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Media Myths and Vietnam

[cap­tion id=“attachment_97626” align=“alignnone” width=“800”] Viet­nam acknowl­edged Ho Chi Minh’s birth­day in an oddly low-​key way dur­ing my visit even in his boy­hood home in Hue.[/caption]

The media myths sur­round­ing the Viet­nam War con­tinue to shape U.S. pol­icy in Asia and through­out the world.

As I recently wan­dered through Viet­nam, par­tic­u­larly the area near the DMZ, or the demil­i­ta­rized zone that sep­a­rated North and South Viet­nam, I couldn’t help but think how media nar­ra­tives had changed the course of the war and Vietnam’s his­tory. Here are some impor­tant facts that must be understood.

First, the 1968 Tet Offen­sive was a huge mil­i­tary defeat for the Communists.

Sec­ond, CBS anchor Wal­ter Cronkite had lit­tle to do with the deci­sions to wind down U.S. involve­ment in Vietnam.

Third, the “napalm girl” — a mem­o­rable pho­to­graph dur­ing the war – had noth­ing to do with U.S. forces.

Finally, after more than 40 years of Com­mu­nist rule, the peo­ple of Viet­nam are not bet­ter off.

Viet­nam vet­eran James Will­banks, a noted mil­i­tary his­to­rian, pro­vides an inter­est­ing analy­sis of the Tet Offen­sive, par­tic­u­larly in Hue, the for­mer royal cap­i­tal of Vietnam.

Tet, the lunar New Year began on Jan. 31, 1968, when Com­mu­nist forces attacked mul­ti­ple locales, includ­ing Hue, which was geo­graph­i­cally sit­u­ated in South Viet­nam but close to the bor­der with North Viet­nam. By the time the bat­tle of Hue ended a month later, more than 40 per­cent of the build­ings were dam­aged and more than 100,000 peo­ple were home­less. More impor­tant, the North Viet­namese had lost the bat­tle but had exe­cuted nearly 3,000 peo­ple with ties to the South Viet­namese gov­ern­ment. For more back­ground, see http://​www​.his​to​rynet​.com/​t​e​t​-​w​h​a​t​-​r​e​a​l​l​y​-​h​a​p​p​e​n​e​d​-​a​t​-​h​u​e.htm

All told, the Tet Offen­sive was a mas­sive fail­ure for the Com­mu­nists. The change from guer­rilla tac­tics to frontal assaults against the U.S. and South Viet­namese mil­i­tary, resulted in only min­i­mal gains. More­over, the Com­mu­nists lost nearly a quar­ter of its battle-​ready troops.

What hap­pened, how­ever, was an onslaught of news reports and pho­tos that showed, among other things, the U.S. embassy in Saigon under assault. It made lit­tle dif­fer­ence that the Marines had suc­cess­fully fought back, and the U.S. mil­i­tary recap­tured all the ter­ri­tory and more.

The Com­mu­nists were described as despon­dent because of the fail­ure of Tet. But the PR started to roll in that the Com­mu­nists had effec­tively taken the bat­tle to the Amer­i­cans and the South Viet­namese Army. Then the so-​called “Cronkite moment” hap­pened. CBS anchor Cronkite said dur­ing a news broad­cast on Feb­ru­ary 27, 1968, that “we have been too often dis­ap­pointed by the opti­mism of the Amer­i­can lead­ers, both in Viet­nam and Wash­ing­ton, to have faith any longer in the sil­ver lin­ings they find in the dark­est clouds.” He added, “We are mired in a stale­mate that could only be ended by nego­ti­a­tion, not victory.”

As my friend and col­league, W. Joseph Camp­bell, notes in his excel­lent book, “Get­ting It Wrong,” Cronkite had lit­tle influ­ence on Johnson’s think­ing. “In the days and weeks after the Cronkite pro­gram, John­son was adamant in defend­ing his Viet­nam pol­icy. On mul­ti­ple occa­sions dur­ing that time, the pres­i­dent in effect brushed aside Cronkite’s down­beat assess­ment and sought to rally sup­port for the war effort. At a time when Cronkite’s views should have been most potent, the pres­i­dent remained openly and tena­ciously hawk­ish on the war.” For more, see https://​medi​amythalert​.word​press​.com/​2017​/​02​/​23​/​a​f​t​e​r​-​c​r​o​n​k​i​t​e​-​m​o​m​e​n​t​-​l​b​j​-​d​o​u​b​l​e​d​-​d​o​w​n​-​o​n​-​v​i​e​t​-​p​o​licy/

But the Com­mu­nists had won the PR bat­tle – often based on media myths – as Amer­i­cans turned against the war, and LBJ’s con­fi­dantes fol­lowed the public’s view.

