U.S. news media and the Vietnam War
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Early days, 1960–1964
Before the 1960s, the U.S. media had no interest in Vietnam. American journalists followed events only when breaking news happened in the region. Those who covered the beginning of the war in Vietnam were only reporting the rise of communism in the country. The official agencies that handled the press in Vietnam during the early years had little control over what those reporters wrote. The French colonial government set up a system of censorship, but correspondents had only to travel to Singapore or Hong Kong to say what they wanted. American reporters who went to Vietnam at the beginning of the 1960s were reporting the story, while the government in America was telling them to get on the field.
During this period, what was published in the news reflected what America was most preoccupied with: communism and the cold war. But if one asks instead how the United States got into Vietnam, then attention must be paid to the enormous strength of the Cold War consensus in the early 1960s shared by journalists and policymakers alike, and to the great power of the administration to control the agenda and the framing of foreign affairs reporting.
The first editorial about the rise of communism in Vietnam was published by The New York Times in January 1955. In the same way after the United States threw its weight behind Ngo Dinh Diem, who became South Vietnam’s president in 1955, journals in the United States ignored the new leader’s despotic tendencies and instead highlighted his anti-Communism. The death of civilians in a coup against President Diem at the end of 1960 started to change how Vietnam was viewed by the media. As a result, the New York Times sent their first reporter to Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam. This was followed by other journalists arriving from Reuters, Agence France Presse, Times and Newsweek. The basic policy governing how the US mission in Saigon handled these reporters reflected the way the administration of President John F. Kennedy conceived of the American role in the war. Under that framework, the United States' role in South Vietnam was only to render advice and support in that nation’s war against the Communists.
In January 1963, South Vietnamese forces engaged the communists at the Battle of Ap Bac. The reporting of what became a debacle for the South Vietnamese military and the condemnation heaped upon it by the Western press became a cause celebre at the time. Both the U.S. mission and Washington condemned the reports and questioned the motives of the correspondents involved. The Kennedy administration then went on the offensive, bombarding news editors in the U.S. with complaints concerning the accuracy of the reporting of the Saigon press corps. This chain of events led to the interesting conundrum of American periodicals attacking the accuracy of their own on-the-spot reporters. The correspondents, however, did not question the black and white assumptions of the time that the war was a part of the larger struggle between the free world and totalitarianism or whether the war was beyond America's ability to win. They perceived their issues with the Saigon government as a conflict over tactics, not principles - Diem's government and military were hindering a positive solution to the problem. According to the reporters, the solution was for the U.S. to either get rid of Diem or take over direct control of the war itself.
Although the U.S. mission was irate over the reporting of the battle, even the U.S. Public Information Office (PIO) in Saigon had to admit that, working from partial information on an emotional subject, the reporting was "two-thirds accurate" and that the correspondents had done quite respectably. Ap Bac and the controversy surrounding it, however, marked a permanent divide in the relations between the official U.S. position and the news media in Vietnam. Before the battle, the media had criticized Diem and argued for more U.S. control of the war, but they were still agreeable to the position of the diplomats and the U.S. military assistance command. After it, correspondents became steadily more convinced that they (and, by extension, the American people) were being lied to and withdrew, embittered, into their own community.
This situation was only exacerbated during the Buddhist Crisis of May 1963, when the Diem government considered the foreign press as its enemy and was unwilling to communicate its side of the story effectively. While the top levels of the U.S. mission in Saigon were inordinately closemouthed around reporters during this period, others, especially those who disagreed with the policy of supporting Diem, were not. They leaked information from discussions with Diem to the press, embarrassing him and thwarting the embassy's vigorous efforts to win an end to the anti-Buddhist repressions. Once again, however, despite occasional factual errors and conflict between the press and the embassy, most of the news commentaries were reasonably accurate. The U.S. Army's official history of military-media relations reported that "Although marred at times by rhetoric and mistaken facts, they often probed to the heart of the crisis." During the Buddhist Crisis the number of correspondents in South Vietnam swelled from an original nucleus of eight to a contingent of over 60.
