38th Parallel, Apocalypse Now, bias, biography, CBS News, Cronkite, David Foster Wallace, Douglas Brinkley, E Unibus Pluram, Editorial, ethos, Fareed Zakaria, Forrest Gump, Fox News, Full Metal Jacket, history, Informed Democracy, John Oliver, journalism, Journalistic Credibility, Journalistic Integrity, Korean War, Last Week Tonight, Lyndon Johnson, News Media, Op-Ed, PBS Newshour, Political Discourse, Politics, President Bartlet, Richard Nixon, Speech, television, television series, The Seventies, The Sixties, The West Wing, Vietnam War, Walter Cronkite, We Are Mired in Stalemate
President Bartlet taught me much during his Presidency, and it’s a great tragedy that his administration was so distrusted. Granted he was a fictional man on the television show West Wing that assumed the office sometime after Jimmy Carter (though they never really mentioned him or anybody after him due mostly to timeline issues) but his actual existence aside he taught me several important lessons. One was that James Bond orders a weak martini in virtually every film he’s starred in, and the second is that most of the twenty-first century’s history was nothing but people watching television. I’ve tried finding the exact quote but can’t due either to lazy meme makers who are far more interested in bashing real Presidents than affording fake ones the credit they deserve, or because I was far too lazy to go back and actually sift through the entire series to find one quote. The gist of it is Charlie, played by then young Dule Hill, is taking a history course on 20th century history and Bartlett, who’s a true Classicist, scoffs at him and reminds him that 20th century history is nothing but people watching television and that real history begins with the barbarian hordes attacking Rome.
As so often happened while I was watching West Wing, I laughed at the man’s quirky academic sense of humor, and then thought about having a real epiphany as I realized he was right. I’ve written several essays in the past that dealt with television as a medium. The most recent was my review of David Foster Wallace’s E Unibus Pluram, but before that was the review of Brian and Stewie, and even before that was the review of Buckley Vs Vidal, and sometime between all of these essays I began to realize how much television has shaped me culturally and creatively.
While President Bartlett was trying to make a snide point about television, not recognizing the cognitive dissonance of smearing the very medium that brought him to every household in America during the late 90s, really looking at the period starting from the 50s and up television has played a central role in the lives of millions of Americans and perhaps the best example of this is We Are Mired in Stalemate.
In the last few weeks I’ve grown to hate myself for studying the war in Vietnam as much as I do simply because my great uncle died recently. My parents and little sister returned from Houston after helping my aunt move into his house and they managed to save much of the man’s personal papers where, it seems, he was attempting to write some kind of book about the Korean War. I know about two facts of the Korean War: the first is that American forces were pushed back to the 38th parallel by Chinese forces, and the second is that the war saw the integration of black and white soldiers. There was also something about General Mcarthur wanting to drop a nuke but that’s immaterial. The point is in his notes there was a line that struck me “The Korean War was the war everyone forgot. They Forgot about us.” I read that line out loud, and while this sounds maudlin I did feel a morose chill reading a dead man’s words, but my father interrupted by saying, “Well it is, most people talk more about the Vietnam war.”
I really do believe that the cause of this is the fact that the Vietnam war has become so much of a cartoon as well as a national scar, whereas because there wasn’t a soul crushing defeat or warm blooded victory the Korean War was simply lost to time or bad PR. The Vietnam war possesses the images of Helicopters over the jungle, napalm explosions, Marlon Brando chanting “The Horror, The Horror,” Robin Williams making fun of Richard Nixon’s Testicles, Richard Nixon himself, that awful movie Forest Gump, and an entire generation of America’s finest reporters one of them being Walter Cronkite.
It’s hard to appreciate or convey how important the news media was to Americans at the time. In our contemporary media landscape of the United States the press is largely seen as entertainers or biased members of the “lame-stream liberal media.” News has become so inundated with sentiment, faulty reporting, bad jokes, and personality that the thought that a reporter’s sentiment could actually sway public opinion seems farcical to say the least. Nevertheless, during his time as the lead anchor of CBS evening News Cronkite earned not only the public’s trust, but also their respect.
