The Media and Vietnam

Angie Dahm



        Scholars disagree to what extent the media deserves the responsibility for causing the shift in public opinion from one of support to one of intense vocal opposition against America’s involvement in Vietnam. Undoubtedly, it played a significant role but to what degree? Since the fall of Saigon in April 1975, two competing models, the mirror theory and the elitist opinion theory, have emerged to explain how the media affected the outcome of the war. 

        The mirror theory suggests that the media reported the news objectively, including the disenchantment of administrative policymakers (Hallin 5). The media did not create or script any events of the war. Responsible correspondents maintain a stalwart protection over its objective journalistic tenets. As the “Fourth Estate,” the media believed it must report the events of the war completely and honestly even if the information challenged official government sources (Hallin 5).

        Mirror theorists argue that reporters, who covered the Vietnam War, unconditionally followed the doctrine of objective journalism. The fundamental characteristics of this ideology are independence, objectivity, and balance. Reporters must be impervious to political pressure and introduce all sides of the issue from an unbiased perspective (Hallin 68). Hallin argues that the media methodically reported the Vietnam War (69). Only when the elites began to question American strategy did news reports take on an antiestablishment slant (Hallin 513). As elite consensus eroded, public opposition moved from the “political fringes of society into its mainstream” (Hallin 514). The breakdown in elite consensus was as newsworthy as the war itself; therefore, the media reflected that schism (Hallin 514).

Elites, such as General Westermoreland, President Johnson, and President Nixon believed that the media was responsible for America’s devastating loss in Vietnam. The elitist opinion theory claims that the media used its unrestricted access to present the facts in a negative light; therefore, forcing American disillusionment with the war effort (Porch 91).  Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, in the spirit of NSC 68, believed the United States, as the beacon of democracy, must contain the spread of communism at all costs. The Presidents believed that they must manage the news to maintain a “rally around the flag” sentiment within the minds of the American people.

        Evidence indicates the press is responsible for revealing the naked, uncensored truth regarding war to the American public. As news reports became increasingly negative, public opinion compelled the government to down size troop deployment; therefore, forcing an adjustment to America’s policy in Vietnam. The role of the media in the United States’ current “war on terrorism,” is high on the minds of government policymakers. The relationship between the media and the government, during times of crisis, is as relevant today as it was at the conclusion of the Vietnam War.

        In 1995 the New York Times and CBS News collaborated to make a CD-Rom entitled “The War in Vietnam.” This CD-Rom contains many of the most important news stories of the Vietnam era. Pertinent newspaper articles and CBS news scripts, divided according to the following segments: early years 1961 to 1964 and post-Tonkin 1964 to 1968 detail the evolution of America’s oppositional news media. To support the elitist opinion theory over the mirror theory the data must overwhelmingly show that reporters tainted the truth with opinion and conjecture rather than just reflected the widespread disenchantment of America’s citizenry and its elitist powerbrokers.

Government officials discovered it was simple to censure the information received by the American public when the military buildup began. The media did not consider Vietnam to be an important development. Editors believed that Americans did not care; therefore, news agencies were unwilling to commit the necessary resources required to report Vietnam firsthand (Wyatt 53). The media’s reluctance to assign a full time correspondent to cover the war hampered its ability to deliver an accurate accounting of the crisis. Floyd Kalber, NBC correspondent admits, “to the degree we in the media paid any attention at all to that small, dirty war in those years; we almost wholly reported the position of the government” (qtd. in Epstein 215).

Even the media’s disinterest during the early years of the war played an important role in the development of public opinion. According to Clarence Wyatt, the power of the press originates from “its agenda-setting and gate-keeping functions” (53). The press has the ability to exercise significant control over what information reaches the American public; therefore, allowing it to manipulate the issue’s importance (Wyatt 53). 

        During the early years, managing the news was uncomplicated. Lacking a permanent in-country war correspondent, editors simply regurgitated the words of official government and military sources. The Kennedy administration believed that screening the news was in the best interest of America. President Kennedy justified his position in April 1961 when he stated:

“If the press is awaiting a declaration of war before it imposes the self-discipline of combat conditions, then I can only say that no war ever posed a greater threat to national security… Every newspaper now asks itself with respect to every story: “Is it news?” All I suggest is that you add the question: “Is it in the interest of national security?” (qtd. in Hallin 13)

         Secretary of State Dean Rusk cabled the American embassy on November 28, 1961, explaining how to handle the press corps. He ordered military officials not to “give other than routine cooperation to correspondents regarding current military activities in Vietnam” (Prochnau 20). In accordance with this directive, officials diligently screened all information conveyed to the media. Moreover, the US Continental Army Command (CONARC) instructed Army personnel that when dealing with the press they should “emphasize the positive aspects of their activities and avoid gratuitous criticism” (Hammond 11).

