Politics and television formed a natural alliance between ends and means, a magnetic marriage of intention and facilitation. Where Franklin D. Roosevelt exploited radio to rally public opinion to his policies, TV afforded politicians even greater potential for shaping public thought. Enhanced by the communication extras afforded by the ability to be seen as well as heard, government leaders now entered the homes and the privacy of millions in order to persuade. It was an irresistible one-way experience: the politician presented and the viewer accepted. The word was now visible. The argument became palpable.
Still, video had its limitations that had to be respected. Television not only could reveal inaccuracy or a slip of the tongue, it could also illustrate the errant glance, the smug expression, the exposed fang. The boundaries of TV behavior had been violated by the pugnacious Senator McCarthy, and TV nationally projected his arrogant, intimidating, ignorant reality. Television demanded the appearance of honesty and credibility. It flattered the cordial, those who seemed friendly and approachable. This was not a medium for the harangue. The longwinded boast was boring and self-defeating on TV. This was an instrument for verisimilitude. Its persuasive potential worked best for the leader who delivered ideas with apparent surety tempered by apparent human warmth. Although thespian skills could assist the politician employing video, he need not have experience as an actor. The best television politician used the medium for its emotional impact. He used it as an audiovisual conduit showing himself as a trustworthy leader and a fair, genuinely concerned authority figure.
Even before he became president, Dwight David Eisenhower found television important in keeping his name and reputation before the American public. It was no coincidence that Henry R. Luce—the publisher of Time, Life, and Fortune magazines—approved a March of Time TV series based upon Ike's memoirs of World War II. Crusade in Europe premiered on ABC in the spring of 1949. Each of its 26 episodes opened with a sketch of General Eisenhower. Then a page of text with a spotlighted sentence or two announced the theme for the individual program. The series was so successful that it was rerun immediately after its first showing. As the United States entered a new war in Korea where old generals like Douglas MacArthur renewed their public careers, and fresh military leaders like Matthew Ridgeway would soon emerge as national heroes, Crusade in Europe kept before the American people the accomplishments of the triumphant general whose greatness as a leader was demonstrated in World War II.
If the historic Ike was impressive on television, the contemporary Ike was also memorable. One of Eisenhower's most significant uses of video occurred on February 2, 1951, when he delivered a televised report to the nation concerning the state of military preparedness within NATO. As NATO supreme commander, Ike had toured Allied facilities and now reassured Americans that peace was secure in Europe and Communism was being held in check in that most sensitive area. Coming at a time when party leaders were assessing possible candidates for the presidency the following year, this speech by the general did much to enhance his credibility with Republicans, who were seeking the White House after two decades of Democratic domination.
From the beginning of his campaign for the presidency, Eisenhower's TV persona emerged as one of warmth and dedication. He might flounder occasionally on a word or wander sometimes in his response, but he always maintained a simple air of honesty. At a news conference televised live from his hometown of Abilene, Kansas, Eisenhower on June 5, 1952, formally announced his intention to seek the Republican nomination. Here a national television audience encountered the video image that would be familiar for the next eight and a half years. Ike seemed genuine as he confessed, "When I put my hand to any plow, I know only one rule—to work as hard as you possibly can. I am certainly going to try to work honestly, honorably, and in keeping with what I really believe the American people would like me to do."
Ike also evidenced the mistakes of language that were less embarrassments than signs of his approachability. In denying any political connection with the Democratic presidents under whom he had became a military success, only warm laughter and soft applause greeted Ike's malaprop response that "As far as any possible connection between me and a political administration of any kind, it's absolutely shibboleth—there's no such thing. A shibboleth, it's just false. It's not true." And there was demonstrated this early the human, emotional quality that endeared him to American viewers. When asked if, as a boy leaving home, he ever dreamed he would someday return to Abilene to launch a presidential campaign, there was a touch of democratic commonness when Ike replied, "Well, I don't know what dreams crowd the head of a young boy. But, I think, that before I left my real problem was whether to try to be a Hans [Honus] Wagner or a railroad conductor."