On February 27, 1968, Cronkite delivered the following speech at the end of a news broadcast:
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. Who won and who lost in the great Tet offensive against the cities? I’m not sure. The Vietcong 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 Demilitarized Zone. Khesanh 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 honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.
This is Walter Cronkite. Good night.
It’s easy to look back and observe a flaw or a mistake, and often the narrative of Vietnam is recorded with the 20/20 insight of exactly what went wrong and when and how. To be fair to the actual history, the Vietnam war had actually started during the Eisenhower administration, pushed into a real military concern during the Kennedy administration, an escalated conflict during Johnson’s administration (Lyndon Johnson for the record was President during Cronkite’s famous speech), a bloody mess of chaos and agony during the Nixon administration, and finally an imploding quagmire that ended during the Presidency of Gerald Ford. Nixon takes most of the blame despite the fact that he inherited the war from Johnson who hated the conflict just as much as Nixon, but Johnson’s failure was truly illuminated through the glow of the television screen as Cronkite spoke to millions of Americans.
Cronkite’s commentary is important for the fact that he refers to the incident as a “stalemate.” In the lore that surrounds the Cronkite broadcast, it’s often said that Cronkite declared that the Vietnam Conflict was a quagmire and therefore the United States had wasted its time and hundreds and thousands of innocent lives, but only part of that may be true when one actually reads the broadcast. Cronkite never said the war a quagmire, or that it was over. He simply observed, as good reporters do, the facts of the war, the reality of the politics, and came to the conclusion that the military was stuck.
Looking at this, and looking at the man, I consulted a book on my shelf that I only bought within the last year after watching The Sixties and The Seventies on CNN. Cronkite is a book by one of the regular commentators, a man by the name of Douglas Brinkley. I’d recognize him before watching the series because one of my professors always showed a History Channel documentary (back when you could trust the channel to provide real and factual history) of the French Revolution at the start of her Romantic Literature course. Brinkley has a distinct voice, and his insights and commentary really are a pleasure to listen to (I hope that doesn’t sound too kiss-assy) and so when I discovered he’d written a biography of Walter Cronkite I decided to buy it on Amazon in the usual whirlwind that leaves my credit card hot and my wallet empty.
Brinkley briefly discusses We Are Mired in Stalemate during the chapter dealing with The Tet offensive and he notes:
Delivered in strong, reasoned tones, Cronkite’s nutshell editorial wasn’t radical. Calling the Vietnam War a “stalemate” was a middling position. […] But in the Harshly polarizing environment of early 1968, it placed Cronkite in the dove camp. Cronkite had lent his august name to the Anti-war movement and thereby put it into the mainstream. (378-9).
While I was writing this essay I spent a day at my parent’s place doing some manual labor and helping with the Expense/Revenue entries for their business and I mentioned my “What Would You Read?” Posts on Facebook. It’s a little social experiment I do from time to time when I gather up piles of books, snap a photo, and ask people which one they’d prefer to read. My most recent post included Brinkley’s biography Cronkite, and one of my friends suggested that I should just burn it. When I mentioned it to my family my father suggested that it might be because there are some that, to this day, hold Cronkite responsible for the turning of the American public against the Vietnam War. I admit this was a little far-fetched in explaining why one should burn a book, but it does illuminate part of Brinkley’s analysis because We Are Mired in Stalemate has remained a crucial lore element in the narrating history of the Vietnam conflict.
To reiterate my earlier point Cronkite was a man who retained a great amount of respect from the American public, and a tremendous amount of ethos. Dan Rather has noted in the CNN mini-series The Seventies that Cronkite rarely brought his personal feelings into his reporting, and so this speech is a landmark for that fact alone.
Brinkley goes on however to explore the impact of the report:
The aftershock of Cronkite’s reports was seismic. His opinion was quoted in the press, and it opened the door for NBC News’ Frank McGee to take a similar stand in a documentary on Vietnam that aired two weeks later. The gossip in the press rooms of America was that Cronkite had offed the president. Even the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial page said, “The Whole Vietnam effort may be doomed.” A wave of relief hit Cronkite for giving voice to his dissent. As a CBS News executive later joked, “When Walter said the Vietnam war was over, it was over.” A lot of Johnson administration officials, including Walter Rostow and Dean Rusk, weren’t amused. […]
As the CBS special aired that February 27, President Johnson was traveling to speak at the Gregory Gymnasium at the University of Texas at Austin. He took Air Force One to his home state to take part in a birthday party for Governor John. B. Connally, a close friend. According to former White house press secretary George Christian, when Johnson heard about Cronkite’s flagrant antiwar commentary he blurted out, disheartened, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.” (379).
