By David Wolfford
A longer subtitle might be in order.
The press certainly had an influential role in reporting the Vietnam War to American audiences. A cadre of professional journalists eager to report the realities in Vietnam during the 1960s and changes in media brought new perspectives to US citizens who digested news coverage. Conflict between the press corps and the American military reached a new height as battlefield successes and failures were reported. To what degree the coverage brought American dissent over the war and its aims will likely never be fully answered.
Fewer than ten journalists were assigned to cover events in Vietnam in 1960 as the United States began to increase its involvement in the conflict. By 1968, about 500 full-time correspondents delivered news on a daily basis to media outlets worldwide. Most were Americans working for companies like the New York Times, United Press International, Associated Press, the major television networks, and news weeklies. As American troop levels began to decline during President Richard Nixon’s administration, so too did the number of reporters and the level of interest in the battlefield. By the end of the conflict, an estimated 6,000 reporters participated.
A New Breed of Reporters
Some of the more noted correspondents have received legendary status among journalists—winning Pulitzer Prizes for their work—while they clashed with presidents, Pentagon officials, and military commanders in the field. Aggressive reporters like David Halberstam of the Times, Peter Arnett of the Associated Press, and Neil Sheehan of United Press International top the list. These reporters felt what they observed in the field did not square with official government reports on the progress of the war. With less restriction and government censoring than in World War II and Korea, these reporters openly communicated their interpretations to American readers. They upset commanders like General William Westmoreland, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and others who responded that these journalists were too young and too inexperienced, or that they sought sensationalism.
Halberstam, reflecting back on his experience, felt as early as 1962 that “America’s official optimism was a living lie.” He recalls how he and fellow reporters were prevented from discussing the military situation with Secretary McNamara during one of his trips to Vietnam so the secretary could honestly say upon his return that he knew of nothing negative about progress in the war. Halberstam, went on to write The Making of a Quagmire, making the term synonymous with Vietnam. He and the others suffered character assassination that became both political and personal.
Peter Arnett arrived in Vietnam in 1962 and remained until the fall of Saigon in 1975. Arnett draws a distinction between the reporting of Vietnam and World War II. “[We] insisted on getting to the bottom of the issues to understand what was happening. If we were talking about corruption, who was corrupt? If we were talking about incompetence, where was it happening?” Unlike in Vietnam, “the vast majority of reporting done during World War II was aimed at building up national pride and enthusiasm.”
Though these leading reporters wrote stories that upset Pentagon officials, most of the reporting, in print and on television for the first years of the war was positive and if anything supported US policy in Vietnam. Television came into its own during the early Vietnam era. The degree to which it swayed public opinion against the war is grossly exaggerated today. Only about 35 percent of television reporting used actual footage from the war. Film was expensive, and taking footage from Asia to America was done by airplane until after 1967, when satellite transmission was introduced to broadcast the Winter Olympics from Japan. More often, stock footage of helicopters landing, or interviews of soldiers which could be used without strict deadlines, accompanied the anchorman’s report from a New York news desk. Indeed, televised reporting on the Vietnam War brought some harsh wartime realities into living rooms more than ever before, but American casualties were rarely shown. According to one study, between 1965 and 1970, less than 5 percent of all evening news reports displayed actual violence or combat with close up shots of casualties.
Television, Tet, and Dissent in the Press
Historian George Moss describes television coverage from the era as rarely showing American wounded or dead, but rather “melodramatic, black and white interpretation of our good guys against their bad guys” that more than likely legitimized combat in Vietnam and solidified popular support for the conflict among viewers than otherwise.
One Newsweek and Washington Post journalist recalls seeing flawed broadcast reporting through the choices these TV journalists made. Choosing horrific scenes, or wartime atrocities while overlooking farmers peacefully tilling their rice fields make for one example. Such images could have proven that they were not being bombed by the US, or that they had the opportunity to operate safely. The same writer recounts how a burning village, even if it was a Marine training exercise where the TV reporter handed the soldier his Zippo lighter and suggested that he torch an abandoned home, made it to US television sets. Or another, where a news crew “dared” a soldier to cut off part of a dead victim’s ear with a knife he had just given to him.
Such distortions reached a peak, especially as described by US officials, in the reporting of the late January 1968 Tet Offensive in Saigon. The North Vietnamese certainly surprised the US troops when they secretly attacked cities across South Vietnam during Tet, the lunar New Year in which both sides had agreed to a truce. What was basically an American tactical victory was characterized by the televised media as a loss in the streets of Saigon. American public opinion began to go against the war.
In addition to the Tet coverage, other changes in late 1960s reporting began to counter US policy. Russell Wiggins, a rather sympathetic Washington Post editorial page director left to take a position as United Nations ambassador and was replaced by a more negative Phillip Geyelin. The negative editorials in the capital’s most influential newspaper followed. CBS Anchor Walter Cronkite had referred to the North Vietnamese as “Communists” but later did not. One analyst points out that most television journalist referred to “our side” and “their side” but that all but disappeared as the war dragged on into the 1970s. Whether it was media bias or professional objectivity, the reporters had moved further away from the enthusiasm and pro US policy that they embraced in the early stage of the war.
The adversarial relationship between the US government and the press reached a new height with a landmark Supreme Court decision. In New York Times v. United States, the Court took power away from the president and handed it over to the media. A Pentagon staffer had leaked the Pentagon Papers, a huge document that showed deception by policymakers earlier in the war. President Nixon and his advisors felt that such a leak, which had already made its way to the Times, was against national interest. The president’s administration blocked the printing of the so-called Pentagon Papers temporarily, but was soon overruled by the Supreme Court. The newspaper had pressed that the government could not exercise what is known as prior restraint—government judging and censoring news before it goes to press—without going against the First Amendment. The Court sided with the press and Nixon lost. This was one of the final battles between the press and the government during the Vietnam conflict.
Dorland, Gil. Legacy of Discord: Voices of the Vietnam War Era. Washington: Brassey's, 2001.
Bender, David. Vietnam War: Opposing Viewpoints. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1998.