Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Vietnam: The Television War

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story." In this passage, I discuss how American television coverage influenced public perceptions of the Vietnam War.

The destruction of villages like Cam Ne, the murder of South Vietnamese civilians by American and ARVN troops, drug use by the military, and the surprising resilience of the Vietcong and the NVA provided memorable media coverage. For the first time, America fought a war in which the overwhelming majority of the country’s households included at least one television set. Two years after the end of the Korean War, in 1955, 64.5 percent of homes had access to television. A decade later, 92.6 percent did.

Networks provided some combat coverage during the Korean War, though film was often broadcast days later. Bigger budgets for network news provided speedier transportation of Vietnam combat coverage, still shot on motion picture film that had to be developed before it could be screened and edited. If editors believed that the story was important enough, the film would be transported to Japan, developed and transmitted via satellite to network headquarters in the United States.

Starting in the mid-1960s an ever-growing number of homes could watch war coverage in color. The mid-1960s also marked the first time that more Americans told pollsters that they received news primarily from television than from radio or newspapers. Also by the mid-1960s, evening network news broadcasts had expanded from the 15-minute format used by CBS and NBC in the 1950s to a full half-hour. The expanded time provided more opportunities to cover the war. These factors converged to make Vietnam the first “television war” or the “living room war.”

President Lyndon Johnson obsessed over network coverage of the war and had three television sets in the Oval Office set to ABC, CBS, and NBC when the news came on every evening. Johnson called network anchors to praise them when their coverage pleased him but would give them obscenity-strewn tongue lashings when the coverage was critical. “This is your president, and yesterday your boys shat on the American flag,” Johnson once screamed at CBS News President Frank Stanton after a negative report.

For journalists, the Vietnam War represented uncharted territory. In previous wars, the military set tight restrictions on what the press could report, what they could see, and what they could photograph. The Vietnam misadventure was an undeclared war against guerilla forces in which some of the American government’s aims – for instance, the stability of the Saigon regime, the ability of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) troops to stand on their own, the winning of “hearts and minds” among the peasant majority – were extremely difficult to measure and to cover for the newspaper and television audience.

In the beginning, most coverage of the war supported the American military’s point of view uncritically. A "Boston Globe" survey of the 39 largest daily newspapers’ editorials revealed that as late as 1968, not one advocated withdrawal from Vietnam. Initially, even the most skeptical reporters, such as Morley Safer of CBS News, David Halberstam and Harrison Salisbury of The "New York Times," and Peter Arnett of the Associated Press, initially accepted the Cold War argument that South Vietnam represented an important battlefront against world communism, and that American defeat there would allow the Russians to dominate all of Southeast Asia. Criticism focused mostly on tactics.

Pleased with the early coverage, the military brass relied on voluntary press guidelines, counting on reporters to not release information that would be useful to the enemy. Overwhelmingly, reporters adhered to those guidelines. The Department of Defense did prohibit photographs or film in which wounded or dead American soldiers could be identified, unless families had been notified or had given the news agency permission. Network news editors followed the informal rules even though the undeveloped film they received from the front often had not passed through a military censor.

To war critics, far too many reporters relied exclusively on military spokesmen and official press releases for their stories. Some covered the war from the relative safety and comfort of Saigon hotels, rarely following troops into the field. The American media, with notable exceptions, gave little coverage to how the war affected the Vietnamese.

The cozy relationship between the press and the Defense Department began to unravel, however, as the war dragged on and reporters tired of hearing about a “light at the end of the tunnel” that receded ever farther in the distance. Told repeatedly that the Vietcong communist guerillas and the North Vietnamese would soon collapse, reporters instead saw an enemy that seemed highly motivated and determined even as the South Vietnamese military seemed increasingly dispirited, corrupt and incompetent. Many reporters, however, risked their lives to experience the war as lived by the American soldiers, with sixty-three journalists killed during combat action in Vietnam.


The intrusion of American combat troops in the Vietnam War began with a lie, the exaggerated Gulf of Tonkin incident Johnson exploited to wring a free hand in Vietnam from the Congress. Like all previous wars, this conflict spawned numerous euphemisms designed to shield American civilians from the brutality of the conflict. Thus, military and political officials referred to the war itself as a “police action” while the 1970 invasion of Vietnam’s neighbor Cambodia would be termed an “incursion.” Military brass called the destruction of villages “pacification” while innocent civilians killed became “collateral damage.” The American forces referred to refugees as “ambient non-combat personnel.” In military-speak, an attack against a friendly village transformed into a “pre-emptive strike” while bombing one’s own forces or ARVN became “accidental deliverance of ordnance equipment.”

