Societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media by which men communicate than by the content of the communication.
—MARSHALL MCLUHAN AND QUENTIN FIORE,
The Medium Is the Massage, 1967
LIKE AN UNNOTICED TREE falling in the forest, if there is a march or a sit-in and it is not covered by the press, did it happen? From Martin Luther King, Jr., and John Lewis to Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown, there was wide disagreement on tactics within the civil rights movement, but they all agreed that an event needed to attract the news media. And it became obvious to the violent and nonviolent alike that violence and the rhetoric of violence were the most effective way to get coverage.
Mohandas K. Gandhi himself, the master of nonviolence who had inspired the movement, had understood this very well. He went to great trouble to try to get Indian, British, and American coverage of every event he organized, and he often spoke of the value of British violence in order to entice the media. It is the paradox of nonviolence. The protesters can be nonviolent, but they must evoke a violent reaction. If both sides are nonviolent, there is no story. Martin Luther King used to complain about this, but after he met a man named Laurie Pritchett, he understood that it was a reality.
Pritchett was the police chief in Albany, Georgia, in 1962 when Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference had singled out the town for a campaign of nonviolent resistance. The area in rural southwestern Georgia was infamous for segregation and had been the object of one of the first federal suits for voting rights under the 1957 Civil Rights Act. Little Albany, with seventy-five thousand people, about a third of whom were black, was the biggest population center in the area, and SNCC, with the encouragement of local blacks, decided to launch a voter registration drive there. The registration drive expanded to desegregation of public buildings, including the bus station, and Martin Luther King was brought in.
There were numerous encounters between the protesters and the law over several months, with mass arrests, including of King, but at no point did the polite, well-spoken sheriff use violence. Pritchett had been able to anticipate the protesters’ every move because he had informants from the Albany black community. Because there was no violence, King and the other leaders were never able to get Robert Kennedy and the Justice Department to intervene as they had in other places. Federal intervention makes a bigger story. Worse, reporters liked Pritchett. He was folksy and pleasant. He told them that he had studied Martin Luther King’s use of nonviolence and that he had adopted nonviolent law enforcement. King responded to criticism from civil rights activists who said he always remained safely removed from the action, by letting himself be arrested in Albany. But this forced him to cancel a valuable television appearance on Meet the Press, only to be personally released from jail by Pritchett himself, who said that “an unidentified Negro man” had paid bail and related fines. Many assumed that King’s father, a distinguished Atlanta figure sometimes called Daddy King, had gotten his son out. King could go to jail because his daddy would get him out. In truth, the wily Pritchett had simply released him.
The entire Albany campaign was a disaster. After Albany, the civil rights leaders learned to avoid the Pritchetts and target towns that had hotheaded police chiefs and angry, volatile mayors. “The movement had a really gut sense of what it took to get in the news and stay in the news,” said Gene Roberts, a North Carolina native who covered civil rights for The New York Times. During the 1965 march in Selma, Alabama, Martin Luther King noticed that a Life magazine photographer, Flip Schulke, had put down his cameras to help someone being beaten by police. Later King sought out the photographer and told him that they needed him not to help demonstrators, but to photograph them. He said, “Your role is to photograph what is happening to us.”
In 1965 in Selma, a heavy, middle-aged woman named Annie Lee Cooper hit the sheriff full force with a punch. This got the attention of photographers, who started clicking off pictures as three sheriffs took hold of the woman. She then dared the sheriff to hit her, and he swung his billy club around and struck her so hard on the head that reporters noted the sound. They also got the picture—Sheriff Clark swinging his billy club at a helpless woman. It ran on the front page of newspapers throughout the country. SNCC’s Mary King said, “The skillful use of the news media for public education is the modern equivalent of the ‘pen,’ and the pen is still mightier than the sword.”
As the civil rights movement became more media conscious, Martin Luther King became its star. He was the first civil rights leader to become a media star and consequently was far more famous and had far more immediate impact than his predecessors or contemporaries. Ralph Abernathy said, “We knew that we had developed into symbols.” King was often accused by people in the movement of stealing the spotlight, taking all the credit by taking all the bows. In truth, that was how the movement used him. He was seldom the innovator. But he was the eloquent speaker, the charismatic presence that made events work on television. He was a reluctant star, more at home in a church than at a demonstration or a press conference. He once said, “I am conscious of two Martin Luther Kings. I am a wonder to myself. . . . I am mystified by my own career. The Martin Luther King that the people talk about seems to me somebody foreign to me.”
After Albany, television became an integral part of every campaign strategy. Within King’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Andrew Young served as the chief adviser on media, or at least on white-controlled media. He understood that to get on television every day, they had to provide daily messages that were short and dramatic, what are now called sound bites, and that these had to be accompanied by what television called “a good visual.” Young emphasized and King quickly grasped that the daily Martin Luther King statement should be no more than sixty seconds. Many SNCC activists thought King had gone too far, that he and his organization overused media. They believed that he was creating short-term news events, whereas they wanted to work more within southern society to create fundamental changes—a slow, off-camera process.
But the reality was that by 1968, the civil rights movement, the Black Power movement, the antiwar movement, even Congress and conventional politics had become deeply involved with the question of how to get a television cameraman, in the words of then CBS correspondent Daniel Schorr, “to push the button.”
Two innovations in television technology completely changed broadcast news—videotape and direct satellite transmission. Both were developed in the 1960s, and though neither one came into full use until the 1970s, by 1968 they had already begun to change the way broadcast journalists thought. Videotape is inexpensive, can be reused, and does not have to be processed before broadcasting. In 1968 most television news was still shooting sixteen-millimeter black-and-white film, usually from cameras mounted on tripods, though there were also handheld cameras. Because the film was expensive and time-consuming to process, it could not be shot indiscriminately. The cameraman would set up and then wait for a signal from the correspondent. When the correspondent judged that the scene was becoming interesting—sometimes the cameraman would make the decision himself—he would give a signal, and the cameraman would push the button and start filming. “You could shoot ten minutes to get one minute,” said Schorr, “but you couldn’t shoot two hours.”
What became apparent to Schorr was that it was “a matter of decibels. . . . As soon as somebody raised his voice and said, ‘But how can you sit there and say so and so’—I would press the button, because television likes drama, television likes conflict, and anything that indicates conflict was a candidate for something that might get on the air—on the Cronkite show that evening, which was what we were all trying to do.”
