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Did the media lose the Vietnam War?

This essay will discuss to what degree the media can be blamed for the United States' loss in the Vietnam conflict ending 1975. It will be based predominantly on key written resources on the subject, but it will also contain – by means of an interview – certain first-hand observations from a Vietnam War veteran.

For the sake of conciseness, and in order to focus the bulk of the content on the main topic, this essay will make certain assumptions. Most importantly, the essay assumes that the conflict in Vietnam was, indeed, lost by the US. It also presupposes that – due to the political climate in the US – the war itself was unavoidable. Finally, the essay takes for granted that the reader has a basic knowledge of the reasons and major events behind the US military intervention in Vietnam from the mid-1950s until 1975.

In the late 1960s, the low-intensity conflict in Indochina that had been in progress since the end of the Second World War became a full-scaled war. In order for the transition from low-intensity conflict to war to have taken place, a change in the public opinion surrounding the war must have taken place, resulting in the politicians of the time having support for the conflict. When the invasion was initiated, it was proved that the politicians in effect had the press in their pockets: the American press was not asking why there was a need for intervention, but rather how the logistics and economics of the invasion would fit together (Herman & Chomsky 1988).

Escalation of conflict

The US media did not become interested in the conflict until November 1960, when the US troops stationed in Saigon suffered a spectacular failure during a hunt for a small group of rebels: approximately 400 civilians were killed by American troops. With the conflict suddenly caught in the media spotlight, a small group of war correspondents were sent to Vietnam. The reporters were from the NYT, Herald Tribune, AP , UPI , Reuters and AFP . Stringers and / or reporters from Newsweek, Sunday Times, Daily Telegraph and the Observer soon followed. (Knightly 1975) Eventually – when the conflict escalated further – "Indochina was flooded with war correspondents" (Herman & Chomsky 1988, 193)

Warfare can be conducted for many reasons. In the case of the Vietnam conflict, the conflict was about trying to avoid Indochina falling prey to communism. However, to actually send troops such a significant distance, the public opinion on the conflict plays an important role. "Whatever the motives for conflict, they are incorporated in individual attitudes and expressed in popular opinion." (Albig 1939, 139) It has often been argued that Defence Secretary Robert McNamara "has done more to shape that conflict than anyone outside the Viet Cong" (Kennedy 1993, 93). This is an important illustration of the power of the media; through the media, "The domino theory [was] the dominant interpretation of events in Indochina" (Schulzinger 1998, 88).

By nature, the role of the media is to tell the people what is going on. In the case of the Vietnam war, the most important role became to inform the people 'at home' how the boys in Indochina were doing. The current consensus is – with the restrictions imposed on the US troops in Vietnam – that the US never had a realistic chance in the Vietnam conflict. As one Vietnam veteran puts it: it was the "politicians [who] lost the war in Vietnam, by declaring we couldn't go into Cambodia and Laos, which is where the NVA strongholds were." (Melnick 2002)

While political issues like these were slowly demoralising the soldiers fighting the war, the media were still telling a heavily rose-coloured version of the 'truth'. When the television images were shown in America before 1968, the editors had policies about what to show: More specifically, there were guidelines that were designed to shield the public from "excessively grisly or detailed shots" (Herman & Chomsky 1988, p 200). This changed early in 1968, however, when "the military lost its control over the movements of the press". (Herman & Chomsky 1988, p 201).

Coming to terms with the war

More specifically, the public opinion of the Vietnam war was changing. Towards the end of the 60's, the flower-power movement gave the anti-war protests a loud and increasingly difficult-to-ignore voice. (Schulzinger 1988)

Public opinion on the Vietnam war turned fully during the Tet offensive, which raged between January and April in 1968. NVA forces launched a large and completely unexpected attack on nearly all cities in northern Vietnam. Many US military bases were also affected by the attack. In total, "over 4300 American and South Vietnamese soldiers were killed in action during the Tet Offensive. 16000 were wounded and over 1000 were missing in action. North Vietnamese and Viet Cong casualties numbered approximately 45000, with an additional 7000 taken prisoner." (Cook 2001).

