What television did slowly but surely with this particular war was to magnify its faults and brutalities, and to show, as the Safer film from Cam Ne proved, that you could not separate civilian from combatant. That was part of it. The other part was the way television had speeded the pace of life in America. Everything had to work faster—even war—and as bench mark after bench mark of victory predicted by the architects passed without victory, the war seemed to drag on. Everything now, because of television, was part theater, and the Vietnam War was becoming a drama with an unhappy ending which had played too long. Slowly the consensus began to change, and as it did television began to change, too, becoming more doubting, more mistrusting. And so Walter Cronkite, the man of consensus, changed as the nation changed. Walter Cronkite was always acutely aware of his audience and its moods; he was very good at leading and being led at the same time, at once a good reporter and a good politician.
At the time of the Tet offensive, early in 1968, Lyndon Johnson and his war policy were extremely vulnerable. Cronkite returned to Vietnam to do his own special broadcast; he was in effect covering a very different war. He was uneasy; he knew that he was stepping out of his natural role. He had carefully avoided revealing his real opinions and feelings on the Evening News, and there was no doubt that even people who agreed with what he was about to do would have a new kind of suspicion about him—Walter was somehow not quite so straight anymore, not so predictable. He was very good at anticipating the reaction; he knew that Huntley–Brinkley, particularly because of Brinkley, were already perceived as being more editorial than he was, and that serious implications rode on that perception. He talked it over with the various producers at CBS and with Dick Salant, head of CBS News, and they agreed that whatever misgivings they had, their shared sense was that if you were the signature figure of a serious news organization, your obligation was to cover a major story at a time when it was confusing and dividing the nation.
With that encouragement, but not without a good deal of reservation, Cronkite went to Saigon at the time of the Tet offensive. It was an Orwellian trip, for Orwell had written of a Ministry of Truth in charge of Lying and a Ministry of Peace in charge of War, and here was Cronkite flying to Saigon where the American military command was surrounded by failure and trying to sell it as victory. He and his producer, Ernie Leiser, traveled together, and they had trouble landing in the country. All the airports were closed. They finally reached Saigon, a city at war. Cronkite wanted the requisite briefing with General William Westmoreland, and that was truly Orwellian: pressed fatigues, eyes burning fiercely, the voice saying that little had happened, almost surprised that Walter was there, though of course it was fortunate that he had come, since Tet was such a great victory. Exactly what the Americans wanted.
Then Cronkite headed north with Leiser and Jeff Gralnick, his favorite young producer, who had just come to Saigon as a correspondent. They tried to get into Khe Sanh, which was undergoing very heavy fighting, but no one would write the insurance policy; it was too dangerous. So he went instead to Hue. Just the day before, Westy had said that the battle was over. But it was clear that no one had bothered to tell the North Vietnamese; and the Marines were fighting desperately to retake Hue. The younger CBS men were impressed by the sight of Cronkite striding right into the center of the street fighting: The old war horse, they thought, takes all the risks. But it was a crucial moment for him, because for the first time he saw the credibility gap, face front.
He was shocked, not so much by the ferocity of the fighting, but because to his mind the men in charge of the war were not to be trusted. Even his way of leaving Hue was suggestive. There were exceptional precautions, extra weapons aboard (having had the U.S. Embassy in Saigon overrun on the evening news was bad enough, but if the American mission lost the best-known newscaster of the day in a city which it had allegedly just pacified . . .), and the plane was carrying, along with the famous commentator, twelve dead GIs in body bags
They stopped at Phu Bai on the way back to Saigon, and Cronkite met with his old friend General Creighton Abrams. Abrams was then the deputy commander, scheduled to replace Westmoreland eventually. He was candid with Cronkite about the dimension of the catastrophe, the degree to which the command had been taken by surprise, and the impact of it. Here was the number two man in the American command—close to, but free of responsibility for, the debacle—confirming Cronkite’s own doubts and sounding like one of the much maligned American journalists in Saigon, and explaining how and why the mission had been so blind. From there Cronkite returned to Saigon to meet with his CBS colleagues. He was, thought those who worked with him, very different on this trip, introspective and disturbed, searching for answers. Usually Cronkite prided himself on his objectivity, on his detachment and his lack of involvement. An event was an event and nothing more.
The last night he had dinner with a group correspondents on the roof of the Caravelle Hotel, and he kept asking, again and again, How could it have happened? How could it have happened? Peter Kalischer, the senior and most knowledgeable of the correspondents, spoke strongly: It has been happening for years, there were lies from the start, we had been building on a false base, we were essentially intruders in Vietnamese lives. Later Cronkite went up to the roof of the Caravelle with Jack Laurence, the youngest and probably the most anguished of the CBS reporters. He was twenty-six when he arrived; his reporting had been distinguished by a human dimension, and he seemed to catch the feel of the young American GIs better other television correspondents did. Cronkite and Laurence stood on the roof and watched the artillery in nearby Cholon, and Laurence felt a certain resentment. He didn’t like the breed of older correspondent who observed the war from the Caravelle roof, armchair generals who watched the shells and did not know or care where they landed. He and his contemporaries preferred on days off to sit in their rooms and get stoned on pot. He did not know if this was less or more moral, but it allowed him on occasion to forget the war and the bodies.
Cronkite, who was trying to measure the distance on some of the artillery rounds, must have sensed this resentment, because he talked to Laurence, not so much as a senior correspondent to a junior one, but almost as a father to a son. He said he was grateful to Laurence and the other reporters who had risked so much day after day for the news show, and he understood how frustrated a younger man could become with the bureaucracy of journalism and what seemed like the insensitivity of editors. He had undergone similar frustrations in World War II, the difficulty of communicating with older men thousands of miles away who were not witnessing what he was witnessing. Laurence was touched, and felt that Cronkite been changed by what he had seen,
Cronkite did a half-hour news special, which he insisted on writing himself—which was by itself unusual. This was the period when the Johnson Administration was seriously considering a commitment to Vietnam of 200,000 troops. He said that the war didn’t work, that more troops would not turn it around, and that we had to start thinking of getting out. These were alien and hard words for him, but he did not feel he could do otherwise. He was ready for it and the country was ready for it; he moved in part because the consensus was moving, helping to shift the grain by his very act. Other forces were at work: Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy challenging Johnson out front; Defense Secretary Clark Clifford leading a reassessment from within the Administration. But Cronkite’s reporting did help change the balance. It was the first time in American history that a war had been declared over by a commentator. In Washington Lyndon Johnson watched and told his press secretary, George Christian, that it was a turning point; that if he had lost Walter Cronkite he had lost Mr. Average Citizen. It solidified his decision not to run for re-election. He had lost his consensus. Cronkite, hearing of what Johnson said, tried on future occasions to bring the subject up when he was with Johnson; but Johnson knew the game, and, when the question was raised, took off on long tirades against the press in general and the press’ sinister betrayal of the national interest in particular.