The succession of Lyndon Baines Johnson to the presidency of the United States brought to power a man with mixed feelings toward television. Johnson was more cautious about the way in which he appeared on TV, yet he exploited the medium, appearing more often than any of his predecessors. Where Kennedy relished the atmosphere of spotlights, cameras, reporters competing for attention while millions of viewers assessed his style perhaps more than his substance, LBJ lived less dangerously on TV. Since his wife had owned a station in Austin, the new president was well aware that a misstatement or a poor visual image on live TV could be disastrous to a political career. Thus, he preferred to deliver prepared comments or special messages to the nation. In his first week as president this pattern was apparent. On November 26 he was on live TV reading remarks about Kennedy's Latin American economic program, the Alliance for Progress, to representatives of the Latin American nations. The following day, before a national video audience, he delivered an address to Congress. And on November 28, he offered a Thanksgiving message directly to the American people.
Johnson was more careful in approaching the open news conference, mindful of his need to remain a dignified leader in this time of national crisis, and aware that in a spontaneous press gathering he might embarrass himself and his office. Nevertheless, LBJ did not hide from the press. During his six years as chief executive, he held 126 news conferences; and during his first 22 months in office, 17 conferences were on live TV (three more appearances than by Kennedy in his 34 months in office). Still, not until February 1, 1964, his fifth meeting with the nation's journalists, did he allow the networks to televise the conference live.
The president clearly preferred the structure and controllability of the staged event. It might be a formal speech to a university or business group, then excerpted for the evening news. On live TV, it could be a regular event, such as his State of the Union address to Congress, or a talk made directly to the American people. Johnson also made bill-signing ceremonies into nationally televised events. In all cases, however, LBJ and his aides were concerned about his video image. He had his face made up. He abandoned glasses for contact lenses. He used a TelePrompter--its scroll rolling before the camera lens, but invisible to viewers at home—from which he read his written speech. His media advisers worked, moreover, to lessen his Texas drawl and to curb his "cornpone, benign paternalism."
Once comfortable with television, President Johnson was an incorrigible exploiter of the medium. In his first 22 months in office, he made 59 live appearances—more than Eisenhower in two full terms, and more than twice Kennedy's complete record. Add to this figure the countless times he was photographed for the nightly news plus his many appearances during his successful campaign for election in 1964. Furthermore, compared with his two immediate predecessors, a considerably higher percentage of Johnson's video exposure was in prime time.
Kennedy was a tough act to follow. Relative to the urbane JFK, the new president was slow, rural, less intelligent, and—in a TV era of anti-Southern civil rights images and "dumb but quaint Southerner" programs like The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, The Andy Griffith Show, and later No Time for Sergeants, Green Acres, O.K. Crackerby, Mayberry R.F.D, and Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.—Johnson had a strong Texas accent that to many Americans marked him as a "hick."
LBJ also was not a handsome man. Compared with Kennedy's svelte good looks, Johnson was homely and grandfatherly. Even his short-tenured "court historian," Eric F. Goldman (replacing Kennedy's long-time insider-historian, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.), conceded that "Television, strange instrument, has its favorites, whom it somehow shows at their best, but it also has its stepchildren, and television had certainly done nothing for this man." The long face, big ears, deeply furrowed face, and thinning hair all contributed to an unattractive TV image for Johnson.
But before the camera Johnson did possess a trait not as evident in his predecessor. With Kennedy, glamour and wit sometimes undermined his attempts to appear sincere. Johnson, however, had the ability to speak from the heart, to appear and sound genuine and candid in addressing his constituency. There seemed to be true sadness in his words when, in his first televised national message, he said, "A great leader is dead; a great nation must move on.... let us also thank God for the years that He gave us inspiration through His servant, John F. Kennedy." And he sounded more sincere than naive when later he pledged a billion dollars for rehabilitation of the Mekong delta, if only the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese would agree to peace terms.
Under Johnson, television remained a strategic medium for the manipulation of public opinion. In news conferences he took much time at the beginning to make announcements and describe policies. This maximized his control of the meetings by cutting into the time allotted for reporters' questions. Johnson also had questions planted in his news conferences. Sympathetic reporters were told what to ask, and the president then called on them. Where Kennedy has done this with one or two questions per meeting, according to Robert MacNeil, "Johnson often tried to plant a great many. The practice rankled some members of his staff because they felt it was being overdone."
Although he ran the risk of TV overexposure or upsetting the public by preempting, postponing, or interrupting popular programs, Johnson found video a means of maintaining broad support for his Vietnam policies. Discontent with the course of the war might translate into diminished approval as reported in public opinion polls. Yet a speech or news conference carried on national television usually remedied the situation and increased the size of the majority favoring the American commitment in Southeast Asia. After one address, support for the Johnson policy in Vietnam rose by 30 percent. According to the influential pollster Lou Harris, there existed a noticeable "correlation between televised presidential speeches and increased public acceptance of the President's positions."
