Walter Cronkite: Late and lame on Vietnam
I remember when Walter Cronkite made his famous dissent on Vietnam on his CBS news broadcast after the Tet Offensive in 1968. Those of us opposed to that war were pleased, since Cronkite's status and solid middle American persona gave his pronouncement great force. But 1968 was late in the game, since the big US escalation in Vietnam took place in 1965, which is when his statement would have had greater effect. In fact, flawed decisions were made by US decision-makers earlier than that---after the Viet Minh crushed the French forces at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, for example, when the US essentially took over the war from the French, who were simply trying to hold on to their colonies in Southeast Asia.
This is the central reality of Vietnam ignored in Cronkite's flaccid, ahistorical statement of dissent: the war in Vietnam was nothing but a colonial war the US inherited from the French, who were soundly defeated by the Vietnamese on the battlefield. That the US redefined the war as an anti-communist crusade after 1954 didn't change that reality. Cronkite implies that if the US had only achieved "victory" on the battlefield, the war would have been acceptable to him, in spite of the genocidal US tactics---the free-fire zones, the defoliation of the forests in Vietnam, the "resettlement" of the peasants into concentration camps, etc.
The government in South Vietnam was created by the US after it refused to allow nationwide elections promised at the Geneva conference in 1954, since everyone understood that the Viet Minh would have won those elections. Vietnam was always one country, and Vietnamese nationalism---even though led by Communists---wasn't going to permit a foreign power, French or American, to rule the country. This is why Cronkite's statement that the failed American effort in Vietnam was one attempted "by honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could" is particularly stupid. The war in Vietnam never had anything to do with democracy, and it's hard to understand how anyone as intelligent as Cronkite could believe that as late as 1968.
WALTER CRONKITE'S "WE ARE MIRED IN STALEMATE" BROADCAST, FEBRUARY 27, 1968
Tonight, back in more familiar surroundings in New York, we'd like to sum up our findings in Vietnam, an analysis that must be speculative, personal, subjective. Who won and who lost in the great Tet offensive against the cities? I'm not sure. The Vietcong did not win by a knockout, but neither did we. The referees of history may make it a draw. Another standoff may be coming in the big battles expected south of the Demilitarized Zone. Khesanh could well fall, with a terrible loss in American lives, prestige and morale, and this is a tragedy of our stubbornness there; but the bastion no longer is a key to the rest of the northern regions, and it is doubtful that the American forces can be defeated across the breadth of the DMZ with any substantial loss of ground. Another standoff. On the political front, past performance gives no confidence that the Vietnamese government can cope with its problems, now compounded by the attack on the cities. It may not fall, it may hold on, but it probably won't show the dynamic qualities demanded of this young nation. Another standoff.
We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds. They may be right, that Hanoi's winter-spring offensive has been forced by the Communist realization that they could not win the longer war of attrition, and that the Communists hope that any success in the offensive will improve their position for eventual negotiations. It would improve their position, and it would also require our realization, that we should have had all along, that any negotiations must be that -- negotiations, not the dictation of peace terms. For it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. This summer's almost certain standoff will either end in real give-and-take negotiations or terrible escalation; and for every means we have to escalate, the enemy can match us, and that applies to invasion of the North, the use of nuclear weapons, or the mere commitment of one hundred, or two hundred, or three hundred thousand more American troops to the battle. And with each escalation, the world comes closer to the brink of cosmic disaster.
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. 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.
This is Walter Cronkite. Good night.
Source: Reporting Vietnam: Part One: American Journalism 1959-1969 (1998), pp. 581-582.Return to Additional Materials on the Tet Offensive