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Impact of the Media in the Vietnam War

“By the spring of 1975, the Vietnam War had ended in victory for the enemies of the United States” and ever since this, historians have been preoccupied with explaining why America failed in Vietnam. In the most part, the Vietnam War has been portrayed as a military failure, and whilst this is true it ignores the highly decisive role of the media. Hanson recognises that there is a distinctive lack of theoretical assessment of the impact of the media on foreign policy. Therefore I am to prove amongst other facts that it was the role of the media which inevitably led to American failure in the Vietnam War. As James Reston concluded;
“Maybe historians will agree that the reporters and the cameras were decisive in the end…and forced the withdrawal of American power from Vietnam.”
Firstly it will assess why the American press stopped supporting American intervention in Vietnam. The Tet offensive in 1968 is often pin pointed by historians as the event from which the perception of the wars success changed. I will then assess how the media affected American withdrawal and how much influence the media had on policy making of the American government.
Another key question that this dissertation will address is what and how other deciding factors caused American failure. Many historians have focused on the military failures and I will assess how this is an accurate assessment of American involvement. By addressing these questions I will, furthermore, be able to argue whether or not American failure in Vietnam was inevitable which has become the argument for many historians. However further research on the subject highlights that domestic issues such as the growing anti-war movement affected withdrawal. From this I would like to assess the nature in which the press reported on such groups and if the media influenced their growth.
Many primary and secondary sources have been used to research this dissertation. I have focused my attention to The New York Times as it is a liberal broadsheet published across America and is considered to be a paper which was highly critical of the war. During my research into secondary sources I have noticed that particular articles have often been selected from this newspaper by various historians. I will use some of these articles alongside others that have not previously been included in research to deepen the understanding of the media’s role. By using a variety of these articles I will be able to support or disprove current historical thought on the subject. The positive of using newspapers in my research, is that I easily uncover patterns in reporting styles and can map the changes of opinions. Negatively however, newspapers are generally as biased; reporters can often use their articles to air their own personal opinions and may not reflect their audience’s beliefs. They may also be bias as they are producing an opinion that will have been dictated from the papers editors and will follow their policy on the war.
I have also used the Museum of Broadcast Communication, which is an online archive that has stored radio and television broadcasts from America. Current research into Vietnam focuses on newspaper articles and by using these broadcasts I hope to find a greater understanding into the role the whole media played. Hallin believes that using television in assessing the role of the media is vital as it “made Vietnam politically unique”. The advantage of using these broadcasts is that the tone used by the reporters indicates how they perceived the war at that time and mean that there may be less misinterpretation of their view. Again, like the newspapers, there will be a degree of bias and this does not always reflect the American public’s opinions. In some cases the television reports are often accused of enforcing particular views of the war on the public.
One criticism of American intervention in Vietnam is that America failed to learn from its mistakes in the Korean War. The hindsight that we have after such conflicts can make it seem as though a particular decision was gravely needed or acted as a catalyst. However, as historians, it is vital that whilst studying the Vietnam War, we do not assess the war in a modern day context but from the position at that time. Therefore I shall assess how the conflict is placed on the global scene during the Cold War, and how it places within American society at the time.
The development of the media is also an issue I had to consider in my research due to the technological advancements that it has faced. The nature in which media is used is also subject to change, and therefore its role must be effectively defined and evaluated. McCormick argues that the role of the media did not begin after the cold war but that it expanded within it, with coverage reaching into people’s homes. Another example would be from the First World War, when photography was used for reconnaissance purposes and data collection. The army later used photography as a form of propaganda to recruit men for the war. This example shows the changing nature of photography and the Vietnam War was no exception. Photography takes on a new role and Susan Moeller’s study on the effects of three iconic images highlights that photographs begin to sum up entire wars and that they make war “comprehensible” to American civilians and the wider world. Photography and other media forms are always used for a particular purpose and it is important to consider their purpose in the interpretation of the sources.
America had prospered greatly in the World Wars; industry had grown significantly and as a consequence America’s economy was achieving new heights. This therefore shows that America had much to lose if it no longer controlled the markets of the world. The ideological subtext of the Cold War is imperative in understanding the failures of America in Vietnam. This helps to explain how it was perceived that if communism was to gain power, that the economy of said country would be hostile to the free market system; and so a policy to protect America’s interests was needed. Walli believes that the hysteria and myths created by Truman were necessary for the American and global public to support America in its actions. Truman is said to have used the media to create this hysteria in the first place and shows how the government manipulated the media. In which case, this statement may explain why the government resented the media during the conflict as they were unable to control and manipulate it so easily.
As Smith states, the Vietnam War was a “product of a global pattern of conflict” and must be discussed in the context of global developments for information to be correctly used. So, the Vietnam War must be assessed as one of a number of conflicts after the Second World War. America played a leading role in several of these cold war conflicts, such as, Korea, Cuba, Laos, Greece and the Berlin. As literature of the time reflects, America was portrayed as the guardian angel of these countries freedoms against the evil of Communism. This echoes the position of the elites like Nixon, who pleaded for anti-communist faith, “Communism is evil because it denies God and defies man”. However real the threat of Communist expansionism actually was, to the people of America it posed a serious threat to the freedoms that they had become accustomed to. When, in reality, the Soviet Union was far from being in a position to begin colonising and spreading the Communist ideology. It is also naïve of America to have believed that every revolutionary group was a puppet of the Kremlin.
This dissertation will examine the role of the media as the agent of American failure. It would be naive to blame the media alone and the dissertation will also look at other factors that contributed to American failure and assess which ultimately led to American withdrawal.


