Last Updated 14 Oct 2020

Vietnam War in American Media

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When talking about American media during the time of the Vietnam Wars, a common belief is that US news coverage of the events had a significant impact on public opion about the conflict, at such an extent that is is sometimes refered to as the "Living- Room War" or the "Media War". Critics of the US Media in coverage in Vietnam claim that most of the journalists were personnally against the war and their reports therefore negative portraits of US Involement in Vietnam, biased by their personal point of views.

Other people thank the media for having given more accurate reports f what was happening in Vietnam than the ones given officially by the leaders of the country The accuracy and the objectivism of the media at that time is still questionned nowadays, but was is clear is that before the Tet offensive of 1968, the media had genrerally reported on the war quite favorably whereas It was presented in a more negative light at the end of the sixties and in the early seventies. The debate on the role played by the U. S. Media in the Vietnam wars is open: did the media follow public opinion, or did it Influence It?

To what extent If any was the US media opposed to the Vietnam War? My essay shall first explore the shift brought by the Tet offensive In the US media. Then, shall focus on analyzing what caused the media to be accused of being against the Vietnam War before looking at the consequenses supposedly engedered by the role of the media. Finally I shall draw a limit on the role played by the media during the conflict. At the beginning of the war, American people seem to have supported it but public support decreased over the years. Although it was a major topic of the news by the end of the sixties. he Vietnam War was not a major concern for the American citizens t the beginning of the decade. Despite Kennedy's decision to militarize the war and send military advisors to Vietnam, when Johnson replaced him, only one American on four was aware of the conflictsl . The Kennedy administration and the Johnson administration tried to keep the public away from the concern of the war. When Johnson ran his election campaign, he was promising the Americans that he did not intend to escalate the war. He therefore stood for the peaceful candidate, and a lot of people would vote for him hoping he would find a diplomatic solution to the conflict..

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An incident occurred during the time of the election campaign: the Gulf of Tonkin crisis. As Walt Rostow -a political theorist- noticed, the crisis occurred when needed. In fact, the resolution passed by the Congress gave Johnson a Justification to escalate the war and public opinion therefore accepted the decision. 2 The "carte blanche" given to President Johnson after the incident permitted him to escalate the war without any major opposition. A few people opposed it, like George Ball who was in favour of negociations rather than a military escalation that would be diffcult to ontrol.

According to Daniel C Hallln, It Is only with the Gulf of Tonkin Incident that the Americans began to be conscious about the conflict occuring in Vietnam3. Political leaders supported, or at least, did not really opposed Johnson decision of ecalating the war, a decision he had taken without informing the American citizens. In 1965, "tuesday-lunch meetings", Johnson had previously taken a lot of decisions through a limited group, whose members themselves started to doubt about the strategy in Vietnam. It is the case for McNamara who was pushed away from the decision- aking after having spokn in favour of a diplomatic solution.

The disagreements within the governement started to serve as topic of critic for the Journalists who did not approve of the war. Senator William Fullbright instored the Senate Foreign Relation committee hearings that were televised. The conflict in Vietnam was not anymore presented through facts to the American public, but it was debated and criticized in front of them. In 1966, public opinion started to be reluctant about Johnson's policy-making. At that stage, opinions over the war were divided, whereas it was between political leaders or etween the American citizens.

A majority of people was against the war, but a minority agreed on what should be done to end the conflict. The key event that permitted the US media to play a role in the war occurred a few years later when the Tet Offensive took place. American people were already putting the war in question because of the fact that the war had already been carried on for a long time and had costed many lives of young Americans. But at the meantime, official statements were repeating that US army was making huge progression towards victory. The Tet Offensive is nowadays seen as the one that turned public opinion, and the war itself.

When the Communists attacked South Vietmam in January 1968, the Americans and South Vietnamese turned back the attack. It was a clear military victory on the battlefields but the images resulting from the attack had an opposite efect on the audience. This event is genarally said to be decisive for the end of the conflicts. In fact, despite a military victory; another battle was yet oppen: the media war. The Tet Offensive was reported on American TV and provided the ublic for the first time with the violence of the war. They had been told victory was near: it was not what the shoking images of the Tet Offensive were displaying.

The Viet Cong suffered great losses but they had managed to trigger a revolt within the American society. The credibility of the Johnson administration in the mind of the public was yet destroyed. The Tet Offensive on television displayed scenes of combat, of They had a shoking impact on the viewers who realised a lot of Americans were killed, but they primarily saw the atrocities the American soldiers were imposing on Vietnamese soldiers. The Tet offensive was interpreted as a defeat by the media since it proved that victory was far for being near.

