The Vietnam War and the Media’s Effect on Public Opinion
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The Vietnam War and the Media's Effect on Public Opinion

MAJ Robert S. Mott

Computer Code S600A

Evolution of Modern Warfare

20 August 2005

     “That Bitch of a War!” was an expression that President Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) used frequently to describe the war in Vietnam after he left office in January, 1969. 1 How the media portrayed Johnson administration policy over the Vietnam conflict set the stage for the eventuality of him not seeking re-election in 1968, and subsequent President Nixon's struggles to prosecute the war with the tide of public opinion already turned against it.
     American Policy in Vietnam actively began to take shape two administrations prior to LBJ's administration with the administration of President Eisenhower in 1954. 2  President Eisenhower's administration first began to take more than passing notice of the increasing influence of communism in Vietnam when a series of military victories were won by a communist insurgency group dubbed the “Viet-Minh” in reference to their communist inspired leader, Ho Chi Minh.  Ho's forces had successfully “choked off” a French garrison at Dien Bien Phu.3  The US media had largely ignored Vietnam until Dien Bien Phu, and the pullout of French forces had begun.
     Vietnam was divided at the 17th parallel in 1954 with the allowance of a very limited foreign military presence on both sides, and scheduled elections to take place in 1956. 5     America and her allies “one war-many fronts” anti-communist policy encountered resistance from many US diplomats and press agencies reporting out of Vietnam.  They were questioning the French argument that the Soviet Union imperiled the region.  The Vietnam diplomats and press saw Ho as a “symbol of the fight for independence”. 4
     In 1950 the Truman administration first changed course on Vietnam, and declared that Ho Chi Minh was indeed a tool of the Soviet Union, and imposed on the region a Cold War policy that led to US involvement. 5   President Truman, and later President Eisenhower thought it better to send US taxpayer's dollars to Vietnam than to send US taxpayer's sons. 6  The US media, although not being actively focused on Vietnam, tried to show Vietnam as a parallel to Korea.  The American public, now war weary from Korea, were not partial to the idea of another war in Asia.
     President Eisenhower's policy initiative in 1953 to liquidate the unpopular Korean War stalemate, and to avoid a limited war on the Asian mainland showed a policy of caution towards Vietnam, and was almost indistinguishable from the policy of President Truman. 7  This policy was pubic-opinion driven.  The American people were not going to support an escalation of war in Asia, and the US media were quick to point out the failures of the French in Vietnam, as well as Great  Britain's reluctance to replace the French.  Over the course of President Eisenhower's eight years in office, the goal of containment and the fear of the consequences associated with imperial communism did not change.  What changed, however, was what means were brought to bear to achieve containment. 8  With the US supporting over half of French costs associated with their struggle in Vietnam, US policy became supporting a “Proxy” to directly fight communism versus US Forces taking up the conflict directly.
     The Eisenhower administration successfully established a hand picked US ally as the South Vietnamese President.  President Diem was heavily backed by powerful American Catholics such as Senator John F. Kennedy and Francis Cardinal Spellman. 9  Up until the end of the Eisenhower administration, the proxy policy which had brought in Diem was largely thought of as a highly successful political gamble.  The US had avoided direct military involvement in Vietnam, and Diem even defeated the previous president in an election by receiving 98% of the vote.  His face even appeared on the cover of TIME magazine. 10  President Eisenhower won high public approval marks for his foreign policy shrewdness.  His re-election emphasized the continuation of “proxy” policy in places such as Greece and the Philippines.  He left office in 1961 with high approval ratings, and is still loved by the American public.
     Thrust into the presidency in November, 1963, LBJ inherited a Department of State and Defense Department heavily engaged in the Republic of Vietnam.  He brought to the White House and to US foreign policy a renewed Cold War mentality of actively containing communism. 11   LBJ's administration further increased money and other resources pouring in to South Vietnam.  There was pressure from the pentagon and some in the State Department for a policy change for even more US involvement in Vietnam.  The main difference JFK's and LBJ's Vietnam policy was that JFK was extremely reluctant to send US Military to Vietnam, where LBJ had increasingly begun to adopt a “win at any cost” policy.  LBJ at that time also had begun to win the public approval of the American people.  The majority of Americans showed at least tepid support for military intervention into Vietnam, with that support increasing significantly after the Gulf of Tonkin incident.
     Once LBJ made the decision for direct US Military involvement in Vietnam, he later told a press interviewer that he “felt like a catfish who grabbed a big juicy worm with a right sharp hook in the middle of it”. 12  Johnson's goals in Vietnam were not ambiguous.  We must “win the war”, and the “fellas” must “get out in those jungles and whup the hell out of some communists” so he could focus on domestic programs.  Johnson began moving toward his second big decision Vietnam policy soon after committing to stay the course… a sustained bombing campaign on North Vietnam.13  The initial bombing of North Vietnam followed by the Gulf of Tonkin incident, resulted in congressional and public approval of “free reign” for combat action in Vietnam.  
     Much debate in the Johnson administration, and subsequently in the press in early 1965, resulted in the policy of “limited” bombing in the North, and combat action on the ground with many “limitations”. 14  This “limited war” policy continued through LBJ's presidential term, however, it increasingly required more and more resources.   In 1967, the US dropped over 226,000 tons of bombs on North Vietnam, as opposed to only 63,000 tons in 1965.  US troop levels also slowly increased, with a peak in 1968 of over 500,000 soldiers.15
     In January 1968, the “perceived results” of the “Tet” offensive began to play out in the national media, and had a significant effect on American public opinion towards the war.  The media largely interpreted and declared Tet as a US military defeat. 16  This resonated harshly in an American population becoming increasingly weary of the mounting casualties in Vietnam.  The view of many historians is that Tet was the turning point of American public opinion, and our total involvement in Vietnam.  Shortly after Tet, President Johnson began telling General Westmoreland that any attempt to pursue the war more aggressively was “politically unfeasible”. 17  Mike Wallace, reporting on CBS, stated  that “the Tet offensive had demolished the myth that allied strength controlled South Vietnam”, while the New York Times printed, “These are not the deeds of an enemy whose fighting efficiency has `progressively declined' and whose morale is `sinking fast,' as United States military officials put it in November”. 18
       President Nixon continued LBJ's policy of “Vietnamization” in 1969.  President Nixon did not, however, simply walk away from the war in Vietnam.  With peace talks failing to produce the desired results, President Nixon embarked on the risky and controversial policy of finding Hanoi's “weak spot” to pressure them.  Nixon launched a secret bombing campaign into Cambodia with the intent of knocking out North Vietnamese supply routes.  He also approved a combined US-Vietnamese ground invasion into Cambodia to look for a “North Vietnamese mobile Headquarters”.  In 1971, Nixon also sent an invasion force into Laos.  One of Nixon's last attempts to win “honorable peace” was to launch a 12 day “Christmas bombing” campaign in 1972 to punish the North for not offering more concessions during the 1972 peace talks. 19
With the failure of public support (less than 30% of Americans supported the continuation of the Vietnam war at this point) and an almost completely hostile press corps accompanying this portion of the war, President Nixon conducted these operations in an almost “clandestine” manner in hopes of avoiding further public scrutiny.  The press also continued to pile on more “bad news” from Vietnam such as this from military historian Jason Holm “20Tpress described the resolve of the enemy and the anguish and suffering of our own troops in victory and defeat. Journalists told stories of conscripted soldiers      dying in a faraway land for ideals they could not hope to understand. Once the folks back home began reading and watching these reports, support for the war began to wane”.
     The revelations in the press of these “secret bombings” as well as political fallout in the wake of the Kent State killing of four students by Ohio National Guardsmen forced President Nixon to sign the Paris peace agreement in 1973 which forced the withdrawal of the remaining US Forces from Vietnam.     
     After examining the background of the Vietnam conflict, the underlying question remains: what was the role of the media in this failure of United States foreign policy? This question seems to be valid because many of the setbacks of the war seem to be directly linked to disintegrating public support.  What then, was the role of the media in the shift of American opinion? The key to understanding what occurred between the media and the military in Vietnam, and how this in turn affected public opinion, is an examination of how this relationship had previously manifested itself. In conflicts prior to Vietnam, particularly the First and Second World Wars, American journalists were by and large integrated into military units. 21  At the outbreak of the Vietnam War, it seemed that this new relationship would remain equally cooperative.  These journalists were able to move freely about the country, without the restriction of being embedded in military units. At the beginning of the war no such restrictions seemed necessary, as the predominant image portrayed by the media was one of American stability and progress. However, this relationship, which held such a promising beginning, did not remain close throughout the war, and in the end seemed to force an undesirable conclusion to the Vietnam conflict.

     1.  Hunt, Michael H.  Lyndon Johnson's War: America's Cold War Crusade in Vietnam, 1945-1968.  New York, NY:  Hill and Wang, 1986. 72.

     2.  Ibid., 75.

     3. Young, Marilyn B.  The Vietnam Wars, 1945-1990, Princeton, NJ:
Princeton University Press, 1991. 13.

     4.  Herring, George C. America's Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975, McGraw-Hill press, 3d ed, 1996. 42.

     5.  Ibid., 87.

     6.  Hunt, 99.

Ibid., 108.

Duiker, William J.  US Containment Policy and the Conflict in Indochina,
Stanford University Press, 1994. 49.

Ibid., 61.

     10. Logevall, Fredrick.  Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of the War in Vietnam, Berkeley, CA:  University of California Press, 1999. 23.

11. Weigley, Russell F.  The American Way of War.  Bloomington, IN:
Indiana University Press, 1973. 43.

     12. Hunt, 59.

     13.  Duiker, 107.

     14.Weigley, 112.

15.  Logevall, 233.

16.Holm, Jason D. “Get over it! Repairing the military's adversarial relationship with the press.” Military Review. v. 82 n. 1 (January 2002).

17.  Logevall, 281.

18.  Holm.

19.  Herring, 117.

20/  Holm.

21.  Weigley, 169.


Hunt, Michael H.  Lyndon Johnson's War: America's Cold War Crusade in Vietnam, 1945-1968.  New York, NY:  Hill and Wang, 1986.

Logevall, Fredrick.  Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of the War in Vietnam, Berkeley, CA:  University of California Press, 1999.

Herring, George C. America's Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975,  McGraw-Hill press, 3d ed, 1996

Duiker, William J.  US Containment Policy and the Conflict in Indochina, Stanford University Press, 1994.

Young, Marilyn B.  The Vietnam Wars, 1945-1990, Princeton, NJ:   Princeton University Press, 1991.

Weigley, Russell F.  The American Way of War.  Bloomington, IN:  Indiana University Press, 1973.

Holm, Jason D. “Get over it! Repairing the military's adversarial relationship with   
           the press.” Military Review. v. 82 n. 1 (January 2002).