For Eisenhower and the Republicans, this was a television campaign for the White House. No whistle-stop railroad tours such as Harry S. Truman had undertaken four years earlier; there were now 19 million TV sets with 58 million viewers being serviced by TV stations in 64 markets of the United States. In one TV appearance or advertisement, Ike could speak to the electorate more efficiently than any of his predecessors. Under the tutelage of the advertising agency Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn, the Republican candidate concentrated on a series of short spot announcements for which TV time was purchased in the final weeks of the campaign. Ike was the first presidential aspirant to be sold in TV commercials. A typical spot offered Ike and the common man:
ANNOUNCER: Eisenhower answers the nation!
CITIZEN: What about the high cost of living, General?
EISENHOWER: My wife, Mamie, worries about the same thing. I tell her it's our job to change that on November 4th.
other commercial proclaimed the humble roots of "The Man from Abilene," and the impressive accomplishments of the former 5-star General of the Army. As a picture of Ike's childhood home and then his contemporary photograph were superimposed on a silhouetted map of the United States—and as film from World War II was merged with contemporary footage—an announcer proclaimed,The Man from Abilene! Out of the heartland of America, out of this small frame house in Abilene, Kansas, came a man: Dwight D. Eisenhower. Through the crucial hour of historic D-Day, he brought us to the triumph and peace of V-E Day. Now another crucial hour in our history. The nation—haunted by the stalemate in Korea—looks to Eisenhower.... for the number one job of our time.... Vote for Eisenhower.
The Republican National Committee and BBD&O also purchased large chunks of national television time to demonstrate the candidate, not in the stilted oratory at which the Democratic nominee, Adlai Stevenson, was so accomplished, but in a more comfortable manner. Typical was Ike's televised discussion of issues with Earl Warren, the former governor of California and Republican candidate for vice-president in 1948. On October 31, 1952, Ike and Earl engaged in a half-hour of chitchat on NBC West Coast stations. They spoke about national security, veterans' benefits, conservation, farm policies, and the like. In this atmosphere of well-rehearsed informalit, the general and the governor also treated Eisenhower's recent pledge regarding the Korean War.
WARREN: You know, everybody out West, as they are in every part of the country, is interested in that Korean War—not interested as much as they are concerned. And they got a tremendous uplift the other day when you said if you were elected you would go out there personally and see conditions in the field. Now I know there was some criticism about that, General. It might be that some people couldn't learn anything about going over to Korea, but I'll bet my money that you'd learn something about going to Korea.
EISENHOWER: Well, I know this. I know that during the war I never failed to learn something every time I went forward. By the way, you know that both prime ministers and presidents came to visit my theater of war. They thought they learned something. Now I want to point out that there is no patent-medicine way of winning the Korean War. It's a difficult situation. To my mind, therefore, all the more reason for someone bearing very heavy responsibilities with respect to that should go out and see. I cannot imagine any problem today that's of more interest to the American people. Therefore, my feeling was and is, I want to learn, I want to know.
Still another pattern that would mark President Eisenhower's use of national television emerged in the 1952 campaign. This involved the use of other prominent Republicans to make nationally televised statements regarding policy matters. During his presidency this task would be most effectively carried out by John Foster Dulles. But in the campaign the role was admirably accomplished by Clare Booth Luce on two occasions in late October. The author, former congresswoman, and wife of Henry R. Luce was at her anti-Communist best in a telecast of October 26. Here she employed the hostile slogans and oversimplifications candidate Eisenhower generally avoided. She alleged that the United States could never know security or continuing prosperity—nor could the world have continuing peace—until the problem of Communism was solved.
Luce referred to the way "Communism's vicious conspiracy had taken 12 countries behind the Iron Curtain, how more than 100 million people a year had been enslaved by Soviet Russia since the close of World War II seven years ago." She praised the FBI and HUAC for their fight against Red treachery, but noted that the Communists were active in Canada and even in the United States. Luce also assailed Stevenson, Dean Acheson, and Truman for "an administration which did not vigorously prosecute spies." This, she continued, "has cost us China and for that loss the American people are paying in blood and in treasure. We are paying for it in Korea." Predictably, Luce concluded with hosannahs for Dwight D. Eisenhower—"a man of courage and wisdom and wide experience, above all a man of honor."