The presence of cameras started to have a noticeable impact on civility in debates. Schorr recalled in covering the Senate, “They frequently raised their voice for no reason at all, just because they knew that it would get our attention by doing that.” But it was not only politicians in chambers that turned strident to get the button pushed. Abbie Hoffman understood how this worked, Stokely Carmichael understood it, and so did Martin Luther King. In 1968, after a decade of working with news media, King realized that he was losing the television competition. He complained to Schorr that television was encouraging black leaders to say the most violent and inflammatory things and had very little interest in his nonviolence. “When Negroes are incited to violence, will you think of your responsibility in helping to produce it?” King asked Schorr.
“Did I go on seeking menacing sound bites as my passport to the evening news?” Schorr asked himself in a moment of soul-searching. “I’m afraid I did.”
The other invention that was changing television was live satellite transmission. The first transmission from a satellite was the tape-recorded voice of President Dwight Eisenhower giving Christmas greetings on December 18, 1958. Early satellites, such as the “Early Bird,” were not geostationary—they did not maintain their position relative to the earth—and so could receive from any point on earth only at certain hours of the day. The satellite transmission of a major story required so many lucky coincidences that they rarely happened in the first few years. In those days, stories from Europe usually aired the next day in the States, after film could be flown in. The first story from Europe to be aired the same day on American television was not a satellite transmission. In 1961, when the Berlin Wall was first erected, the construction started so early in the day that with the time zone advantage, CBS was able to fly film to New York City in time for the evening news. President Kennedy complained that the half day it took to break the story on television had not allowed him enough time to formulate his response.
Fred Friendly, the head of CBS news, understood that satellites, with instant transmissions, would eventually become accessible from most places in the world at any time of day and that this awkward invention would one day change the nature not only of television news, but of news itself. In 1965, he wanted a live satellite broadcast from somewhere in the world on the Cronkite evening news, which came on at 7:00 P.M. New York City time. Looking for a place in the world that could send to Early Bird at seven New York City time, he found Berlin, which had been a major story for several years. Schorr was placed at the Berlin Wall, always a good visual, and it was—live! Schorr’s entreaties that nothing was happening at the Wall in the middle of the night were useless. He was missing the point. The point was that it would be live.
“So indeed, I stood there,” Schorr recounted. “This is the wall, behind here is where East Germany is, and all. And then, because we were there with lights on, you would hear dogs barking. Dogs started to bark and ‘you would hear dogs barking sometimes chasing some poor East German who was trying to escape. I don’t know that that is happening right now’—a lot of crap! But it was live.”
CBS even talked a court in Germany that was trying an accused Nazi into holding a session after midnight so that it could be carried live rather than filming the normal day session and playing it that night. The age of live television news had begun.
According to U.S. military spokesmen, the second week of 1968, the week of the president’s State of the Union address, marked a wartime record for the number of enemy soldiers killed in one week: 2,968. The previous record week had been the one ending March 25, 1967, in which only 2,783 enemy had been killed. The week also ended with Secretary of State Dean Rusk defending his foreign policy before a genial dinner audience of 1,500 in San Francisco as the police used clubs against 400 antiwar demonstrators outside. Three more American servicemen asked Sweden for political asylum on Friday, January 12. The previous Tuesday, 4 sailors had deserted the aircraft carrier Intrepid and were granted Swedish resident visas.
Race issues were also becoming more difficult. The shifting mood, already labeled “white backlash,” was in part a reaction to rising crime and to the fact that young people and their counterculture stars openly used forbidden drugs, but it was mostly a reaction to black riots in northern cities. In one of his both bizarre and typical moments of self-discovery, Norman Mailer in his 1968 book Miami and the Siege of Chicago—one of three Mailer books published that year—described waiting for a Ralph Abernathy press conference for which the civil rights leader was forty minutes late. “The reporter became aware of a peculiar emotion in himself, for he had not ever felt it consciously before”—only slightly more modest than Charles de Gaulle, Mailer often referred to himself in third person singular—“It was a simple emotion and very unpleasant to him—he was getting tired of Negroes and their rights.” But a more important revelation followed: “If he felt even a hint this way, then what immeasurable tides of rage must be loose in America?”
Originally, as most southerners sensed correctly, the civil rights movement fit comfortably into the prejudice most of the rest of the country felt toward the South. The movement seemed heroic when heading south and taking on drawling Neanderthals with names like Bull Connor. But in 1965, Martin Luther King began to champion the issue of “open housing” in northern cities. To most of white America, this was something different. They were not just trying to go to school and ride buses in Alabama, they were trying to move into our neighborhoods.
King and other leaders had also started devoting an increasing amount of time to opposing the war in Vietnam. By 1967, when King became an outspoken Vietnam War critic, he was the last major civil rights figure to do so. Most of the Congress of Racial Equality, CORE, and SNCC had turned antiwar in 1965 and 1966. Many of King’s advisers in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference were reluctant to attack the government in time of war. In 1967 the Mobe and its leader David Dellinger, a World War II draft resister, made an all-out effort to bring King into the antiwar movement. Dellinger had also had advisers telling him that the antiwar movement was getting too involved with black leaders and it was alienating potential supporters of the antiwar cause. Many whites saw the involvement of black leaders as stepping outside the legitimate turf of a civil rights leader. Never mind the fact that only 11 percent of the population was black while 23 percent of the combat soldiers in Vietnam were. Blacks were now trying to dictate foreign policy. Heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali, perhaps the one black figure who was even better than King at using the media, had refused the draft, saying, “I ain’t got no quarrel with the Viet Cong.” He was convicted of draft evasion, and a week after Johnson’s State of the Union speech, Ali’s appeal was rejected.
Ali had changed his name from Cassius Clay, which he said was a “slave name,” when he became a Black Muslim, in 1963. The Black Muslims, Black Power, and especially the increasingly visible Black Panthers, who advocated violence, robberies, and shoot-outs with the police, were frightening to white people. The flames in black ghettos the summer before had for many been the final blow. King said that Black Power advocates such as Stokely Carmichael provided white people with the excuse they needed. “Stokely is not the problem,” King said. “The problem is white people and their attitude.”
