War, Propaganda and the Media
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Media, Propaganda and Vietnam
The 'official' or commonly accepted version of how and why the U.S. was involved in Vietnam sort of goes along the following lines:
Yet, it turns out that this is untrue, and it required massive propaganda to create this standard and accepted image.
A lot of the following is a summary of part of journalist John Pilger's book, Heroes, (Jonathan Cape 1986, Vintage 2001), mainly chapters 15 and 20, mostly written in the 1980s (and reprinted in 2001, from which the citations are taken. Where page numbers are cited in parenthesis, it is from this book unless indicated otherwise). He was in Vietnam many times, during the war, and returned on various occassions as well. He received a number of awards for his Vietnam reporting. He has generally been quite critical in his writings about power and authority.
Pilger described some studies in the 1980s where some people by then had already forgotten some of the reasons for the Vietnam war, and that "More than a third could not say which side American had supported and some believed that North Vietnam had been 'our allies'" (p. 178.) He describes why this 'historical amnesia' might occur:
Many have claimed that the media contributed to the U.S. losing the war, because the media was generally against the war. Further below, we will look at this as well, but first a look at the war itself.
The Vietnam War
The context in which Vietnam appeared to fall under Soviet influence is critical. Vietnam had actually approached the U.S. for assistance in building a nation in the wake of the Second world war and particularly from French imperialism both of which had taken their toll on this region. (President Roosevelt for example, had "already vilified France which, he said, had 'milked' Vietnam for a hundred years. 'The people of Indo-China are entitled to something better, ' the President had said, and the United States supported their 'independence and self-determination.'" (p.181).) The communist leader, Ho Chi Minh liked Americans, and enjoyed 'the openness of Americans' (p.181).
Yet, having been turned down a number of times by the U.S., they turned to the other superpower at that time, the Soviet Union, even though they had shown a preference to the U.S. model of democracy:
(Side Note: J.W. Smith (cited below) suggests it was 6 times, that Ho Chi Minh sent letters to the U.S. government. I don't know if what Pilger calls 'appeals' is the same as the letters J.W. Smith refers to, but the point is, there were many appeals to the U.S.)
As the U.S. clumped Northern Vietnam into the same bracket as Communist China and Soviet Union, Minh felt no choice but to turn to them.
The immediate post World War II era for Vietnam was crucial:
Needing to get the French out of their country, Ho Chi Minh was still hoping for a U.S. alliance and he
As J.W. Smith summarizes:
As Pilger adds, the root of American concern was imperial in nature, which, citing Noam Chomsky,
Side note about Chomsky's mention of 'domino':
Summarizing mostly from Pilger again, the political background to the buildup of the Vietnam war is worth highlighting here:
The scale of propaganda needed to pull all this off was immense. The official version which most are familiar with, is quite different to the above. Pilger comments on this difference:
That the end result was costly is an understatement:
And as Noam Chomsky adds, with slightly updated numbers:
As J.W. Smith and Noam Chomsky, cited above, described, one of the core aspects of this war and the cold war ideology in general was to try and contain the breaks for freedom of various nations and to ensure successful independent development was minimized, for fear of what Eisenhower had called the 'domino' effect. William Blum, who worked at the State Department in the 1960s, and is now an investigative journalist summarizes the effect of the Vietnam war:
To further demonstrate that Vietnam did not wish to pursue a communist ideology for its country, consider what happened after the war: it tried to look to the west, and to open up for foreign investment:
Side Note about Pol Pot and his Support from China and the U.S.:
As part of the agreement to end war and rebuild, the Nixon administration offered $3.25 billion of grant aid over 5 years for U.S. contribution to postwar reconstruction, though Vietnam wanted "reparation" money not "reconstruction" money. It was never paid, because Vietnam apparently did not reveal all the prisoners of war that was part of the deal for the aid. This itself is a tragic and thorny issue for those Americans who for long periods have been unaware of the fate of their loved ones. Yet, for Vietnam, it was though they had to pay in turn for a war largely created by the U.S. as William Blum describes, almost cynically:
Media and the War
Media reporting and the general attitudes about the media on the whole, as well as how segments of society interpreted the events of Vietnam is interesting and important.
"The media 'lost' the war for America"
Common themes about why the U.S. 'lost' the war include criticisms of the media. John Pilger describes two influential 'myths' about the media:
An article from the French paper, Le Monde Diplomatique, titled "Show us the Truth about Vietnam", (April 2000), highlighted that the Vietnam war was the most covered topic in the US than any other issue. Yet that coverage was extremely one-sided. For example, just 3% of coverage was on "enemy" viewpoint.