By 1964 the leadership of both the U.S. and South Vietnam had changed hands. President John F. Kennedy had been felled by an assassin's bullets and Diem had been murdered during a U.S.-backed military coup. Instead of paving the way for political stability, however, Diem's demise only unleashed a maelstrom of political unrest. Coup followed coup as South Vietnamese generals vied for power. There were seven governments in Saigon during 1964 - three between 16 August and 3 September alone. The war in South Vietnam ground on and the communists were making serious headway. Following the recommendations of an internal report, the new U.S. headquarters, the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), made the decision that since news correspondents were "thoroughly knowledgeable" about the war, its Joint United States Public Affairs Office (JUSPAO) would attempt to woo reporters by providing them with "up to date, factual information on current operations and policies."
Although Operation Candor was a welcome relief for correspondents, it did not halt the media's dubiousness concerning the efficacy of the Saigon government or further American involvement with it. Reporters had also become quite aware that all sides (the South Vietnamese and American governments, the U.S. mission, MACV, the Buddhists, and the communists) were trying to manipulate them. It did not help matters that JUSPAO was also MACV's propaganda arm, a fact that was well known to news correspondents. The American public was also dissatisfied with the course of events in Vietnam. A January 1965 Gallup poll indicated that two out of three Americans agreed that the country would never form a stable government and that four out of five Americans felt that the communists were winning. Few, however, wanted a unilateral U.S. withdrawal and 50 percent believed that the U.S. was obliged to defend independent nations from communist aggression.
At this early stage of the war (and continuing to its end) the South Vietnamese people themselves were viewed by the media with the condescension, contempt, and disdain that characterized the American attitude toward them. The media exhibited the "Cold War myopia, ethnocentrism, cultural bias, and racism embedded in American ideology." American journalists arrived in Vietnam with almost no knowledge of its culture, history, society, or language, nor did they attempt to learn. This was due in part to the short 6-12 month period most newspeople spent on rotation in South Vietnam, providing little incentive for reporters to learn the language. Although the U.S. Department of Defense offered a brief introductory course for journalists on the history and culture of Vietnam, few attended it. Meanwhile, none of the networks trained their correspondents to understand military matters. Although the "pacification" of South Vietnam's villages was the continuously touted supreme goal of the Saigon government, the U.S. Mission, MACV, and the media, there was little real discussion within the media as to why it was so difficult to convince the Vietnamese peasantry to join the side of the Saigon government.
As for the armed forces of the North Vietnamese and National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (NLF), American readers rarely encountered the argument that the communists were waging a war of reunification rather than "a campaign to further the interests of a communist conspiracy masterminded by the People's Republic of China and the Soviet Union." The domino theory was utilized to justify the American intervention in order to prevent regional domination by China, overlooking centuries of hostility between the Vietnamese and the Chinese. Throughout the war communist troops were continuously portrayed as "brutal, cruel, fanatic, sinister, untrustworthy, and warlike". Most depictions of [them] employed hateful imagery or reinforced racial stereotypes of the era associated with Asians." Asian stereotypes extended to the American soldiers' view of their South Vietnamese allies too; most effectively never met a South Vietnamese soldier or really knew the farmer and peasant in the field. The media went so far as to follow the lead of the American military by refusing to refer to communist forces by their correct titles. NLF forces were referred to by the term Viet Cong (despite its wide usage, "Viet Cong", which means "Vietnamese Communist", is considered pejorative ) and northern troops of the People's Army of Vietnam as the North Vietnamese Army, or NVA.
From 40 in 1964, the press corps in South Vietnam had grown to 282 by January 1966. By August that number had jumped to 419. Of the 282 at the beginning of the year, only 110 were Americans. 67 were South Vietnamese, 26 Japanese, 24 British, 13 Korean, 11 French, and seven German. Of the Americans present, 72 were more than thirty-one years old, and 60 of them were over the age of thirty-six. The same was true of the 143 non-Americans. Correspondents with valid accreditations had to show their credentials in order to receive a card that gave them access to military transportation and facilities. All other correspondents had to present a letter from their editors stating that they represented a bona-fide newsgathering organization which would take responsibility for their conduct. Freelance correspondents were required to produce a letter from one of their clients affirming that agency's willingness to purchase their work.