Once elected, Ike made the president a familiar video personage. In addition to the countless filmed pieces on news and documentary shows, he made use of his access to free live television. Unlike Truman, who experimented with TV as early as 1946 but preferred to use it only in crises or on special occasions, the new president appeared on TV in traditional situations (inaugurations, State of the Union addresses), but also in contexts ranging from periodic reports to Christmas tree-lighting ceremonies. Ike even employed a popular movie actor, Robert Montgomery, to advise him on television techniques.
The networks covered Eisenhower when he spoke to conventions, university audiences, and civic organizations. There were periodic reports on topics such as his first year in office (January 4, 1954), his veto of a farm bill (April 16, 1956), and the dispatch of federal troops to racially embattled Little Rock (September 24, 1957). After six months in office he appeared on June 3, 1953, with four members of his cabinet, in a well-prepared "spontaneous" discussion of administration accomplishments. American TV covered his speech to the Canadian Parliament (July 9, 1958). And he appeared with an all-star Hollywood cast on Dinner with the President (November 23, 1953), the fortieth anniversary celebration of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith. Here he spoke extemporaneously for ten minutes about his personal dedication to maintaining civil liberties and civil rights.6 3
Eisenhower also opened the presidential news conference to television. On January 19, 1955, the White House agreed to let TV networks film or tape Ike's press gatherings. In case Ike made an inadvertent statement, press secretary James C. Hagerty retained the right to review and edit all network recordings.
Because of his use of free television time, the president established a powerful relationship with the American people. On the one hand it was a private tie, the concerned chief executive reporting to his constituents on matters of state or personal affairs. Following his heart attack in September 1955, for example, Ike appeared on TV to reassure the public that he could continue in office. In February 1956 he held a press conference and then spoke to the nation about his readiness to run for reelection. Following abdominal surgery in the spring of 1956, he again used TV to show the nation he was fully recovered. In no small way television was responsible for the overwhelming reelection of Eisenhower—by a larger plurality, and with more popular and electoral votes, than in 1952.
But there was another dimension to this television relationship between president and citizen. Eisenhower was forging a pattern of presidential manipulation of TV. When the chief executive requested free air time, the networks almost always gave him unfettered access to the nation. When he announced an upcoming important speech, the networks usually asked permission to televise it. Long before radio, and certainly television, Theodore Roosevelt had called the presidency a "bully pulpit" because it gave the incumbent a powerfully persuasive vantage from which to preach his political values to the public. Roosevelt, of course, was referring to a world of speeches and statements that print media would spread to a wider audience. Television increased prodigiously the ability of a modern chief executive to reach his constituents.
Eisenhower recognized the potency of video in shaping popular political viewpoints. In a speech televised nationally on May 24, 1955, the president told the National Association of Radio and Television Broadcasters that TV and radio had surpassed print and now exerted a powerful influence upon public opinion. Ike recognized the emotional force of broadcasting, telling the NARTB and the nation, "You put an appealing voice or an engaging personality in the living room of the home where there are impressionable people from the age of understanding on up." He further maintained, "In many ways therefore the effect of your industry in swaying public opinion, and I think particularly about burning questions of the moment, may even be greater than the press. . . ."
Throughout his presidency, Ike used his appealing, engaging TV persona to sway public opinion. From this electronic "bully pulpit," he preached to the impressionable people. And he found them ready to believe, willing to trust, even eager to follow. Through television, Eisenhower's strongly held political premises became the consensus values of the nation. Eisenhower preached a cosmology of the world locked in an all-consuming struggle between Good and Evil.
In his first inaugural address President Eisenhower called the Cold War "no argument between slightly differing philosophies. This conflict strikes directly at the faith of our fathers and the lives of our sons.... Freedom is pitted against slavery; lightness against the dark." Throughout the remainder of his terms in office, Ike held to this premise. In a televised speech at Baylor University on May 25, 1956, the president attacked Communism as a gigantic failure. "According to that doctrine, there is no God; there is no soul in man; there is no reward beyond the satisfaction of daily needs," he told the nation. "Consequently, toward the human being, Communism is cruel, intolerant, materialistic," he declared.
