Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Some People Never Learn

Former CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite likes to remind us that he was a reporter long before he ascended to the anchor chair. And, in fairness, Mr. Cronkite's resume as a reporter is both lengthy and impressive. As a United Press correspondent during World War II, covered the European Theater and interviewed many of the key Allied military leaders. Later in his career, Cronkite reported from Vietnam, producing a famous "post-Tet" documentary in 1968 that surmised that the war could not be won. Cronkite's CBS documentary is widely credited with helping turn American public opinion against the war.

More than 30 years later, Cronkite is still proud of his work, noting the documentary's impact on American sentiments toward the war. Not surprisingly, he also believes that the Iraq war is "unwinnable" and believes the U.S. should pull out now. Cronkite made his comments over the weekend, in a meeting with television writers. The retired CBS anchorman told his audience that his Vietnam editorial, delivered at the end of the documentary, was his "proudest moment" in a long and storied career.

Nothing wrong with taking pride in your work, but there's only one problem: Cronkite got it wrong in Vietnam, and (of course), he's wrong again on Iraq. Tet was actually both a strategic and operational defeat for the North Vietnamese and their Viet Cong allies. Launching wide-spread attacks across South Vietnam, VC and North Vietnamese Army units were quickly repulsed by U.S. and South Vietnamese forces. Only one provincial capital (the ancient city of Hue) was actually captured by the enemy and Hue was liberated a month later, after bloody, house-to-house fighting.

In fact, Tet decimated the Viet Cong as a fighting force; more than 50,000 enemy troops (mostly VC) died during the offensive, requiring a massive influx of North Vietnamese troops to carry on the ground war in the south. The offensive also destroyed the myth that the Viet Cong enjoyed wide support from the South Vietnamese people. This 2003 NRO column by John O'Sullivan (from 2003) does a nice job of summarizing how the media got it wrong on Tet. Instead of crowing about is work, Cronkite ought to be embarassed. With his Tet documentary, the CBS anchorman violated the first rule of journalism: he got the facts horribly wrong.

Sadly, the lasting "legacy" of Cronkite's Vietnam reports is that they became part of the conventional wisdom of the day, helping set the stage for our departure from Vietnam--and the communist bloodbath that followed. Of course, you won't hear Mr. Cronkite talk about the thousands of South Vietnamese who later perished in reedcuation camps, or died in rickety boats trying to free their communist masters after the fall of Saigon. That is also a legacy of Vietnam, a legacy hastened by Cronkite's biased and ill-informed reporting on the Tet offensive.

We can be thankful that the current administration (unlike the Johnson White House) puts little stock in the military "analysis" of CBS News.

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