For the ruling Democrats, the response to urban violence was a growing threat. An aide to Vice President Hubert Humphrey told Time magazine, “Another summer of riots could really sink us next fall.” King opposed Johnson and had no loyalty to the Democrats, but he had more far-reaching fears of this so-called backlash. “We cannot stand two more summers like last summer without leading inevitably to a right-wing takeover and a fascist state,” King said.
On January 12, President Johnson gave his State of the Union address. Never before in history had the annual address received so much television coverage. Not only did all three networks and the new National Educational Television station, the forerunner of PBS, carry the speech, but all four set aside time after the address to have guests come on and discuss what had just been heard. CBS canceled Green Acres, He and She, and The Jonathan Winters Show for its unprecedented two and one half hours of coverage. NBC sacrificed a Kraft Music Hall special starring Alan King and Run for Your Life to give two hours of coverage. ABC postponed its drama Laura developed by Truman Capote as a star vehicle for Jackie Kennedy’s sister, Lee Bouvier Radziwell. For the analysis that preempted Eddie Albert and Eva Gabor, CBS had Senate minority leader Everett Dirksen. But the most extensive analysis was by NET, which had started the new trend by devoting more than three hours to the 1967 State of the Union address. For the 1968 speech, they put no time limit on their coverage, a concept unheard of in commercial television, and lined up such stars as Daniel Patrick Moynihan; Carl Stokes, the black mayor of Cleveland; and economist Milton Friedman.
If the speech was a barometer for the direction the country was turning, the news was not good for liberalism. The Great Society, Johnson’s catchphrase for the extensive list of social programs that were supposed to define his presidency, was mentioned only once. The audience of Congress, cabinet members, and top-ranking military greeted the speech with the appropriate periodic applause that always seasons these events. According to Time magazine, the president was interrupted by applause fifty-three times, although it reported no genuine enthusiasm to most of these outbursts. The one prolonged standing ovation came when Johnson said, “The American people have had enough of rising crime and lawlessness in this country.”
In place of new social programs, Johnson announced the Safe Streets Act, a new narcotics law with more severe penalties for the sale of what had become a campus favorite, LSD. He also called for gun control legislation to stop “mail order murder,” which was the only statement in the fifty-minute speech that received applause from Senator Robert Kennedy.
Johnson responded to Hanoi’s offer of talks—on condition that the United States cease bombing and other hostile acts—by saying, “The bombing would stop immediately if talks would take place promptly and with reasonable hopes that they would be productive.” He then angrily recalled the enemy’s violation of the New Year’s truce, adding, “And the other side must not take advantage of our restraint as they have done in the past.” This was an important point, since there were calls for another cease-fire for the upcoming Vietnamese New Year, Tet.
A Gallup poll released two days after the speech showed more people seeing Johnson as hawkish than saw either Nixon or Reagan that way. In a time when politicians were divided more commonly into doves and hawks, for peace or for war, than into Democrats and Republicans, this was significant. Both Nixon and Reagan had been regarded as unelectable, and one of the reasons had been their hawkishness.
In a New York Times Magazine article titled “Why the Gap Between LBJ and the Nation?” Max Frankel suggested that Johnson’s problem was not so much that he handled the media badly, but that he was just not convincing:
But the measure of Mr. Johnson’s trouble is not only Vietnam—perhaps not even Vietnam. It is his failure to persuade much of the country of his own deep belief that his war policy is right. Were he to succeed, his critics, even in the opposition, might at least respect the genuineness of his purpose. As it is, a great many of them seem to have concluded that he is beyond rational debate, merely afraid to concede a “mistake” or too timid to risk retreat. . . . He rehearses many of his public performances and studies some afterward. He has tried every combination of television lighting known to theatrical science and uttered every genre of political address.
Frankel quoted the president comparing himself to the Boston Red Sox’s spectacular slugger Ted Williams. Despite all his records and considerable accomplishments, when Ted Williams stepped up to the plate fans often booed. “They’ll say about me,” Johnson explained, “I knock the ball over the fence—but they don’t like the way he stands at the plate.” The Times ran a follow-up letter to the editor signed by five members of the history department at Cornell:
On the other hand, there are similarities between the men that the President evidently chose to overlook: (1) Boston fans booed Williams not because of his stance but because he seldom delivered in the clutch; (2) Williams’s problems were often caused by rudeness, immaturity and unsportsmanlike conduct with the public and the press; (3) Williams could never make a hit in left field either; (4) when faced with a new obstacle, like the Boudreau shift, Williams never chose to outsmart it but insisted on escalation to right field.
The day after the address, Martin Luther King, the most reluctant to denounce the war of all the civil rights leaders, called for a massive march on Washington in early February to protest “one of history’s most cruel and senseless wars.”
“We need to make clear in this political year, to congressmen on both sides of the aisle and to the president of the United States, that we will no longer tolerate, we will no longer vote for men who continue to see the killings of Vietnamese and Americans as the best way of advancing the goals of freedom and self-determination in Southeast Asia.”
Traditionally the first day of Congress is a perfunctory one, but the start of the second session of the Ninetieth Congress in mid-January was marked by five thousand women, many dressed in black, marching and singing in protest over the war in Vietnam. They were led by eighty-seven-year-old Jeanette Rankin, the first woman member of Congress.
On January 21 a concert called “Broadway for Peace 1968,” billed as “the greatest array of stars ever,” was to have one performance at New York’s Philharmonic Hall. Among those contributing their time to the event were Harry Belafonte, Leonard Bernstein, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Eli Wallach, Carl Reiner, Robert Ryan, Barbra Streisand, and one of the biggest television stars of the year, Tommy Smothers. The proceeds went to the campaigns of antiwar senatorial and congressional candidates, many of whom were on hand to meet their supporters after the program.
Even Wall Street was turning against the war. The brokerage house Paine Webber, Jackson, and Curtis was running full-page newspaper ads explaining why peace was in the interest of investors and “the most bullish thing that could happen to the stock market.”
Four days after the State of the Union address, Robert Kennedy attended the annual black-tie dinner of the Rochester, New York, Chamber of Commerce and asked for a show of hands for or against pursuing the war. About seven hundred were opposed. Only about thirty to forty hands indicated approval of war policy.
