SPECIAL ISSUE = The American Legion Magazine
= September 2003
By JIM BOHANNON
Much has been written about media bias during the Vietnam War. Without doubt, it can be said the enemy viewed reporters as tools for achieving their goal of victory. "Our purpose is, through a progression of all-out attacks, to cause many U.S. casualties and so erode the U.S. will that the antiwar influences will gain decisive political strength," said Pham Van Dong, former prime minister of North Vietnam. Moreover, Ho Chi Minh famously predicted, "For everyone of yours we kill, you will kill 10 of ours. But in the end, it is you who will grow tired."
Their strategy of winning away from the battlefield worked - an especially fortunate circumstance for the communist cause, since they never came close to winning on the battlefield against U.S. Forces.
The biggest single question of media influence on the outcome of the Vietnam War centers on the Tet Offensive of Jan. 31, 1968, and ample evidence shows that headlines dealt a lot more with expectations than fact.
True, North Vietnamese regular army forces and the Viet Cong guerrillas attacked Saigon and most provincial capitals, briefly overrunning some. But except in the old imperial city of Hue, these communist occupations were principally measured in hours. When Tet was over, Hanoi had gained exactly zero territory and lost thousands of troops. The North Vietnamese Army suffered severe losses. The Viet Cong were never again a significant factor in the war. It was one of the most lopsided military defeats in history - for the communists, that is. But U.S. news stories harped on earlier expectations of light at the end of the tunnel. Those expectations may indeed have been too rosy, especially given the decision not to prosecute the war to win, as was well within our capabilities. But that doesn't alter the facts: the United States and its allies won decisively, and any honest reporting of Tet must be in that context. Victory should have been the lead to the story. But most coverage dwelled on how this was more than the communists had been expected to do, as if there were any doubt that they could temporarily grab some territory if they were willing to virtually commit suicide.
In his book "Vietnam, the Necessary War," journalist Michael Lind cites sensationalism as the reason Western journalists exaggerated the power and popularity of the Viet Cong. But in terms of Pham Van Dong's desire to erode U.S. will, Tet and its news coverage were the turning points.
Another battle that lasted through and beyond Tet also deserves mention for what some perceived as a historical parallel. As James Griffiths, a veteran of the 11th Armored Cavalry, notes in his book "Vietnam Insights," gloomy media depictions were not limited to the Saigon area but also occurred at the northern Marine base at Khe Sanh during Tet. Bob Young of ABC and Walter Cronkite of CBS linked the victorious general of Dien Bien Phu, Vo Nguyen Giap, to the siege at Khe Sanh, and Time put him on its cover. It was as if Giap's presence would cause a Marine defeat at Khe Sanh to be a foregone conclusion. Newsweek jumped on the antiwar bandwagon with its March 18, 1968, issue. Using the Khe Sanh ammo dump explosion as its cover, it failed to let readers know that the incident had occurred two months earlier, concluding, "Though the U.S. dilemma at Khe Sanh is particularly acute, it is not unique. It simply reflects in microcosm the entire U.S. military position in Vietnam. U.S. strategy up to this point has been a failure."
William Jayne, a Marine veteran of Khe Sanh said, "The North Vietnamese never mounted a determined ground offensive against us." Sadly almost 200 Americans died there, but compare that to the 14,000 enemy death count. However, neither battle provided the dramatic impact of two photographs.
The first is of Kim Phuc, the little girl running from a napalm attack that burned her clothes off. B.G. Burkett writes in his book "Stolen Valor" that this "became the perfect illustration of America's 'indiscriminate' napalming of civilians. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but it also can distort reality. There were no American planes involved, and there were no American ground troops at the scene. It happened in June 1972, when a South Vietnamese Skyraider dropped napalm on orders of a South Vietnamese officer, after almost all American combat units had been withdrawn. Following the fall of South Vietnam, the communists tried to use Kim Phuc and her injuries as propaganda against the Americans. But she rebelled, fleeing to the West. She now lives in Toronto." And yet, as James Griffiths notes, as late as 1992, Time made reference to "the 1972 photo of children fleeing an American napalm strike."
