[February 6, 2018] It has been said many times that war is simply a continuation of politics by other means. Actually the Prussian theorist Carl von Clausewitz wrote it in his book On War (1832) and is one of the most important treatises on political-military analysis and strategy ever written. Clausewitz, like so many other theorists closely links war, politics, and leadership … but not the media.
Readers of this leadership blog know that I regularly write on the topic of war, politics, the media, and leadership and each continues to fill volumes of works by great authors and historians. I will not attempt to even categorize the information, wisdom, and ideas contained in them. Suffice it to say that reading the more important works will give us an idea about leadership and its key characteristics.
Today, I will focus on the media and its effect on war, politics, and leadership as it applies to the Vietnam War. That subject is frequently written about and because the war was so relatively recent, much has been written about it, and much of it controversial. That controversy, regarding the media, is the subject of my column today.
“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.” – Walter Cronkite, CBS Nightly News anchor, February 27, 1968
U.S. President Lyndon Johnson, watching live n the White House, reportedly then turned to his aides and said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” Johnson would explain to the American people that the Tet Offensive (note: 50 years ago this month) has been a disastrous failure for the North Vietnamese communists but it was too late. Johnson was a powerful but morally weak president and his actions would prove this repeatedly over the few weeks and years after Cronkite’s broadcast.
Decades after Walter Cronkite delivered his famous editorial in 1968 after the Tet Offensive, he admitted that he got the story wrong. His comments defined the war and that particular offensive was echoed in the media that American had lost not just the battle but the war. The media drove the narrative that the only way out the “stalemate” was a negotiated settlement.
There has been considerable investigative reporting on Cronkite and how he lied to the American public on the most important issue of the war. He later acknowledged that his editorial, although wrong, influenced world opinion about the war but that he was not apologetic about what he had said.
I recognized sometime after the fact that the North Vietnamese had suffered a military defeat, but this did not dictate an apology on my part for following the precepts of responsible journalism in reporting the situation as I saw it at the time.” – Walter Cronkite, letter to Vietnam veteran, September 6, 2000
The American media at the time portrayed the Tet Offensive as a victory for the Communists. There is another way to describe the deceit of the American press. The desire of the media was to get American troops out of Vietnam and this justified any means.
Success of the media’s deceit and getting away with it was not lost on anyone. Only in the past decade have everyday Americans learned that the media in general does not adhere to basic American values (honor, integrity, moral strength) and judges the everyday family with disdain. Today we call it “fake news” and that is the moral of this story.
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