Camp­bell also makes short shrift of the claim that the U.S. mil­i­tary was respon­si­ble for the “napalm girl” attack. Asso­ci­ated Press pho­tog­ra­pher Nick Ut took one of the most mem­o­rable pho­tographs of the Viet­nam War — the image of a 9-​year-​old girl scream­ing in ter­ror as she fled from a mis­di­rected napalm attack. The AP said the famous photo, taken June 8, 1972, “com­mu­ni­cated the hor­rors of the Viet­nam War in a way words could never describe, help­ing to end one of the most divi­sive wars in Amer­i­can history.”

[cap­tion id=“attachment_97615” align=“alignnone” width=“730”] The famous “napalm girl” photo did not involve the U.S. military.[/caption]

But the plane was from the South Viet­nam mil­i­tary and flown by a South Viet­namese pilot.

By refer­ring to “Amer­i­can planes” in an arti­cle, The New York Times insin­u­ated that U.S. forces were respon­si­ble for the napalm attack that pre­ceded Ut’s pho­to­graph, Camp­bell writes. He tried to get DaTimes to cor­rect the infor­ma­tion but got nowhere. For more, see https://​medi​amythalert​.word​press​.com/​2012​/​06​/​03​/​40​-​y​e​a​r​s​-​o​n​-​t​h​e​-​n​a​p​a​l​m​-​g​i​r​l​-​p​h​o​t​o​-​a​n​d​-​i​t​s​-​a​s​s​o​c​i​a​t​e​d​-​e​r​rors/

Some excel­lent report­ing occurred dur­ing the Viet­nam War, but what seems to stick in the Amer­i­can psy­che about Tet, Cronkite and the napalm photo are mostly wrong — media myths like many we see today.

Finally, Viet­nam is a mess. When your cur­rency is val­ued at 22,000 dong to the dol­lar, you’ve got prob­lems. Peo­ple openly com­plain about the lack of full-​time jobs except in the gov­ern­ment. In 2011, Nguyen Phu Trong was appointed sec­re­tary gen­eral of the Com­mu­nist Party. He served as the party’s chief ide­o­logue before. That doesn’t bode well for solv­ing the prob­lems of the country.

A per­sonal note: As the only Amer­i­can on board a trip to the DMZ, I tried to counter the pro­pa­ganda of the guide, a com­mit­ted Com­mu­nist, about the infor­ma­tion she was pro­vid­ing. But the other mem­bers of the tour – Brits, Cana­di­ans, French and Viet­namese – had already embraced the myths even though most of them were in their 20s and 30s.

More­over, I had a won­der­ful time see­ing the his­toric sites of Hue and Hoi An, a lovely town south of Danang, in cen­tral Viet­nam. I met many cour­te­ous and friendly peo­ple dur­ing my visit. The atti­tude toward me as an Amer­i­can was mostly curios­ity and cer­tainly not con­dem­na­tion. I stopped by a Catholic church — the reli­gion that remains that of an esti­mated 20 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion – and the mem­bers greeted me with enthu­si­asm. I wish the peo­ple, not the gov­ern­ment, well.

Vietnam acknowledged Ho Chi Minh’s birthday in an oddly low-key way during my visit even in his boyhood home in Hue.

The media myths surrounding the Vietnam War continue to shape U.S. policy in Asia and throughout the world.

As I recently wandered through Vietnam, particularly the area near the DMZ, or the demilitarized zone that separated North and South Vietnam, I couldn’t help but think how media narratives had changed the course of the war and Vietnam’s history. Here are some important facts that must be understood.

First, the 1968 Tet Offensive was a huge military defeat for the Communists.

Second, CBS anchor Walter Cronkite had little to do with the decisions to wind down U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

Third, the “napalm girl”—a memorable photograph during the war–had nothing to do with U.S. forces.

Finally, after more than 40 years of Communist rule, the people of Vietnam are not better off.