The U.S. Mission and MACV also installed an "information czar", the U.S. Mission's Minister-Counselor for Public Affairs, Barry Zorthian, to advise Westmoreland on public affairs matters and who had theoretical responsibility under the ambassador for the development of all information policy. He maintained liaison between the embassy, MACV, and the press; publicized information to refute erroneous and misleading news stories; and sought to assist the Saigon correspondents in covering the side of the war most favorable to the policies of the U.S. government. Zorthian possessed both experience with the media and a great deal of patience and tact while maintaining reasonably good relations with the press corps. Media correspondents were invited to attend nightly MACV briefings covering the day's events that became known as the Five O'Clock Follies, most correspondents considering these briefings to be a waste of time. The Saigon bureau chiefs were also often invited to closed sessions at which presentations would be made by a briefing officer, the CIA station chief, or an official from the embassy who would present background or off-the-record information on upcoming military operations or Vietnamese political events.
According to Daniel Hallin, the dramatic structure of the uncensored "living room war" as reported during 1965–1967 remained simple and traditional: "the forces of good were locked in battle once again with the forces of evil. What began to change in 1967 ... was the conviction that the forces of good would inevitably prevail." During late 1967 MACV had also begun to disregard the decision it had made at the Honolulu Conference that the military should leave the justification of the war to elected officials in Washington. The military found itself drawn progressively into politics, to the point that it had become as involved in "selling" the war to the American public as the political appointees it served. This change would have far-reaching detrimental effects.
Although admittance to North Vietnam by western correspondents was difficult, it was not impossible, especially when the northern authorities (who heavily oversaw and restricted any such visit) saw an advantage in the situation. During a bombing halt in September 1967, Harrison E. Salisbury of the New York Times became the first correspondent from a major U.S. newspaper to go to North Vietnam. His reporting of the bombing damage to civilian targets forced the Pentagon to admit that accidents and "collateral damage" had occurred during the bombing campaign. For his effort, Salisbury received heavy condemnation and criticism from his peers, the administration, and the Pentagon. Other correspondents who later made the journey to North Vietnam included Mary McCarthy, Anthony Lewis, and Michael McLear from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and R. K. Karanjia from India, while Agence France Presse maintained a bureau there throughout the war.
The highly dangerous task of reporting with the NLF and North Vietnamese forces in the South was left to Wilfred Burchett, an Australian who had begun reporting on the war in 1963. He free-lanced for the Japanese Mainichi group, the British communist daily The Morning Star, and the American National Guardian. Burchett made no pretense of his communist sympathies, but his reporting of communist schools, arsenals, hospitals, administrative structure, and logistics made what Phillip Knightley called "intriguing reading." Because he reported from the Communist side, Burchett was regarded by many in Australia as a traitor and was persona non grata with the Australian government - yet he also possessed extraordinary information. He was later joined by Madeline Riffaud of the French communist newspaper L'Humanité.
Perhaps the most famous image of the Tet Offensive- a photo that was taken by Eddie Adams- was the photograph that depicted a Vietnamese man being executed by the Southern Vietnamese General, General Nguyen Ngoc Loan. The photo shows the moment of death for the young man. Adams won a prize for his iconic photo, which was said to be more influential than the video that was released of the same execution. The impact that these photos had on the American public was astounding. Support for the war plummeted, and, though two hundred thousand troops were requested at the beginning of the Offensive, the request was denied. Adams had another photo published that, while not making as big as an impact as his other photo, was certainly gruesome. The image depicted a soldier, (who appears to be a child,) dead and lying on the side of the road, with a group of civilians looking down at the body. This was published May 5, 1968.
On 3 November 1969 President Richard M. Nixon made a televised speech laying out his policy toward Vietnam. He promised to continue to support the South Vietnamese government (through Vietnamization) and held out a plan for the withdrawal of American combat troops. This "silent majority" speech, not the Tet Offensive, marked the real watershed of the American involvement. In it, Nixon permanently altered the nature of the issue. "No longer was the question whether the United States was going to get out, but rather how and how fast." Nixon's policy toward the media was to reduce as far as possible the American public's interest in and knowledge of the war in Vietnam. He began by sharply limiting the press's access to information within Vietnam itself.
