed turmoil at home and brought about the U.S. defeat in Vietnam has hardened into received wisdom.
“The media are a convenient scapegoat,” said Daniel Hallin, author of “The ‘Uncensored War’: The Media and Vietnam.” “It’s more comfortable to think they were against the war, they were complicit. That takes the onus off the politicians and the military.”
Hallin’s book and another by historian William Hammond, “Reporting Vietnam: Media and the Military at War,” offer the deepest analysis of the conflict’s press coverage. Both authors scrutinized newspaper and broadcast accounts and found that much of the reporting in the early years, particularly on TV, hewed to the official government and military narrative. (There were notable exceptions, including Morley Safer’s report for CBS News on U.S. Marines burning down an evacuated village in a so-called Zippo raid in 1965.)
The skeptical coverage that later emerged, according to Hallin and Hammond, reflected rather than provoked the discontent of Americans, who had already soured on the war over its surging death toll and drain on the economy. National sentiment had traced a similar arc during the country’s previous overseas conflict.
“It should not be forgotten,” Hallin wrote, “that public support for the shorter and less costly limited war in Korea also dropped as its costs rose, despite the fact that television was in its infancy, censorship was tight and the World War II ethic of the journalist serving the war effort remained strong.”
The last vestiges of that ethic vanished as the war in Vietnam churned on. The work of a cadre of journalists, among them Peter Arnett, Joseph Galloway, David Halberstam, Michael Herr and Neil Sheehan, exposed the widening chasm between the reality on the ground and the military’s upbeat accounts. Reporters in Saigon dubbed daily press briefings the “5 o’clock follies,” a taunt at public affairs officers who, at the behest of superiors, embellished body counts and territorial gains.
“There was cognitive dissonance,” Hammond said. “Events were moving faster than policy, which made it difficult for the military to contain what the press was reporting.”
Johnson had tried to sell the storyline that U.S. forces were prevailing, and felt persecuted when journalists pointed out the plot holes. The same self-pity afflicted his successor, Richard Nixon, as bad news flooded the White House early in his first term.
In 1969, Seymour Hersh broke the story of the My Lai massacre that had occurred a year earlier. The Pentagon Papers exposé ran on the front page of The New York Times in 1971. The same year, frustrated by what he regarded as critical coverage of the U.S. incursion into Laos, Nixon groused, “Our worst enemy seems to be the press.”
Yet for all the damaging revelations that appeared in news articles, and even as Vietnam holds the distinction as the first “televised war,” the conflict’s most vivid media legacy belongs to photojournalists.
Three moments captured in Associated Press images, each of which won the Pulitzer Prize, came to define the war’s trajectory. Malcolm Browne’s shot of a Buddhist monk setting himself aflame in 1963 illustrated the unrest in South Vietnam under President Ngo Dinh Diem, whose assassination months later, carried out with CIA support, plunged America deeper into the country’s festering political crisis.
In 1968, early in the Tet offensive, a South Vietnamese general executed a Viet Cong officer with a gunshot to the temple as they stood on a Saigon street. Eddie Adams’s photograph of the killing stirred the nascent anti-war movement in America weeks before Cronkite declared the conflict a stalemate.
Four years later, when a napalm bomb struck a town near Saigon, Nick Ut held up his 35mm camera as a small group of people ran toward him. The indelible image of a naked 9-year-old girl, screaming as her flesh burned, drew worldwide attention and intensified pressure on Nixon to stop the bloodshed. Most U.S. troops left Southeast Asia the following year.
Hal Buell, AP’s director of photography for much of the war, recognized the visceral impact of the photos at the time. “But no one picture ended the war,” he said. “It still went on after they were published. Photography’s role in ending the war was that it showed the effects of war day after day after day.”
The military enabled that “water-drip coverage,” in Buell’s phrase, by granting journalists wide latitude in where they traveled and who they interviewed until the war’s latter stages. (The work came with considerable risk: more than 60 reporters were killed during the conflict.) The press has never again enjoyed as much freedom on the battlefield, as government and military officials have sought to control the flow of news.
President Ronald Reagan imposed a media blackout when U.S. forces invaded Grenada in 1983, the first major American military operation after Vietnam. The restrictions loosened somewhat for the Gulf War in 1990, with journalists allowed into Iraq, but they saw their movements limited and much of their work subjected to prior review.
Responding to complaints about censorship and lack of access, the military began embedding reporters with troops on its peacekeeping mission in Bosnia in 1995, and expanded the program for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Journalists traveled with specific units for short periods of time, giving them, at best, a blinkered view of the war zone.
“There’s no mass inspection of what’s happening,” Buell said. “Reporters don’t really get to see the bigger picture.”
Galloway, one of the lions of the Vietnam press corps, links the embed system to the “persistent myth” that the media lost the war by weakening public support in America. “It’s a lot easier to blame Walter Cronkite, Peter Arnett and Joe Galloway than it is to look at yourself and the consequences of your own failure and failed policy,” he said.
Along with Army Lt. Gen. Hal Moore, Galloway wrote “We Were Soldiers Once... And Young,” a chronicle of the war’s first major battle between U.S. and North Vietnamese forces. Galloway witnessed and reported on the four-day fight in November 1965 as a young correspondent with UPI. When the guns fell silent in the Ia Drang Valley, 234 U.S. troops had been killed and more than 250 wounded.
By that point, the U.S. death toll in Vietnam had reached 1,100. “If the media had the power the military says it had, there would be 1,100 names on that wall” — the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. — “instead of 58,300. But I couldn’t write that powerful of a story,” he said. “Nobody could.”
Galloway received a Bronze Star for Valor for rescuing several wounded soldiers during the battle. The only civilian awarded the honor by the Army for actions in Vietnam, he believes opposition to the war rose along with the one body count that the military could neither manipulate nor hide.
“People turned against the war for good cause: all those coffins coming home to every little village in America.”