Yet Johnson was still considered the front-runner for the election in November. The January Gallup poll showed 48 percent approving of the way he handled his job, continuing an upward trend since a low of 38 percent the previous October. The day after his address, with only eight weeks to New Hampshire’s opening primary election, pro- and anti-Johnson Democratic pundits agreed with those in the Republican Party that the president would probably beat Eugene McCarthy by a margin of 5 to 1.
The same day as Johnson’s speech, as though ordered by Johnson himself, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong, after ten days of the heaviest fighting of the war, stopped all ground combat. The U.S. military guessed that the enemy was gathering fresh troops and supplies. The Selective Service announced that a total of 302,000 men would be drafted into the army in 1968, an increase of 72,000 over 1967.
Since American democracy imposes no limits on a citizen’s delusions of grandeur, there is always this question: If you were invited to the White House, would you give the president a piece of your mind, thereby publicly displaying bad manners, or would you be nice and waste the opportunity?
In January 1968, Eartha Kitt, a small and delicate-looking black cabaret singer, who had built her career in trendy Paris Left Bank clubs of the late 1950s, was confronted with such a decision when the president’s wife, Lady Bird Johnson, invited her to a “ladies’ lunch” at the White House. In conjunction with the president’s newly outlined concerns, the topic was “What Citizens Can Do to Help Insure Safe Streets.” Some fifty women were seated in the yellow-walled family dining room, ten to a table, with matching gold-rimmed plates and gold cutlery. The meal went from crab bisque to Lady Bird’s favorite peppermint dessert. Woman after woman, mostly from privileged white backgrounds, spoke about their theories of the causes of street crime. But the fifty sat in stunned silence as Kitt leaned against the podium and said in her distinct porcelain voice, “You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. They rebel in the street. They will take pot and they will get high. They don’t want to go to school because they’re going to be snatched off from their mothers to be shot in Vietnam.”
Different reporters were leaked slightly different versions of the encounter. In the Time magazine version she said, “No wonder the kids rebel and take pot—and in case you don’t understand the lingo that’s marijuana.”
After a moment of silence, Mrs. Richard J. Hughes, wife of the Democratic governor of New Jersey, said, “I feel morally obligated. May I speak in defense of the war?” She said her first husband had been killed in World War II and that she had eight sons, one an air force veteran. “None wants to go to Vietnam, but all will go, they and their friends.” She added that none of her sons smoked marijuana, and the guests, somewhat relieved, applauded while Kitt stared at her with arms folded.
Mrs. Johnson, noticeably pale, some said on the verge of tears, stood up and walked to the podium, somewhat in the way a good hostess would hurry to a trouble spot at a cocktail party to smooth it over, and politely suggested, “Because there is a war on—and I pray that there will be a just and honest peace—that still doesn’t give us a free ticket not to try to work for better things such as against crime in the streets, better education, and better health for our people. Crime in the streets is one thing that we can solve. I am sorry I can’t speak as well or as passionately on conditions of slums as you, because I have not lived there.”
Kitt, the daughter of South Carolina sharecroppers, who as a teenager supported her family from a Harlem sweatshop, explained, “I have to say what is in my heart. I have lived in the gutters.”
Mrs. Johnson, with candor and remarkable grace, replied, “I am sorry. I cannot understand the things that you do. I have not lived with the background you have.”
And there it was, America in microcosm—the well-intentioned white liberals unable to comprehend black anger. Everyone wanted to comment on the widely reported incident, many applauding Kitt’s courage, many appalled by her rudeness. Martin Luther King said that although the singer was the First Lady’s guest, it was “a very proper gesture” because it “described the feelings of many persons” and that the “ears” of the Johnsons are “somewhat isolated from expressions of what people really feel.”
Gene Roberts was removed from his beloved civil rights beat at The New York Times in the beginning of 1968 and reassigned to Saigon. Compared to civil rights, the Vietnam story seemed quiet. “I thought I had left the action.” In Washington he got a round of briefings from the U.S. government. At the CIA briefing he asked if a recent battle had been a victory. The CIA official said, “There are six good reasons to consider this a victory.” He went through the six reasons. Roberts then asked, “Is there any reason to consider it a defeat?”
“There are eight good reasons to consider it a defeat,” the official replied, and he listed them.
At the White House, Roberts was briefed by a top-ranking member of the administration whose identity he promised not to expose. “Forget the war,” he was told. “The war is over. Now we have to win the peace. The thing to keep your eye on is”—and he said this as though revealing a secret code—“IR8 rice.”
“IR8 rice!” The U.S. government had done large-scale experiments and found that IR8 rice had two high-yield crops a year. This, he assured Roberts, was the big story in Vietnam at the moment.
Roberts arrived in Saigon shortly after the Western New Year and started asking about IR8 rice. No one had heard of it. Finally, he learned that a rice festival was being held in the most secure province of South Vietnam. In fact, it was an IR8 rice festival. Crude bleachers were set up in the small rural village. In a corner, several farmers were squatting on their haunches, chewing on long blades of grass. All over the world farmers cluster and chew on grass. Roberts, who grew up in a farming area, recognized the scene and decided that a chat with these farmers would probably be worthwhile. He walked over with his translator and squatted by them.
“What do you think of this IR8 rice?”
The farmer exploded in an angry staccato burst of sound. The interpreter said, “He has some reservations about it.” Roberts then insisted that the translator give a word-for-word first-person translation. He asked the question again. Again syllables spat out of the farmer’s mouth as though from an automatic weapon.
“Basically,” the interpreter explained, “he said, ‘Fuck IR8 rice.’ ” The other farmers were nodding in approval as the farmer continued and the translator said, “ ‘My daddy planted Mekong Delta rice and so did his daddy and his daddy before that. If it was good enough for all those generations, why do we need something different?’ ”
The other farmers were still nodding enthusiastically.
“Well,” Roberts wanted to know, “if you feel that way, why did you come to the IR8 rice festival?”
The farmer barked out more syllables. “Because your president”—he was referring to South Vietnamese president Nguyen Van Thieu as he pointed his finger at Roberts—“your president sent a bunch of men with rifles who ordered me onto the bus.”