The Vietnam War has drawn the attention of many scholars since America’s intervention in the war. Caprini believed that this is because where “lines between consensus, legitimate controversy and deviance become blurred”, such as in the Vietnam War, that debate expands. As Herring points out many of the issues still contested today are the issues that “Americans debated during the war.” There are many questions which are regularly debated between historians on this topic such as why did America involve itself in Vietnam? Did America fail in Vietnam and was American intervention doomed to failure? Most importantly for this study is the question, why did America fail in Vietnam?
Previous studies on the Vietnam War have often made assumptions and judgements on American intervention. This has therefore led to two different schools of interpretation on the nature of the war and Cohen believes that a historian’s judgement on the nature of the war will determine the tone of their research. For example revisionists believe that the war in Vietnam was that “the war was an act of aggression” by the North Vietnamese on the South. This would therefore lead to the historians such as Smith, who justifies American escalation of the war in Vietnam. However other historians believe that America were not justified in their actions and that it was in fact a “revolutionary war” and that the Vietnamese where fighting “for their independence against the French and then the Americans”. Historians such as Kolko and Kahin have heavily criticised American intervention in the Vietnam War as immoral and that America was trying to preserve economic interests. These different interpretations will therefore influence how they view successes and failures of America, or even if the same event is a success or a failure.
Devine believes that more recent analysis of the Vietnam War has lead to a growth of resentment for American involvement in the Vietnam War and consequent failures. Historians such as Lens and Kolko seek to evaluate America’s motives and efficiency. However, Lens is overly critical of the American motives within the war and the methods that they use in the wider global context. This therefore reflects Devine’s statement of growing resentment for American involvement, but also demonstrates that literature on the Cold War in general has growing resentment for America. Schrecker’s investigation into McCarthyism in the United States can similarly be seen as overly critical. However, after reflecting this book, many can sympathise with her well constructed argument. Nonetheless, there is literature on the subject of resentment of American involvement evident in the emotively written book, Vietnam North, by Burchett. This is a written documentary constructed during the period focusing on the experiences and opinions of the North Vietnamese. Whilst extremely useful to historians for its insight into an area which previously lacked much attention, if looked at in isolation, it can paint a very bleak image of American involvement. Pieces such as these most definitely influence the works of modern day historians as they reach to new sources for information.
The sources which historians use will also effect of they construct their arguments. Research into Vietnam has become more enlightened in recent years with the release of more sources. However there are still many sources still unavailable or insufficiently used, whilst historians have begun to use more Vietnamese sources Kiernan highlights that this is an area which needs much more attention and will contribute the most to historical understanding. It is also important to consider that interpretations of sources can be widely different according to historian’s perspective on the war generally. Therefore it is important to remain neutral in the analysis of primary sources and to consider them within the context of the cold war period. Hallin’s work focuses on the use of media sources, he clearly recognises that media was not the same all over America, and the provenances of the source can change how and why they were written.
The Vietnam War can not be analysed in a simplistic form as there are many different dimensions to it. Fisher highlights that America was not fighting one enemy; surface level analysis by historians has led to a basic review of cold war ideology. The war in Vietnam is not a clear cut battle between capitalism and communism because there is also a strong nationalist movement, the fight for independence being strong feature in the Vietnamese war. Some historians believe that the war actually stems from a civil war within South Vietnam, “between southern rebels and a Saigon government with far heavier foreign backing”. Therefore the assessment has been made that America failed in Vietnam because they assumed that dividing Vietnam in half would automatically make the South all obey Diem’s regime without question. Whilst this may be an important dimension to consider, the division of Vietnam is not why America failed. The importance of Diem and America’s failure to hold elections in Vietnam is a plausible beginning to American failure.
