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The Problem With Vietnam Essay, Research Paper

The Problem With Vietnam

Wartime in the United States has always placed pressure on the government and the citizens of the country to provide support by whatever means to the situation. During World War II, that support was propagated by the government in the form of censorship and a strategic public relations plan to maintain the public opinion in favor of the cause. Glorification of America’s involvement in the war helped America maintain the image of “a cause worth fighting for.” Technology and de-censorship would later transform America and the world’s image of war, which had been formed by such propaganda as seen during WWII, into the truth about war as seen in the media’s coverage of the Vietnam War. During this period, uncensored media coverage helped to morph American views about military conflicts forever as well as changing the media’s role in war.

World War II was a time in American history of patriotism. However, that patriotism came a price to the American public according to The Censored War, written by George Roeder. He discusses the impact that censorship had on the American public, and how lies and propaganda gave the citizens of America a false view of war. By portraying participation in the war as heroic, using such propaganda as posters depicting fallen GI’s as Christ-like figures (Rodeder 33), the US government formed the perspective for the public, rather than allowing them to develop their own sense of reality. Photographs of dead or wounded soldiers were withheld from the public in order to keep public opinion on the side of the government. Pictures of dead or wounded American soldiers were kept in a file dubbed “the Chamber of Horrors”, not to be released for public viewing until many years after the wars end (Roeder 1). Withholding of information during this war angered many people, making them feel as if they had been lied to, which in fact they had. However, the flip side to the censorship, the side that is not often seen, is the fact that this helped to break down many barriers in the country, including race, gender and even religious. Its effects on the outcome of the war cannot be measured by traditional means, but indeed it created an atmosphere of pride and loyalty for one’s country. World War II may have been a censored war, but that censorship may have indeed won that war. According to Philip Knightley’s The First Casualty during World War I, censorship was so tight that even reports of a gift of wine cases to American troops by the French were not reported for fear of making the American’s look unsavory (Alter 38).

An after effect of World War II’s propagation can be seen in the tremendous press coverage of the Vietnam War. Feelings of mistrust and betrayal toward the US government could very well have been why Vietnam had so much coverage. American citizens wanted the truth, feeling that they had been lied to for so many years. The truth was what was received thanks to Television (Alter 38). Nicknamed the “Living Room War”, images of death and destruction could be seen first hand. Uncensored images filled the TV screens as millions of Americans watched their country battle communism in a foreign land. For the first time, many people could see the truth about war. Their ideas of war being no longer being shaped by the government, but now being shaped by the images they saw, thanks to the media.

President Lyndon Johnson understood the impact of television on the public. After his resignation in 1968, he said “As I sat in my office, I thought of the many times each week that television brings war into the American home…who knows what effect those vivid scenes have on American opinion.”(Neuman 170) President Johnson, who people called the “accidental President” because of the circumstances of his presidency, knew that the impact of television was taking away favor for the war efforts. He cited several times about how television’s effect was costing the US the war. Upon his resignation, Johnson credited the media, specifically television images of the war, for eroding public opinion and forcing his decision to leave office (Neuman 172). The point in which Johnson conceded that the war was lost, according to Neuman was when Walter Cronkite voiced his opposition to the war. Johnson was heard to say “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the American people”(Neuman 173).

Johnson was not alone in his feelings about the effect of the media on opinion. Television critic and author of Living- Room War credited television with trivializing the Vietnam War by “sandwiching” it between commercials, soap operas and quiz shows (Neuman 172). This type of trivialization had a direct impact on the public. Now that American’s could see the truth about war, their idea of war was something that the media used as entertainment. A 1967 survey taken by Newsweek, found that the vast majority of viewers said that televised images of death actually made them more hawkish on Vietnam. This effect of television brought the viewers in, and gave them a reason to stay. Images of death are awful, but the public seems to look away in disgust and at the same time yearn for more.

Another prominent figure during the undeclared Vietnam War was General William Westmoreland. Westmoreland, a commander during the war held hostilities toward the press’ involvement in the war. He felt that the media misreported the events of the war, and even went as far as to sue CBS for libel for reporting that he “underestimated the size of the enemy in reports to the White House and Congress (Neuman 173).” Westmoreland understood the need for public support during wartime, and credited the media, not just television for taking that away from their efforts. He also credited the political leadership for not rallying the support needed, by failing to convince the public that there was a cause to be won (Neuman 173). According to Mightier than the Sword, by Rodger Streitmatter, many media and political experts have argued that by bringing grisly images into the American Living Room, television news played a key role in turning the American public against the Vietnam war, and, ultimately, in hastening the end of that prolonged conflict (Streitmatter 187). It is no coincidence that so many political, and even members of the media attribute the loss of the war to the loss of public favor. Television played the part of the antagonist during the war, rather than the serving the good of the people. Although this can be argued either way, most facts point toward the notion that uncensored media cost the war for the country. This strengthens the argument that censorship of wars of the past, however cruel or deceitful, did serve as a valuable way of keeping public favor. Numerous scholars and members of society have made this point. According to Streitmatter, Edward Shills, author of the book The Vietnam Legacy, writes, “Television gave the American people vivid images of certain aspects of the war in Vietnam, which they could never have gotten from reading newspapers and periodicals. It made them see the war as meaningless destruction of lives and landscapes” (Streitmatter 188). The book describes in detail how in fact the media shaped the beliefs about the war for the public. Between pages 191 and 193, Streitmatter gives prime examples of this. He writes about how the goriest images were what the press sought out during the war, not to reveal the truth about the war, but to get higher ratings for the networks. He discusses how one network executive told his reporters to “concentrate on providing graphic images of American soldiers engaged in combat- preferabley mortal” (Streitmatter 192). This type of selective news coverage can be described as being no different than the censorship of previous wars, only now the censored material was that which showed patriotism.

