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Walter Cronkite


 

 

 

Walter Cronkite died one week ago at the age of 92. He was the nation’s leading news anchor in the 1960s and 1970s. Like millions of other Americans who grew up in those decades, my earliest political memories carry the sound and image of "Uncle Walter." I can still hear his nightly sign-off: "And that’s the way it is" [1].

 

Right wing media watchdogs have never forgiven Cronkite for daring to state on air one night (February 27, 1968) – at the end of the South Vietnamese National Liberation Front’s Tet Offensive during January and February of 1968 – that the Vietnam War had become "a bloody stalemate."

 

It was a jarring thing for many Americans to hear. For years prior to TetU.S. media (Cronkite included) had regularly created the impression that everything was going just fine with that little "police action" over in Southeast Asia. Delivered almost like football scores on the national television news in 1966 and 1967 (7 U.S. GIs dead vs. 21 for "the enemy" today), the body-count numbers from Vietnam were always in "our" favor. Back to your TV dinner and the next episode of "Gunsmoke," "My Three Sons," or "Hogan’s Heroes."

 

Cronkite’s "defeatist" and pessimistic statement has long held a special place in the American right’s claim that U.S. media has a "liberal" and even "leftist" bias against U.S.military power. It is a centerpiece example in "conservative" media watchdogs’ neo-McCarthyite argument that the "left-wing media" works to stab the noble American armed forces in the back. 

 

Interestingly enough, as the watchdogs never noticed, much of the U.S. foreign policy establishment sensed a brutal impasse in Vietnam in the wake of Tet.  This was the feeling of the "Wise Men" – the top military, corporate, and military elites President Lyndon Baines Johnson assembled to advise him on how to proceed with his increasingly unpopular "crucifixion of South East Asia" (as Noam Chomsky described the United States’ assault on Indochina during the late 1960s) in early 1968. The recently deceased Kennedy-Johnson Defense Secretary Robert McNamara (the official "architect of the Vietnam War") developed his own pessimistic perspective on the colonial war early on. He determined that military victory was an unattainable U.S. goal well before the Tet offensive. After Tet, the "Wise Men" advised Johnson "to" – in Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky’s words – "abandon hope and to de-escalate the conflict," causing Johnson to complain bitterly that "the establishment bastards have bailed out." [2]

 

Before we get too crazy about the supposed "heroic" courage of Cronkite’s 1968 "stalemate" statement (posted in full and in a positive light on Antiwar.com on the day of his death), we should recall that he never once publicly questioned the morality or legality of the criminal, mass-murderous Vietnam War. He and his CBS News crew never publicly criticized the false premises on which the U.S. assault on Vietnam was conducted.  They advanced the Empire’s sham pretexts. They stayed firmly within the framework of the U.S.propaganda system by advancing Washington‘s deceptive portrayal of the Vietnamese national independence and social revolutionary movement as part of the Soviet-Sino "communist" threat to Western "democracy." They disseminated the White House’s ridiculous "domino theory" of "communist" advance.  They helped spread the false notion of the war as a conflict between a "communist" North Vietnam and a "democratic" South Vietnam, ignoring the critical fact that the U.S. intervened in Vietnam to block independent national development and egalitarian, indigenously developed social and political revolution against a corrupt dictatorship in the second country.  The real and biggest threat to U.S.foreign policy in Vietnam was that the Vietnamese revolution might succeed in showing others within and beyond Southeast Asia that impoverished Third World nations could defy Uncle Sam to develop their economies and societies without a grossly unequal distribution of wealth and without serving the needs of the imperial metropolis [3].  

 

In March of 1966, Cronkite called the left political opposition to South Vietnam‘s corrupt, U.S.-sponsored dictatorship "forces of anarchy on the march." The year before, he congratulated Washington for "the courageous decision that Communism’s advance must be stopped in Asia." [4]  In the same 1968 broadcast in which he made his famous/infamous "bloody stalemate" comment (and called for a "negotiated solution" in Vietnam), he called Americans "an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could" in Vietnam. [5]

 

Cronkite never publicly described the war (accurately) as a U.S. invasion of Vietnam (South Vietnam mainly). He never noted (truthfully) that the Vietnamese were engaged in legitimate self-defense against that invasion. He never spoke about the monstrous atrocity that was the one-sided Vietnam War: history’s most powerful military state killing, burning, and poisoning vast swaths of a poor and small peasant nation’s human, animal, and plant life.  He never acknowledged the deep racism that informed the U.S. assault. He never noted the telling death-count disparity between the two national sides of the "stalemate," which killed 58, 000 American soldiers but more than 2 million Vietnamese, mostly civilians. ("Operation Phoenix," the CIA’s torture and assassination program in Vietnam, alone killed at least 20,000 civilians – more than a third of the total U.S. GI body count in Vietnam!) And, of course, Cronkite never dared to observe that Washington was in fact achieving the key bottom-line imperial objective in Vietnam – preventing Vietnam from becoming a viable model of social-revolutionary development and national independence outside U.S. supervision – by bombing the country (including especially much of the South) "back into the stone age."[6]

