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.”
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.