Rising through the journalistic ranks, Walter Cronkite became the preeminent media figure of the 1960s and 1970s as correspondent and anchorman for CBS Television. Born in St. Joseph, Missouri, in 1916, Cronkite was a correspondent for United Press in World War II and joined CBS in 1950, serving as anchor and managing editor of the “CBS Evening News,” 1962-81. Cronkite was extensively watched and respected, and his coverage and reporting of Vietnam was seen as both reflecting and influencing American public opinion.
On September 2, 1963, in a prime-time interview with Cronkite, President John Kennedy was disapproving of the South Vietnamese government then headed by Ngo Dinh Diem and said that changes needed to be made in South Vietnam. However, Kennedy said, “I don’t agree with those who say we should withdraw. That would be a great mistake. We must be patient. We must persist.”
In the following years, Cronkite did not publicly question this position, and his coverage was generally uncritical of Johnson administration policies.
During the Tet Offensive of 1968, though, Cronkite made his first visit to Vietnam since 1965. Upon his return, Cronkite delivered a solemn assessment on February 27, saying that it seemed certain “that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in stalemate.”
Rejection of the administration’s confident forecasts by Cronkite, who had been called the “most trusted man in America,” sent shock waves through the government, according to George Christian, President Johnson’s press secretary.
Cronkite’s comments particularly upset Johnson, who viewed it as a turning point in American attitudes toward the administration’s Vietnam policies. David Halberstam later wrote that Johnson said that “if he had lost Walter Cronkite he had lost Mr. Average Citizen,” and this development helped to stiffen Johnson’s decision not to run for reelection.