Editor’s note: With the 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, WND takes a fresh look at the way CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite’s famous 1968 editorial altered U.S. public opinion about the war – a broadcast that was untrue, turning a monumental defeat for the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces into a propaganda victory. This is the second of a three-part series. Read Part 1: ‘Lost’ Cronkite broadcast reveals 180-degree war flip and Part 3: Meet the Real Walter Cronkite’
By WND Staff
WASHINGTON – Decades after Walter Cronkite delivered his famous editorial in 1968 after the Tet Offensive, he admitted that he got the story wrong.
WND has obtained a copy of a letter written by Cronkite to an irate veteran who took issue with his claim that the U.S. and South Vietnamese forces did not rout the Communist enemy.
In the fall of 2000, 32 years after Tet, Cronkite was still writing letters to veterans outraged at how his Feb. 27, 1968, personal editorial comments about the war actually became a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy of how the conflict would end – in stalemate.
One of those letters, dated Sept. 6, was directed to veteran activist Ed Moffitt, then of New York, who had taken Cronkite to task for admitting in his book, “A Reporter’s Life,” that CBS “tried to keep our reports impartial but personally I tilted largely toward the dissidents.”
The last two paragraphs of the personalized letter from Cronkite specifically reference his famous Tet broadcast and reveal that Cronkite had, once again, changed his mind about the military outcome of that offensive.
“Regarding the Tet broadcast,” Cronkite wrote, “I made clear that my closing comments were a personal opinion and that the previous hour-long broadcast was as unbiased as we could make it.”
He continued: “I recognized sometime after the fact that the North Vietnamese had suffered a military defeat, but this did not dictate an apology on my part for following the precepts of responsible journalism in reporting the situation as I saw it at the time.”
Again, it’s worth pointing out that Cronkite, only two weeks earlier, on Feb. 13, 1968, while reporting from Saigon, had said just that: “First and simplest, the Viet Cong suffered a military defeat.” Two weeks later, in a broadcast that would fundamentally change American perception of the war, he said the opposite. Decades later, he admitted he was right the first time – acknowledging the overwhelming disaster that Tet represented militarily to the North Vietnamese.
In researching the history of the two contradictory Cronkite Tet videos, another largely unknown fact was discovered. While the historic broadcast commentary of Feb. 27, 1968, was described by the anchorman throughout his life as his personal writing, that assertion has been challenged by one of his closest colleagues. Ernie Leiser, Cronkite’s long-time executive producer, claimed to have written every word of it. In 2011, Murray Fromson, a former CBS News correspondent and professor emeritus in journalism at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication, reported having a hunch that Leiser actually crafted the script. He asked Leiser about it, and here’s what he reportedly said: “I wrote every word of it, but, it could not have gone on the air without Walter’s approval.”
WATCH WALTER CRONKITE’S ‘LOST’ REPORT:
After some research, Fred Koster, the director of “Ride the Thunder,” a documentary on the war, found it aired in a 12-hour series from 1985 called “Vietnam War with Walter Cronkite” – at the express direction of the CBS anchor. Cronkite stated in the series that many had accused the U.S. news media of misrepresenting Tet as a victory for the Communists. On that basis, he showed the clip as his proof that he did not show bias.
“Cronkite’s statement really doesn’t make any sense,” Koster said. “If what he was reporting in that clip was true, why would he then go back to the U.S. and claim Tet not a victory? I think in 1985 he dug up this old broadcast from somewhere in the mistaken belief it would make him seem unbiased.”
As famous and memorable as Cronkite’s broadcast calling for a negotiated end to the Vietnam war was and is, the “lost” Cronkite clip is not. WND showed the latter to dozens of Vietnam vets and others who were glued to network news reports in 1968 and not a single person could recall ever having seen it.
“If you listen to the first few words of Cronkite’s famous February 27 broadcast, he actually hints that what he is about to say represents a contradiction of what he had previously reported,” said Farah. “Look at those words: ‘Tonight, back in more familiar surroundings in New York …’ What does that suggest? To me, it suggests something happened after he got back to New York. What that was I have no idea. In 1968, New York was a center of anti-war activity. The elite in the media and cultural establishment were already deeply opposed to it. Because Cronkite represented such an important institution in shaping the nation’s perceptions of reality, perhaps he was lobbied hard by his friends, colleagues and even bosses at the network. But, whatever the case, without question, that commentary represents a 180-degree shift from what he reported less than two weeks earlier while in Saigon.”
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