Dear Mr. President:
In my humble way I am writing to you about the crisis in Vietnam. I have a son who is now in Vietnam. My husband served in World War II. Our country was at war, but now, this time, it is just something that I don't understand. Why?
—letter from a Midwestern woman read by Lyndon B. Johnson at his press conference on July 28, 1965
The Vietnam War has often been called a television war. This is to suggest that the protracted conflict in Southeast Asia was telecast with gory immediacy into American living rooms, thus allowing viewers to evaluate the progress of battle. Never before, it is claimed, has a public so closely observed its military in deadly action. Never before had a home-front audience had so much information with which to praise or condemn the course of war.
Few doubt that TV played a role in the progress of the Vietnam War. Some have maintained that the war ended because years of video exposure turned American public opinion against the commitment. Others have argued that the presence of TV cameras and journalists inhibited military commanders conducting the war. In recent years, moreover, the critique of television and its role in the war has become more specifically focused on the Tet offensive of 1968. Here, some have alleged, TV reporters turned an enemy defeat into victory, misled domestic public opinion, and broke the resolve of Americans to endure continued warfare.
Whether hawkish or dovish in their orientation, however, all arguments about the Vietnam conflict treat the importance of television once the war began. And whether marking that beginning as the Tonkin Gulf resolution of August 1964 or "Operation Rolling Thunder" (the bombing of targets in North Vietnam) in February 1965, the relationship between television and the war is generally dated from Lyndon B. Johnson's decision to escalate U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia.
Few, if any, have maintained that TV played a crucial role in getting the United States into the Vietnam War. Few, if any, have suggested that there was a link between what was seen on television in the 1940s, 1950s, or early 1960s, and the development of a national mentality able to accept without much questioning a bloody and inefficient conflict in the Asian jungle. And few, if any, have maintained that commercial TV—whether as entertainment, public service, or news programming—conditioned the American people for almost two decades to tolerate an unwanted and unexplained land war far from home.
This book attempts to fill this gap in understanding the relationship between television and the Vietnam War. Rather than blame the distortions of TV for popular distaste for the war, this book argues that years of misrepresentation on television actually led the American public toward that battle.
From its beginnings in the late 1940s, video fed the nation a powerful menu of propagandized, persuasive programming. In informational and escapist TV Americans were presented an interpretation of life in which a good "us" was forever defeating, in 30 or 60 minutes, an evil "them." Government officials used free television time to justify their policies. Broadcast journalists also helped in the persuasion, frequently offering the news as an "us against them" report bordering upon advocacy journalism. Cold War entertainment shows—ranging from football games and Victory at Sea to The Phil Silvers Show and the juvenile Rocky and His Friends—heightened militaristic values and—lavished praise on the American military establishment. Further, the Defense Department helped its own image, making its own TV shows and providing free film, equipment, manpower, and expertise to civilian TV producers of whom it approved.
Patterns of propaganda and misrepresentation would be easily recognized in Soviet television programming. There, where state controls are stringent and there are "official" lines of thought, an American viewer would quickly discern the persuasive content in a situation comedy about fun and high jinks in the Red Army, or documentary series lauding the prowess of the Soviet Navy in World War II, or even a children's show in which foolish American spies were perpetually thwarted by a heroic Russian squirrel and his friend the moose. Perhaps it has been harder for Americans to notice such manipulative content in their own television fare.
Even into the 1960s, when the public grew increasingly aware that its government was waging undeclared war in Vietnam, the political persuasion continued. Now there were more spies than ever, more "happy democratic military" sitcoms, and more presidential exploitation of video than in the previous decade. The 1960s gave TV audiences more documentaries about victories in World War II, and more war dramas than ever in broadcasting history.
Thus, as President John F. Kennedy escalated the American military involvement in Southeast Asia into a guerrilla war against Communism, and as President Johnson raised troop levels to over half a million, the majority of the American people asked few questions. For years they had seen TV heroes fighting evil men, many of them specifically designated as Communists. There had also been many series showing how easily war could be won. Even TV news lacked the detached objectivity needed by a free citizenry seeking information with which to make choices.
Why the Vietnam War? It remains an unresolved question. During the conflict, political and military leaders offered more rhetoric than substance when they answered the query. These leaders uttered slogans such as "Free World versus Red Empire," "national honor," and "keeping our word to friends who have invited us into their country." As for the Communist enemies—the Southern rebels of the National Liberation Front and the Northern troops of North Vietnam—they were explained in clichés such as "Red blueprint to conquer the world," "monolithic, Godless Communist expansion," and "puppets of Moscow and Peking." While such phraseology may have had a certain appeal, a Gallup poll in 1967 revealed that only 48 percent of the American people "knew" why the United States was waging war in Vietnam.
In theory, unpopular national policies cannot long endure in a democracy. Yet, American involvement in Southeast Asia began as early as the presidency of Harry S. Truman. Certainly, during the eight years of Dwight D. Eisenhower, the United States operated in unstable Indochina. The American role in an active military struggle commenced in the Kennedy era and lasted until 1973.
Throughout the 1950s, however, most Americans were unaware of their nation's involvement in the crumbling French empire. But in the following two decades after 1960, GIs would kill and die in an open conflict that drained domestic fiscal resources, shattered moral unity, and destroyed the innocent disinterestedness popularly attributed to the conduct of American foreign affairs. Moreover, all this was sanctioned without recourse to a constitutional declaration of war by a Congress representing a citizenry reluctant to undertake foreign military entanglements—a people who as late as 1941 detested the Nazis and their Fascist allies, but still preferred noninvolvement in World War II.
In answering "Why the Vietnam War?" the writer must contend with its corollary: Why would an isolationist and generally honorable people accept a chronic, undeclared, ill-explained foreign war? The answer lies less in the secret decisions of presidents and military leaders and more in the influence of the new communications medium, television, from its infancy in the late 1940s to the emergence of the full-scale Vietnam War by the mid-1960s.
Undoubtedly, the propagandistic thrust of Cold War TV impacted upon a relatively pluralistic culture. Whether from political, religious, philosophical, or nationalistic influences, some Americans held preconceptions about the East-West struggle that no amount of video persuasion could alter, or needed to alter. Despite impediments erected by government and society, it still was possible in these decades to encounter conflicting points of view on the Cold War. However, in a nation growing dependent upon television for its information as well as its entertainment, foreign magazines and newspapers, shortwave broadcasts from overseas, and unbiased books about the world situation were news sources for only a small minority of citizens. Mass America loved and trusted TV. The overwhelming majority of the nation saw and understood the world through television. It was in this relationship between the mass audience and politicized video that the acceptability of the Vietnam War was fashioned.
To be effective, propaganda need not deliver unanimity. What is important is that enough of the manipulated believe—that they "buy" the interpretation of reality being communicated. And just as surely as TV can sell a particular brand of mouthwash or the radial tires of a certain company, it can sell ideology and political policies.
Politicians have always appreciated the leverage afforded them by broadcasting. In an earlier time radio was exploited by heads of state from Adolf Hitler to Josef Stalin to Franklin D. Roosevelt. With its melding of sight and sound, television enhanced the manipulative potential of broadcasting. Indeed, Cold War television unrelentingly sold a view of the world—of the noble American role in it and of the destructive subterfuge that was Communism. In this light the Vietnam War seems inevitable because two decades of TV had programmed Americans for such a confrontation.
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