By the time of his State of the Union address in 1958, Eisenhower saw the world struggle intensified. "The threat to our safety, and to the hope of a peaceful world, can be simply stated," suggested Ike, "It is Communist imperialism." But, he added, Soviet expansion was being reinforced "by an advancing industrial, military and scientific establishment." Ike continued:But what makes the Soviet threat unique in history is its all-inclusiveness. Every human activity is pressed into service as a weapon of expansion. Trade, economic development, military powers, arts, science, education, the whole world of ideas—all harnessed to the same chariot of expansion. The Soviets are, in short, waging total Cold War.
Even in the waning months of his second term, Eisenhower delineated the same American enemy. Following his tour of the Far East, he spoke to the public on June 27, 1960, arguing that "any policy against Communist imperialism requires that we never be bluffed, cajoled, blinded, or frightened." And still, through the millions of TV sets in the nation, came the image of the honorable strength of the United States pitted against the sinister expansionism of the Red empire.
We cannot win out against the Communist purpose to dominate the world by being timid, passive, or apologetic when we are acting in our own and the Free World's interests. We must accept the risks of bold action with coolness and courage. We must be strong but we must never forget that peace can never be won by arms alone; we will be firm but never truculent; we will be fair but never fearful; we will always extend friendship wherever friendship is offered honestly to us.
Eisenhower also saw the world in a fragile balance where stability and the security of nations were interrelated. Even before he became president, he described such a situation as it related to Europe. In his NATO speech of February 2, 1951, General Eisenhower pondered the fate of the world should Western Europe be overrun by Communism. Should this occur, he said, "many economically dependent areas in Africa and the Middle East would be affected by the debacle. Southeast Asia would probably soon be lost." He continued, "Thus, we could be cut off from the raw materials of all these regions—materials that we need for existence." His conclusion was an ominous one: "World destiny would then be dictated by imperialistic powers whose avowed purpose is the destruction of freedom."
Three years later, President Eisenhower used the same political dynamic to describe what he termed "the 'falling domino' principle." In his press conference of April 7, 1954, Ike set forth the notion that, as the "domino theory," shaped the political thinking of all his successors in the White House: "You have a row of dominoes setup, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly. So you have a beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound influences." Specifically, the president was suggesting that if Indochina fell to the Communists, all of East Asia inexorably would fall to the Reds.
the loss of Indochina, of Burma, of Thailand, of the Peninsula, and Indonesia following, now you begin to talk about areas that not only multiply the disadvantages that you would suffer through loss of materials, sources of materials, but now you are talking really about millions and millions and millions of people .... It turns the so-called island defensive chain of Japan, Formosa, and the Philippines and to the southward; it moves in to threaten Australia and New Zealand. It takes away, in its economic aspects, that region that Japan must have as a trading area or Japan, in turn, will have only one place in the world to go—that is, toward Communist areas in order to live. So, the possible consequences of the loss are just incalculable to the Free World.
As important as his imagery of a world wracked by moral struggle and fragile geopolitical existence, was the president's interpretation of the United States as approaching perfection. In one of his most paternal speeches, on April 5, 1954, Ike sought to allay popular fears by emphasizing the good aspects of America. He recognized this trepidation as emanating from Communist threats abroad and at home. But he called forth nationalistic pride whenhe assured the TV audience, "I know that this is the most productive nation on earth, that we are richer by any standard of comparison, than is any other nation in the world." He spoke also of strength. "We know that we have a great military strength—economic—intellectual," he said "But I want to call your particular attention to spiritual strength."
The president reminded viewers of other virtues: "the American belief in decency and justice and progress, and the value of individual liberty . . . . .. He described, too, a consensus national goal—"a free and prosperous world"—and he reassuringly stated, "There is a growing understanding in the world of the decency and justice of the American position in opposing the slavery of any nation." For a people gripped by Cold War anxieties, Ike concluded his calming discourse with the suggestion that America now had an international mission whose origins seemingly rested with Providence:
Of course there are risks if we are not vigilant. But we do not have to be hysterical. We can be vigilant. We can be Americans. We can stand up and hold up our heads and say: America is the greatest force that God has ever allowed to exist on His footstool. As such it is up to us to lead this world to a peaceful and secure existence.