One of the Journalists reporting on the Tet incident was CBS newscaster Walter Cronkite, "the most trusted man in America" according to a opinion poll, made the famous statement that the war would result either in a stalemate or a defeat4. Johnson was aware of the power the journalists had on the American society. After Cronkite had spoken about the war, Johnson said "Well, if I've lost Cronkite, I've lost middle America". They had been antiwar protests that had been televised before 1968. The March on the Pentagon in 1967 was as a huge media event: Americans ah hippies putting home.

However, antiwar movements were themselves divided. Some of them were radical movements that paradoxically proned violence to revolt against the atrocities in Vietnam. The radicalism of some of the movements made that media did not really know how to deal with them in the news and left some American reluctant to join them. But after the Tet Offensive, antiwar protests were presented on the screen in a more positive perspective. The movement itself gained strength after people istrust the governement and the media increased their coverage of protests.

The media helped the antiwar movement to gain strength. The critical approach of the war the media took after the Tet Offensive helped the citizens to take more seriously what independent Journalists opposing the war had said before. At the end of the sixties, the image of the Vietnam War conveyed by the media was quite negative and until the withdrawal of the troops, the media not look at the Vietnam War in a postitive light. The Nixon government had to face another media scandal undermining US involvement in Vietnam in 1971.

The New York Times stole a copy of the Pentagon Papers, a secret study "History of the US decision-making Process on Vietnam Policy' and published it, followed by the Washington Post. As it was enlighted later in the New York Times in 1996, the publication of the Pentagone Papers prove the American people that Jonshon and his administration had constantly lied to the people but also to the Congress5. To defend the role played by the media during the conflict, Journalists argue that they were only providing the audience and the readers with what was hidden to them by official reports.

The shift in the way US media presented the war after the Tet incident is the reason why media are sometimes said to have been opposed to the Vietnam War, and sometimes even accused of having been responsible for the defeat. Different opinions can be found on this matter, agreeing or rejecting those theories, but what seems clear is that a war was being carried on between the leaders of the country and the media. Nixon explicitly express his disagrement with US news coverage, arguing that aside from the Communists, "our worst enemy seems to be the press"6.

According to him, media put an emphasis on the military and moral side of the combat, forgetting to speak about the genuine objective of the war which was to fight Communism. This objective is what had maintain the Journalists to speak in a united voice at the beginning of the conflict: the only Journalists who disaproved with the conflict did not disagree with its aim, but with the strategies employed to achieve it. 7 Johnson's vice-president Spiro Angnew also regularly denounced the unneffciency and inaccuracy of the media, even calling the reporters "nattering nabobs of negativism".

In 1970, President Nixon founded the Office of Telecommunications Policy (OTP) to promote positive media coverage for his administration and to question indirectly the media's accuracy. Critics of the press covering the Vietnam War are often stating that what the press did was showing daily fghts, forgetting about their aims, and focusing on details instead of providing the public with valuable informations. 8 Wyatt commented on this particular issue :"An intense focus on spot reporting of day-to-day combat and political stories (... typified American Journalism in Vietnam. During the height of American military involvement, even the most interested, diligent [dedicated] news consumer could conclude that the war in Vietnam was primarily an American effort in which non-military issues were either nonexistent or unimportant. "9 A parallel can be drawn between human memory and news media coverage. 10 Both of them keep certain images and versions of events and supress others. The Journalists therefore chose to provide the American people with a certain approach to the conflic.

What they are often blamed for in the coverage of the war, is that they have not been able o imform the Americans about the actions of the Viet Cong. By focusing on the violence of the conflicts involving Americans, the importance of the war crimes commited by the Viet Cong on the Vietnamese population was neglected. For those who believe that the Vietnam was lost because of the media, their argument is that by leading the nation to stand against the war, the soldiers on the battlefields lost the support they needed.

In November 1969, President Nixon made a speech on television where he suggested that the "great silent majority' of Americans supported the war and that the media were undermining the war effort. John Pilgrer is one of the Journalists denying the fact that the Vietnam War was lost because of the media. According to him, the media coverage did not undermined the military and political effort, and the reporters were not antiwar. ll He points out that what the media did was to support "a failed crusade".

It is for these reasons that some argue that Vietnam was not a military defeat, but more a social defeat generated by the media. Marshal McLuhan is a famous defensor of this theory. He argues: "Television brought the brutality of war into the comfort of the living room. Vietnam was lost in the living rooms of America, not on the battlefields of Vietnam. ". The defeat can be explained by the fact that no military or political leaders had understood that the information war was at least as important as the military war. The media challenged the discrepencies between the reality in Vietnam and the reports of official sources.

Emanating from a pluralistic media, the power of convincing the people was increased. Defensors of the media would argue primarily that it is only an excuse for the leaders not to take credit for a battle that ended up being a disaster for America. Richard Hallbrooke statement illustrates this point of view: "The press didn't lose the war for us. The war was lost because the strategy was wrong. The military lost the war; the political leadership of this country lost the war. Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon and [Secretary of State] Henry Kissinger are the men who cost us this thing.

