Walter Cronkite, the CBS Evening News anchorman, was a great weathervane to see the changing attitudes in American unfold concerning the Vietnam War. Initially, Cronkite supported US involvement, but in early-1968, “The Most Trusted Man in America” came out against the government’s decisions/policies in Vietnam in respectable opposition, disassociating himself with the war. In the early years of the war, Cronkite used his massive credibility to lend assistance to the government and the military, viewing the the conflict in SE Asia as necessary. Rare was the American that saw the Vietnam War for what it truly was, a War of National Liberation (as was the American Revolution), so it was predictable that Cronkite agreed with the powers-that-be that the US should not appease the North Vietnamese Communists, and that North Vietnam should be contained. Cronkite, like the rest of America, had given his trust to those in power.
Cronkite, who by 1965 had reached the pinnacle of his profession, figured that those in the top positions in the government and military knew what they were doing (as he did), and he took their word for the progress of the war. By his own admission, Cronkite, when he went to Saigon for the first time in 1965, was a George Kennan Containment Man, following the conventional wisdom of the Cold War Era.
However, one thing did bother Cronkite in Saigon in 1965: he was repeatedly told that the war would be short and small, yet he witnessed massive military construction projects going on which flat-out countered that claim. On his return to the CBS Evening News anchor desk, Cronkite did feature enough reports from Safer and John Laurence (the other prominent CBS correspondent) where the White House referred to CBS as the “Communist Broadcasting Network”. Eventually Cronkite, like much of the nation, became frustrated at the endlessness of the war, and Cronkite increasingly came to doubt the credibility of the men in charge of the war.
By 1967, the word “stalemate” started to appear more-and-more in the world of journalism concerning Vietnam. As 1968 opened, LBJ was on the defensive, with television no longer an asset to the President, and increasingly, TV featured more-and-more of the anti-war perspective. Before 1968 the Viet Cong (VC) and the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) preferred nighttime raids, and they vanished before dawn, knowing that daylight was an additional enemy which led to more casualties. That strategy also meant that TV had a hard time documenting the actual war between the VC/NVA and the US and the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN).
During Tet, Cronkite decided to again go to Saigon, knowing full well that he was stepping out of his role as anchorman into an editorial role, and that his career may change for the worse. At a military press conference, General William Westmoreland (who was surprised when he heard Cronkite was present) stated that Tet was exactly what the US had wanted all along, that if the VC/NVA would fight a traditional war, the superpower would crush them. To Cronkite, it was an Orwellian experience, seeing the Ministry of Truth in Charge of Lying (No one in the military understood that Vietnam wasn’t a “Real Estate War” like WW II).
Cronkite had trouble even landing in South Vietnam due to the fighting associated with Tet, so he was unable to go to Khe Sanh and instead went to Hue, where the NVA had in effect surrounded the Marines. Cronkite was truly an embedded wartime correspondent again: with his own eyes, he witnessed the gap between the reality of the war and the false/ignorant claims of the US government/military. Cronkite flew out from Hue accompanied by the body bags of 12 dead US soldiers.
Cronkite wrote a thirty minute broadcast special, and his conclusion was that it was time for the US to get out of Vietnam; he was ready to make that statement as was much of the nation to hear him. Cronkite changed the balance in that it was the first time in US History a war had been declared over by an anchorman. Cronkite was one of the reasons why LBJ announced on 31 March 1968 that he would not run again for President (the biggest reason was that RFK had entered the Democratic primaries, and he flat-out refused to lose to the man he hated more than any other . . . LBJ’s main fears were failure and humiliation).
LBJ still liked Cronkite, believing that he was different from what he considered to be the unpatriotic renegades in the media. Cronkite was perhaps the only major journalist that LBJ respected and admired, knowing that Cronkite cared deeply about the welfare of the nation. LBJ realized that he had lost the “Center”, and the Cronkite must know things concerning the war that he, as President, didn’t know.
Also: Cronkite's Top Ten TV Moments . . .