Most importantly, current studies on the subject ignore the media’s influence on America with regard to the Diem regime. Hammond recognises that American reporters were disliked by Diem’s regime because they reported freely about their opinions of the war and often criticised the role the South Vietnamese were playing. Where many historians have ignored this dimension Hammond explores it and concludes that these negative reports acted as catalyst to disenchant the war with the American people. This assessment does not mean that the reports were a hate campaign against Diem but that reports were not complimentary to the South Vietnamese forces, and instead fully supported the American troops. Caprini reiterates this point with the example of the Buddhist crisis in May 1963 which questions Diem’s regime but not the overall goal of American involvement.
Klein’s collection of essays in, The Vietnam Era; Media and popular culture in the US and Vietnam take an orthodox and post-revisionist view of the war in Vietnam. This is evident from the outset of the book as Klein criticises the American government for creating the atmosphere of anti-communism to lure the American people into conflicts. The book assesses the importance of the role of the media and how the anti-war movement grew. There does seem to be little attempt to address the military failures or strategic decisions which would have ultimately led to the reports of the press and protests of the anti-war movement. However, Klein does recognise that the popular culture was influenced and flooded by material from novelists who “tend to stereotype the Vietnamese as dehumanised others” and criticises their stance as ignorant. Again such statements as these led to criticism of American government involvement in the war as “imperialistic” and “non-accidental”. The in depth study of non press material by Klein has greatly added to the knowledge on the debate of the effects of media materials on American perceptions of the war. He assesses more the creation of those images and perceptions before the book focuses on the development of anti-war movements.
A key question raised by Caprini in a following essay in Klein’s book reveals that the lack of anti-war movement may be because the media did not consider Vietnam news worthy until 1961. Therefore there is less coverage to convince people to stop supporting the war effort. This may reveal why the media had no influence in American withdrawal earlier in the war or as Caprini states that coverage before 1961 was limited to propaganda style film segments.
Hammond seeks to examine the relationship between the media and military during the Vietnam War. The main argument in these books are that it was the military’s strategic decisions which led to American failure, but it is the press who were seen as responsible for making the American public aware of these issues. This reflects many of the military leader’s opinions of the time as well as the governments and as another historian, Hallin points out even the enlisted men where beginning to resent the press and view them as their enemy. Hammond seems to be aiming to highlight relationship problems between the press and the government to prevent future conflicts. In contrast Hallin examines the changing role that the media played in the Vietnam War and does recognise that the media played a vital role in the changing of American policy in Vietnam. However instead of blaming the failure on the strategic decisions of the military as Hammond does, Hallin believes that it was the presidential administrations fault for not creating restrictions for the media in the form of censorship. Although these historians both vary on what they believe to be most important in the media’s role and effect, there are points of agreement. For example, Hammond also believes that there were some attempts to censor information released to the press, that this had little affect, but that America ultimately did not set into place any system of censorship in the media.
Many historians have laid the blame of American failure to different presidents. For example, Hammond asserts Kennedy’s importance as he was preoccupied in Europe and Cuba, and he postponed decisions through compromise and didn’t efficiently quash mid-level officers from airing their views to the press about American policies. Smith, although not really assessing why America failed in Vietnam, does begin to discuss how each president led to escalation of the war. Beginning with justifying Kennedy’s actions Smith believes that it was ultimately Johnsons fault for his inappropriate approach to the war which did not contribute to American success. There is a great deal of discussion over this issue and another perspective is that Truman planted the seeds of failure with his policies. Even earlier though is the presidency of Eisenhower, and Gardener and Anderson believe that it was Eisenhower who created the ideological approach which constantly dictated American policies of the post second world war period which created problems for following administrations.

