American presence in Vietnam was due to perceived threat in spread of communism. However, it ended with a terrible defeat of both South Vietnam and America military. Many believe uncensored media contributed due to its influence on public opinion.
This paper examines how the media worked in this period and gives a detailed account of the kind of reporting that was experienced. It develops a discussion by invoking historians’ perspectives and input from first hand information in the battle field. Eventually an argument develops that dispute the public perception was due to common myths.
The entry of United States in Vietnam War was to stop the spread of perceived communism threat in Southeast Asia, a premise held under a foreign policy then called domino theory.
Some of the influential people in America saw the need for taking military precautions by supporting South Vietnam to prevent spread of communism. Still a section of the Americans did not see any need for US involvement in the war.
This group did not see any risk to American interests if Vietnam was to be converted to a communist nation. Further some felt that its involvement stopped the spread of communism to other Southeast Asia countries1. Arguments about the war have never been conclusive. However, one fact that emerges is that the war transformed American society.
Some of the changes noted are that leaders must look for Americans approval before engaging in a war in another nation. Secondly people became doubtful of the real intention in their political leaders. At the heart of this war, the media is believed to have shaped the Americans perception about the war. It is reported that in early sixties over 80% homes in America owned a television.
Kennedy Para notes further that by 1968, over 68% followed television reports on Vietnam War2. Technology in this moment made it possible for television to film some incidents in the war that forged the public opinion in regard to Vietnam War.
This paper will assess the role media played in Vietnam War. Also an in-depth analysis on the coverage in regards to objectivity will be considered. This research will conclude by discussing other factors other than the media that shaped the public opinion during the war.
Media technology before and during the war
According to Hallin this war was the first war to be televised. Previous wars like the Korean conflict did not enjoy the same level of television power. Korean War and the World War II though also had military and media working very closely. The media therefore only broadcasted censored information. Another thing, the number of viewers as well as technology level was very limited to make an impact during Korea conflict.3
Other historians also describe the war as the first to come closest to American’s living rooms. Some of the things that people were able to follow include dispatch of soldiers in helicopters. The media had a keen interest on this war and kept a significant number of crew in every minute to cover the incidences.
In this period, photojournalism developed certain technological aspects that made it possible to document crucial instances and helped to shape public understanding of the war. Both photojournalism and television formed a mutual influence on the public opinion.
Photographers like camera crew members were also on full-time employment by various agencies. News agencies such as united press International and associated press are some of the agencies that had permanent photographers. There were also other freelance photographers who also went to Vietnam to do some work hoping they could have it broadcasted by any agency.
Some of these were not trained but they obtained passes that guaranteed them rights from the military to cover the war. The outcome of having this great number of photographer was an economy of war images about Vietnam War. Most of these images covered dramatic action and spot news4.
Media reports on the war
Toczek & Rosson discussed some of the articles emerging in this period and the nature of their reports. According to them, the terms used by some reporters had threatening words. A particular account of what happened at AP Bac as reported by Halberstam, indicated that the war was a terrible defeat of America.
According to him the Vietnamese failure was clear from the onset and due to their lack of surrender they suffered many casualties5. In another account the two discuss another article in United Press International that depicted Americans as infuriated by the Vietnamese lack of aggressiveness.
Different accounts of the events by military commanders are also offered in this discussion. Of particular interest is position held by commanders that the media was giving both false and truthful information about the war. The president at the time also took offense with the media reports on Ap Bac war, claiming that the media was not accurately reporting the event.
In addition the media also broadcasted some scenes of suffering and violence. For instance, CBS is said to have televised a Morley Safer report on august 1965, where marines were burning some houses in Cam Ne villages and also reported to have mistreated the villagers6.
Other scenes of violence like prisoners being executed during Tet attacks were also televised in a different station. Scenes of suffering like a case where civilians were sprayed with bullets being mistaken for troops of North Vietnam by South Vietnam planes were also aired.
Media reporting is also said to have changed at some point during the war. This was compelled by audience demand for airing of scenes as they happen on the war front. Previously their shots were on specific scenes as described. The new footage was a risky business for the reporters and tactical changes in coverage were inevitable.