Johnson had little sensitivity toward the television industry. He often gave reporters and the networks short notice that he was ready to go on the air. While this might be slightly disconcerting for journalists, it created havoc with the networks. Johnson insisted upon beginning one address on Vietnam at 9:55 P.M., during the climactic minutes of prime-time programming. On several occasions his speeches were not carried by all networks simultaneously. In these cases network executives decided a certain address would not be significant, so it was carried by only a single network, the others offering it on a tape-delayed basis later in the evening. If he was angered by the way the networks responded to his demands for air time, according to Newton Minow, "President Johnson was quick to let broadcasters know in no uncertain terms when they displeased him."
Johnson's reliance upon television to spread his influence was enhanced by the growing importance of the medium as a source of information for the American people. A Roper poll conducted in November 1963 dramatized how by this date TV had become the principal medium of news for the nation. By a rate of 36 percent to 24 percent, people found television a more believable medium of information than newspapers. Those same people found TV the least unbelievable—30 percent naming newspapers as least believable, while only 7 percent cited TV. Further, asked to choose which medium they would select if only one could be maintained, 44 percent preferred television, 28 percent named newspapers, 19 percent cited radio, and 5 percent preferred magazines.
From the beginning of his presidency, LBJ spoke openly of the course he would take in Vietnam. In his first policy address, a speech to Congress delivered November 27, 1963, Johnson declared, "This nation will keep its commitments from South Vietnam to West Berlin." That meant that with 18,000 Americans presently operating in South Vietnam, the new chief executive would pursue Kennedy's goal of defeating Communism in Asia. As LBJ told a State Department audience eight days later, his intention was "to win the struggle there and bring victory to our group."
Like so many in government in the early 1960s, Lyndon Johnson had been young and powerless during those gathering years of World War II. As Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and imperial Japan conquered their weaker neighbors, non-Fascist countries seemed impotent to stop them. From Manchuria to Ethiopia to Austria, the dictators forcefully absorbed new territory while others offered no resistance. The climax of this policy was reached in the fall of 1938 at Munich. Here, to placate German threats of invading hapless Czechoslovakia, the four major European powers—Great Britain, France, Germany, and Italy—convened. The Czechs were not invited. Thanks primarily to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain of Great Britain, the Nazis were ceded strategic portions of Czech territory without firing a shot.
From that experience of impotence in the face of aggression came the disdainful connotation of the political word "appeasement." From that experience, too, came a lesson for those who later fought World War II to reverse the legacy of appeasement: that never again should a militaristic nation be allowed to conquer its neighbors while on its way to world domination.
For many Americans who experienced the rise and fall of the dictatorships, the Russians after 1945 became the new would-be world conquerors, and Communism became new Nazism. Rather than recognize Communism as a legitimate response to social, economic, and political shortcomings within a nation, American leaders saw it as a monolithic extension of the Soviet Union. They argued that Communism was being exported by the Red Army and by subterfuge by foreign agents. Whatever their nationality, Communists were painted as traitorous pawns of the Russian government instead of concerned citizens struggling against the abuses of individual governments.
President Johnson—like Kennedy, Eisenhower, and Truman before him—argued that the success of revolutionary Communism was analogous to the spread of Fascism, and that failure to halt this contagion would necessitate even greater military sacrifice later. Certainly, LBJ eventually recognized different types of Communism. By October 1964 he argued that because of the power rivalry between Moscow and Peking, and because of varied Communist styles around the world, "There is no longer one Cold War. There are many. They differ in temperature, intensity, and danger." Still, the president believed that accommodation with Communist expansion was appeasement.
As early as February 29, 1964, Johnson compared his military policy in Vietnam to the Normandy invasion of 1944. Among his advisers on foreign affairs were other antiappeasers such as Secretary of State Dean Rusk and National Security Council adviser McGeorge Bundy. As LBJ wrote to his biographer Doris Kearns in 1970, "Everything I knew about history told me that if I got out of Vietnam and let Ho Chi Minh run through the streets of Saigon, then I'd be doing exactly what Chamberlain did in World War II. I'd be giving a big fat reward to aggression." It mattered little that Johnson had a poor sense of history, that his comprehension of contemporary problems was inadequate if based upon the experience with Hitler. As Eric Goldman wrote, Johnson "like so many other people who do not read history, was peculiarly a creature of it, and perhaps a prisoner of one particular interpretation of it.... President Johnson was determined, as he once snapped, 'No more Munichs.'"
LBJ shared with Kennedy many of the anti-Communist stereotypes of the day. First, he never abandoned his belief in the domino theory. In A Conversation with the President, a one-hour special aired on the three national networks on March 15, 1964, Johnson told his interviewers—Bill Lawrence, Eric Sevareid, and David Brinkley—that if Vietnam were lost: "I think the whole of Southeast Asia would be involved and that would involve hundreds of millions of people, and I think....it cannot be ignored, we must do everything we can, we must be responsible, we must stay there and help them, and that is what we are going to do."
