TWE Mailbag: Walter Cronkite, the Tet Offensive, and Kent State
from The Water's Edge

TWE Mailbag: Walter Cronkite, the Tet Offensive, and Kent State

Walter Cronkite on television during a presidential debate on September 23, 1976.
Walter Cronkite on television during a presidential debate on September 23, 1976. (Thomas J. O'Halloran/courtesy the Library of Congress)

Always underpromise and overdeliver. Never overpromise and underdeliver. Why? Because people don’t judge events in a vacuum. They judge them in terms of what they expect. Beat expectations and you are a hero. Miss expectations and you are a goat.

I raise the issue of expectations because a reader named Dave Howard kindly commented on my recent post about the fall of Saigon. Dave switched the focus to an event that happened seven years before Saigon fell—the surprise Tet Offensive in late January 1968. Dave blames the media for costing the United States victory in Vietnam, but his complaint fails to put Tet in context. And that failure leads to bad history and bad policy recommendations.

Dave’s comment in full:

Well in 1968, it was Cronkite who distorted the truth and turned public opinion against the war. When he stated that Tet was a defeat, and "the war is Lost", he couldn’t have been more wrong. He must have known he was lying...

The north and the VC suffered devastating losses. Tet was a last ditch chance to win and we inflicted enormous losses on them. In truth, as has come out recently, they were ready to sue for peace after the humiliating defeat that Tet was for them.

Now I understand that everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but no one is entitled to their own facts. Truth is truth...

Dave gets several important things right. North Vietnam’s Tet gamble was a failure in terms of battlefield losses. The U.S. and South Vietnamese militaries were initially thrown off balance by the surprise attack, but they rebounded to rout Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops, essentially crippling the Viet Cong as a fighting force for the remainder of the war. Journalists got some of the initial facts wrong, most notably suggesting the Viet Cong fighters had entered the U.S. embassy rather than merely got onto its grounds. About a month after the Tet Offensive, Walter Cronkite did offer a much talked about editorial questioning the war’s prospects.

Dave, however, leaves out some important information about Cronkite. The famed CBS newsman visited South Vietnam immediately after Tet. During the trip, Cronkite sought out Gen. Creighton Abrams, Westmoreland’s deputy and someone he had known since World War II. (Yes, this is the same General Abrams whose name now adorns the U.S. Army’s main battle tank.) Abrams told him:

We cannot win this Goddamned war, and we ought to find a dignified way out.

Based on what Cronkite saw and heard in Vietnam, he closed his February 27, 1968 newscast with an editorial that argued “we are mired in stalemate.” That’s not the same thing as saying “the war is lost.”

These historical quibbles aside, Dave’s argument is one I frequently hear made about Tet—it was a military victory that the news media turned into a defeat. The problem with this argument is that it misses the broader context in which Tet occurred. Knowing a bit about the expectations the American public held about Vietnam at the start of 1968 helps explain why Tet became a turning point in the war.

When Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in August 1964, no one envisioned that three years later 13,000 American servicemen would have died in Vietnam. Certainly no one envisioned that the United States would be mired in a war in which progress, let alone success, would be elusive. The Johnson administration repeatedly said that the next round of troop increases would turn the tide of the war. But the next round never delivered the promised victory.

That failure had many Americans questioning the wisdom of the war by the fall of 1967. For the first time, polls showed that a majority of Americans thought that it had been a mistake to intervene in Vietnam. An even larger majority thought that U.S. troops were not making any progress. Public approval of Lyndon Johnson’s handling of the war fell below 30 percent. The public wasn’t clamoring for a withdrawal, but it also wasn’t happy about the prospect of committing more to Vietnam.

The Johnson administration’s response to growing domestic dissatisfaction was to launch a public relations offensive. U.S. officials were directed to “search urgently for occasions to present evidence of progress in Viet Nam.” Gen. William Westmoreland, the commanding general of U.S. forces in Vietnam, was brought home to make the case that the war was in fact going well. His message was decidedly upbeat. He told Congress:

We have reached an important point where the end begins to come into view.

Westmoreland’s remarks also seemed to imply that in the not-too-distant future the United States would actually be able to start bringing the troops home.

That was the political backdrop against which the Tet Offensive played out. The public had been told to expect good news. It got bad news—and a surprise attack in thirty-six of forty-four provincial capitals that has your political and military elites scrambling to catch up is bad news regardless of who is covering it. Whether Viet Cong fighters were outside rather than inside the U.S. embassy or what Walter Cronkite said was of minor importance. What mattered was that what Americans saw was a war that was going to last longer and be a lot harder than the White House had led them to expect. Credibility gaps can be fatal for a policy.

There are two additional things worth noting about the Tet Offensive. First, while it marked a turning point in the war, another five-and-a-half years passed before the United States signed a peace treaty. Walter Cronkite may have changed a few minds, but U.S. policy changed only slowly. Indeed, more American soldiers died in Vietnam after Tet than before it.

Second, to ask whether the United States could have won the war in Vietnam if journalists hadn’t made mistakes in covering Tet or if Walter Cronkite had kept silent is to ask the wrong question. The right question is whether the United States could have won the war at a cost Americans would have found acceptable. And the truth is that both Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon failed to persuade the American public that it could.

A Coda. Today marks the forty-first anniversary of the shootings at Kent State University. For those who don’t remember the details, soldiers in the Ohio National Guard fired into a crowd of students protesting the U.S. invasion of Cambodia days earlier. Four students died, and nine were wounded. The picture of Mary Ann Vecchio, a fourteen-year-old runaway, kneeling over the body of Jeffrey Miller became an iconic photo. The great Neil Young saw the photos of the shootings in Life magazine and penned the rock classic, "Ohio," which opens:

Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,

We’re finally on our own.

This summer I hear the drumming

Four dead in Ohio.

We talk a lot these days about America’s bitter political divisions. And it’s certainly easy to see anger and partisanship when you watch cable television news. But anniversaries like today remind us that in the past our divisions have been deeper, and deadlier.