Somehow, Roberts reasoned, there was a story in this, but it was difficult. His government source had been promised anonymity. But there was the program—or its failure. While he was still laboring on the IR8 rice story, his turn came up for the daily breaking news story. Fighting had broken out in Da Nang on the northern coast of South Vietnam near the old provincial capital of Hue. This was near the north-south border, and there had been rumors of a big North Vietnamese push across the border. Roberts got on a plane for Da Nang. As the plane banked for the north, he looked out the window and saw Saigon below—in flames. He never did write the IR8 rice story.
Early that morning, January 30, the Vietnamese New Year, the air base at Da Nang was hit as part of an attack by sixty-seven thousand pro–North Vietnam troops on thirty-six provincial capitals and five major cities including Saigon.
In the middle of the preceding night, fifteen men led by Nguyen Van Sau, an illiterate farmer from the outskirts of Saigon, had gathered in a Saigon garage. Nguyen Van Sau had joined the cause four years earlier, assigned to a sabotage battalion in Saigon. He had recently been admitted to the People’s Revolutionary Party as a reward for his good work. He and his group had been quietly moving ammunition and explosives hidden in baskets of tomatoes into the neighborhood around the garage. Far more than the many deeds done by the other sixty-seven thousand, the work of this group of slightly more than a dozen fighters would come to epitomize around the world what was called the Tet Offensive. What was special about Nguyen Van Sau’s group was that their attack had the best press coverage.
His mission was to attack the U.S. embassy, which was a convenient location for coverage by the Saigon-based press corps, many of whom lived in the neighborhood. Up until then, most Vietnam War battles were reported on after they happened, or at best, if the battle was long enough, reporters would get in at midbattle. But from the U.S. embassy, their lines of communication were uninterrupted, stories could be filed in the neighborhood, film could be quickly shipped. And they had the time difference on their side. The attack occurred on January 30, but it was still January 29 in the United States. By January 30 and 31, the United States and the rest of world had the story in pictures and on film. American GIs were seen taking cover in the U.S. embassy compound, American corpses were seen lying still, being dragged, carried away on the back of vehicles. Viet Cong bodies were piling up. For several days, Americans saw images of U.S. soldiers either dead or ducking behind walls.
Nguyen Van Sau and his group had packed into a taxi and a small Peugeot delivery truck and sped to the embassy, where they opened fire at the guards. The first report of the attack reached Associated Press’s New York bureau about fifteen minutes later, while the assailants were blowing the first hole in the compound wall. They rushed in firing, killing the first two guards, who seemed to have also killed Nguyen Van Sau. The guerrillas further penetrated the compound with rockets. News reports were already describing the attackers as “a suicide squad.” At 7:30 that morning, with the battle still in progress, it was 6:30 in the evening in New York and NBC Television’s Huntley-Brinkley Report had the story, though without film. They reported twenty suicide attackers holding the building. The report had some confusion about who was firing from the building and who was in the compound. But Americans got the idea, more or less. Finally, military police were able to use a jeep to ram open the front gate, which had been locked shut by the guards at the first moment of attack. Behind the MPs came the press corps with cameras to document the bodies, bullet holes, fallen embassy seal. By 9:15 the embassy had been secured and one of the most famous battles of the Vietnam War was over. Eight Americans had been killed.
Everyone in Nguyen Van Sau’s group was killed. It had been a suicide mission. They had been given no plan for escaping. The 67,000 Viet Cong guerrilla fighters of the Tet Offensive had taken on a South Vietnam with almost 1.2 million soldiers, of which 492,000 were American. General William C. Westmoreland, who often bolstered his arguments with body counts of enemy dead, immediately claimed that the attack had failed and cost the enemy many lives. But he had been saying that he had seen “the light at the end of the tunnel” in the war and he was not being very much believed anymore. In truth, after a week the Viet Cong had failed to hold a single city and had lost about half of its fighting force. With seven more years of fighting, the guerrilla fighters of the Viet Cong never again played a leading role because they had been so diminished in the Tet Offensive. The fight was carried on by the regular troops of the Vietnam People’s Army, which Americans called the North Vietnamese army. It is now thought that Viet Cong four-star general Nguyen Chi Thanh had opposed the Tet plan, believing it was foolish to engage a superior force in conventional warfare, but he was killed in an American bombing before the issue was decided.
The attack had succeeded probably better than the North Vietnamese realized, because, though it was a military failure, it was a media success. At a loss to explain this kind of suicide warfare, U.S. intelligence officers at the time concluded that this lone successful aspect must have been its goal, that the North Vietnamese had launched the Tet Offensive to win a public relations victory. The results were dazzling. Today we are accustomed to war appearing instantly on TV, but this was new in 1968. War had never been brought to living rooms so quickly. Today the military has become much more experienced and adept at controlling media. But in the Tet Offensive, the images brought into living rooms were of U.S. Armed Forces in shambles, looking panicked, being killed.
By February 1968, Cronkite on CBS and Chet Huntley and David Brinkley on NBC were experiencing the highest ratings they had ever known. At a time when fifty-six million American homes had televisions, Cronkite was reaching more than eleven million homes and Huntley/Brinkley was reaching more than ten million homes. Expensive satellite transmissions instantly relaying footage from Japan to New York City were being used regularly by all three networks for the first time that month. The government could no longer control the public image of the war. New York Times television critic Jack Gould wrote, “For the huge TV audience the grim pictures unfolded in the last week cannot fail to leave the impression that the agony of Vietnam is acute and that the detached analyses of Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, who appeared yesterday on ‘Meet the Press,’ could be incomplete.”
The print media was also giving more attention to the war than they ever had before. Harper’s magazine and the Atlantic Monthly put out special Vietnam War issues. Harper’s entire March issue, on sale in February, was devoted to a Norman Mailer article about the antiwar movement that powerfully criticized U.S. policy. Atlantic Monthly’s entire March issue was devoted to a piece by Dan Wakefield also about antiwar sentiment. Though both magazines were more than a century old and neither had ever done single-article issues, both said it was a coincidence that they were producing such issues at the same time on the same subject.
Photography was being used in this February explosion of media as it rarely had been before. The normally black-and-white Time magazine used color. The Tet Offensive happened to coincide with an internal debate at The New York Times. The photo department wanted the paper to use more than occasional small and usually cropped pictures, and after much arguing, the Times agreed that if they were supplied with pictures worthy of it, they would give a big picture spread.
