“We are Mired in Stalemate” Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Walter Cronkite was the news anchor of the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite and known as “the most trusted man in America.” In the 1960s, television news consisted primarily of half-hour evening news programs by the three networks, CBS, NBC and ABC. After 1965, network coverage of the war increased and the Vietnam War became known as the “Television War.” The networks tended to convey the US military's optimistic assessments of the war until the 1968 Tet Offensive, in which the Viet Cong guerrillas and North Vietnam Army (NVA) launched a massive surprise attack on South Vietnam's cities and provincial capitals, previously considered secure areas. Although US and South Vietnamese forces ultimately drove communist forces from the cities and inflicted huge casualties upon them, the Tet Offensive undermined the US military's claims that victory was near and led many Americans to conclude the war could not be won. Due to the impact the Tet Offensive had on US public opinion, it is considered the turning point of the war. Cronkite was shocked by the scale of the Tet Offensive and decided to go to South Vietnam to try to make an accurate assessment of the war. Report from Vietnam showed Cronkite's interviews with both generals and front-line soldiers. Cronkite ended the special report with a brief editorial in which he concluded the US was “mired in stalemate” and that the only way out was negotiations. By concluding the war could not be won, Cronkite brought his immense prestige to the growing calls for US withdrawal from Vietnam and helped make criticism of the war more acceptable to mainstream Americans.

Summary Overview

Walter Cronkite was the news anchor of the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite and known as “the most trusted man in America.” In the 1960s, television news consisted primarily of half-hour evening news programs by the three networks, CBS, NBC and ABC. After 1965, network coverage of the war increased and the Vietnam War became known as the “Television War.” The networks tended to convey the US military's optimistic assessments of the war until the 1968 Tet Offensive, in which the Viet Cong guerrillas and North Vietnam Army (NVA) launched a massive surprise attack on South Vietnam's cities and provincial capitals, previously considered secure areas. Although US and South Vietnamese forces ultimately drove communist forces from the cities and inflicted huge casualties upon them, the Tet Offensive undermined the US military's claims that victory was near and led many Americans to conclude the war could not be won. Due to the impact the Tet Offensive had on US public opinion, it is considered the turning point of the war. Cronkite was shocked by the scale of the Tet Offensive and decided to go to South Vietnam to try to make an accurate assessment of the war. Report from Vietnam showed Cronkite's interviews with both generals and front-line soldiers. Cronkite ended the special report with a brief editorial in which he concluded the US was “mired in stalemate” and that the only way out was negotiations. By concluding the war could not be won, Cronkite brought his immense prestige to the growing calls for US withdrawal from Vietnam and helped make criticism of the war more acceptable to mainstream Americans.

Defining Moment

During the 1960s, Walter Cronkite and his prime competitors, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley of NBC's Huntley-Brinkley Report, were widely admired as authoritative and objective national figures. The personal bond between Cronkite and the American public was cemented on the day of President John F. Kennedy's assassination, November 22, 1963, when Cronkite famously removed his glasses and, visibly shaken, reported that President Kennedy had died from his gun shot wounds in Dallas.

Beginning in 1965, television news was increasingly dominated by reports from South Vietnam. The networks tended to reflect the American public's early support for the war and faith in the military. Cronkite, a member of the WWII generation, shared many Americans' faith in US institutions.

The Tet Offensive, which began on January, 30, 1968, shook Cronkite's confidence in the military's positive assessment of the war. Tet is a Lunar New Year holiday lasting several days. During the war, Tet was usually accompanied by a general cease fire. In 1968, however, the Viet Cong guerrillas and the NVA used the cease fire to launch a massive surprise offensive across South Vietnam, targeting its cities and provincial capitals, both US and South Vietnamese military strongholds. During the Tet Offensive, the war moved from patrols and firefights in the mountains, jungles, and rice paddies to fierce urban warfare. The Viet Cong and NVA hoped to hold the cities; however, the US and South Vietnamese militaries employed massive firepower to slowly dislodge them.

Despite General William Westmoreland's assertion that Tet was a victory, the images of Viet Cong guerrillas in once secure cities, including the grounds of the US embassy in Saigon, caught all by surprise and convinced many Americans that the war was not being won. Still, it was difficult for many Americans to question the once-revered US military or to oppose an American war. The antiwar movement had grown, but even in early 1968, many Americans considered the antiwar movement outside the mainstream and unpatriotic.

Cronkite left his studio anchor desk to journey to South Vietnam in February 1968 with a small news team to learn for himself what was really going on. Cronkite reported from the ruins of Saigon and from the front-lines in Hue. He attempted to reach Khe Sanh, the besieged US military base in the mountains of western South Vietnam, but was unable to get through. (US marines would eventually break the siege.) His reporting from South Vietnam appeared on a special 30-minute broadcast Report from Vietnam. At the conclusion, Cronkite gave a brief editorial from his desk in New York. In the editorial, Cronkite gave a carefully crafted assessment of the war and concluded the United States was “mired in stalemate.” Cronkite argued the only way to end the war was negotiations with the enemy.

Cronkite's editorial helped legitimize dissent on the war. The editorial was a powerful symbol that opposing the war was no longer just the province of campus radicals and pacifist churches, but could be as mainstream as Walter Cronkite himself.