How Did the Media Cause American Failure?

Failure of America in the Vietnam War can be accredited to the media’s portrayal of the conflict. Current discussions on America intervention and what caused the failure can all be linked with the media explosion during the period of critical and investigative journalism, which forced American withdrawal and changes in policy making. Within Powlick and Katz’s reviews of literature on this subject they believe that it was in fact the elites with in government that argued what the media articulated to the public and that foreign policy was not affected by public opinion. Previously investigated factors such as the role of the South Vietnamese and American governments and the military strategies employed in the failure of America in Vietnam can all be attributed to the media coverage which surrounded the conflict. This chapter will critically assess each of these factors in relation to media primary sources and which will produce the conclusion that the media did have play an important role in American failure.

How did the media cover the war?

As previously stated, the nature of media coverage was ever changing and during the Vietnam War these changes increased the impact that the reports. The coverage of the Vietnam War was not always at the same intensity throughout the conflict and may explain why America failed as intensity grew the prospect of failure grew. There is a consensus among historians that press coverage of the Vietnam War only began to grow after 1961 and reached its height in 1968. However, Edmond notes that after 1968 coverage of the Vietnam War by the press and television had greatly declined. Parallel to the rise of media attention to the war between 1961 and 1968, was the rise in more critical reports about American policies and South Vietnamese’ forces impact in the conflict. The reports were not wholly positive or wholly negative regarding Vietnam, but there was a rise in criticism as the war progresses. However, before 1965 most of the coverage was mainly positive which may coincide with the fact that only after the summer of 1964 did American foreign policy change in Vietnam. At this point Johnson begins escalation by introducing retaliatory air strikes against the North Vietnamese.
Interestingly, during the early stages of the conflict, reports that were deemed too controversial were edited to suit the papers stance on the war. H. D. S. Greenway, a reporter for Time magazine and The Washington Post from 1967 to 1975, felt that before the Tet offensive that “we would write something and the magazine would ignore it if it wasn’t upbeat”. This shows that the papers were fuelling the deluded optimism, which in effect when removed in the Tet offensive, led to huge disillusionment of the American public. It also displays how in the most part press, television and radio all followed the official line. It is recognised by John Shaw that “Many American editors ignored what their correspondents in Vietnam were telling them in favour of the Washington version”. Cleary this statement by Shaw is sustained by comments like that of Greenwoods and other reporters who testify that their stories are not being published. This hesitancy within the media to report the negatives as well as the positives in the earlier stages may have been the reason for prolonged American involvement as since the level of criticism increase more pressure is asserted onto the government for policy changes. In this case it is not the reporters who are to blame for American failure in the war but their editors. This is because had the American public realised the truth behind Vietnam earlier then government policy may have changed and consequently America may not have failed.
It is still believed today that the press will reflect the norms and accepted thoughts in society. It will rarely go against popular assumptions for fear of damaging business. As a consequence of these theories, one would assume that it would also affect the way in which articles were written and determine how the television and radio represented their stories. For example Chomsky and Herman believed that the anti-communist ideology provided the media with a framework to report within. If you were seen to question the reports, you may be accused of being unpatriotic and so you would be socially excluded whilst McCarthyism was at its height. This is best illustrated in the earlier articles on the Vietnam War by supporting the war effort and that following articles retain the a half hearted optimism. Due to the heightened fear of Communism through McCarthyism any questioning of the American policy in Vietnam would have been greatly disapproved of. An interpretation of this information would show that the media propped up American success due to the social conditioning of the period.
The tone of the reports were also generally optimistic during the early stages of the war because the majority of the information that they were given was from the government. Another reason for the positive reporting may be due to the fact there were no permanent reporters based in Saigon initially, so they were unable to report everything as they saw it, and instead had to rely on official reports. The only daily newspaper with a full-time correspondent at the time was the New York Times, whilst other papers had to rely on news agencies. This may explain why this paper took a particularly critical line on Vietnam as they were able to see the escalation of American involvement in the war first hand.
The article by Jacques Nevard in the New York Times in July 1962 displays this official line of optimism coupled with some questioning. The article remains positive about the success of the helicopter mission, “reported to have swept about twenty miles”. Reporting at this time largely focuses on a quantative method to measure success, and the large area covered here praises the American forces. These figurers were widely accepted when published whilst later on in the war there is a criticism of the figures used in these reports. This positive and supportive tone continues through to 1965 where Mohr reports that “the United States is still in a defensive position, although a strong one”. This consistency shows that the illusion that America could still win the war was still believed by most of America. Therefore, the media could be blamed for pursuing information and a line which would ultimately lead to great resentment from American public on the war in Vietnam, particularly after the Tet offensive as victory becomes unlikely.

The Media and South Vietnamese Government:

