Thursday, January 11, 2007

Last Night, I Experienced a Walter Cronkite Moment

Walter Cronkite, the television news anchor once known as "the most trusted man in America", has been off the "CBS Evening News" for nearly a quarter-century. In 1968, Cronkite visited Vietnam during the infamous Tet offensive. After his return, he was urged by his CBS boss to briefly set aside his objectivity to give his view of the situation. Cronkite did so at the conclusion of a special broadcast and said the war was unwinnable and that the U.S. should exit.

Here are excerpts from his remarks, as I imagine Walter Cronkite would deliver them today on a return from Iraq, were he in his prime:
Tonight, back in more familiar surroundings in New York, we'd like to sum up our findings in Vietnam Iraq, an analysis that must be speculative, personal, subjective. Who won and who lost in the great . . . offensive against the cities? I'm not sure. The Vietcong insurgents 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 around of the Demilitarized Green Zone. Khesanh could well fall we could well fail, 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 Iraq with any substantial loss of ground. Another standoff. On the political front, past performance gives no confidence that the Vietnamese Iraqi 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 Iraq and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds. . . . For it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam Iraq 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 . . . 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.
"Report from Vietnam," Walter Cronkite Broadcast, February 27, 1968.
After this broadcast, President Lyndon Johnson reportedly told a White House aide that,
"If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost Middle America."
I've heard it often said that we need a contemporary man or woman of stature of comparable stature to Cronkite of 1968. I'm not so sure of that now; I think last night this President has, himself, lost middle America.