The peace talks in Paris, the viability of South Vietnam, of its military and its government, and its effect on American disengagement, became the prime stories during this period for the news media. The reportage of the Tet/Khe Sanh period had been unique, and after it was over reportage settled back into its normal routines. According to Clarence Wyatt, the American disengagement was:
like watching a film running backward. American troops were leaving, until there were only a handful of advisers left. The communists were once again on the advance, spreading their influence closer and closer to the major cities. The South Vietnamese military was once again on the defensive, and the leadership of the nation was isolated and increasingly paranoid ... Nixon's goal, like Kennedy's, was for the press to have nothing to report.
The gradual dissipation of American support for the war was apparent in changes in the source of news stories. The traditional sources - press conferences, official news releases, and reports of official proceedings were less utilized than ever before. Reporters were doing more research, conducting more interviews, and publishing more analytical essays. There was also an increase in the number of American homes that acquired a television set which led to a rise in people gaining their knowledge of the war from television. The media never became "acutely critical ... but more sober, and more skeptical It did not, however, examine or reexamine its basic assumptions about the nature of the war it had helped to propagate. Never, for example, did historian Daniel Hallin hear an American correspondent or commentator utter the word imperialism in connection with the U.S. commitment on television. On those rare occasions when the underlying reasons for the American intervention were explicitly questioned, journalists continued to defend the honorableness of American motives.
Television's image of the war, however, had been permanently altered: the "guts and glory" image of the pre-Tet period was gone forever. For the most part television remained a follower rather than a leader. According to Daniel Hallin, It was not until the collapse of consensus was well under way that coverage began to turn around; and when it did turn, it only turned so far. The later years of Vietnam were "a remarkable testimony to the restraining power of the routines and ideology of objective journalism ... 'advocacy journalism' made no real inroads into network television."
As the American commitment waned there was an increasing media emphasis on Vietnamization, the South Vietnamese government, and casualties - both American and Vietnamese. There was also increasing coverage of the collapse of morale, interracial tensions, drug abuse, and disciplinary problems among American troops. These stories increased in number as U.S. soldiers "began to worry about being the last casualty in the lame-duck war." The U.S. military resented the attention and at first refused to believe that the problems were as bad as correspondents portrayed them. The media demonstrated, however, "that the best reporters, by virtue of their many contacts, had a better grasp of the war's unmanageable human element than the policy makers supposedly in control."
The next "big story" to come out of Vietnam occurred in May 1969 with the Battle of Hamburger Hill (Dong Ap Bia or Hill 937). The high number of American casualties (70 dead and 372 wounded) produced an unusual burst of explicit questioning of military tactics from correspondents in the field and from Congressmen in Washington. After the battle's conclusion, major battles of attrition involving American ground forces became rare - as did commentaries from correspondents like those surrounding Hamburger Hill.
Tensions between the news media and the Nixon administration only increased as the war dragged on. In September and October 1969, members of the administration openly discussed methods by which the media could be coerced into docility. Possible methods included Internal Revenue Service audits, Justice Department antitrust lawsuits against major television networks and newspapers that could be accused of monopolistic business practices, and the monitoring incidents of "unfairness" by television broadcasters that would be turned over to the Federal Communications Commission for possible legal action.
As the war lengthened and the withdrawals continued, the two sides became more and more antagonistic toward one another and they battled constantly over the issues of combat refusals and the drug and morale problems of American troops. Fatigue with the war and each other have been cited for this escalating antagonism. Although MACV officially remained dedicated to providing evenly balanced public affairs information, the situation was exacerbated by the manpower drawdowns at the Public Affairs Office itself.
The Easter Offensive of 1972, a conventional North Vietnamese invasion of South Vietnam was generally depicted by MACV and Washington as a "true test" of the policy of Vietnamization. It was also readily apparent to the media that American airpower had saved the day. The press reported heavily on the "mixed" capabilities of the South Vietnamese defense and on the retaliatory U.S. bombing effort in North Vietnam, Operation Linebacker. Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird declined to criticize the negative reporting of the press, which he described as "generally balanced."
