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Walter Cronkite Declared the Vietnam War Unwinnable 53 Years Ago Today

  • On February 27, 1968, CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite filed this editorial on the Vietnam War, in which he famously declared that the conflict was destined to end not in victory, but in a stalemate. This was a turning point for public support for the war effort, as Cronkite had a repuation as "the most trusted man in America," and his opinion carried a great deal of weight with viewers. President Lyndon Johnson was reported to have said "if I've lost Cronkite, I've lost Middle America." 

    This clip is the rarely-seen full "Report from Vietnam: Who, What, When, Where, Why?," featuring Cronkite traveling to South Vietnam personally during the aftermath of the infamous Tet Offensive, when the Viet Cong launched a well organized, widespread surprise attack during Lunar New Year festivities designed to foment an popular uprising to overthrow the government. While this assault was eventually defeated, it was nonetheless effective in shocking the American populace into realizing what they had begun to suspect — that their opponents in this conflict were not on the brink of defeat, and were, in fact, far more capable than they had been led to believe by the Johnson administration.

    "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," Cronkite stated. "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."

    His summation of the state of the war was eloquent and even-handed, delivered in that signature Cronkite cadence that came to define TV news in the twentieth century.

    Andy Hunsaker has a head full of sitcom gags and nerd-genre lore, and can be followed @AndyHunsaker if you're into that sort of thing.

    TOPICS: Walter Cronkite, CBS, The Vietnam War