Second, like his predecessor, Johnson explained American military action in Vietnam as a function of largess, one country simply helping another to defend itself. "We have a very difficult situation in Vietnam," Johnson remarked at his news conference on February 29, 1964. "We are furnishing advice and counsel and training to the South Vietnam Army," he continued, "And we must rely on them for such action as is taken to defend themselves." Despite the fact that thousands of U.S. soldiers were in Southeast Asia, that his policy in that area cost $1.125 billion that year, and that Americans were killing and dying there, Johnson asserted—and most Americans believed—that this was a selfless action meant to help a friendly government requesting help. As LBJ explained it so convincingly on "A Conversation with the President:" We are very anxious to do what we can to help those people preserve their own freedom. We cherish ours and we would like to see them preserve theirs. We have furnished them with counsel and advice, and men and material to help them in their attempts to defend themselves. If people would quit attacking them we'd have no problem, but for ten years this problem has been going on.... but we are a patient people, and we love freedom, and we want to help others preserve it, and we are going to try to evolve the most effective and efficient plans we can to help them.
This was a grossly simplistic way to explain American intervention in a civil war in Southeast Asia. But for a people indoctrinated with idealistic, escapist entertainment in which gallant American heroes were always successful—in 30 or 60 minutes—when they risked their lives to help innocent victims of aggression, the Vietnam commitment was a chance to play the role for which television had prepared the nation.
The Vietnam War was more than Matt Dillon, Captain Midnight, or the Rat Patrollers stopping the bad guys and saving the town, nation, or planet. The war was a complex admixture of nationalism, Communism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Christianity, and ethnic affiliations. It also involved issues beyond the borders of Vietnam, among them the American containment policy toward Communism, the struggle between the Soviet Union and Communist China, the breakup of Western colonial empires, economic rivalries between individual countries and between capitalists and Communists for raw materials and markets, the political solidification of the large area that had been French Indochina, and the contest for power and prestige within the nations of the Free World. To explain American actions in Vietnam as the honest impulse of a do-gooder was inadequate and deceptive. To have communicated unquestionably this interpretation of the U.S. role in Southeast Asia—as did TV journalists and American citizens for the most part—was even less responsible.
It is self-deluding to believe that President Johnson actually felt that the struggle in Vietnam was a contest between Good and Evil. Yet he often used such simplistic rhetoric to explain his actions. At his news conference on June 2, 1964, for example, he spoke of the "four basic themes that govern our policy in Southeast Asia." According to the chief executive, these themes were: "America keeps her word"; "the issue is the future of Southeast Asia as a whole [read: domino theory]; " "our purpose is peace;" and "this is not just a jungle war, but a struggle for freedom on every front of human activity."
Privately, the president and his advisers knew that the Vietnam War was more than an extended version of Combat or The Gallant Men. Johnson inherited and was trapped in a land conflict in Asia. To win, he concluded, his commitment would have to be increased. Withdrawal was not possible. With a presidential election approaching in the fall of 1964, and with an anti-Communist hawk like Senator Barry Goldwater as his conservative Republican opponent, LBJ would have been vilified as a traitor and a coward had he brought home the American troops. As a senator, Johnson had experienced Republican attacks upon Truman and Dean Acheson for having "lost" China when the Communists took power in 1949. If anything, the Republicans were already hammering at Johnson for being "soft on Communism," and many clamored for bombing raids against the enemy in North Vietnam.
LBJ had another option. President Charles de Gaulle of France suggested that Vietnam might be unified and made politically neutral. But this was also unacceptable in Washington. To have made de Gaulle the peacemaker in Southeast Asia would have elevated Johnson's main rival within the Western world. Further, a neutral Vietnam—as suggested by the disintegration of the Laotian neutrality negotiated in 1962—might only have postponed an inevitable Communist triumph.
South Vietnam had been artificially created following the Geneva conference of 1954. Where the division between North and South Vietnam was to be temporary, the United States moved quickly to recognize and stabilize the anti-Communist Saigon government. Where elections to unify the country were to be held by 1956, the South Vietnamese and the Americans—neither a signatory of the Geneva agreement—refused to honor the commitment. Now, ten years later, Johnson had the problem of assisting a government in South Vietnam that had neither popular support nor military power. That government controlled less than half its 43 provinces. Furthermore, since the murder of the dictatorial Diem in 1963, government instability in Saigon added to the president’s concerns.
Johnson's third alternative was to remain in Vietnam, even if that entailed increasing the size and scope of the American commitment. This was the course he chose from the outset of his presidency. But to accomplish his goal, he needed sizable support at home. For an unelected, Southern-based chief executive in a nation with roots planted deeply in isolationism, such popular backing was not a foregone conclusion. LBJ and his advisers, however, were not averse to obtaining such support through the manipulation of television and the information it disseminated. This was demonstrated in the Tonkin Gulf incident and the political reaction it precipitated.