        At the end of 1961, managing the news became more difficult after the Associated Press assigned correspondent Malcomb Brown to cover Vietnam on a permanent basis. New York Times reporters David Halberstram, Homer Bigart, and Peter Arnett soon followed. However, the Kennedy administration continued to pursue a course of deniability.

        The 1954 Geneva Accords, which neither South Vietnam nor the United States was a signatory, limited the number of military advisors stationed in Vietnam to 685 (Hallin 25). In an effort to continue to announce publicly that the United States was operating within the Accord’s framework, Secretary Rusk cabled the American Embassy in Saigon on December 7, 1961, commanding that “no admission should be made that the accords are not being observed” (Prochnau 21).

        Despite the government’s failure to acknowledge the number of personnel stationed in South Vietnam, it became increasingly obvious to the correspondents that the United States was behaving contrary to the Geneva Accords. A 1961 Times article quoted an “authoritative American source that there were considerably more than 685 military advisors in Vietnam” (Kenworthy November 17, 1961). Times correspondent, Homer Bigart, disputed official statistics when he wrote that “approximately 5,000 military personnel were already in South Vietnam and more were arriving everyday” (February 10, 1962).

        In appreciation of America’s advisory and guest status in Vietnam, the Kennedy administration forced its military personnel to adhere to the press restrictions instituted by the government of South Vietnam (Hammond 2). This procedure allowed Kennedy to conceal America’s involvement behind a self-serving cloak of respectful censorship.

        When reporters attempted to verify information concerning a failed military operation involving US military personnel and equipment, they quickly discovered the extent of Diem’s news censorship. Military Information Officer Lieutenant Colonel James Smith stated, “There is nothing we may report on this operation. We have been told this by the Government of South Vietnam” (Halberstam November 22, 1962). However, an anonymous American field officer disobeyed the directive when he stated:

“From the moment the 50 helicopters hit the target, the communists knew what was happening. Apparently the only people who were not supposed to know were the American and Vietnamese people” (Halberstam November 22, 1962).

This edict was a policy-defeating strategy. In reporting the operation to the public, the press concentrated more on the official acknowledgment of overt censorship rather than the military aspects of the maneuver (Hammond 2).     

          After the assassination of President Kennedy, Vice President Lyndon Johnson assumed the office of the presidency. At the time of Kennedy’s death, approximately 17,500 United States servicemen were in Vietnam acting in both combat and support positions (Halberstam December 23, 1963).

        Early into his presidency, Johnson sent Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara on a fact-finding mission to Vietnam (Turner 55). McNamara’s memorandum painted a disturbing picture of the situation in Vietnam contradicting official South Vietnamese reports of success. The Secretary believed that if America did not adjust its efforts Vietnam would fall to the Communists (Pentagon Papers December 21, 1963). Upon learning of America’s lack of progress, Johnson instituted a strategic plan consisting of two phases aimed at winning the war (Herring 110). Phase one of the plan increased military pressure, including bombing if necessary, and phase two introduced ground troops (Hallin 60).

          The new President in his predecessor’s honor wanted to continue with the same technique; therefore, phase one was a “more of the same” approach (Herring 110). Johnson hoped the first phase would prove successful, and he would never have to send ground troops. Johnson steadfastly claimed he would not send “American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves” (Turner 95).

        In National Security Action Memorandum 273, President Johnson reaffirmed his intentions to continue President Kennedy’s military and news management policies (Pentagon Papers November 26, 1963). He advocated the importance of communicating a united front to both the government of South Vietnam and the press (Pentagon Papers November 26, 1963).  

          The Gulf of Tonkin incident in August 1964 allowed the Johnson administration to increase military pressure against North Vietnam. According to government and military press releases, the US destroyer Maddox, while on routine patrol in international waters, came under fire by North Vietnamese torpedo boats (Hensley 2). The torpedo boats, correctly assuming the Maddox was conducting undercover surveillance, fired upon the ship (Hallin 71).

        War correspondents were unable to interview the ships crew or witness policy debates within Johnson’s administration; therefore, the government controlled what information the media presented to the public (Hallin 71). Despite concern that retaliation may antagonize Communist China, the Tonkin incident gave Johnson the impetus necessary to bomb the North and vastly increase the number of US military personnel deployed to Vietnam.