This happened simultaneously with the anti-war movement reaching an unprecedented peak in popularity. It is hard to tell whether the anti-war movement happened because the media let go of its self-censorship, or vice-versa, but it seems fair to say that the one fuelled the other, in a spiral of heightened consciousness about the situation in Vietnam. (Schulzinger 1988)

The Tet offensive would not have posed such a major problem, if it had not been so thoroughly covered by the media. The offensive became a turning point; Up until this point, the US public was led to believe that the war was slowly getting to an end. The Tet offensive showed differently: "in reality more and more troops were joining the communist ranks every day." (Cook 2001)

Herman and Chomsky argue that "Media coverage of the Tet Offensive has been the centrepiece of the critique of the media for 'losing the war' by their incompetent reporting and anti-government bias reflecting their passion for confronting authority." (Herman & Chomsky 1988, 211).

Some, however, argue that the power of the media during the Vietnam war has been grossly overrated: It was not the media who propelled or fuelled the war; "Congressmen who get elected by people who build tanks and airplanes forced the war. The media is just a dog that follows along behind, picking up scraps here and there as it can. They showed the war on TV for the first time. Amputated limbs, burning babies. That was historically significant." (Melnick 2002)

Realising the battle was lost

"The Tet offensive not only reduced Washington to gloomy despair and convinced U.S. elites that there was no realistic hope of military victory in Vietnam at a cost acceptable to the United States, But also changed the character of media reporting and commentary, which mirrored the changes in elite opinion" (Herman & Chomsky 1988, 220)

"As the US finally agreed to pursue the path of a negotiated settlement, although still not relinquishing the aim of preventing the unification of Vietnam and retaining Indochina, apart from North Vietnam, within the US global system. It was not the maximal goal the United States had pursued. This in the late 1950s, the US government still hoped for unification of Vietnam under Anti-communist leadership, and the I.S client regime always regarded itself as the government of all of Vietnam. (…) But by the late 1960s, if not before, control over all Indochina apart from North Vietnam, was regarded as the maximum goal attainable" (Herman & Chomsky 1988, 228)

While the US government was changing their stance from "We want to win" to "We want to win something", the forces actually fighting the war became further distanced from the reason they were in Indochina in the first place: "We supported a corrupt puppet government in Vietnam and a South Vietnamese Army that didn't want to fight. What we were doing was lining the pockets of Dow Chemical, Hughes Helicopter, Lockheed, Colt, etc. all that gasoline. All that metal. Vietnam was about money, ultimately. (Melnick, 2002)

"It is widely held that the media 'lost the war' by exposing the general population to its horrors, and by biased coverage reflecting the "Adversary culture" of the sixties" (Herman & Chomsky 1988, p 169) Despite the fact that the television media have been blamed for the outcome of the conflict, the reasons why the war coverage was the way it was have been disputed: "New York Times television critic John Corry defends the media as merely 'unmindful', not 'unpatriotic', as the harsher critics claim" (Herman & Chomsky 1988, pp 170-1)

Summary

The history, execution and aftermath of the Vietnam war are deeply complicated, and full comprehension of the conflict is beyond many of us – even now, twenty-odd years after the conflict finished. When the US decided to go to war in a country approximately 15000 km removed from its capital, the media just hung on as tight as they could while the US military took them on a rather bumpy ride.

The public opinion – which eventually forced US to withdraw from Indochina – was indeed based on the media's portrayal of the battle going on in the jungle. It can be argued that when the media decided to show an uncensored image of the conflict, they were acting out of spite. But no matter how one looks at it; The media showed what happened, no more. And what was going on in Vietnam was not pretty, as with most other wars. It is safe to say that the media did not lose the war, but rather expressed the feeling that the US soldiers were dying by the thousands without a good reason.

As Melnick quite profoundly summarises it: "Nobody wants to die for somebody else's country, and that's what it boiled down to".



Works cited: (...)

Albig, W (1939) Public Opinion New York: McGraw-Hill

Cook, M et al. (2001) Tet Offensive http://www.everything2.com/index.pl?node=tet+offensive

Herman, E.S. and Chomsky, N (1988) Manufacturing Consent: The political economy of the mass media New York: Pantheon Books

Kennedy, W.V (1993) The Military and the Media: Why the Press Cannot Be Trusted to Cover a War. New York: Praeger Publishers

Knightly, P (1975) The First Casualty London: Pan Books

Lugo, J (8 Oct 2002) Lecture: Manufacturing consent and public opinion. Liverpool John Moores University

Melnick, Mark (12 Oct 2002) Interview via e-mail: Media and Vietnam

Schulzinger, R.D. (1998) A time for war: The United States and Vietnam, 1941-1975 New York: Oxford University Press

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