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Who lost Vietnam?
Was it Walter Cronkite?
On the evening of February 27, 1968, Walter Cronkite ended a CBS report on the Vietnam war with a personal commentary. Cronkite had been a combat correspondent during World War II, but by the time he inherited the anchor position on the CBS flagship news program, in 1962, he had left battlefields behind. A 1968 offensive by Communist forces in Vietnam, launched to coincide with the Tet lunar new year, caused him to dust off his boots and flak jacket and take to the field again. For months previous, officials of the Lyndon Johnson administration had been boasting of progress in the war. “We have reached an important point where the end begins to come into view,” General William Westmoreland, commander of American forces in Vietnam, told the National Press Club in November 1967. “I am absolutely certain that whereas in 1965 the enemy was winning, today he is certainly losing.” The Communists were on their last legs. “The enemy’s hopes are bankrupt.”
The Tet offensive cast doubt on this view. A coordinated attack by Viet Cong insurgents and North Vietnamese regulars upon more than a hundred cities and towns across South Vietnam, the offensive challenged the Johnson administration’s narrative of the war and threatened the South Vietnamese government the American troops were fighting to sustain. Cronkite decided to go to Vietnam and see for himself what was happening.
The tour gave rise to a special report that aired on February 27. Cronkite concluded with an editorial. “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,” Cronkite said. “Who won and who lost in the great Tet offensive against the cities? I’m not sure. The Viet Cong 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 Demilitarised Zone. Khe Sanh 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 honourable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy and did the best they could.
“This is Walter Cronkite. Good night.”
Cronkite’s commentary on the Tet offensive has been called a turning point in the Vietnam war. Lyndon Johnson might or might not have said that if he’d lost Cronkite, he’d lost America, but the fact that a pillar of the mainstream media, a media that to this point had been largely supportive, was calling for peace negotiations, gave the president serious pause. A month later Johnson announced a deescalation of the American war effort and took himself out of the 1968 presidential race. Peace talks began even as Johnson’s successor, Richard Nixon, formulated a strategy of disengagement.
After that disengagement ended in the defeat of the United States and its South Vietnamese allies, critics assailed Cronkite for contributing to the defeat. They observed that Tet turned out better for America and South Vietnam than he thought it would. The Communists lost all the ground they had gained at the start of the offensive and suffered heavy casualties as well. But the American public, the critics said, never learned this crucial fact, beguiled as they were by the defeatist comments of Cronkite and those who echoed him.
John Kennedy once said victory has a thousand fathers but defeat is an orphan. He might have rephrased had he lived to see the aftermath of Vietnam. The American defeat there had many fathers, according to the competing explanations. Westmoreland and the generals fought the wrong war, said one school. Johnson and the politicos refused to let Westmoreland and the soldiers win, said another. The hippies and peaceniks sapped the American character, said a third. Cronkite and the liberal media sold the country out, said a fourth. The corrupt regime in Saigon made victory impossible, said a fifth.
A human child can have but one biological father, so far. Historical events can have multiple fathers, even when some of the dads don’t want to admit paternity. If the Pentagon hadn’t rotated troops in and out of Vietnam so quickly, they might have fought better and formed closer ties to the Vietnamese people. Johnson’s decision to rule out an invasion of North Vietnam allowed the North Vietnamese to commit nearly all their resources to the fight in the South. Antiwar protesters deluded themselves and others in treating Ho Chi Minh as Vietnam’s answer to George Washington. When media figures like Cronkite turned against the war, the shift provided cover for elected officials and candidates to bail out as well.
The generals didn’t lose the war, but they contributed. Same for Johnson, the protesters and the media. The United States lost the war.
Or rather, the United States lost its part of the war. The South Vietnamese were the bigger losers. American forces packed up and went home. These days Americans rarely give the war a thought. The Vietnamese are still living with the consequences.
The outcome wasn’t inevitable. South Korea, with similar American help, survived a similar Communist assault. American policy in Vietnam aimed for a South Korea-style solution. But the mix of forces and players in Vietnam couldn’t deliver.
And that’s the way it was, as Walter Cronkite might have said.