The incident was a two-phase affair, taking place over the period August 2-4, 1964. The first phase involved a Navy destroyer, the U.S.S. Maddox, which was shot at by North Vietnamese PT boats while in the Gulf of Tonkin on the evening of August 2. The second phase occurred two days later when the Maddox, now accompanied by the destroyer U.S.S. C. Turner Joy, reported another attack by enemy PT boats, this time involving torpedoes launched against the American ships.
President Johnson used the incident to "get tough" in Vietnam. He ordered air strikes against four ports and an oil storage depot in North Vietnam. It was the first time the United States officially had bombed north of the seventeenth parallel. LBJ went on national television at 11:36 P.M. (EDT) on August 4 to announce the raids, to praise the bravery of the naval commanders and their crews, and to repeat again, "We still seek no wider war." Johnson also used this crisis message to announce his desire for a congressional resolution "making it clear that our government is united in its determination to take all necessary measures in support of freedom and in defense of peace in Southeast Asia." That Tonkin Gulf resolution, passed three days later by votes of 414 to 0 in the House of Representatives and 88 to 2 in the Senate, became Johnson's rhetorical equivalent of a formal declaration of war. He would use the resolution many times in the future to defend himself against critics who said he was acting illegally or presumptuously in Vietnam.
In light of information made public several years after the Tonkin Gulf incident, it seems obvious that the president and his subordinates misrepresented and manipulated the naval events of August 2 and 4, and overreacted for political reasons. Two days before the first attack on the Maddox, American-supplied South Vietnamese boats had shelled two important North Vietnamese islands. The Maddox was ordered to check North Vietnamese radar and communications on those islands. On August 1 and 2, the Maddox approached within four miles of the attacked islands. Followed into international waters after these provocations, the Maddox exchanged fire with three North Vietnamese patrol boats. Fire from the destroyer and four support aircraft quickly routed the enemy, leaving one boat dead in the water while the others returned to port. The Maddox incurred one bullet hole.
Authorities at the Pentagon decided that the naval skirmish had been a local error by the North Vietnamese, perhaps mistaking the Maddox for the South Vietnamese craft that had attacked them earlier. A Defense Department spokesman publicly termed the incident "unwelcome but not especially serious." Dean Rusk seemed content that "The other side got a sting out of this. If they do it again, they'll get another sting."
There is strong evidence to suggest that the second phase of the Tonkin Gulf incident was a non-event, that no enemy boats attacked the Maddox and C. Turner Joy, and that reports of such attacks were seriously in error. The "attack" occurred on a night described by Captain John J. Herrick of the Maddox as "completely dark, ink dark," while the destroyers were moving through rain squalls and high seas. Earlier that day specialists had repaired the Maddox's broken sonar equipment and its IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) device, which allowed the ship to identify nearby ships as friendly or otherwise. Further, both commanders were nervous about possible enemy attack in light of what had occurred on August 2.
The radar sightings that prompted the destroyers' firing were highly questionable. Given the weather conditions, the inexperience of the Maddox's radar and sonar operators, the fact that no enemy was ever seen, and that the two ships nearly fired on each other in the dark, even the captain of the Maddox questioned his first shortwave reports of enemy attack with torpedoes in the water. Soon after reporting the "attack," Captain Herrick radioed that his first messages were not accurate and that "many reported contacts and torpedoes fired appear doubtful." He blamed his sonar man, the weather, and the lack of visual sighting or intercepted enemy communiqués during the battle. Herrick urged "complete evaluation before any further action." This message was received at the Pentagon at 4:46 P.M. on August 4. By that time, however, the punishing American response had been set in motion. No change of mind in the Tonkin Gulf could stop it.
The non-event in the Tonkin Gulf was well suited to the president's immediate political needs. By bombing North Vietnam, he could silence Barry Goldwater's criticism and undermine the senator's belligerent campaign appeal. The raid also buttressed the crumbling Saigon regime of General Nguyen Khanh, who had seized power in a coup seven months earlier and was now being challenged by Army rivals. Moreover, as a one-time response the bombings satisfied Johnson's desire to show Hanoi the destructive potential of an angered United States, but to avoid a prolonged, costly escalation during an election. The air strikes also demonstrated that liberals could be stern in their anti-Communism—but without seeking a wider war. This was escalation without responsibility, and it made LBJ all the more attractive to voters fearful of Goldwater's belligerence.
The Tonkin Gulf incident was a major turning point in the Vietnam War. It demonstrated America's willingness to extend its commitment from simply helping the South Vietnamese defend themselves to undertaking aggressive military action in North Vietnam. It also showed that the United States, the richest, most advanced technological power in the world, would employ much of its mighty arsenal against a militarily fourth-rate, agrarian country. The North Vietnamese had no air force and a miniscule navy. Understandably, the retaliatory raid on August 5 destroyed half their navy of small boats.