        The President believed if the United States increased the number of advisors and equipment deployed to South Vietnam the enemy would understand America’s determination to contain communism at all costs (Herring 108). In a statement released to the public, the President defended his decision to bomb the North saying, “The attacks were deliberate. The attacks were unprovoked. The attacks have been answered” (Belleville News Democrat August 5, 1964).

        In early 1965 Johnson authorized an additional increase in the number of American troops deployed to Vietnam; however, depending upon the report’s origin, the exact number of personnel varied. New York Times Washington correspondent John W. Finney reported that the United States would send an additional 21,000 men bringing the number of personnel to approximately 75,000 recruits (June 17, 1965). An article originating from South Vietnam disputed official totals when it reported that American forces would top 100,000 by summer’s end (Raymond July 21, 1965). Eight days later, the White House adjusted its previously announced totals. In a Times article, Washington correspondent John D. Pomfret reported that President Johnson would seek an immediate increase to US military strength in South Vietnam to 125,000 men (July 29, 1965). 

        Even before the aforementioned articles, elite dissension began to surface within Johnson’s inner circle. Undersecretary of State George W. Ball issued a scathing memorandum that stated, “no matter how many hundred thousand white troops the US deploys there is no assurance of success against the Vietcong” (Pentagon Papers July 1, 1965). Ball believed that negotiation, despite the risk it presented to American credibility, was the only solution to prevent a protracted war.

        Furthermore, Congressman Wayne Morse, an independent from Oregon, disputed elitist optimism when he wrote the President saying it was erroneous “to believe the American people would support a stalemated ground war in Vietnam for a period long enough to force the communists into negotiation” (Turner 147). However, Johnson did not heed these warnings and marched forward with plans to Americanize the Vietnam War.  

        Almost immediately after American escalation, reports began to take on a more negative slant. In August 1965, the Cam Ne incident, described by CBS news executive William Small as the “single most famous bit of reporting in South Vietnam” exacerbated the already tumultuous relationship of the media and the US government (qtd. in Epstein 213). The story, narrated by CBS news correspondent Morley Safer, showed United States Marines using cigarette lighters to burn the huts in the small village (Hallin 132).

        Although, CBS producers verified the validity of Safer’s report, the reaction from Washington was swift and decisive. Johnson, who wanted to discredit the reporter, wielded his presidential power and called the president of CBS to force Safer’s reassignment by maligning the correspondent as unpatriotic and communist (Hammond 60). This episode represents the crux of the elitist opinion theory. Supporters of the elitist opinion theory argue that although the story was fundamentally truthful, the media purposely slanted its commentary to manipulate public opinion against the war effort.

        Contradictions between governmental updates and firsthand accounts continued to aggravate the media’s relationship with government and military elites. Correspondents ridiculed the official daily briefings, known as the “five-o’clock follies,” saying they were simply a “ritual recitation of memorized details” (Wyatt 200). Increasingly, journalists turned to reliable unofficial sources for information to support their articles.

        Correspondent Charles Mohr, introduced evidence detailing the inconsistencies between official and unofficial sources. Military press briefings detailed an encounter involving American Special Forces and the Vietcong that resulted in ninety dead enemy soldiers; however, United States soldiers resoundingly denied the official body count (Mohr November 26, 1965).

        In early 1966 members of the Senate Foreign Relations committee openly questioned the legality of America’s military involvement in Vietnam (Belair January 29, 1966). A majority of Senators requested “a clarification of United States policy” before they appropriated additional funds to continue the fight (Belair January 29, 1966). Senator Joseph Clark of Pennsylvania worried that “we are on the way to World War Three” (Belair January 29, 1966). Senator Albert Gore, a Democrat from Tennessee, claimed that, “many members of Congress do not believe that the dangers of nuclear war with China and Russia implicit in the Vietnam fighting are worth the effort” (Belair January 29, 1966). Furthermore, Gore stated that perhaps the United States should accept the possibility of “some loss of face in Southeast Asia” (Belair January 29, 1966). The gaining momentum of elite dissension indicated trouble for Johnson’s foreign policy.  

        The information presented to the public became increasingly unsettling and further ruptured American resolve. A CBS news special report hosted by Walter Cronkite, examined the difficulties that confronted the Johnson administration. According to Cronkite, the President battled a growing discontent in the minds of the American people, the international community, and more importantly amongst the “Wise men,” his trusted confidants (Leiser and Sharnik January 11, 1967). Correspondent Roger Mudd stated that a growing number of American voters did not believe that the United States would continue to support a “guns and butter” approach to the Vietnam War (Leiser and Sharnik January 11, 1967). However, the requests for additional manpower continued to arrive from Saigon (Apple May 3, 1967).