 

Such honest reporting would have gone far beyond the narrow parameters of "thinkable thoughts" (Chomsky’s term) in America‘s leading cultural and ideological institutions. For Cronkite as for the rest of the United States‘ heavily indoctrinated political class, "controversy" over Vietnam was "limited," in Herman and Chomsky’s words, "to tactical questions and the problem of costs, almost exclusively the cost to the United States."[7]

 

Listen to one of Cronkite’s "pessimistic" comments during his "bloody stalemate" broadcast: "Khe Sanh [a leading South Vietnamese battle site] could well fall [to the Vietnamese, P.S.], with a terrible loss in American lives, prestige and morale, and this is a tragedy of our stubbornness there." Following standard U.S. communications doctrine and procedure before, during, and since the Vietnam War, the Vietnamese themselves did not merit mention as victims of U.S. policy.  What was at stake was U.S. power, status, and "morale," not the lives of people on the wrong side of America’s supposedly virtuous, freedom-loving guns. His 1968 "stalemate" commentary referred to those fighting (heroically) to repel the foreign invader (from the other side of the Pacific Ocean) as "the enemy."  

 

Cronkite’s commentary stood well to the power-worshipping right of Dr. Martin Luther King’s truly antiwar observations ten months before. The people of Indochina, King mused in 1967, "must find Americans to be strange liberators" as we "destroy their  families, villages, land" and send them "wander[ing] into the hospitals, with at least twenty casualties from American firepower for one ‘Vietcong’-inflicted injury. So far we have killed a million of them – mostly children." Further:

 

"They languish under our bombs and consider us – not their fellow Vietnamese – the real enemy.  They move sadly and apathetically as we herd them off the land of their fathers and into concentration camps where minimal social needs are rarely met.  They know they must move or be destroyed by our bombs…they watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their land.  They must weep as the bulldozers roar through their areas preparing to destroy the precious trees…They wander into the towns and see thousands of children, homeless, without clothes, running in packs on the streets like animals.  They see the children degraded by our solders as they beg for food.  They see the children selling their sisters to our solders, soliciting for their mothers."

 

King noted the contradiction between (a) "our" claim to be advancing democracy in Vietnam and (b) "our" longstanding opposition to democratic national elections in Vietnam and "our" alliance with South Vietnam‘s vicious dictatorship and landlord class. Observing that the U.S. government had become the world’s "leading purveyor of violence," King asked Americans to develop the maturity to "learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the [Vietnamese] brothers who are called the opposition." [8]

   

 

King’s honest and genuinely antiwar sentiments remain beyond the boundaries of acceptable debate in "mainstream" media today. The Cronkitian limits continue intact in a time when a supposedly "antiwar" and "liberal" U.S. president sustains one illegal petro-imperial invasion (Iraq) and escalates another ("Af-Pak") in the name of "democracy." The invasion of Iraq, he has repeatedly said, was launched with the best (if an excess) of democratic intentions.  Serious discussion of these wars’ immoral, imperial, racist, and illegal natures – and their devastating consequences for civilians on the wrong ends of our inherently benevolent, "democracy"-promoting missile, bomb, and artillery systems – are (like single-payer health insurance in the "homeland") simply off the table of honest or serious discussion in the "mainstream" media. 

 

In the official U.S. mainstream, from the White House through the corridors of corporate media’s "reality"-shaping power, acceptable debate over America‘s colonial wars remains "limited to tactical questions and the problem of costs, almost exclusively the cost to the United States." The current president "opposed the war" (once and briefly) purely on tactical-imperial grounds, not on a principled moral or legal basis. [9] The millions of predominantly non-white others who die prematurely because of our "strange liberator" efforts of U.S. "global force projection" remain "unworthy victims" of "our" benevolent mission to do "good." It is considered a shame that our efforts to act as "an enormous force for good in the world" [10] are occasionally scarred by "strategic mistakes" (they can never be called imperial crimes) like the crucifixions of Vietnam and Iraq.

 

 

For media-focused right-wingers, of course, Cronkite’s basic acceptance and dissemination of imperial ideology wasn’t good enough. They think that a good anchor man’s job is to sanitize American wars and to cheer-lead for them. It is to tell the masses that "Big Brother is doing great over there in Vietnam [or Iraq or Afghanistan or...fill in the blank]. No problem – Go Team!" 