Within his administration, Eisenhower was not alone in manipulating television for political ends. The United States Information Agency (USIA), a principal source for American propaganda overseas, recognized the critical role TV played in the struggle for political allegiance. Between fiscal 1955 and 1957, USIA funds for production and placement of video programs on foreign stations skyrocketed from $376,000 to $5.9 million. This latter figure represented one-quarter of the USIA budget for radio-TV operations.
At home, Vice-President Richard M. Nixon certainly knew the persuasive power of television. It was a TV performance—his famous "Checkers" speech on September 23, 1952—that convinced voters he was no crook, kept him on the Republican national ticket, and saved his political career. Nixon also understood the importance of video in creating popular support for administration programs. He made this abundantly evident on January 13, 1958, when he spoke to the annual convention of CBS Television affiliates, telling the station owners it was important for them to support the administration's defense and foreign aid programs with on-air editorials. "People with your power," Nixon remarked, "have a privilege and duty to bring the situation home to the people that we must be strong militarily, but that at the same time, we've got to do what must be done in a nonmilitary way.
Excepting the president, however, no government official more fully exploited video than Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. With the approval of the White House, Dulles appeared regularly in a variety of contexts. He was interviewed on programs such as Meet the Press and Martin Agronsky's Look Here! He was televised live and/or on film when he spoke to organizations as diverse as the United Nations (June 24, 1955), the American Legion (October 10, 1955), and the 4-H Clubs (November 29, 1954), and twice he was televised in dialogue with the president (May 17, 1955, and December 23, 1957). On June 27, 1956, his press conference was broadcast live
Dulles was most familiar on TV for his public reports on matters of urgency. During his tenure as head of the State Department, Dulles traveled 559,988 miles to conferences and meetings with foreign ministers and heads of state. Upon returning home, the secretary frequently delivered short televised reports on his accomplishments. Between 1953 and 1957, when ill health slowed him down, Dulles made 18 TV reports on his travels and related matters of national concern. Fittingly, when he died in May 1959, CBS and NBC interrupted their daytime programming to televise his funeral.
But Dulles was much more than a video personality. Until his resignation a month before his death, he was the most important creator of American foreign policy under Eisenhower. His values became administration values. His outlook on life and the world became that of the U.S. government. And long after he was gone, the legacy of Dulles endured in American foreign relations. Importantly, those values and interpretations, so often shared with the TV audience, were unalterably anti-Communist.
Dulles brought to his anti-Communism the indignation of an aggrieved moralist. He was at once the puritanical theologian of detestation and the policy maker turning Cold War fear and prejudice into national action. Communism, not Russia; ideology, not power politics, were the true enemies, in Dulles' view. The British ambassador to the United States, Sir Oliver Franks, knew well that the likes of Dulles were not new to history, for in earlier times of international tension and disorder, when levelheaded leadership was needed, other oversimplifying moralists had appeared. As Franks described it:
Three or four centuries ago, when Reformation and Counter-Reformation divided Europe into armed camps, in an age of wars of religion, it was not so rare to encounter men of the type of Dulles. Like them…he came to unshakeable convictions of a religious and theological order. Like them, he saw the world as an arena in which the forces of good and evil were continuously at war.
Under Dulles the policy of containment was enhanced, even transcended, in a series of treaties and militant pronouncements. He forged the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, which linked the United States with other nations—Great Britain, France, Thailand, the Philippines, Pakistan, Australia, and New Zealand—in a military alliance intended to check the spread of Communism in Asia. Dulles offered embellishments of the containment policy. He spoke now of instant and massive retaliation—and the will to use it—in meeting Red aggression. He called for a "rollback" of Communism in Asia. He spoke often, giving only unclear definitions, of the "liberation" of Asians and East Europeans living under Communism. He also boasted of "brinkmanship," his diplomatic method of taking chances for peace—"The ability to get to the verge without getting into war is a necessary art.... if you are scared to go to the brink you are lost.