Author Biography

Walter Leland Cronkite, Jr. was born on November 4, 1916 in St. Joseph, Missouri. He was raised in Houston, Texas, and attended the University of Texas at Austin where he worked on the school paper. Cronkite went on to become a United Press (UP) reporter and flew with US bomber missions over Europe during World War II as well as reported from the Battle of the Bulge. During the 1950s, Cronkite worked for CBS television and become famous for his political convention coverage. He hosted a historical re-enactment program You Are There from 1953–1957. From 1962–1981, he was the anchor of The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. Cronkite died on July 17, 2009.

Historical Document

These ruins are in Saigon, capital and largest city of South Vietnam. They are left here by an act of war, Vietnamese against Vietnamese. Hundreds died here. Here in these ruins can be seen physical evidence of the Vietcong's Tet Offensive, but far less tangible is what those ruins mean, and like everything else in this burned and blasted and weary land, they mean success or setback, victory or defeat, depending upon whom you talk to.

There are doubts about the measure of success or setback, but even more, there are doubts about the exact measure of the disaster itself. All that is known with certainty is that on the first two nights of the Tet Lunar New Year, the Vietcong and North Vietnamese Regular Forces, violating the truce agreed on for that holiday, struck across the entire length of South Vietnam, hitting the largest 35 cities, towns, and provincial capitals. How many died and how much damage was done, however, are still but approximations, despite the official figures.

The very preciseness of the figures brings them under suspicion. Anyone who has wandered through these ruins knows than an exact count is impossible. Why, just a short while ago a little old man came and told us that two VC were buried in a hastily dug grave up at the end of the block. Had they been counted? And what about these ruins? Have they gone through all of them for buried civilians and soldiers? And what about those 14 VC we found in the courtyard behind the post office at Hue? Had they been counted and tabulated? They certainly hadn't been buried. We came to Vietnam to try to determine what all this means to the future of the war here. We talked to officials, top officials, civilian and military, Vietnamese and American. We toured damaged areas like this, and refugee centers. We paid a visit to the Battle at Hue, and to the men manning northernmost provinces, where the next big communist offensive is expected. All of this is the subject of our report.

We came to Vietnam to try to determine what all this means to the future of the war here. We talked to officials, top officials, civilian and military, Vietnamese and American. We toured damaged areas like this, and refugee centers. We paid a visit to the Battle at Hue, and to the men manning northernmost provinces, where the next big communist offensive is expected. All of this is the subject of our report….

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.

Document Analysis

The document begins with Cronkite's introduction to Report from Vietnam, and the section after the ellipses is his famous editorial, which concludes the special, back in his New York studio. The introduction sets the stage for his conclusion that the war cannot be won. He is standing among the ruins of Saigon in the wake of brutal and destructive fighting, describing South Vietnam as a “burned and blasted and weary land….” Much of the US military's assessment of the war's progress was done in statistics, especially official “body counts” of the killed. Cronkite challenges the reliability of official US military statistics by questioning whether the many dead bodies he encountered were counted in official tallies: “The very preciseness of the figures brings them under suspicion…. An exact count is impossible.”

In the editorial, Cronkite qualifies his conclusions by stating “an analysis must be speculative, personal, subjective.” As for who won the Tet Offensive, Cronkite states, “I'm not sure.” This cautious approach sets Cronkite apart from the confident proclamations of success by the US military and the impassioned denunciations of the war by much of the antiwar movement. It is Cronkite's very caution that makes his conclusions so powerful. Cronkite declares that the war is a “standoff.” He states, “To say we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory conclusion.” He anticipates the arguments of war hawks calling for further military escalation by declaring the communists could match each US move right up to and including the use of nuclear weapons (possessed by North Vietnam's backers, the Soviet Union and People's Republic of China).

Cronkite positions himself between the optimists who find “silver linings … in the darkest clouds” and the “unreasonable pessimism” of those who say the US is “on the edge of defeat…” He concludes that “… 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.” Cronkite thus builds slowly to his conclusion by steering a middle course throughout his editorial. America is not winning or losing, but stuck in a stalemate. He doesn't condemn America's motives in waging the war, unlike much of the antiwar movement, but he challenges the idea that the war can be won. He calls neither for escalation nor retreat, but negotiations.

Essential Themes

Walter Cronkite's editorial was a significant statement against the ongoing US war in Vietnam. It has come to symbolize the impact of the Tet Offensive on American public opinion, when many realized the enemy was far from defeated. While some, like General William Westmoreland, have argued Tet was a huge defeat of the communists and, with further escalation, the US could have won the war, most historians agree with Cronkite's conclusion that Tet revealed a war “mired in stalemate.” Historians differ over the editorial's impact. Some regard it as a bellwether of changing US opinion, whereas others argue for its direct and widespread impact. Historian Douglas Brinkley, in his biography Cronkite, describes the editorial as the equivalent of an earthquake, calling it “seismic” (Brinkley 379). President Lyndon B. Johnson's press secretary, George Christian, later quoted the president as saying, “If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost the country.” Christian's later accounts backtracked from that statement, but whatever President Johnson may have said, there is no doubt he was well aware of Cronkite's editorial and that it was a sign that Middle America's support for the war was waning.

Bibliography and Additional Readings
  • Brinkley, Douglas. Cronkite. New York: HarperCollins P, 2012. Print.
  • Cronkite, Walter. A Reporter's Life. New York: Ballantine Books, 1997. Print.
  • Kurlansky, Mark. 1968: The Year that Rocked the World. New York: Ballantine P, 2004. Print.
  • Vietnam War with Walter Cronkite. Nar. Walter Cronkite. Marathon Music and Video, 2003. Documentary.
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