Further, the attack against North Vietnam extended the American interpretation of the war. Until this time the war officially involved the Viet Cong—South Vietnamese revolutionaries who were Communists and were supplied through North Vietnam—and the government of South Vietnam. Now the United States signaled its intention to hold Hanoi and North Vietnam directly responsible in the future.
Twenty-five years earlier it would have been inconceivable that President Roosevelt, although willing to involve the United States in World War II, would have done so by using his powers as commander in chief to order troops to Germany and Japan. American public opinion would never have tolerated such a usurpation of power. Loyal but strong opposition would have risen to stop the president. Even after Pearl Harbor, FDR came to Congress as prescribed by the Constitution. He asked for a declaration of war against Japan according to time-honored legal processes. And several days later, Americans entered the European theater of World War II because Germany and Italy, in support of their Japanese ally, first declared war on the United States.
But in the summer of 1964 the United States was escalating its military commitment, and few asked for a declaration of war. Congress was especially supine before the power plays of the Johnson administration. The Republican Party, the loyal opposition, was indeed loyal—but it offered no opposition. Public opinion, with what it did know of the facts, rallied behind the president.
Television was crucial in persuading the American public to accept this radical change in policies. Of course, there were precedents and extenuating circumstances. Truman in Korea and Kennedy in Vietnam had waged war without formal declarations. The United States was now the cornerstone of the Western world, and as such it had to be willing to move decisively to protect its interests. The concentration of power in the presidency—the so-called imperial presidency—rendered the legislative branch of government secondary. And, some argued, the United States needed flexibility to answer sudden military challenges with instant retaliation, unencumbered by rigid rules written in the late eighteenth century, when the country was an isolated, agricultural backwater. But it was TV that made protracted, undeclared war acceptable.
Like it or not, the medium had become fundamental to popular comprehensions of world affairs. As reading and other forms of information gathering waned among the American people, TV gained in stature as the principal medium of national communication. While television was playing an important part in enlightening the public about civil rights inequities and social poverty within the nation, it was to be expected that the medium would also spread balanced, honest information about the Cold War, and specifically about hostilities in Vietnam.
But television was a failure in this regard. Throughout its existence it interpreted foreign affairs in simplified terms. Its journalists seldom probed with sustained curiosity the nature of the East-West rivalry, the motives of the national leaders, or the American involvement in Southeast Asia. Further, the medium presented a steady diet of stylized adult fairy tales about uncomplicated virtue in combat with evil. Such ignorance and indoctrination made American public opinion predictable and manipulable—especially when approached through its source of information on international affairs, television.
Throughout its history, moreover, executives of the TV industry continued to praise the contributions of video to world understanding and education. Calling for "an intellectual explosion, a new age of questioning, of probing, of discovery," for example, CBS president Frank M. Stanton could proclaim in 1962 that now, with "the miracle of Telstar," the first U.S. communications satellite in orbit, video "can transmit pictures, sound, and action simultaneously across the continents and oceans." In this regard, too, it seemed duplicitous when Robert Sarnoff, the NBC board chairman, told a university audience a year later, "The public must recognize and consider that television's flaws and fallibilities are to a great degree a reasonable mirror of its own."
Unlike the Soviet Union, where the control of information coming into the society enables state leaders to mold public opinion relatively easily, in the democratic United States, with its freer press and tradition of open inquiry, the manipulation of public opinion is a finer art. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s it depended upon conscious and unconscious cooperation among government, corporate, educational, military, industrial, labor, and communications institutions. It meant single-mindedness in approaching the threat of Communism. It meant understanding the world and America's role in it from a common point of view. It also involved the discouragement of intellectuality when thought offended ideological sameness. It entailed ignoring dissident opinion and ostracizing independent thinkers. It meant understanding protest as potentially subversive. It meant masking economic interests behind the prose of patriotism. And it meant the accomplishment of this program through persuasion of the American public, a manipulation most effectively realized through television.
The Tonkin Gulf incident made for exciting TV. After the first attack on August 2, key Democratic and Republican legislators were briefed by State Department and White House personnel. On Face the Nation that day Senator Hubert H. Humphrey praised the Navy for reacting "in an admirable, creditable manner." Journalists covering others, such as senators Everett Dirksen, Richard Russell, and Thomas Kuchel, found them also sounding righteously wronged.
On the evening of August 4, in response to the unsubstantiated attack that Captain Herrick was now questioning, government and TV worked in unison. Television time was requested by the White House. During primetime hours there were promotional announcements advising that the president would be speaking later that evening. When Johnson finally did appear, he was especially somber as he announced his decision to bomb North Vietnam and requested a resolution of congressional support. When he ended his speech, saying of U.S. "firmness in the right" that "Its mission is peace," the networks switched to the Pentagon, where Secretary of Defense McNamara used maps, a pointer, and a detailed chronology to justify the retaliatory air raids.