Meanwhile, military leaders, from General Westmoreland down, lied repeatedly about the morale of Vietcong and North Vietnamese troops, the support from the local population for the South Vietnamese government, and most conspicuously about VC and NVA casualties. The assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, Arthur Sylvester, became concerned early in the war that “reporters tended to interpret the absence of a large body count as evidence that an operation had failed,” according to historian William M. Hammond. Pressure developed within the military to falsely report high enemy casualties.

The way the North Vietnamese Army and the Vietcong fought, however, got in the way of a high casualty scorecard. “Holding the initiative, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces sought to hurt their opponents while keeping their own casualties low,” Hammond wrote. “As a result, they usually employed small squads in surprise attacks that took down one or two Americans and then escaped before artillery and air strikes could respond. American forces could legitimately claim a kill ratio of 5 to 1 when Communist troops charged en masse or stood and fought, but the enemy’s attacks by stealth, along with ambushes, mines, and booby trap, accounted for three out of four American casualties.” As Hammond notes, when these methods of war are included, the Americans enjoyed a “kill ratio” of only 1.5 to 1, “hardly enough to break the enemy’s will.”

Ultimately, the Pentagon became as numbers-obsessed as the press. Soldiers having little more to go on than “blood trails” on the jungle floor would routinely make up numbers of enemy dead. As Hammond notes, “the counts of the enemy dead submitted to higher headquarters seemed routinely to double at each level as they moved up the chain of command.” One battalion commander at the Battle of Pleiku said later that his report of 160 enemy casualties in a two-day engagement ballooned to 869 by the time it was reported in the media. Overall, the military claimed to have killed or captured more than 25 percent of men of military age in North Vietnam every year.

Newspapers and network news programs reported on these grossly inflated casualty figures and, Hammond suggests, positive coverage created a perverse blowback when the military began to believe its own tall tales. This self-induced delusion crumbled in early 1968 when the communist Tet Offensive proved that the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and VC were far from collapse, as the American military insisted. By then, the media openly discussed Lyndon Johnson’s “credibility gap.”


A commonly believed post-Vietnam legend suggests that a politically liberal press opposed the Vietnam War from the start and unfairly portrayed the military as filled with drug-crazed baby killers, and that this undermined public support of the war. In reality, not only did newspapers support the war on the editorial pages, both the print and the electronic media sat on stories that would have increased opposition to the war. For instance, the My Lai Massacre (covered in Chapter 24) took place in March 1968, and several major publications were alerted to the incident, but the slaughter of a Vietnamese village went unreported for 20 months until The Dispatch News, part of the alternative press, and investigative reporter Seymour Hersh finally broke the story for "The New York Times."

When he ordered American troops into Laos in 1971, President Richard Nixon declared, “Our worst enemy seems to be the press!” Yet, from the time of the Gulf of Tonkin incident on, a broad consensus developed among elites in support of the Vietnam War, encompassing leading Democrats and Republicans, much of academia, newspaper publishers, television executives, and business leaders.

The American public at large did not share this sentiment. As of March 1966, most Americans still supported Johnson’s actions in Vietnam, but this support was soft. A majority told pollsters they would approve of a withdrawal of troops and free and fair elections in South Vietnam even if that meant a political victory by the Vietcong. Johnson’s advisors opposed both of these options, as did most newspaper editorial boards. By August 1968, the broader American public had turned against the war. That month, a Gallup poll showed that 53 percent of the American public thought American involvement in Vietnam had been a mistake. The gap between elites and the rest of the country grew deeper through the end America’s involvement in war in the early 1970s.

Opposition to the war ran inversely to educational attainment. According to a Gallup Poll taken in January 1971, 73 percent of the American public favored withdrawal from Vietnam. The percentage favoring withdrawal was highest, 80 percent to 20 percent, for those with only a grade-school education. Among high school graduates, 75 percent favored withdrawal. The most educated remained the most supportive of the war. Among college graduates, only 60 percent favored withdrawal while 40 percent backed continued military involvement. As will be discussed later, however, a desire for the war to end did not mean that the American working class supported the college student-based peace movement.

Since press coverage generally favored the war, one can only conclude that – contrary to the myth - the majority of Americans rejected what they were told by the media about Vietnam and put more stock in the experiences of their family and that of their neighbors. “[E]xercising their own independence of mind, and displaying a substantial measure of contempt for all those in the press and government who had sought to manipulate them over the years, Americans had used their common sense,” Hammond wrote. “If more bombing and more killing had earlier proved to be of no avail, and if the South Vietnamese had shown few of the traits necessary for survival, why prolong the struggle? Enough was enough.”

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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