Not the Case-Church Amendment [a law that placed restrictions on presidential war powers], not David Halberstam and Walter Cronkite, and not the antiwar demonstrators. The war was not lost, as Nixon always likes to write, in the halls of Congress and on the ages of the New York Times; it was lost in the rice paddies of Indochina. "12 They would also respond to the critic who claim that the war was lost because of the media showing only the horror of the fights, that only a small percentage of the news coverage were fghtings.

However, an study by the sociologist George Bailey shows related to actions by US ground troops or US Air force. 13 According to many Journalists -Walter Conkrite being one of them-, media proved efficient in giving America truthful informations at a time when the government and the military leaders were lying to them. A credibility gap was therefore constructed, and vice-president Spiro Agnew accused the Journalists of being resonsible for it, stating that if such a gap existed, the best place to start looking for it was not the offices of governement in Washington but in the studios of network in New York.

It is however hard to determine if the media were the source of influence for public opinion. The researches led by Daniel C. Hallin led to the conclusion that "Television was more a follower than a leader of public opinion. " The media had a different role in the Vietnam than it had had in previous conflicts. Instead of reinforcing the voice of the governement, it provived the public with a critical approach of US policy making. Also, because it was the first war being televised, it was the first time American people had to face images of the conflict.

Those images are now what remains in the minds of the people when thinking about the news coverage of the Vietnam. At the time, the reporters were not really aware of the power it could have on the mind of the people, nor on the everlasting impact it had on the society. Television and photographs, the visual images of the war, is what people remember owadays. The fact that Journalist did not realise that they were actually opposing the war is a point that is worth raising. If the media proved to be opposed to the War, it may not be what they intented.

The power the images displayed on television had on the public is hard to determine, as Hallin underlines: "television images pass very quickly, leaving the audience with little time to reflect on their meaning. We know very little about how television audiences construct the meaning of what they see and hear". 14 The consequenses of showing the war on images was probably not anticipated by the eporters, but American public surely remembers pictures such as Vietnam Napalm" by Nick Ut (1972) or "The Execution" by Eddie Adams (1962).

Life Magazine is the author of one of the most influential act during the war with the publication of an edition with photographs of the 242 American soldiers killed during one week of fighting. At the time of the Tet Offensive, Journalists rushed to cover the event. They gave America the pictures of the attack stating that what was happening there was horrific. The Tet Offensive was a real disaster in term of losses for the North Vietnamese soldiers. It appears clear that they knew they would not have any chance to win against the South Vietnamese and the Americans.

This suicide-assault may illustrate that the Communists had understood the power the media could have in a fght. They wanted reporters to show to the people in America how violent were the conflicts, and how Americans slaughtered the Vietnamese. If such was their aim, they achieved it. Eddie Adams, the photograph who took the picture of a Viet Cong chief apologized to the US Army. 15 During the Vietnam. Wars, the media and the Americans seem to have followed the same opinion regarding the war. At the beginning, they were all genrerally supporting it. By the end of the sixties, they started to oppose it.

The media might have influenced public opinion by starting to show the soldiers in action in Vietnam, by sympathise with antiwar movements or by displaying another version of event than the one given by the governement. Americans must have tend to believe what was told on the news at the time. They had believed the governement since the start of the war, and the war had still not ended. Moreover, the point of view given by the American media was one-sided: the enemy viewpoint was given in less than 3% of he coverage. 16 It is hard to define if the population influenced the media, or the contrary, and historians disagree on this point.

Nevertheless, one must not forget that the Journalists were themselves American citizens, and therefore their voices counts as the voice of the nation. If we look at the news coverage on the Vietnam Wars, arguments can be found to describe the American media as being against the War. First of all, the fact that the media did not follow the same versions of events than the governement is one. How is the nation supposed to support a war launched y a governement that does not report the same versions of events as the ones shown on television and in the newspapers.?

Morever, the antiwar movement was growing at the end of the sixties and antiwar protests were being covered by the media in a positive aspect. But what the media did that had the most impact on the American people is that they provided them with images of the conflict. Blood, violence, injuries: never a conflict had been covered that way on the television before. The shoking pictures stunned many people and the need for negociations to stop the disaster became the solution wanted by the people. In my opinion, Journalists were as shoked by the images as the people.

They must have been revolted by the situation but did not intent to turn public opnion against the war. What I think they really did was to give the pictures that spoke for themselves to the public at first, and really speak against the war when they could embrace public opinion that was changing. To conclude with, I can say that the media were opposed to the war but in a limited way: the opinion on the coverage shifted with the public opinion and with the realization that the end of the war was far for being near.

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