Though eventually many stories about atrocities came out, initially they were rarely reported. "Atrocities were neither isolated nor aberrations", Pilger continues (p.256). "It was the nature of war that was atrocious; this was the 'big story' of the war, but it was seldom judged to be 'news' and therefore seldom told, except in fragments." Perhaps because it would have been so difficult for a nation to come to terms with what their leaders may have been doing, contrary to what they were saying, "Atrocities were reported as 'mistakes' which were 'blundered into'. Behind this acceptable version appalling events could proceed as part of a deliberate and often efficiently executed strategy, contrary to the popular misconception of 'blundering' generals and policy-makers."
Reflecting on the Events
But there was also difficulty in conceptualizing some of the main facets of the geopolitical makeup, because of the propaganda behind it, as Pilger details:
Famous atrocity stories such as the My Lai massacre only emerged after, or towards the end of the war. Pilger is worth quoting once again:
But some documentaries were very powerful and did highlight some of the earlier atrocities:
But the way the American establishment tried to come to terms with these, which could no longer escape the mainstream and the public, was to try and reflect on a 'tragedy'. As Pilger continued from the above, "The My Lai massacre eventually made the cover of Newsweek under the banner headline 'AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY', which invited sympathy for the invader and deflected from the truth that the atrocities were, above all, a Vietnamese tragedy." (p.259, Emphasis is original.)
Noam Chomky also highlights this, that regardless of mainstream political persuasion, left or right, American elite typically regarded the Vietnam as a 'mistake' or tragedy. He commented heavily on the former U.S. Defense Secretary, Robert McNamara's influential memoirs, In Retrospect:
Note also Chomsky's point about winning or losing the war. It is commonly believed, and depending how you look at it, that America 'lost' the war in Vietnam. Yet, while they may have lost militarily, the damage they caused and from looking at the end goal, of containment and preventing independent development, commentators such as Chomsky and others point out that the result was a success. (See also the J.W. Smith citation above.)
Mainstream history has often been quite in favor of the official lines, as Pilger describes, even as far back as the mid-1980s:
Television news in particular was said to have helped America 'lose' the war. Yet, television news coverage was arguably poor, and full of news-bites, rather than detailed documentaries, thus not providing sufficient context:
Various Hollywood movies involving Vietnam have since been released. Yet, hardly any connect the global politics at the time, and instead concentrate Indo-China in isolation. Nor do they really explore the suffering of the Vietnamese at the hands of Americans, or Chinese, for example, but are more contemplating about their own soldier's actions. (see pp. 268 - 274 for more discussion on this aspect.)
In 1998 there was lot of hype in the mainstream about CNN having to retract a story about the US military's use of Nerve Gas in the Vietnam War. The impression CNN and other media tried to portray in this incident was that the media institutions take such issues seriously. Those who saw this may recall how often this issue was bought up on CNN. However, as media watchdog, Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting suggests, it seems that a lot of the news reports during that war (and others) was fabricated, especially claims about the actions of the enemy. But none of those were ever retracted.
At the time of the war, there was pressure to conform, else a reporter could risk losing their career. In other cases, criticism or unacctepable portryal would be met with accusations of being anti-American, communist, unpatriotic, or some other derogatory term. This pressure even came from high government officials:
Philip Knightley, who was cited above by John Pilger, wrote what has been regarded a classic on war reporting. His book The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero and Myth-Maker From the Crimea to Kosovo (Prion Books, 2000) is an updated version of the one that Pilger cited from. In it, he provides immense details of war journalism from the various wars in recent decades. His chapters on Vietnam (pp. 409 - 469) give a detailed account and insight of the field of journalism and how it was affected by the Vietnam war, and how it reported the war. It would be futile to try and cite all the examples he has shown, including some very, very gruesome details of atrocities, but some of the summaries he made are worth highlighting:
Knightley also detailed the racism that accompanied the war (as with all wars):
Many of the gruesome attrocities that Knightley described, including the killing of civilians was partly due to this racial sentiment. Knightley continued:
Yet, in other cases, Knightley highlighted how journalists faced pressured to dumb down or struggled to find outlets to publish their harrowing accounts:
And as Knightley concluded:
The Vietnam experience highlights a multitude of factors that contributed to what can only be termed as propaganda for Cold War ideological battles.
The above may be considered long for a web page, but it really isn't much detail at all. In addition, many other important aspects have not been touched upon here such as the huge anti-war protest movements in the 1960s; the issue of those missing in action; the details of the devastation of Indo-China; Vietnam's attempts at development after the wars, amidst trade and aid embargoes; the various sociopolitical, environmental and economic consequences up to today; the 'Vietnam syndrome'; the impact Vietnam has had on American culture, on the attitude to sending military troops abroad, etc etc.
For more details on various aspects, discussed here, and not discussed, consider the following, which is by no means anywhere near a comprehensive list, but will be added to over time:
Created:Sunday, December 29, 2002Last Updated:Tuesday, January 21, 2003
"Bad ideas flourish because they are in the interest of powerful groups." -- Paul Krugman