        General Westmoreland asked President Johnson to authorize an additional 160,000 troops deployed to Vietnam (Apple May 3, 1967). The General reassessed troop strength and determined that due to the increased threat of the enemy, the war could not survive without the requested troops (Apple May 3, 1967). Washington’s official response to the Saigon dispatch was “no comment;” however, in the final sentence, the author admitted that Johnson was reluctant to increase troop strength beyond the 480,000 ceiling previously set by his administration (Apple May 3, 1967).

        A particularly critical article openly questioned official reports of success and categorized the war as a stalemate. The author argued that unless the United States convinced the citizens of South Vietnam to “work for its own survival” the war was lost (Apple August 7, 1967). The word stalemate evoked an enormous amount of anger in Washington. Policymakers steadfastly rejected its implications, saying that the “enemy was hurting very badly” (Apple August 7, 1967).

        On January 29, 1968, during the South Vietnamese lunar holiday, Tet, North Vietnam launched an offensive sounding the final death knell for American support (Epstein 220). According to Hallin, the Vietcong staged simultaneous attacks on major cities throughout South Vietnam (167). Reporters that previously relied on the military for transportation to the war zone suddenly viewed fighting beneath their hotel windows (Epstein 220). Reports of the compound’s infiltration shocked Americans (Buckley January 1, 1968). The United States quickly killed the insurgents and regained control of the embassy.

        Johnson failed to capitalize on the “rally around the flag” effect that normally develops in America following a typical foreign policy emergency (Hallin 169). He announced on March 31, 1968, that he would not seek, nor accept, the Democratic nomination for President (Wicker April 1, 1968). Johnson believed his withdrawal from the Presidential race was in the best interest of America. Senator Albert Gore stated that the announcement was “the greatest contribution toward unity and possible peace that President Johnson could have made” (Wicker April 1, 1968). Although, the Tet offensive failed militarily; politically, it was an enormous victory.

        Polls conducted from November 1967 to February 1968 reported that the percentage of Americans who believed that the United States was achieving success dropped from 51 to 32 percent (Hallin 169). On August 28, 1968, the storm of public dissention that raged across America erupted at the Democratic National Convention (Lukas August 29, 1968). During the weeklong convention, thousands of antiwar activists converged on Chicago to demonstrate against the war. The protest ended violently when police and National Guardsmen attempted to contain the assembled demonstrators. In plain view of the media and the American people, law enforcement personnel used “clubs, rifle butts, tear gas, and chemical mace” to prevent the protestors from marching on the convention (Lukas August 29, 1968). American endurance was shattered. The people wanted out of Vietnam immediately; however, the elites wanted “peace with honor” (Hallin 186). The events in Chicago signaled an end to America’s policy in Vietnam.   

        Shortly after the Tet offensive, “the most trusted man in television,” Walter Cronkite, started to openly question United States foreign policy (Hallin 106). He traveled to the war ravaged country to “personally access America’s involvement in Vietnam” (Epstein 222). Until Tet, Cronkite believed in the war saying “the courageous decision that communism’s advance must be stopped in Asia and that guerrilla warfare as a means to a political end must be finally discouraged” (qtd. in Epstein 215). However, Cronkite’s support soon turned to disgust. He concluded his famous newscast by stating:

“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, yet unsatisfactory conclusion” (qtd. in Hallin 170).

 The Tet offensive marked the end of the perception that the United States could achieve success in Vietnam. The American public, reporters, and many of Washington’s powerful turned their attention towards negotiation as the only way to end the crisis. The evidence greatly supports the mirror theory. The media affected public sentiment, which in turn forced a change in America’s foreign policy.

        Currently, with the invasion of Iraq on the horizon, it is difficult to deny the importance of public support. The media, through its portrayal of President Bush as he attempts to secure domestic and international support in the campaign to disarm Saddam Hussein of weapons of mass destruction will determine the level of cooperation his Iraqi policy will receive. If the mirror theory is correct and the Bush administration remains a cohesive unit, the media will reflect the events of the war to the world. However, if the elites of the Bush administration start to publicly disagree regarding the war’s strategy and purpose, the media will alter its course and report the breakdown of the elitist consensus.  

        The current government must learn from the mistakes of its predecessors and accurately present information to the media and the public. Furthermore, President Bush must listen to those who oppose and question his policies. It is the only way to prevent a groupthink mentality from permeating his administration. The progression of the current “war on terrorism” will further test the relationship between the media and the government thus proving the validity of the mirror theory.


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