Photographer Eddie Adams was roaming Saigon in morning light with an NBC crew when he came upon Vietnamese marines with a man in tow, his arms tied behind his back, badly beaten. Suddenly Adams saw the chief of South Vietnam National Police, General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, draw his sidearm. The prisoner turned a downcast eye as General Loan held his arm straight out and fired a bullet into the man’s head. Adams had photographed it all. He developed the pictures and placed them on the drum of an electronic scanner that sent them to New York and around the world. The Times agreed that these were unusual pictures worthy of a different kind of spread. On February 2 a photo ran on the top of the front page of a small man, hands bound, face distorted by the impact of a bullet from the handgun in General Loan’s outstretched arm. Below ran another picture of a South Vietnamese soldier, grief on his face as he carried his child, killed by the Viet Cong. On page twelve was more—three pictures marked “Prisoner,” “Execution,” and “Death,” showing the Adams sequence of the killing. These photos won more than ten photojournalism awards and were and still are among the most remembered images of the war.
The world was learning what this war looked like in more detail than had ever happened in the history of warfare. Later in the year, John Wayne released a film on Vietnam, The Green Berets, starring and co-directed by himself. Renata Adler, reviewing for The New York Times, declared the film “stupid,” “false,” and “unspeakable.” Richard Schickel in Life magazine agreed with all of these adjectives but further stated, “The war being fought here bears no resemblance whatever to the reality of Vietnam as we have all, hawks and doves alike, perceived it to be through the good offices of the mass media.” Neither John Wayne nor any other American filmmaker had ever needed to contend with this before. Up until then, most war films did not look like the real thing, but now, even if the war was in a distant land, the public would know because it had seen the war.
1968 was the first year Hollywood filmmakers were permitted an unrestricted hand in the portrayal of violence. Censorship regulations were replaced by a ratings system so that Hollywood warfare could be portrayed looking as gruesome as network television war, though the first films to use the new violence, such as the 1968 police thriller Bullitt and the 1969 western The Wild Bunch, were not war movies.
Another problem with war films was that every day the public was picking up better war stories in the news media than they could find in the Hollywood war clichés. The fast talker from Brooklyn and the quiet “What are you going to do after the war?” scene did not stand up to real stories such as that of Marine Private Jonathan Spicer, a funny, offbeat son of a Methodist minister in Miami. Spicer refused to fight and so was assigned to be a medical corpsman. The scorn of his fellow marines was soon silenced because Spicer seemed to be fearless, dragging wounded marines out of the line of fire, protecting them with his own body. One March day in Khe Sanh, a shelling began as the corpsmen were trying to evacuate wounded, and Spicer was ordered into his bunker. When the marines were trapped in Khe Sanh, each time they tried to evacuate wounded, the Viet Cong would shell. Spicer saw the marines were having trouble getting the wounded loaded, so he ran over to help and was caught in a shell burst. At the field hospital only yards away, Spicer was pronounced dead. Such field units are not set up for major surgery and normally only patch up the patient and send him on to a full hospital. But this doctor thought he could save Spicer and opened his chest, massaged his stopped heart, plugging up a hole with his finger until he could stitch it closed, and brought the young man back to life. This was not a Hollywood story, though, and three days later Private Spicer, nineteen years old, shipped to a hospital in Japan, died of his wounds.
Now that people could watch the war, many did not like what they saw. Anti–Vietnam War demonstrations involving hundreds of thousands were becoming commonplace around the world. From February 11 to 15, students from Harvard, Radcliffe, and Boston University held a four-day hunger strike to protest the war. On February 14, ten thousand demonstrators, according to the French police, or one hundred thousand, according to the organizers, marched through Paris in the pouring rain, waving North Vietnamese flags and chanting, “Vietnam for the Vietnamese,” “U.S. Go Home,” and “Johnson Assassin.” Four days later, West Berlin students did a better job of imitating American antiwar rallies when an estimated ten thousand West Germans and students from throughout Western Europe chanted: “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh”—reminiscent of the American “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, the NLF is gonna win.” Ho Chi Minh had called his movement the National Liberation Front. German student leader Rudi Dutschke said, “Tell the Americans the day and the hour will come when we will drive you out unless you yourselves throw out imperialism.” The demonstrators urged American soldiers to desert, which they were already doing, applying to Sweden, France, and Canada for asylum. In February, the Toronto Anti-Draft Program mailed to the United States five thousand copies of its 132-page paperback, Manual for Draft Age Immigrants to Canada, printed in the basement of an eight-room house by U.S. draft dodgers living in Canada. In addition to legal information it gave background information on the country, including a chapter titled “Yes, John, There Is a Canada.” By March even the relatively moderate Mexico City student movement held a demonstration against the Vietnam War.
American antiwar poster depicting a draft card being burned
(Imperial War Museum, London, poster negative number LDP 449)
The Selective Service had been planning to call up 40,000 young men a month, but the number was ballooning upward to 48,000. The Johnson administration abolished the student deferment for graduate studies and announced that 150,000 graduate students would be drafted during the fiscal year that would begin in July. This was a severe blow not only for young men planning graduate studies, among them Bill Clinton, a senior at Georgetown’s School of Government who had been appointed a Rhodes Scholar for graduate study at Oxford, but also for American graduate schools, which claimed they would be losing 200,000 incoming and first-year students. One university president, remarkably free of today’s rules of political correctness, complained that graduate schools would now be limited to “the lame, the halt, the blind, and the female.”
At Harvard Law School Alan Dershowitz began offering a course on the legal paths to war resistance. Five hundred law professors signed a petition urging the legal profession to actively oppose the war policy of the Johnson administration. With 5,000 marines in Khe Sanh surrounded by 20,000 enemy troops who could easily be replaced and resupplied from the northern border, the seven days ending February 18 broke a new record for weekly casualties, with 543 American soldiers killed. On February 17, Lieutenant Richard W. Pershing, grandson of the commander of American Expeditionary Forces in World War I, engaged to be married and serving in the 101st Airborne, was killed by enemy fire while searching for the remains of a comrade.