But the secretary's indignant brand of morality was tempered on occasion by a sense of political pragmatism. After all, he had come from the world of New York state politics, and in 1949-51 he had represented New York in the U.S. Senate. He understood, for example, that economic conditions in the decolonizing nations were critical in the battle for ideological adherents. He told a TV audience on December 23, 1957, "It is essential that the Free World nations which have amassed capital should increasingly put this to work in the capital-hungry Free World nations. Otherwise, they may be forced to turn to the Communist bloc for aid at a price which may be their freedom."
Dulles also knew the importance of protecting the private foreign investments of influential Americans, especially when reformist governments of the left threatened expropriation. Nowhere was he more blatant in this regard than in Guatemala in the spring of 1954. Here the democratically elected, nationalistic president, Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, took power in March 1951 and expropriated unused land owned by the powerful United Fruit Company. But, in Dulles' view, reformers considered anti-American could not come to power in the Western Hemisphere even by democratic means; and the property of wealthy American corporations, even if not being utilized, could not be confiscated by foreign governments. What had been a legitimate Guatemalan response to the need for land and food was seen in different terms by Dulles. On television, he told a national audience that the actions of Arbenz were really part of "the evil purpose of the Kremlin to destroy the inter-American system . . . ."
With Dulles' concurrence, the Central Intelligence Agency made short work of the leftist government in Guatemala. Under its zealous director, Allen Dulles, the younger brother of the secretary of state, the CIA had already been successful in toppling foreign leftist leadership, having overthrown the Iranian Premier Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953 and returned the loyal shah to his throne. Now in Honduras and Nicaragua the CIA recruited, trained, and armed a military force to invade Guatemala. American pilots flying U.S. planes gave air cover to the invaders who in mid-June 1954 deposed President Arbenz. The CIA then installed a new president, Carlos Castillo Armas, a Guatemalan colonel who had been trained at the U.S. Army Command School at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
In explaining these developments, John Foster Dulles downplayed the interests of the United Fruit Company, never mentioned the role of the CIA, and instead praised the victory for freedom that was the new regime. "For several years now," Dulles told a TV audience on June 30, "international Communism has been probing here and there for nesting places in the Americas. It finally chose Guatemala as a spot which it could turn into an official base from which to breed subversion which would extend to the other American republics." The Arbenz government, he asserted, was already getting arms from behind the Iron Curtain, already sending Guatemalan Reds into other Latin American nations to plot subversion, assassination, and strikes. Guatemala was now saved, he said, from "being used by Communist dictatorships to serve the Communists' lust for power."
If the Guatemalan operation had been neat, quick, and successful, Dulles' policies in Southeast Asia were considerably less efficient. He urged the French to accept nothing less than an anti-Communist settlement in their Indochina war. After the victory of the Communist-led Viet Minh nationalist forces at Dien Bien Phu in mid-1954, and the subsequent withdrawal of France from Southeast Asia, the secretary of state continued to seek united action with France and Britain to control the destiny of the newly independent states of Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. At the Geneva Conference in July 1954, where the fate of Indochina was decided, Dulles snubbed the Chinese delegate, Chou En-lai, and later refused to sign the final Accords.
Dulles' policies divided Vietnam into two states, one Communist and one anti-Communist. The Geneva Accords called the division temporary and demanded elections for reunification within two years. Instead, Dulles praised the American-installed leader in Saigon, Ngo Dinh Diem, and consistently assailed the Communist leader in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh, the popular favorite among all Vietnamese and the head of government in North Vietnam. Dulles and Diem opposed elections, and they were never held. When parliamentary elections in Laos gave the Communist Pathet Lao a majority, Dulles sanctioned a coup by rightist forces that imprisoned the Communist leader and led that country toward civil war.
Further, the Secretary of State was not chary about employing U.S. troops to accomplish his ends. Throughout the late 1950s the United States abided by the terms of the Geneva Accords, which allowed it to maintain up to 685 troops—mostly CIA and Special Forces contingents—in South Vietnam. In 1959 the CIA entered Laos and organized an army of up to 40,000 Meo tribesmen to fight the Pathet Lao. When John F. Kennedy came into office, he found that 700 American troops were in Laos recruiting and training anti-Communist "mercenaries" in return for Meo control of the opium traffic in the Golden Triangle area of Southeast Asia. While the Eisenhower administration did not start the Vietnam War of the Kennedy-Johnson years, Dulles' policies in the 1950s certainly laid the groundwork for that conflict.