Journalist now started to develop doubts about the progress of the war. Reporting now revolved more on the cost in human life that was being experienced in the war. The reasons for these changes emanated from an increased division about the war that was taking place in American society.
In Hallins work he discusses research evidence showing who the most trusted news anchor by Americans was in 1972. According to this work, Walter Cronkite was the man most trusted by Americans7.
Whether his influence is real or just a perception, his declaration that America could not win the battle in Vietnam and that the country must find a way out of the battle was followed by both public and political effects.
On one hand, opinion polls indicated that majority of the public thought American involvement in Vietnam War was a mistake8. There was also the influence on political leaders who knowing the public was watching these news also believed the time to pull out of the war had come.
What we have so far seen in the literature review is that there is a common believe that the media shaped public opinion. Specific accounts such as comments by famous television anchor Walter Cronkite are seen as instrumental in shaping this opinion. His comments are seen to have marked a climax in the war.
It is also said to have had political implication by ending President Lyndon B. Johnson’s political career. A different account of how the press brought about the end of the war is also given as an outcome of press airing South Vietnamese defeat.
These defeat aired straight through the media made Americans belief that the war could not be won. It is believed that lack of media censorship in Vietnam is responsible for American and South Vietnam defeat.
The military was incensed by their failure to defeat northern Vietnamese communist as a result of both media and political influence9. Many historians dispute the claim that media helped to shape the public opinion.
Wyatt added his criticism on the so called press role in Vietnam War. Through his work that included analysis of more than 1,800 articles, he discovered facts that he claims challenges the impression of a press that was so powerfully influential.
His findings indicate that the press was not acting as independently as is commonly believed by many. That the military exerted some form of censor on what the press reported. Variations in coverage of similar events also existed that made different people to have different accounts of the war.
He also notes that the position of editors in the war also mattered a lot. For instance, those papers that were on government side in the domino theory policy did not challenge official information. As a result readers of the different papers that this work covered, formed different views about the war and also received different pictures of the war.
Another claim that Vietnam War was influenced by the media emanates from popularity of television in the period. It is commonly accepted that television powers in shaping American public opinion emerged in middle of 1960s. In this period television was the main news source for a large number of Americans and therefore one of the powerful tools that forged their influence.
The truth of this claim is verified by research conducted about what Americans considered as their main source of news, around this time. By the end of Vietnam war in 1972, research depicted that 64% of the public got their news from television as compared to 50% of the same public that said their news source are mainly newspapers10.
Further research indicated that the public has a stronger trust for television, and that they would take television news as factual in case of a contrast in the media. Two reasons for this trust are given; first is the nature of medium being personal, and the second one the presence of evidence in form of pictures.
Evidence is even given by these researches that people prefer television news on war to other medium. Although Hallins argues that it is not necessarily correct to say television has a powerful influence on the public opinion, he concedes it influenced politicians’ perception at the time.
Evidence from what was happening in the period of sixties decade, also makes us to believe that there was more to the public opinion than we are commonly made to believe. Revolutions had already started to build in America with women rights groups and youths riots being witnessed.
Americans were becoming skeptical of their political leaders or better members of the upper class. For instance, hurting them at the time was the fact that the country could withstand hostility in its foreign policy so as to continue exploiting resources from other nations.
Movement for the youth calling itself New Lefty emerged in this period and committed itself to fight with discrimination and disparities in the society. Speeches delivered by youthful leaders at this time challenged the American real intention in the Vietnam War. They called for leader to accept defeat and wait for eventuality.
This eventuality which is possibility of a communist Vietnam nation, they assumed was a decision of the local there11. Simply these speeches reveal that Americans were feeling that their leaders encroached other nation’s right, and thus violating principles of democracy.
Sheehan coverage of the war gives another side of the story. His book which was awarded twice and gives a first hand account of what the perspectives the war took. In his work, readers are confronted with opinions held by some key leaders. Of particular value is John Paul Vann who was an advisor to Saigon regime.
He criticized the tactics applied by South Vietnam government as well as some of the commands issued by U.S. military. According to him, some of the tactics employed by the military were counterproductive and therefore hindered realization of the U.S. goals12.
