“Report from Vietnam” | February 27, 1968
In February 1968 CBS Evening News anchor Walter Cronkite undertook a two-week fact-finding trip to Vietnam to assess the impact of the Tet Offensive—the massive coordinated North Vietnamese and Vietcong surprise attack on hundreds of targets across South Vietnam. At 10:00 p.m. on February 27, at the CBS News headquarters in New York City, Cronkite delivered his controversial 30-minute “Report from Vietnam.” Tens of millions of Americans tuned in as “the most trusted man in America” presented facts from the ground in Vietnam, making the case that the situation was more dire than the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson alleged. Towards the end of his report he delivered his only on-air personal commentary, in what historian David Schmitz has called the “single most important news event” of the Vietnam War. The “only realistic if unsatisfactory conclusion,” as Cronkite saw it, was that the US was not on the verge of victory and should find an “honorable” way out of Vietnam.
On January 30, 1968 (the first day of the Tet lunar new year), North Vietnamese troops and Vietcong guerrillas launched attacks on hundreds of cities and towns in South Vietnam. The US embassy in Saigon was breached and guerrillas engaged in fighting with American soldiers for several hours. A major US-South Vietnam counter-offensive successfully repelled the attacks and militarily it was a crushing defeat for the North Vietnamese. Yet, it hardly constituted a “victory” for the US. Tet demonstrated the weakness of South Vietnam and convinced many skeptical Americans that the government had misled them on the progress of the war—particularly General William C. Westmoreland’s optimistic announcement in late 1967 of a “light at the end of the tunnel.” Tet dominated television coverage in early 1968, and pictures from battlefields in Saigon and Hue confirmed the beginning of a “credibility gap” between what the Johnson administration was telling the American people and the reality on the ground. In the immediate aftermath of Tet public support for the war plummeted—78 percent believed the US was not making any progress—as did approval of Johnson’s conduct of the war, which dropped to an all-time low of 26 percent.
Walter Cronkite was furious when he learned of Tet, partly because he feared that his impartial reporting might have helped mislead the American people. “What the hell is going on?” he reportedly snapped. “I thought we were winning the war!” He journeyed to Vietnam to assess the situation for himself. Over two weeks he interviewed US and South Vietnamese officials and reported from the battlefields in Hue, Khe Sanh, and Saigon. Although initially an enthusiastic supporter of the American mission in Vietnam, Cronkite became increasingly troubled by what he saw on the ground and how it contrasted with official accounts. In his report he offered facts (as he saw them) from the ground in his traditional matter-of-fact style. After the final commercial break he stepped out of his anchor role and turned to face the audience from behind his New York desk, which indicated his desire to speak directly to his viewers. In calm and measured tones he conveyed his personal conviction that victory was not on the horizon and the war was “mired in stalemate.” He called for negotiations to find a way to extract Americans from Vietnam as an “honorable people” who did “the best they could” to defend democracy in Southeast Asia. Cronkite’s editorial was a major departure from his traditional impartial reporting style. Like other news anchors, he believed in reporting facts and maintaining an objective neutral stance. His “Report on Vietnam” was a rare break in character and such a departure stunned audiences who were seeing a very different Cronkite from what they were used to, which greatly underscored the significance of the message.
Cronkite’s report was but the most prominent example of a pervading pessimism within the news media at the time. In many ways his message—that the war was unwinnable—was not radical (many other journalists had been saying much the same thing) but coming from Cronkite it had a major impact. It was widely quoted and publicized and influenced numerous similar editorials. Cronkite’s remarks did not create anti-war sentiment—by late 1967 many Americans were becoming weary of the war and frustrated by the lack of progress—but it reflected and helped intensify popular doubts about the war that had been on the rise. It placed the respected Cronkite in support of the burgeoning antiwar movement, making that movement more acceptable to mainstream Americans and no longer a radical fringe movement of students and hippies. Newsweek noted that it was as if Lincoln himself had gotten up from his white-marble Memorial seat and joined the antiwar protesters along the reflecting pool. As Cronkite later stated, it “helped make an honest skepticism not only respectable but necessary and patriotic.”
The general anti-war shift of the news media also had an impact on the Johnson administration, reinforcing its own creeping doubts about the direction of the war effort. According to Press Secretary George Christian, Cronkite’s words sent “shock waves [that] rolled through the government,” and indicated to Johnson that mainstream American society no longer supported the war. Although he was probably not surprised by the report, Johnson undoubtedly recognized its significance and the political damage it inflicted. According to Christian, Johnson stated, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.” Tet and the subsequent media maelstrom forced a wrenching re-examination of Washington’s policies, which culminated in the realization that military victory was no longer certain. Several weeks later, on March 31, Johnson gave a television address where he announced that he had turned down the military’s request for additional troops and ordered the first de-escalation of the war. A partial bombing halt was initiated to facilitate negotiations to end American involvement. Johnson ended his address with the shocking announcement that he would not seek re-election in 1968. Although Cronkite discounted that his report influenced Johnson’s decisions, he conceded that it “may have been the back-breaking piece of straw that was heaped on the heavy load he was already carrying” and “may have given him the last push over the edge of a decision he was on the verge of making anyway.”
Brinkley, Douglas. Cronkite. New York: Harper Collins, 2012.
Hammond, William M. Reporting Vietnam: Media & Military at War, rev. ed. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1998.
Herring, George C. America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975, 5th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2014.
Schmitz, David F. The Tet Offensive: Politics, War, and Public Opinion. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005.
The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. Episode 6: “Things Fall Apart.” PBS, 2017.
Waters, H.F. “A Man Who Cares,” Newsweek, March 9, 1981, p. 58