This was dramatic fare produced by the White House. But the networks themselves followed the incident with similarly supportive, uncritical coverage. This was demonstrated in “Brink in Vietnam?” an ABC News Reports analysis televised August 6, one day before the important resolution passed Congress. From the opening, host Ron Cochran interpreted the naval incident in nationalist terms. He began by speaking of "our swift retaliation [which] has brought far greater losses to the enemy." He later employed the domino theory, remarking that "Vietnam stands like a domino between Red China and Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Malaysia." Cochran closed by editorializing that President Johnson's "strong and determined stand against Communist attackers has surely shown Hanoi and Peking that the United States was no paper tiger." According to him, "We have said strong words. We have backed the words with strong deeds."
There were others on the program who expressed similar notions. Senator Goldwater seemed somewhat disarmed now that LBJ could no longer be called "soft on Communism." He expressed agreement with the president's decisions, adding a simple adage, "When the bees bite you, attack the hive." Government spokesmen, however, were more manipulative. Scenes from a press conference that day showed McNamara explaining U.S. actions and raising the possibility of Communist Chinese military intervention. No one questioned the authenticity of the attack upon the Maddox and C. Turner Joy when the secretary of defense chillingly confided, "I think it probable that the Communist Chinese will introduce some aircraft into North Vietnam in support of them." When asked why he felt this probable, McNamara credited intuition, noting, "I have no indication of it, but I would think that that would be a likely response.... As they have no combat aircraft of their own, I would assume they would make such a request and that it would be answered." McNamara only increased concern when he assured news reporters that "We have no indication that there have [sic] been any substantial movement of Communist Chinese forces, either land or air."
Equally alarming was William Bundy, the assistant secretary of state for Far Eastern affairs and the chief architect of the Tonkin Gulf resolution. He confused the actual attack of August 2 with the nonevent of August 4. This avoided the necessity of explaining why retaliation against North Vietnam waited until a second naval clash, or what really happened during the second encounter.
Throughout the program, network journalists displayed little understanding of the Communist adversary. They accepted totally what the Johnson administration was saying. No one bothered to interview Senator Wayne Morse, although he was mentioned as opposing the Tonkin Gulf resolution. When Bundy confused the two naval engagements, John Scali never asked what American warships were doing in North Vietnamese waters, or why the bombing was ordered only after the second attack, if the naval incidents were provoked by the Americans, and whether there was solid evidence to prove that the attacks at sea actually occurred.
There was bias when Charles P. Arnot described General Khanh as "South Vietnam's fighting premier," and Ron Cochran pictured Ho Chi Minh as one who "has tried to sell himself as a smiling, popular leader. But the experts consider him a ruthless dictator, bent on the conquest of all Vietnam." When this stereotype was challenged by Professor Bernard Fall, a distinguished expert on Southeast Asia and a man who had met the North Vietnamese leader only two years earlier, ABC journalists ignored the implications of their contradiction. Thus, Fall could say of Ho Chi Minh:
I would say next to Khrushchev, he's probably the most personable Communist leader. An interesting thing, the man for example doesn't picture himself as the father of his country as Mao Tse-tung does or Stalin did. He's called Uncle Ho. He's the uncle. You know in the Chinese way of looking at things uncle is surely a senior person, but not someone whom you have to obey as implicitly as your father.
ABC correspondent Keith McBee, however, never asked Fall to reconcile that assessment with Ron Cochran's anti-Communist stereotype of the North Vietnamese leader.
When Professor Zbigniew Brzezinski appeared to offer his assessment, the newsmen seemed less interested in his first point—that the incident might have resulted from a war psychosis in North Vietnam, and that the attacks upon American ships were mistakes made in panic—than in his second and third points—that this might have been an effort by Hanoi to force an American response and thereby "get the Chinese involved," or that it could have been "a premeditated action on the part of the Vietnamese and the Chinese jointly to give themselves an excuse for doing something."
The only journalist to approach the truth on this ABC news program was Howard K. Smith. He stumbled over it in his editorial comment. After describing how LBJ had emerged from his first international crisis "smelling like roses," Smith seemed bewildered over why North Vietnam would attack the U.S. Navy in international waters, where the ratio of force is "about 10 million to one which the United States possesses over Vietnam and Red China together at sea." According to Smith, The only logical explanation for a peanut-sized sea power assailing the world's strongest on an element where U.S. power is almost unanswerable—the ocean—is to assume that Mr. Johnson was commanding those PT boats. Since he was not, we saw him here in Washington, there is no good explanation except for Dr. Brzezinski's surmises.
The Tonkin Gulf resolution—or, as it was known officially, the Joint Resolution on Southeast Asia—was a watershed for Johnson and the war in Vietnam. It was a brief statement—only three short sections—but it gave the president carte blanche in prosecuting the war. Because the bombing raids on North Vietnam predated the resolution by three days, the resolution actually sanctioned extension of the American military initiative, even to the point of spreading the conflict to new countries. The essence of the Tonkin Gulf resolution read: "Congress approves and supports the determination of the President as commander-in-chief to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression."