Not everybody believes that the media swayed public opinion, Daniel C. Hallin, author of the Uncensored War says Media and Vietnam disputes the theory that media during the 1960s and 1970s shifted toward “an oppositional relation to political authority” (Hallin 68). Hallin uses as his argument a sample of newscasts between 1965 and 1973, asserting that television coverage was quite favorable to administration policy before the Tet offensive of 1968, but that is grew significantly less favorable after that point. It is true that journalists were more likely to be critical in the late 1960s and 1970s than they had been in early 1961 when the New York Times agreed to suppress stories of the Bay of Pigs invasion. However, Hallin insists that no substantial change in journalistic ideology took place. He discards the notion that media coverage reflected society, stating that the increased negative coverage cannot be rightfully attributed to a change in the course of events. Instead, he allows that this shift in coverage must be explained as a response to a collapse of elite consensus on foreign policy. Hallin further contends that as an establishment institution, television reported the lack of consensus about the war as once it passed from the realm of illegitimate into the realm of legitimate controversy. Whatever the cause for swayed coverage, Hallin’s statements agree that television’s effect was seen, and that effect considerably skewed the public’s notions of war.

The media also underwent drastic change during this war. As discussed earlier, and contradictory to what Hallin feels, the media and journalistic ideology did indeed change from dedicated to the public, to dedicated to the dollar. Now that war could be broadcast so frequently, the media rode the curtails of this war up the ratings charts, and straight to the bank. James Boylan, in a concise treatment of the last quarter of a century outlines the changes in the press from pre-Vietnam to the present. Boylan’s article, ” Declarations of Independence,” (Columbia Journalism Review November/December, 1986) argues, unlike Hallin, that institutional ideology underwent change throughout the period, at least for print media. This change in ideology can be seen differently through the eyes of each member of the media. Some media members saw themselves as “cheerleaders” during wars of the past, believing that the government’s control limited them from reporting on the actual news. Other members contest that they became biased, reporting only those stories that would get them praise from their employers. In such a case as the Vietnam War, it seemed inevitable for a shift in media reporting to come about. Taking away censorship and replacing it with limitless images allowed the press to slowly drift from news to sensationalistic reporting or one-sided reporting. This effect had been a long time coming in the era of muckraking and yellow journalism. Now this type of press could be streamed via satellite into the living rooms of Americans.

Vietnam was the first war fought on TV, and viewers have been in the front row ever since. More than three decades later, on-the-scene and in-your-face coverage has become ever-present and apparently it’s a good thing. Many believe that this type of coverage will never allow a WWII sized conflict to happen now that parents have seen war for themselves. This would stop them from allowing their children to participate. The reality is that the coverage of the Vietnam War changed America’s attitude towards war, towards reality and stripped patriotism from wartime conflict. This may not seem important, but this war created an immeasurable gap between the government and the people.


Roeder, George H. (1993) The Censored War. (New Haven and London, Yale University Press)

Alter, Jonathan. (1991, Febuary 11). War in the Gulf: Does Bloody Footage Lose Wars. Newsweek Pg.38

Neuman, Johanna. (1996). Lights, Camera, War. Ch.11, Television and the War in Vietnam. Pg.169 (New York, St. Martins Press)

Streitmatter, Rodger. (1997). Mightier Than the Sword. Ch.12 Vietnam War: Bringing the Battlefield Into the American Living Room Pg.187. (Colorado. UK. Westview Press)

Hallin, Daniel C. (1994). The Uncensored War: The Media and Vietnam.(New York, NY).

Boylan’s (1986). Declarations of Independence,” Columbia Journalism Review, November/December.

Works Consulted

Graves, Nelson(1996, October). Vietnam seeks place on world’s newsstands. Reuters

Foster, Gaines(1990, January). Coming to terms with defeat: Post-Vietnam America and the post-Civil WarSouth. Virginia Quarterly Review. Vol.66, pp 17.

Braestrup, Peter. (1983). Big Story: How the American

Press and Television Reported and Interpreted the Crisis of Tet 1968 in Vietnam and Washington. (New Haven, CT: Yale UP.

William M. Hammond, Reporting Vietnam: Media and Military at War. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998.

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