Vietnam veteran James Willbanks, a noted military historian, provides an interesting analysis of the Tet Offensive, particularly in Hue, the former royal capital of Vietnam.

Tet, the lunar New Year began on Jan. 31, 1968, when Communist forces attacked multiple locales, including Hue, which was geographically situated in South Vietnam but close to the border with North Vietnam. By the time the battle of Hue ended a month later, more than 40 percent of the buildings were damaged and more than 100,000 people were homeless. More important, the North Vietnamese had lost the battle but had executed nearly 3,000 people with ties to the South Vietnamese government. For more background, see http://www.historynet.com/tet-what-really-happened-at-hue.htm

All told, the Tet Offensive was a massive failure for the Communists. The change from guerrilla tactics to frontal assaults against the U.S. and South Vietnamese military, resulted in only minimal gains. Moreover, the Communists lost nearly a quarter of its battle-ready troops.

What happened, however, was an onslaught of news reports and photos that showed, among other things, the U.S. embassy in Saigon under assault. It made little difference that the Marines had successfully fought back, and the U.S. military recaptured all the territory and more.

The Communists were described as despondent because of the failure of Tet. But the PR started to roll in that the Communists had effectively taken the battle to the Americans and the South Vietnamese Army. Then the so-called “Cronkite moment” happened. CBS anchor Cronkite said during a news broadcast on February 27, 1968, that “we have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds.” He added, “We are mired in a stalemate that could only be ended by negotiation, not victory.”

As my friend and colleague, W. Joseph Campbell, notes in his excellent book, “Getting It Wrong,” Cronkite had little influence on Johnson’s thinking. “In the days and weeks after the Cronkite program, Johnson was adamant in defending his Vietnam policy. On multiple occasions during that time, the president in effect brushed aside Cronkite’s downbeat assessment and sought to rally support for the war effort. At a time when Cronkite’s views should have been most potent, the president remained openly and tenaciously hawkish on the war.” For more, see https://mediamythalert.wordpress.com/2017/02/23/after-cronkite-moment-lbj-doubled-down-on-viet-policy/

But the Communists had won the PR battle–often based on media myths–as Americans turned against the war, and LBJ’s confidantes followed the public’s view.

Campbell also makes short shrift of the claim that the U.S. military was responsible for the “napalm girl” attack. Associated Press photographer Nick Ut took one of the most memorable photographs of the Vietnam War — the image of a 9-year-old girl screaming in terror as she fled from a misdirected napalm attack. The AP said the famous photo, taken June 8, 1972, “communicated the horrors of the Vietnam War in a way words could never describe, helping to end one of the most divisive wars in American history.”

The famous “napalm girl” photo did not involve the U.S. military.

But the plane was from the South Vietnam military and flown by a South Vietnamese pilot.

By referring to “American planes” in an article, The New York Times insinuated that U.S. forces were responsible for the napalm attack that preceded Ut’s photograph, Campbell writes. He tried to get DaTimes to correct the information but got nowhere. For more, see https://mediamythalert.wordpress.com/2012/06/03/40-years-on-the-napalm-girl-photo-and-its-associated-errors/

Some excellent reporting occurred during the Vietnam War, but what seems to stick in the American psyche about Tet, Cronkite and the napalm photo are mostly wrong—media myths like many we see today.

Finally, Vietnam is a mess. When your currency is valued at 22,000 dong to the dollar, you’ve got problems. People openly complain about the lack of full-time jobs except in the government. In 2011, Nguyen Phu Trong was appointed secretary general of the Communist Party. He served as the party’s chief ideologue before. That doesn’t bode well for solving the problems of the country.

A personal note: As the only American on board a trip to the DMZ, I tried to counter the propaganda of the guide, a committed Communist, about the information she was providing. But the other members of the tour–Brits, Canadians, French and Vietnamese–had already embraced the myths even though most of them were in their 20s and 30s.

Moreover, I had a wonderful time seeing the historic sites of Hue and Hoi An, a lovely town south of Danang, in central Vietnam. I met many courteous and friendly people during my visit. The attitude toward me as an American was mostly curiosity and certainly not condemnation. I stopped by a Catholic church—the religion that remains that of an estimated 20 percent of the population–and the members greeted me with enthusiasm. I wish the people, not the government, well.