Also inherent in the resolution was the surrender of the American population to the will of Lyndon Johnson. Whether he acted as peacemaker or as warrior, few now questioned the chief executive. Having absorbed years of moralizing anti-Communist television, the public could easily accept a war. Somehow Johnson's escalations in Vietnam were equitable to those inevitable reactions to immorality and wrongdoing that every hero of every video drama experienced. Just as surely as those TV champions thwarted villainy and won the gratitude of all, LBJ would win in Vietnam and leave Southeast Asia an honored man. It was a familiar scenario.
The American people approved of their leader's militancy. In the month before the Tonkin Gulf incident, 58 percent of the public was critical of Johnson's handling of the war. But 85 percent favored the retaliatory bombing of North Vietnam. A poll on August 10 showed the president's entire war policy was now approved by 72 percent of the American people. Less than three months before the presidential elections, by a margin of 71 percent to 29 percent Americans felt Johnson could conduct the war better than Goldwater. "In a single stroke," wrote pollster Lou Harris, "Mr. Johnson has, at least temporarily, turned his greatest political vulnerability in foreign policy into one of his strongest assets."
With his reputation for toughness now established, LBJ could approach his presidential election campaign as one who wanted peace. Although he and his closest advisers were already drafting secret plans for a dramatic escalation of the U.S. military role in Vietnam, LBJ could be accepted as a sincere opponent of anything except an advisory role for Americans in the war. On September 25, he told an audience in Eufaula, Oklahoma, "We don't want our American boys to do the fighting for the Asian boys. We don't want to get involved in a nation with 700 million people [Communist China] and get tied down in a land war in Asia." On October 21, the president spoke at the University of Akron and pledged that "We are going to continue to try to make these people [South Vietnamese] more effective and more efficient, and do our best to resolve that situation where the aggressors will leave their neighbors alone, and they will finally learn to live together in other parts of the world." On election eve, November 2, the president spoke to a national television audience and made a thinly disguised attack upon Barry Goldwater's reputation as a quick-on-the-trigger militarist:
Let there be no mistake. There is no check or protection against error or foolhardiness by the President of the United States. He, alone, makes basic decisions which can lead us toward peace or toward mounting danger. In his hands is the power which can lay waste in hours a civilization that took a thousand years to build. In your hands is the decision to choose the man that you will entrust with this responsibility for your survival.
More dramatic in their depiction of LBJ as a peace-loving protector of civilization—and his Republican opponent as an irresponsible militarist—were two television commercials aired in September. One spot exploited Goldwater's opposition to the nuclear test-ban treaty signed in August 1963 by the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union. This ad showed a little girl licking an ice cream cone while a female announcer—uncommon in campaign commercials—suggested that if Goldwater were elected, that ice cream might soon be tainted by radioactive poisons.
Do you know what people used to do? They used to explode atomic bombs in the air. Now, children should have lots of vitamin A and calcium. But they shouldn't have any strontium 90 or cesium 137. These things come from atomic bombs, and they're radioactive. They can make you die. Do you know what people finally did? They got together and signed a nuclear test-ban treaty, and then the radioactive poison started to go away. But now, there's a man who wants to be President of the United States, and he doesn't like this treaty. He fought against it. He even voted against it. He wants to go on testing more bombs. His name is Barry Goldwater. And if he's elected, they might start testing all over again.
Aimed primarily at women voters and aired on NBC's Saturday Night at the Movies on September 12, the starkness of the message was enhanced by the feature film being telecast: The Diary of Anne Frank, an intense study of Nazi military fanaticism and its fatal impact on a Jewish girl and her family in Amsterdam.
Five days before the ice-cream-cone advertisement, however, Johnson's reelection committee aired an even more startling commercial to contrast the president's rational trustworthiness and candidate Goldwater's perceived nuclear irrationality. Presented on September 7 during NBC's Monday Night at the Movies—this time showing the Biblical feature David and Bathsheba, and thereby lending an aura of Old Testament forewarning to the commercial—this spot showed a young girl plucking and incorrectly counting petals from a daisy while an announcer precisely counted off the seconds before a nuclear blast. Although the name of the Republican candidate was never mentioned, the anti-Goldwater message was powerfully communicated:
Child in field: 1-2-3-4-5-7-6-6-8-9-9.
Announcer (voice-over): 10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1-0.
Nuclear explosion with LBJ's voice: These are the stakes. To make a world in which all of God's children can live, or go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die.
Slide reading: "Vote for President Johnson on November 3."
Announcer: Vote for President Johnson on November 3rd. The stakes are too high for you to stay home.