What comes out clearly is that his advice in most cases did not make any influence on the military command. As an alternative he used the press corps to air his views and among those who were used is Neil Sheehan.
Other journalist who documented the war and its atrocities includes Michael Herr. The journalist kept a day to day record of what was going on in the battle line. He went into the battlefield and demonstrated that it was a careless mistake to sacrifice human lives in this war.
His book covers the life of the American soldiers and shows how these men put their lives in danger in that war. His artistic work paints a picture of terror during the war that he and the soldiers had to withstand. He demonstrates how soldiers careless died in the line as fatigue caught up with them making some of them forget basic protection13.
This paper has discussed several facts. The first one being that America’s decision to go to war was political. Second media was more technologically advanced than previous moment in history. Finally American opinions were also shaped by what they believed.
Previous believe was that the media influenced the public perception and contributed to the end of this war. This has been challenged by historical analysts as this paper has demonstrated. Critics of the media especially government and the military as well as some editors complained that some reporters were inexperienced and lacked objectivity.
However, from what we have discussed from the historian perspectives there is a good reason to believe that this might not be the true position. Furthermore even if this is the case other reasons for public disagreement with the war existed.
Americans questioned the real reason for engagement in the war in particular. Therefore, according to evidence gathered in this research there is reason to believe that public opinions depicting American loss of faith in the war were more than it’s commonly believed.
Anderegg, Michael. Inventing Vietnam: The War in Film and Television. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1991.
Braestrup, Peter. Big Story: How the American Press and Television Reported and Interpreted the Crisis Of Tet 1968 in Vietnam And Washington. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1977.
Cohen, Steven. Vietnam: Anthology and Guide to a Television History. New York: Alfred A. Knoph, 1983.
Fuller, A. James & Lawrence, Sondhaus. America, War and Power: Defining the State, 1775-2005. New York: Routledge, 2007.
Hallin, Daniel C. The Uncensored War: the Media and Vietnam. University of California Press. 1989.
Hallin, Daniel. Vietnam on Television. (nd). 13 Nov 2004. Web.
Herr, Michael & Robert, Stone. Dispatches. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009. Print.
Kennedy, Lilian. Photojournalism and the Vietnam War. 12 Aug 2007. Web.
Levy, Debbie. The Vietnam War. New York: Twenty-First Century Books, 2004. Print.
Potter Paul, “Name the System” (speech, delivered to protestors to end the war, Washington, March 10-13, 1965).
Sheehan, Neil. A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam. New York: Random House Publishing Group, 2009. Print.
Toczek, David & W. B. Rosson. The Battle of Ap Bac, Vietnam: They Did Everything But Learn from It. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2007. Print.
Wyatt, Clarence R. Paper Soldiers: The American Press in Vietnam, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. Print.
- Debbie Levy. The Vietnam War (New York: Twenty-First Century Books, 2004).
- Lilian Kennedy. “Photojournalism and the Vietnam War,” UCD Website. 2007.
- Daniel Hallin. “Vietnam on Television. (nd)”. Museum TV. 2004.
- Kennedy. “Photojournalism and the Vietnam War.” 5.
- David Toczek & W. B. Rosson. The Battle of Ap Bac, Vietnam: They Did Everything But Learn from It. (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2007).
- James Fuller, A. & Lawrence Sondhaus. America, War and Power: Defining the State, 1775-2005 (New York: Routledge, 2007).
- Daniel C. Hallin,. The Uncensored War: the Media and Vietnam (Berkeley: University of California Press. 1989).
- Peter Braestrup, Big Story: How the American Press and Television Reported and Interpreted the Crisis Of Tet 1968 in Vietnam And Washington (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1977).
- Clarence R. Wyatt. Paper Soldiers: The American Press in Vietnam (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995).
- Michael Anderegg, Inventing Vietnam: The War in Film and Television. (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1991).
- Paul Potter, “Name the System” (speech, delivered to protestors to end the war, Washington, March 10-13, 1965).
- Neil Sheehan. A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam (New York: Random House Publishing Group, 2009).
- Michael Herr & Robert Stone. Dispatches (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009).