It’s important to recognize that this statement is rooted in lore and Brinkley notes this, however even if these were not the exact words spoken, Johnson did realize the effect that it would have. Johnson hated the war in Vietnam, but like Nixon after him he did not want to be the first president in the history of the United States to lose a war, and a stalemate would be just as bad.
It’s difficult, as I’ve noticed several times in this essay, to really understand the relevance of Cronkite’s report to those of us living in this contemporary period. Why should anybody care about an old television broadcast from the late 60s about a war that’s been long over? This is a fair question given the fact that most of the people who care about it tend either to be historians or journalism majors on blogs preaching about the first amendment. To an average citizen of the United States it may seem absurd to suggest that they should care, but in fact they should because the problem of the legacy of Cronkite’s report is not that it helped people realize the Vietnam conflict was going nowhere, it’s the fact that they listened and believed him.
The contemporary political climate of the United States is a polarizing one, and the media which has become just as much a product of capitalism as Burger King and reality shows. With the push of Fox News towards a conservative agenda, and the other news agencies tending to shift in a more liberal view, the ethos of the reporter has largely dissipated. If a report comes out concerning the problems of fracking the reporters are listed as “liberal trouble makers,” and likewise if reporters try to discuss the positive legacies of Regan they are dubbed “backward conservative pundits.” The reporter has become a figure plagued by the shadow of his or her economic bias, and depending on the political bent of their organization their words will largely fall upon either deaf ears, or else upon people who will simply nod and smile in smug self-congratulatory poses. If a reporter came out today and declared that a war was unjust, as many did during the war in Iraq, and even if they possessed irrefutable proof that the conflict resolved nothing, many citizens would simply shrug confident that they couldn’t trust the reporting.
This essay is not a call to arms, nor is it designed to shame the reader who distrusts the media, because I distrust the media. Watching the news is a dance for me because I flip between CNN, Fox news, and CSNBC, and if the reports all seem to match in terms of detail then I trust the facts being presented to me. The fact that I have to do this morbid exercise is a testament to the condition of contemporary news. Though I will note that Fareed Zakaria and PBS Newshour remain the most consistently reliable sources of information concerning world events.
We Are Mired in Stalemate is not just an important speech about the Vietnam war, for its legacy reverberates revealing the shadow which has fallen upon the public of the United States. The first amendment is often the Amendment made to the Constitution that is shouted so vocally in American society, and while many citizens use it to argue for religious or creative freedom, the true inspiration for the clause was for the liberty of the press. This was because the offense that many young colonists were bothered the most by was the local English government’s control of the press whenever colonists objected to certain taxes. A republic, or any free society, requires a free press in order to ensure the defense against a government’s corruption. It’s through the press, specifically the stories the press informs the public about, that democracy is able to continue because it educates the people about facts in their world and reality and government. When a society distrusts it’s reporters, or cannot trust its own reporters, that is the beginning of the end of informed democracy.
It would be almost impossible for a new reporter today to give a speech similar in vein to We Are Mired in Stalemate and have the same kind of social influence that Cronkite did. That’s not cause for despair, but rather an opportunity for reconsideration or rebirth.
The ethos of the reporter is a fragile good, but it is not impossible to obtain.
While I originally discovered this broadcast during my high school and then college level history courses, I did originally consult the Library of America Reporting’s on Vietnam Vol. 1 where the entire speech is printed. While researching for this essay however I stumbled upon a website that gives the entire transcription of the broadcast, if you’re at all interested you can follow the link below:
You can also, if you prefer to watch things, see Cronkite deliver the address. Just note however that portions of the speech have been cut:
I’m a fan of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, and one of the most recent episodes made its focus the problems facing contemporary journalism in the United States. I’ve posted a link to the video below, and I’d encourage you to watch it, if only so you can understand the situation much better: