How Television Depicted the Vietnam War Term Paper

Pages: 13 (3869 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 5  ·  Level: Master's  ·  Topic: Government: Foreign Policy

SAMPLE EXCERPT:

[. . .] A number of events would transpire in the months and years to come, but the Tet Offensive representing the beginning of the end of the hawkish majority in the United States. In fact, even mainstream Americans who did not fully understand what had happened during the Tet Offensive quickly came to realize that U.S. forces in Vietnam were not winning the war so much as they were sitting ducks for an enemy with seemingly inexhaustible reserves. In this regard, Hunt (2010) emphasizes that during the Tet Offense, “NLF forces attacked cities all over South, including Saigon, but are beaten back with heavy losses. American media and public opinion register shock” (p. 7).

In response to the Tet Offensive and the other high-profile problems that were being reported in Vietnam, including a growing heroin epidemic among U.S. troops and rampant marijuana use, CBS dispatched the country’s most respected anchorman, Walter Cronkite (so trusted he was known to many Americans as “Uncle Walt”) to South Vietnam to determine the facts about what was actually happening on the ground. Following his return to the United States, Cronkite ended a special CBS episode on the Tet Offensive with his empirical observations about the war that would have repercussions across the country and even into the Oval Office. The transcript of Cronkite’s conclusion that follows below was yet another shock to an American consciousness that was searching for the truth amid a sea of governmental half-truths, distortions, cover-ups and outright lies about the war in Vietnam:

To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past. . . . To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion. On the off chance that military and political analysts are right, in the next few months we must test the enemy’s intentions, in case this is indeed his last big gasp before negotiations. But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could. (as cited in Friedman, 2010, p. 3)

Acknowledging Uncle Walt’s powerful sway over American public opinion, following Cronkite’s broadcast President Lyndon Johnson is reported to have confided to his staff that, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America” (see Figure 1 below).

Figure 1. President Lyndon B. Johnson watching Walter Cronkite’s historic denouncement of the Vietnam War: February 27, 1968

Source: http://www.iancfriedman.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/02/Screen-shot-2010-02-26-at-11.07.35-AM.png

In addition, Cronkite would further galvanize American public opinion a few months later when he denounced the police brutality at the Chicago Democratic National Convention in Chicago when he became “visibly upset” during the broadcast as thousands of demonstrators were savagely beaten on national television (Mitchell, 2009). It would be nice at this point in the paper to report that the impact of the press on the war in Vietnam was so powerful that Johnson recognized the futility of prosecuting the war in Vietnam any further as a result of Cronkite’s indictment and that the war was immediately ended and all American troops were brought home safely.

Unfortunately, the historical record makes it clear that the war would drag on for several more bloody years, but the impetus to bring about a swift end to the war gained further momentum as the mainstream media continued to report the ugly side of the war to an American public which had become numb from the bad news. Lawmakers too were loudly calling for a sensible solution to America’s involvement in Vietnam, but it was clear by this point that the United States had tied itself in a geopolitical knot from which there was no easy escape (Hunt, 2010).

Moreover, the Vietnamese knot became truly Gordian in dimensions in early 1969. Besides the Tet Offense, one of the more pivotal events that would transform any remaining hawks into doves occurred in March 1969 when the American public first became aware of one of the darker sides of the Vietnam War as details of the My Lai massacre were reported by the American and international press. The fact that ordinary, red-blooded American troops were capable of viciously murdering innocent Vietnamese old men, women and children and that U.S. Army authorities had concealed the massacre for a full year sent yet more shock waves through the U.S. psyche during this especially turbulent period in the country’s history. In this regard, Willbanks (2014) reports that:

On March 16, 1968, U.S. soldiers from Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment of the 11th Brigade, Americal Division swept through the village of My Lai. By the time the day was over, more than 500 elderly men, women, and children had been slaughtered. For many Americans, the My Lai Massacre became a symbol for all that was wrong with what they considered an immoral war. (p. 104)

Indeed, even the most zealous hawks became hard-pressed to defend the United States’ role in Vietnam after My Lai even following President Nixon’s ordering the release of Lieutenant William Calley, the Charlie Company commander, from a military stockade and transferred to a house arrest status, also as reported by Uncle Walt as shown in Figure 2 below.

Figure 2. Walter Cronkite reporting on Lieutenant William Calley’s release from a military stockade where he had been imprisoned for his role in the My Lai massacre

Source: “The Real Story of the My Lai Massacre” [video]

Other pivotal events, however, also occurred in early 1968 that helped reshape the American public’s views about the war following Richard Nixon’s assumption of the U.S. presidency in January 1969. To his credit, Nixon inherited a nightmare of global proportions in Vietnam and he sought to identify viable strategies to end the war without appearing to engage in any actions that would even have the appearance of a humiliating defeat for the United States, and this effort would define his early presidency from the outset (Hunt, 2010). While he searched for a final solution to end the war, Nixon pursued the gradual replacement of American forces with Vietnamese in a process termed “Vietnamization,” but as the media accurately concluded at the time, this was simply prolonging the national agony and did not represent real progress in ended the war (Hunt, 2010). In fact, as the months passed, Nixon would escalate the war further still through by bombing suspected Vietnamese camps and supply lines in Laos and Cambodia (Hunt, 2010).

It is difficult to say whether the mainstream media played a role in minimizing America’s expanded actions in Southeast Asia at this time any further or simply managed to exacerbated them, and this issue is still being debated today. For instance, Heubner (2005) points out that, “Many scholars and other observers of U.S. press coverage of the Vietnam War have criticized the media for showing either too much or too little” (p. 150). The reality of the situation at this point in history, however, was that television was just coming into its own as a media resource and there was in fact a great deal to cover when it came to the military and behind-the-scenes action in Vietnam. It is readily understandable, then, that a majority of Americans were receiving their information about the war in Vietnam from television rather than newspapers for the first time in history, and that the executive branch of the federal government came to view the mainstream media as an enemy (Vietnam and TV News, 2011).

This governmental perspective of television as the enemy was further reinforced when gruesome events such as the execution of an alleged Viet Cong prisoner by the South Vietnamese National Police Chief was presented on the prime time news across America, with the iconic image depicted in Figure 3 below riveting the nation’s attention of just how medieval the situation on the ground was in South Vietnam.

Figure 3. Execution of suspected Viet Cong prisoner by the South Vietnamese National Police Chief

Source: “Nguyn Ngc Loan (American Ally) murders” [video]

On the one hand, many critics of the mainstream media argue that by sensationalizing the problems that the United States was experiencing in Vietnam, the press was playing directly into the hands of the North Vietnamese who were all too happy to see discontent over the war being sowed in America. On the other hand, though, some authorities counter that by perpetuating the Big Lie that the U.S. government and military were foisting on the American people concerning just how great the war in Vietnam was going and how bright the outcome looked (especially prior to the Tet Offensive), the mainstream media helped keep the war going far longer than might have otherwise been possible (Huebner 2005).

As if the Tet Offensive, My Lai and the expansion of the war into Laos and Cambodia were not… [END OF PREVIEW]

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