 

It would be nice to think that such chilling authoritarian sentiments have been relegated to the historical dustbin of crackpot neo-McCarthyism. But the "stab-in-the-back" thesis is still alive and in-play, ready for right-wing use to absurdly portray the imperial and centrist Obama and the dominant corporate war and entertainment media as "leftist" enemies of American greatness and power.

 

Paul Street ([email protected])is the author of many articles, chapters, speeches, and books, including Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007), Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (BoulderCO: Paradigm, 2004), and Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (BoulderCO: Paradigm, 2008).  

 

 

 

 

 

 

1. An accurate sign-off would have said "and that’s the way it is according to the propagandistic filters of reigning U.S. doctrine, dominant ideology, and the thought-controlling imperatives of existing corporate, military, and state hierarchy." My very first political memory is as a kindergartener: Cronkite announcing the death of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy in the fall of 1963. Over the next seven years, I recall getting the CBS-filtered word from "Uncle Walter" on bloody Selma (1965), race riots in Detroit and Newark (1967), the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy and more race riots in 1968, repeated U.S. space missions (Cronkite was a huge enthusiast), the Chicago Democratic Convention and police riot (August 1968), My Lai (1969, with coverage severely delayed and narrowed in the U.S.), the invasion of Cambodia (1970), and the killing of four antiwar students at Kent State University in 1970 (I stopped paying attention to the national news for two decades after Kent State and thus have no memories of Cronkite after May 4, 1970). The arrogance of Cronkite’s Orwellian closing aphorism is rivaled only by the still-intact slogan atop each daily edition of The New York Times: "All the News That’s Fit to Print."  

 

2. On the pessimism of the "Wise Men" and McNamara, see Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (New York: Pantheon, 1988), pp. 203, 216-18, 224, 226. 

 

3. See the important discussion of U.S. planning documents and strategy in Noam Chomsky, For Reasons of State (New York: Pantheon, 2003 [1973]), pp. 31-66; Noam Chomsky, What Uncle Sam Really Wants (Tucson, AZ: Odonian, 1995), pp. 56-60. 

 

4. Herman and Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent, pp. 200, 203.

 

5. The full Cronkite statement (without a date beyond the year 1968) can be read at Eric Garris, "Walter Cronkite: ‘We Are Mired in Stalemate," Antiwar.com (July 17, 2009), read at http://www.antiwar.com/blog/2009/07/17/walter-cronkite-we-are-mired-in-stalemate-feb-27-1968/ . It is sad and characteristic of what passes for a left in the U.S. today that Garris calls Cronkite’s statement "heroic" and posts it in a favorable light on an explicitly anti-war Web site.

 

6. "Contrary to what virtually everyone – left or right – says, the United States achieved its major objectives in IndochinaVietnam was demolished.  There’s no danger that successful development there will provide a [egalitarian and anti-imperial] model for other nations in the region." Noam Chomsky, What Uncle Sam Really Wants, p. 59.  For an earlier statement (before the formal end of the Vietnam War), see Chomsky, For Reasons of State, p.37: "Perhaps the [real] threat [posed to the American empire by the Vietnamese national and social revolution] has now diminished, with the vast destruction in South Vietnam and the hatreds and social disruption caused by the American war.  It may be thatVietnam can be lost to the Vietnamese without the dire consequence of social and economic progress that might be meaningful to the Asian poor."   See also my more modest and secondary reflections (with some interesting material on Vietnam‘s reincorporation into the U.S.-dominated world economic system, see Paul Street, "Rethinking America’s Vietnam Defeat 30 Years Later," ZNet Magazine (May 3, 2005), available online at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=7773.

   

7. Herman and Chomsky, p. 200.

  

8. Martin Luther King, Jr., "A Time to Break the Silence" [April 4, 1967], pp. 234-239 in King, The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. by James W. Washington [New YorkNY: HarperCollins, 1986]). 

 

9. For details and sources, please consult Paul Street, Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (BoulderCO: Paradigm, 2008), Chapter 4, titled "How ‘Antiwar?’ObamaIraq, and the Audacity of Empire."                          

 

10. Obama recently told a Chilean reporter that the U.S. cannot apologize for its critical role in the September 11, 1973 coup that overthrew Chile‘s then elected president Salvador Allende and ushered in the bloody rule of the neo-fascist dictator Augusto Pinochet.  This, Obama explained, is because the U.S. is "an enormous force for good in the world," one that prefers to "look forward," not "backwards." See CBS News, "Obama Won’t Apologize for CIA Role in Chile" (June 23, 2009), read athttp://www.cbsnews.com/blogs/2009/06/23/politics/politicalhotsheet/entry5107552.shtml

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