The media’s relationship with the South Vietnamese Government also undergoes rapid changes during the Vietnam War. For example the Diems regime treats the media with suspicion and there are many restrictions in place to prevent reporting on the conflict by internal press and external press. However this does not remain the same as the war progresses, with the removal of Diem, the new government is weary of losing the support of its press and lifts restrictions. These two approaches to the media have had many consequences and caused the failure in Vietnam for America.
Nevard’s article shows the freedom of reporting before Diem imposed his restrictions in its releasing of military mission details and shows early criticism of South Vietnamese forces. Typically, the report is mainly positive about American involvement, following the official line of optimism, but does criticise the South Vietnamese forces; “Some United States officers here are alarmed over the growing dependence of Vietnamese army…” shows the criticism of the army whilst referring to the American army as “sophisticated support”.
The article also shows how the media would release what Diem believed to be important strategic information relating to numbers of troops and new missions, e.g. “1,000 Government troops were landed yesterday” and “Forty-one Air Force helicopters were used in the operation”, which if intercepted by the North Vietnamese could be used to plan attacks and strategies. This could therefore lead to the military defeat of American and South Vietnamese military forces.
Reports lacking in success stories for the South Vietnamese or American troops may also be as used as propaganda pieces of the enemy. This psychologically would give the North Vietnamese insurgent forces an advantage which would lead to American failure. Johnson for example recognises “doom and gloom don’t win wars”, which reiterates the importance psychology in fighting the war in an interview with Cronkite. Moreover the gallop polls construct a narrative of American support for the war which corresponds to how American intervention is going. Diem’s request that America censor their media becomes an issue as historian Hallin concludes that if the Kennedy administration had censored the media, it could be interpreted that America was running a war and which would contradict its public relations strategy. However three months later in the New York Times, Halberstam reports that Diem is enforcing his own measures to create censorship. Some historians believe that these measures acted as an irritant and actually increased more critical reporting in Vietnam as the reporters felt that their freedoms were being removed. The torrent of articles criticising Diem’s regime are best illustrated in Halberstams article, “feel they are being muzzled by the South Vietnamese Government”. The choices of words such as muzzled in this report are fundamental in the understanding of the stance of the reporter, as they are emotive. Therefore the animosity of the reporter to Diem can be seen whilst representing the idea through the military opinions.
The entire negative reporting surrounding Diems regime eventually leads to the American government having to distance itself as the American public begin to see that the South Vietnamese government is corrupt and prejudice. Furthermore this is all brought to a head during the Buddhist crisis in which reporters are heavily criticised for their role and two reporters are expelled. The South Vietnamese government’s reaction simply demonstrates how the media are obviously an effective force in the creation of public opinion. This also highlights America’s inability to have created and sustained a new government in South Vietnam, which can be measured as a failure caused by media coverage. The affect of the media in this situation also creates numerous discussions by the Kennedy administration in building up anti-Diem forces in Saigon and consequently implementing the coup to remove Diem from office.
The new government in Vietnam took on a very different approach to the media and wished not to come under heavy criticism from the press. In a memorandum from Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs’ Special Assistant to the Under Secretary in 1963, it highlighted the South Vietnamese government has:
“In part, fear of criticism in the foreign press has inclined the new government to lean over backwards as regards press freedom. Also, there is some suspicion that those with power over the press are using it selectively against preferred targets. In any case, the performance of the press has not improved matters greatly and some better balance between freedom and license is urgently needed.”
This would highlight that the media has directly affected policies of the South Vietnamese government. The fact that this is reported within the Kennedy administration could show that this concern may have effected communications with the American government and South Vietnamese government.

The Media and United States Government:

There appears to be great tension between the government officials and the media during the Vietnam War, McMahon stresses that the President Nixon, Johnson and Kennedy all believed that the press was their worse enemy. Herring and Robinson equally refer to how the media was opposed to the American Government. This is due to the growing criticism of the media on the Government which is at its height between 1968 and 1972. Although it is argued by Edmonds that the media had no effect on the policy making of American administration, it is clear from a memorandum from the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs’ Special Assistant to the Under Secretary in 1963, that the press do have an effect on morale, “The N.Y Times editorial and Reston and Lippmann columns on the subject were a body blow to morale in Saigon”. This therefore shows that the government are aware that the media do have an effect on opinions on the war, and consequently this would be addressed in future policies in the Vietnam War.
Further evidence that the media have an effect on the American and Vietnamese public can also be found in the notes of a meeting in 1968 between Secretary McNamara, President Johnson, General Wheeler, Clark Clifford, CIA Director Helms and Walt Rostow on the topic of proposed action beyond the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) into North Vietnam. The comments made in the discussion reveal that decisions would consider how the press would report on the matter and how best to release the information into the press. Therefore this would indicate that the American government were definitely affected by the press coverage and that the press could easily control the success or failures of the war. CIA Director Helms is quoted to have said; “It is a great thing if you can keep it out of the hands of the press”, which would reinforce this theory.
Kovach recognises that new technological advances pose new problems for the elite, as each new technology has allowed “untrained voices” to comment on discussions, which he believes should only be debated by elites. Resentment from the media towards the government would have become much more erratic had the government prevented their coverage of the Vietnam War, and possibly cre

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