The American people chose to entrust LBJ with responsibility for their survival. He received 15,951,296 votes, 61.1 percent of the total. He gained 486 electoral votes to 52 for Goldwater. It was, to that date, the greatest plurality ever won by a presidential candidate.
The candidate of peace and firmness was inaugurated in his own right on January 20, 1965. Eighteen days later Johnson began the process of massive escalation that would take the United States fully into the Asian war he seemed so eager to avoid. The pretext for escalation this time was a guerrilla attack—with 8 dead and 108 wounded —on an American military billet in Pleiku, 240 miles northeast of Saigon. TV covered the story in great detail.
Actually, throughout the election campaign Johnson and his assistants had been planning a dramatic, phased increase in the U.S. military role in Vietnam. Now that he was safely elected, as Eric Goldman has written, LBJ "readied public opinion, kept up a stream of congressional conferences, and waited for the right moment."
Quickly the president ordered bombing raids against what he felt was the real culprit, North Vietnam. American jets flew 160 sorties north of the seventeenth parallel in February. The raids were explained as justifiable punishment for specific acts of Viet Cong terrorism. In April, U.S. bombers conducted 1,500 strikes against North Vietnam and 3,200 air attacks against enemy targets in South Vietnam. Now, however, the strikes were no longer explained as reactive. They were an integral part of American offensive military strategy for winning, propping up the weakening South Vietnamese military, interdicting the increased infiltration into South Vietnam by regular units of the North Vietnamese Army, and for winning a victory against Communism in Southeast Asia. Except for an occasional "pause" or "limitation," Johnson's bombing campaign against North Vietnam—code name "Operation Rolling Thunder"—would continue until October 1968.
The size and scope of the war now expanded. In response to bourgeoning U.S. military participation, the government of North Vietnam increased its flow of men and materiel to the south. Whereas an estimated 12,400 North Vietnamese soldiers had entered the war in 1964, 36,300 came south in 1965; 92,287 in 1966; and 101,263 the following year. The anti-Communist side also increased; in 1965 small contingents of troops from Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Thailand, and the Philippines joined the Americans and South Vietnamese.
Most dramatic, however, was the increase in American troop strength. Where there had been 21,000 troops in Vietnam when Johnson was elected, by June 1965 there were 75,000 men. Two months later the total was 125,000, excluding Navy personnel and support units stationed in Thailand. In July the president raised the monthly Selective Service call from 17,000 to 35,000 men. By the end of 1965 there were 184,000 troops in Vietnam—on the way to a peak of 540,000 by the time Richard M. Nixon replaced Johnson in January 1969. Before the war concluded in January 1973, it would engage 8,744,000 American military personnel.
Escalation of the Vietnam War by the president became immediately evident in a rising death toll. While there had been 246 Americans killed in Vietnam between 1961 and 1964, during the first year of full-scale conflict 1,363 Americans were slain. Before it ended, there were more than 58,000 U.S. troops dead and 303,704 wounded. There were, moreover, countless Vietnamese killed and wounded.
The president enjoyed lavish popular support during his first year of expanded war, his approval rate in Harris and Gallup polls fluctuating between 61 and 71 percent. Significantly, although 54 percent of the citizenry felt in October 1965 that the war would continue for a long time, only 24 percent considered it a mistake for the United States to be involved.
At his televised news conference on July 28,1965, President Johnson read a letter from a Midwestern woman. It was a short note, but it asked a profound question.
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.
The chief executive responded to the writer with slogans. Rather than a complex, honest answer, Johnson spoke of fighting for freedom, the Chinese desire "to extend the Asiatic dominion of Communism," the lessons of "Hitler at Munich," the honor of the American "word," and the bloodbath that would follow abandonment of "those who believed in us and trusted us." It was a language of clichés and stereotypes that Americans understood. They had learned it on TV.
The journey from demobilization and peace following World War II to full-scale hostilities in Vietnam had been a long one. A people who well understood the meaning of World War II now wondered why combat in Vietnam was required. Importantly, however, they did not refuse to meet that requirement. Americans went to battle with little complaint.
Simultaneously with that political evolution, video entered American life and was overwhelmingly accepted. From it flowed news and entertainment replete with values, ideals, attitudes, fantasies, and morality. Americans soon defined themselves according to television. They found heroes and role models on the medium. They bought because of TV and thought according to TV. As an influence upon American social reality, it was more powerful than any other national medium of communication.
Television shaped and directed a generation of Americans to accept something as absurd as an inadequately explained, undeclared war halfway around the globe, costing billions of dollars each year, losing thousands of young lives monthly, and ultimately wrenching the connective fibers of American civilization. The war was justified because it was familiar. The images transmitted over all those years offered explanation enough. Americans could answer that quizzical Midwestern mother, for they all had the TV experience of Good versus Evil, freedom against slavery, and moral, manly honor in mortal struggle with the forces of wickedness. A shared common conductor, television spread its monotonous political message and educated the nation. That it was effective was obvious in the reality of the war in Vietnam.