When he spoke on television, John Foster Dulles did not explain the honest details of his politics. He used the medium to foster popular faith in his vision of a future for Southeast Asia without Communism. For years in news conferences, reports to the public, interviews, and airport confrontations, he assured the citizenry that national interest and belief in freedom demanded American involvement in the power vacuum that once was French Indochina.
On March 29, 1954, Dulles stated a theme familiar throughout his tenure: "The imposition on Southeast Asia of the political system of Communist Russia and its Chinese Communist ally, by whatever means, would be a grave threat to the whole free world community." Five weeks later he told a national TV audience that the defense of the United States did not begin at the nation's borders. "Free people will never remain free unless they are willing to fight for their vital interests," he declared. "Furthermore, vital interests can no longer be protected merely by local defense. The key to successful defense and to the deterring of attack is association for mutual defense. That is what the United States seeks in Southeast Asia."
Dulles' televised speeches never deviated from his earliest assessments. His ideas, based on his sense of moral order for the world, were frozen. On March 8, 1955, the secretary reported to the nation on his two-week tour of Southeast Asia and the western Pacific. Dulles spoke of liberty and freedom in South Vietnam, and oppression and military threats in the North. He commended Premier Diem, calling him "a true patriot, dedicated to the independence and to the enjoyment by his people of political and religious freedom," adding that "I am convinced that his Government deserves the support which the United States is giving to create an efficient, loyal military force and sounder economic conditions. "
What Dulles did not say in this speech was as significant as what he did say. Dulles made no reference to the repressive regime Diem was actually establishing in South Vietnam. He offered no indication that within three years popular resistance—by Communists and non-Communists—would precipitate a civil war against Diem that by January 1959 would encourage Hanoi to abandon its initial reticence and call for the violent overthrow of the Saigon government and the unification of the two Vietnams. Instead, Dulles used his TV address to state, "We have power that is great. We have a cause that is just. And I do not doubt that we have the fortitude to use that power in defense of that just cause."
There were similarities between the stated policies and actions of Dulles and TV programming popular during the Cold War. He shared many of the attributes of Western heroes who raced across TV screens, saving innocents from evil men, preserving civilized society from the onslaughts of sinister, faithless criminality. Dulles embodied the morality of a Sunday-morning religious feature. Together with his brother at the CIA, Dulles had the nationalistic instincts of a television spy ready to go to the brink to save the world. His praise of American military prowess paralleled those many TV shows highlighting great performances by the armed forces in historic wars, as well as the preparedness of the military for contemporary and future challenges.
In May 1955 the secretary of state took part in a televised dialogue with President Eisenhower. The program, however, became a lecture by Dulles in which Ike only offered periodic interjections. Jack Gould in the New York Times reported that TV had mistakenly cast the star in a supporting role and that Eisenhower's presence only distracted from Dulles' performance. What Gould overlooked, however, was that the secretary was a TV star in his own right. More than any other political personality of his time, with the exception of the president, Dulles exploited the medium to popularize his policies. Without challenge and without rebuttal, the secretary helped convince the public to accept an interpretation of the world that was dangerously self-centered and politically immature.
His biographer, Townsend Hoopes, has argued that John Foster Dulles was largely responsible for the 20-year American "pursuit of a phantom 'anti-Communist' solution" in Vietnam. He blamed Dulles for "this national self-imprisonment in an abstraction, which may have destroyed Vietnamese society and which has dragged both the Vietnamese and American peoples through oceans of blood and frightful bogs of learning." Hoopes said further of Dulles:
His conviction, his willpower, his political maneuvering, his strident and simplistic rhetoric over a period of years made a deep imprint on the national psyche and thereby a major contribution to a national state of mind so persistent that three presidents after Eisenhower were convinced there could be no 'letting go' in Vietnam.
Clearly, Dulles' "deep imprint on the national psyche" was accomplished principally by television. It seems obvious, too, that Dulles and his president showed future presidents the singular importance of television in persuading the public to accept an American military commitment in Southeast Asia.