I had dinner with Walter Cronkite the first night he arrived in Saigon on what was his personal fact finding trip "into country" after the Communists' 1968 Tet Offensive. He was a hawk, a supporter of the conflict in Vietnam like so many Americans of his generation.
Walter clearly was troubled by the visual images from Tet contrasted with mixed messages he was getting about the war, especially LBJ's assurance that the war was going well. In the rooftop restaurant of the Caravelle Hotel Cronkite's frustration was apparent immediately. "How are we going to win this damned war?" he asked me.
I was hesitant to answer, but having traveled up and down the country for several months, having seen evidence of "live and let live" between the Vietnamese government and the Viet Cong, like the sharing of water and rice, I'd concluded that we were witness to a civil war that would not end until we got out of the way and let the two sides decide the future of their country by blood or diplomacy.
Walter was stunned. Like President Kennedy and so many Americans conditioned by the Cold War, he believed in the domino theory that assumed a defeat in Vietnam would lead to the communization of all of Southeast Asia. Cronkite acted as if he could not believe what he was hearing. "That's just plain crazy," he said.
At the dinner were Peter Kalisher, CBS's Paris bureau chief and Cronkite's executive producer Ernie Leiser who chimed in. "That's the problem with you so-called 'Old Asia hands.' "You think you have it all figured out." In self-defense, I replied, "Wait a minute, you guys asked me for my opinion and that's what I gave you. Quite to the contrary, I had not yet figured it out. I only wish that I could." The dinner ended and soon I left Saigon for the battle at Khe Sanh, but I confirmed Cronkite continued to hear similar messages from other CBS correspondents who had echoed my belief about the realities of the war.
In the weeks that followed, Walter traveled to see the war for himself in the battle for Hue. He gave no sign that he was re-evaluating his view of the Vietnam conflict, for whatever his thoughts were, he kept them to himself. Cronkite rigorously defended the Evening News as a balanced, unbiased presentation of the day's events. But then on February 27th he summed up his Vietnam trip at the end of a CBS Special Report on the war in Vietnam with a personal departure that stunned the nation:
"To say that we are closer to victory today," he said, "is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists 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." Cronkite went on, "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 commentary was a shocker that stunned America; a different Cronkite than I had ever heard before, because until then he had so scrupulously avoided expressing any personal opinions on the air. The question remained, was there a single, defining event or was it the sum total of what he had seen and heard that led to his profound change of heart about the war?
By November 2002, Ernie Leiser was in declining health. Shortly before he died, I wanted to confirm my belief that he had actually written the script for which Cronkite got so much credit. Leiser confirmed my hunch. "I wrote every word of it, but," he emphasized that "it could not have gone on the air without Walter's approval." He added, "When Walter was troubled by Vietnam, he sought out the friends and people he felt comfortable with from his World War II generation." Ernie remembered the evening before their departure for home when they were invited to dinner with General Creighton Abrams, the successor to General William Westmoreland as commander of all forces in Vietnam. Cronkite knew Abrams from the Battle of the Bulge in World War II and as the daring tank commander of the 2nd Armored Division in the European campaign against Nazi Germany.
After a few drinks, Leiser recalled, Abrams declared firmly that "we cannot win this Goddamned war, and we ought to find a dignified way out."
That, Leiser told me, "affected Walter profoundly and caused him to approve my script." In the end, it was his comforting image of decency that enhanced his reputation as a fair-minded but troubled critic of the war. It was important to those of us in the field to know that Cronkite had the courage to risk his reputation when he could just as soon have remained silent.
Murray Fromson, a former CBS News correspondent, is a Professor Emeritus in journalism at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication. He has just completed a memoir, "The Whole Truth and Nothing But."
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