President Johnson was slipping so far in the polls that even Richard Nixon, the perennial loser of the Republican Party, had caught up to him. Nixon’s most feared competitor in the Democratic Party, New York senator Robert Kennedy, who still insisted he was a loyal Johnson Democrat, gave a speech in Chicago on February 8 saying that the Vietnam War was unwinnable. “We must first of all rid ourselves of the illusion that the events of the past two weeks represent some sort of victory,” Kennedy said. “That is not so. It is said the Viet Cong may not be able to hold the cities. This is probably true. But they have demonstrated, despite all our reports of progress, of government strength and enemy weakness, that half a million American soldiers with 700,000 Vietnamese allies, with total command of the air, total command of the sea, backed by huge resources and the most modern weapons, are unable to secure even a single city from the attacks of an enemy whose total strength is about 250,000.”
As the Tet Offensive went on, the question was inescapable: Why had they been caught by surprise? Twenty-five days before Tet, the embassy had intercepted a message about attacks on southern cities including Saigon but did not act on it. A sneak attack during Tet was not even a new idea. In 1789, the year the French Revolution erupted and George Washington took his oath of office, Vietnamese emperor Quang Trung took the Chinese by surprise by using the cover of Tet festivities to march on Hanoi. Not as undermanned as the Viet Cong, he attacked with one hundred thousand men and several hundred elephants and sent the Chinese into a temporary retreat. Wasn’t Westmoreland familiar with this widely known story of Quang Trung’s Tet Offensive? A small statue of the emperor, a gift from a Vietnamese friend, stood in General Westmoreland’s office. Again in 1960, the Viet Cong had scored a surprise victory by attacking on the eve of Tet. Holiday attacks were almost a tradition in Vietnam. North Vietnamese general Vo Nguyen Giap had started his career catching the French by surprise on Christmas Eve 1944.
Now the same General Giap was on the cover of Time magazine. On the inside was a several-page color spread, an unusual display for Time magazine in the sixties, showing dead American soldiers.
“What the hell’s going on?” said CBS’s Walter Cronkite, reading reports from Saigon off camera. “I thought we were winning the war.”
In a year with no middle ground, Walter Cronkite remained comfortably in the center. The son of a Kansas City dentist, Cronkite was middle class from the Middle West with a self-assured but never arrogant centrist point of view. It became a popular parlor game to guess at Walter Cronkite’s politics. To most Americans Cronkite was not a know-it-all but someone who did happen to know. He was so determinedly neutral that viewers studied his facial movements in the hopes of detecting an opinion. Many Democrats, including John Kennedy, suspected he was a Republican, but the Republicans saw him as a Democrat. Pollsters did studies that showed that Cronkite was trusted by Americans more than any politician, journalist, or television personality. After seeing one such poll, John Bailey, chairman of the Democratic National Committee said, “What I’m afraid this means is that by a mere inflection of his deep baritone voice or by a lifting of his well-known bushy eyebrows, Cronkite might well change the vote of thousands of people around the country.”
Cronkite was one of the last television journalists to reject the notion that he was the story. Cronkite wanted to be a conduit. He valued the trust he had and believed that it came from truthfulness. He always insisted that it was CBS, not just him, that had the trust of America. The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, since it had begun in 1963, was the most popular television news show.
A difference in generations labeled “the generation gap” was not only dividing society, but was apparent in journalism as well. Author David Halberstam, who had been a New York Times correspondent in Vietnam, recalled that the older reporters and editors who had come out of World War II tended to side with the military. “They thought we were unpatriotic and didn’t believe that generals lied.” Younger reporters such as Halberstam and Gene Roberts created a sensation, both in public opinion and in journalism, by reporting that the generals were lying. “Then came another generation,” Halberstam said, “who smoked pot and knew all the music. We called them the heads.” The heads never trusted a word from the generals.
Walter Cronkite was from that old World War II generation that believed generals and which Halberstam had found to be such an obstacle when he first started reporting on Vietnam. But, though his thirty minutes of evening news did not reflect this, Cronkite was growing increasingly suspicious that the U.S. government and the military were not telling the truth. He did not see “the light at the end of the tunnel” that General Westmoreland continually promised.
It seemed that in order to understand what was going on in Vietnam, he would have to go and see for himself. This decision worried the U.S. government. They could survive temporarily losing control of their own embassy, but the American people would never forgive their losing Walter Cronkite. The head of CBS News, Richard Salant, had similar fears. Journalists were sent into combat, but not corporate treasures.
“I said,” Cronkite recalled, “well, I need to go because I thought we needed this documentary about Tet. We were getting daily reports, but we didn’t know where it was going at that time; we may lose the war; if we’re going to lose the war, I should be there, that was one thing. If the Tet Offensive was successful in the end, it meant that we were going to be fleeing, as we did eventually anyway, but I wanted to be there for the clash.”
Walter Cronkite never saw himself as a piece of broadcast history or a national treasure, any of the things others saw in him. All his life he saw himself as a reporter, and he never wanted to miss the big story. Covering World War II for United Press International, he had been with the Allies when they landed in North Africa, when the first bombing missions flew over Germany, when they landed in Normandy, parachuted into the Netherlands, broke out of the Bulge. He always wanted to be there.
Salant’s first response was predictable. As Cronkite remembered it, he said, “If you need to be there, if you are demanding to go, I’m not going to stop you, but I think it’s foolish to risk your life in a situation like this, risk the life of our anchorman, and I’ve got to think about it.” His next thoughts were what surprised Cronkite. “But if you are going to go,” he said, “I think you ought to do a documentary about going, about why you went, and maybe you are going to have to say something about where the war ought to go at that point.”
The one thing Dick Salant had been known for among CBS journalists was forbidding any kind of editorializing of the news. Cronkite said of Salant, “If he were to detect any word in a reporter’s report that seemed to have been editorializing at all, personal opinion, he was dead set against it—against doing it at all. Not just mine. I’m talking about any kind of editorializing of anybody.”
So when Salant told Cronkite his idea for a Vietnam special, Cronkite answered, “That would be an editorial.”