By the end of 1971 the number of accredited American correspondents had declined to fewer than 200. By September 1973 that number had dwindled to only 59. As the war became more and more a South Vietnamese affair, the Saigon government tried to silence unofficial news sources, tightening its information guidelines and stringently punishing any who violated them. Even as the Easter Offensive waned, President Nguyễn Văn Thiệu passed a martial law decree that made circulating news or images "detrimental to the national security" a criminal offense.
With the breakdown of peace negotiations with Hanoi, President Nixon launched Operation Linebacker II, an extensive aerial campaign by B-52 bombers and tactical aircraft that began on 16 December 1972. Nixon, in an effort to conceal the fact that the talks had broken down, ordered that the public explanation for the bombing be linked to "a possible enemy offensive in the South." With no information flowing from the White House, the Pentagon, or MACV, North Vietnam's propaganda was all that correspondents had to go on and it was extensively reported by the media. The American people, however, were unconvinced. According to a Harris poll, fewer than 50 percent agreed that it was "inhuman and immoral for the U.S. to have bombed Hanoi's civilian center" and an impressive 71 percent believed "what we did in bombing Hanoi was no worse than what the communists have done in the Vietnam War." Following the campaign Hanoi returned to the negotiating table and (after some wrangling with the Saigon government) the Paris Peace Accords were signed on 27 January 1973. For the United States, the Vietnam War was over.
- William M. Hammond, Reporting Vietnam: Media & Military at War (United States of America: University Press of Kansas, 1998),1
- Daniel C. Hallin, The Uncensored War: The Media and Vietnam (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986),9
- William M. Hammond, Reporting Vietnam: Media & Military at War (United States of America: University Press of Kansas, 1998),2
- Landers, p. 43. See also Wyatt, pgs. 105-110.
- Knightly, pgs. 416 & 417.
- Hammond, 1962–1968, p. 35.
- Hammond, 1962–1968, p. 36.
- Douglas Kinnard, The War Managers. Hanover NH: University Press of New England, 1977, pgs 126 & 127. See also Wyatt, p. 109.
- Diem's beliefs and accusations against the press, however, had little basis in fact. Of 33 stories with Vietnam datelines appearing in the New York Times in the four months preceding the crisis, only three could have been said to have dealt primarily with South Vietnamese politics. None dealt with the non-communist opposition to the Diem regime. These four months were typical. Hallin, Uncensored War, p. 45.
- Hammond, 1962–1968, p. 44.
- Hammond, 1962–1968, p. 46.
- Hammond, 1962–1968, p. 75.
- Hammond, 1962–1968, p. 102.
- Hammond, 1962–1968, p. 124.
- Landers, p. 228.
- Landers, p. 236.
- Landers, p. 254.
- Landers, p. 256.
- Bowden, p. 175.
- Bowden, p. 177.
- Hammond, 1962–1968, p. 197. These numbers, however, were deceiving. Fully half of those accredited were not reporters but were instead technicians, secretaries, drivers, translators, and wives.
- Hammond, 1962–1968, p. 234.
- Hammond, 1968–1973, p. 5.
- Ron Stienmann, Inside Television's First War. Columbia MO: University of Missouri Press, 2002, p. 33.
- Hallin, Uncensored War, p. 158.
- Hammond, 1962–1968, p. 387.
- Knightley, p. 457 & 458.
- Knightley, p. 458.
- Bowden, p. 187.
- Wyatt, p. 192.
- Wyatt, pgs. 198 & 199.
- Hammond, 1968–1973, p. 102.
- Hallin, Media Conference.
- Hallin, Uncensored War, p. 210.
- Hallin, Uncensored War, p. 208.
- Hallin, Uncensored War, p. 174.
- Hallin, Uncensored War, p. 163.
- Hallin, Uncensored War, p. 179.
- Hammond, 1968–1973, p. 215.
- Samuel Zaffiri, Hamburger Hill. Novato CA: Presidio Press, 1988, p. 272.
- Landers, pgs. 191 & 102.
- Hammond, 1968–1973, pgs. 161 & 231.
- Hammond, 1968–1973, p. 141.
- Hammond, 1968–1973, pgs. 525-589.
- Hammond, 1968–1973, p. 548.
- Wyatt, p. 206.
- Hammond, 1968–1973, p. 603.
- Hammond, 1968–1973, p. 610.