Griffiths wrote Time with a correction and received a letter back thanking him. Time refused, though, to print Griffiths' letter or any correction.
The second dramatic photo is the pistol shot fired by a South Vietnamese official into the head of a captured Viet Cong. It happened during the Tet offensive, when South Vietnamese National Police Chief Gen. Nguyen Loc Loan executed Bay Lop in the streets of Saigon. Griffiths writes, "This incident does show the horror and brutality of war, but it has been portrayed for the most part as unprovoked. Photographer Eddie Adams said Lop 'was the same
guy who killed one of Loan's officers and wiped out his whole family.'" Former South Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Cao Ky writes in his book "Buddha's Child" that Lop was captured "carrying papers identifying himself as a Viet Cong captain in the act of murdering a police sergeant, his wife and three small children. The guerrilla wore civilian clothes. The Geneva Conventions do not extend the protections of prisoner-of-war status to spies, mercenaries and guerrillas who fail to distinguish themselves from civilians." Burkett notes similar executions of German Saboteurs during World War II's Battle of the Bulge, without trials. "Gen. Eisenhower was completely within his authority to order the executions. So was Gen. Loan." The difference was the treatment by the press and the fact that Loan performed the execution personally. When did you read press reports of VCdirected children dropping hand grenades near American GIs? Have you read any Tet press Reports noting that communist forces sent in kids high on opium as a first wave, carrying sticks, to be used as cannon fodder by drawing tracer fire and revealing American positions to the second wave, the ones with the AK-47s? These are merely the major omissions and distortions. There were others.
Retired Maj. Gen. John Singlaub cites in his book, "Hazardous Duty," an American magazine article about ARVN officers who were more interested in procuring prostitutes for GIs than waging war. Singlaub's senior embassy adviser encountered the reporter who wrote the article and "lit into him over the piece." The reporter said, "I filed my story citing that as VC propaganda. But my editors rewrote it the way they wanted."
Then there's the case of the Pentagon Papers, covered by Edward Jay Epstein, author of "Between Fact and Fiction: The problem of Journalism." This classified DoD study on U.S. involvement in Indochina was secretly copied by Daniel Ellsberg, a former government official then working at the RAND Corp. He delivered it to an outspoken critic of the war, New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan. Epstein notes, "In comparing the Times reports with the actual text of the Pentagon study, it becomes clear that the Times version is something more than a simple paraphrasing of the secret history, or even an abridged 'rendering.' Substantial revisions in the history were made on major issues." The Times reported, "The Johnson administration reached a 'general consensus' at a White House strategy meeting on Sept. 7, 1964, that air attacks against North Vietnam would probably have to be launched. The administration consensus on bombing came at the height of the presidential election between President Johnson and Sen. Barry Goldwater, whose advocacy of full-scale air attacks on North Vietnam had become an issue." Epstein notes that none of the actions recommended at the Sept. 7 meeting involved American bombing of North Vietnam,' and that three days later the administration ruled out any bombing of the north, either by the United States or South. Vietnam.
Lind notes cases of admitted bias, such as the 1967 report filed by Mary McCarthy, which began, "I confess that when I went to Vietnam early last February I was looking for material damaging to the American interest."
Others were more ambiguous. In his book "A Better War," thirdgeneration West Pointer Lewis Sorley notes that Cronkite, in his memoirs, writes, "A generation of officers later, there still lurks in the Pentagon the belief that the media lost the war." But then Sorley skips ahead 100 or so pages, to find Cronkite writing with apparent pride, "The daily coverage of the Vietnamese battlefield helped convince the American public that the carnage was not worth the candle." While few media members were out to harm their country, a combination of subjective reporting, ignorance of war and ignorance of the historical context of our involvement in Indochina combined to provide coverage of that conflict which was often misleading and sometimes erroneous. No matter how one feels about the war, few can deny that the enemy would have approved of the coverage.
Jim Bohannon served in the U.S. Army Security Agency from 1966 to 1970 and in Vietnam from 1967 to 1968 with the 199th Light Infantry Brigade "Redcatchers." His radio talk show is broadcast on nearly 500 stations through Westwood One Radio. See www.jimbotalk.com