“Well,” said Salant, “I’m thinking that maybe it’s time for that. You have established a reputation, and thanks to you and through us we at CBS have established a reputation for honesty and factual reporting and being in the middle of the road. You yourself have talked about the fact that we get shot at from both sides, you yourself have said that we get about as many letters saying that we are damned conservatives as saying that we are damned liberals. We support the war. We’re against the war. You yourself say that if we weigh the letters, they weigh about the same. We figure we are about middle of the road. So if we’ve got that reputation, maybe it would be helpful, if people trust us that much, trust you that much, for you to say what you think. Tell them what it looks like, from your being on the ground, what is your opinion.”
“You’re getting pretty heavy,” Cronkite told Salant.
Cronkite suspected that all the trust he had earned was about to be diminished because he was crossing a line he had never before crossed. CBS also feared that their news show’s top ratings might slip with Walter’s transition from sphinx to pundit. But the more they thought about it, the more it seemed to Cronkite and Salant that in this moment of confusion, the public was hungering for a clear voice explaining what was happening and what should be happening.
When Cronkite arrived in Vietnam, he could not help looking happy, back in war correspondent’s clothes, helmet on head, giving a thumbs-up sign that seemed completely meaningless in the situation. But from the start Cronkite and his team had difficulties. It was hard to find a friendly airport at which to land. When they finally got to Saigon on February 11, they found themselves in a combat zone. Westmoreland briefed Cronkite on how fortunate it was that the famous newsman had arrived at this moment of great victory, that Tet had been everything they had been hoping for. But in fact that same day marked the twelfth day since the Tet Offensive had begun, and though the United States was gaining back its territory, 973 Americans had already died fighting off the Viet Cong attack. Each week was breaking a new record for American casualties. In one day, February 9, 56 marines were killed in the area of Khe Sanh.
In Khe Sanh, where U.S. Marines were dug in near the north-south border, the battle was worsening, and Hanoi as well as the French press were starting to compare it to Dien Bien Phu, where the Vietnamese overran a trapped French army base in 1954. The French press took almost as much glee as the North Vietnamese in the comparison.
In Washington, speculation was so widespread on the idea that the United States might turn to nuclear weapons rather than lose Khe Sanh and five thousand marines that a reporter asked General Earle G. Wheeler, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, if nuclear weapons were being considered for Vietnam. The general reassured no one by saying, “I do not think that nuclear weapons will be required to defend Khe Sanh.” The journalist had not mentioned Khe Sanh in his broad question.
There was a waiting list for correspondents to get a day in Khe Sanh, but Walter Cronkite was not to make the list. It was considered too dangerous. The U.S. military was not going to lose Cronkite. Instead he was taken to Hue, where artillery was smashing the ornate architecture of the onetime colonial capital into rubble. The Americans had once again secured Hue, Cronkite was told, but when he got there marines were still fighting for it. On February 16, U.S. Marines of the 5th Regiment’s 1st Battalion took two hundred yards in the city at a cost of eleven dead marines and another forty-five wounded. It was in Hue that Americans first became familiar with the stubby, lightweight, Soviet-designed weapon, the AK-47, equally effective for a single-shot sniper or spraying ten rounds a second. The weapon was to become an image of warfare in the Middle East, Central America, and Africa.
What most disturbed veteran war correspondent Cronkite was that soldiers in the field and junior officers told him completely different versions of events from those given him by the commanders in Saigon. This was the experience of many who covered Vietnam. “There were so many patent untruths about the war,” said Gene Roberts. “It was more than what is today called spin. We were told things that just weren’t true. Saigon officers and soldiers in the field were saying the opposite. It produced a complete rift between reporters and the U.S. government.”
Report from Vietnam by Walter Cronkite aired on February 27 at 10:00 P.M. eastern time. Cronkite fans, who seemed to include almost everyone, were thrilled to see Walter in Vietnam, out on the story, where in his heart Cronkite always believed he belonged. Then, after the last station break, he was back where CBS thought he belonged, behind a desk, dressed in a suit. He stared into the camera with a look so personal, so straightforward and devoid of artifice, that his nine million viewers could almost believe he was talking directly to each of them. The impression of sincerity was helped by his insistence on writing his own script:
To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of 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, though unsatisfactory, conclusion. On the off chance that military and political analysts are right, in the next 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.
It was hardly a radical position. Few of its premises would have been acceptable to most leaders of the antiwar movement. But at a time of polarization, where every opinion was either for the war or against it, Walter Cronkite’s statement was against the war. He was not of the sixties generation, he was of the World War II generation, his career had been built on war. Cronkite thought supporting democracy against communism was such a given that it never occurred to him his open backing of the cold war was a violation of his own neutrality. Now he was saying that we ought to get out. Of course, by this time he was not alone. Even the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial page said, “The whole Vietnam effort may be doomed.”
Yet despite all his troubles, Johnson reacted to the Cronkite special as though now, for the first time, he had a real problem. There are two versions of Johnson’s response. In one version he said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.” In the other the president was quoted saying, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the war.”
The show was said to have had a great effect on the president. Cronkite insisted that his role was greatly exaggerated. “I never asked Johnson about it, though we were pretty friendly. But there is no question that it was one more straw on the camel’s back, perhaps no more important than that, but the camel, the back of the camel, was getting ready to collapse.”
Hue, the former Vietnamese capital, after being bombed into rubble by the United States, February 1968
(Photo by Marc Riboud/Magnum Photos)
What is as important for broadcast history, Cronkite’s ratings went up rather than down after giving his opinion, and few broadcasters would ever again wrestle with his and Salant’s qualms about a little editorializing. In fact, starting in 1968 there was a noted increase in political opinion from entertainers, disc jockeys, and radio talk show hosts. Suddenly everyone on the air, regardless of his or her credentials, was being asked to state a position on issues from Vietnam to the plight of inner cities. The other new trend was for political figures to appear on television entertainment programs, most notably Johnny Carson’s Tonight show but also such shows as Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Some found this increased blending of news and entertainment disturbing. Jack Gould wrote in The New York Times, “It is only a matter of time before Chet Huntley and David Brinkley will be donning fetching leotards for their nightly pas de deux and Clive Barnes”—the Times theater critic at the time—“will be reviewing the New Hampshire primary.”
Decades after the Tet Offensive special Cronkite said, “I did it because I thought it was the journalistically responsible thing to do at that moment. It was an egotistical thing for us to do . . . it was egotistical for me to do and for CBS to permit me to do.” When again would a broadcast star submit himself to Cronkite’s brand of self-criticism?