Clarence R Wyatt. Vietnam War Era: People and Perspectives. Editor: Mitchell K Hall. ABC-CLIO, 2009.
The role of the news media remains one of the most controversial aspects of American involvement in Vietnam. Understanding what the press did—and did not do—and why is important to achieving a clearer sense of how and why American society approached the conflict in Vietnam, and the parallel conflict at home, as it did.
This issue of the press and the Vietnam War had lasting implications. The issue of government information policy, especially regarding national security, is still very much with us. From the 1983 Grenada operation through the Persian Gulf War to the conflict in Iraq and the global War on Terror, information policy and press access have been a major part of government and military planning. The degree to which the public has confidence in the information that it receives, whether from the government, the military, or news organizations, greatly affects the degree to which it will support any military conflict.
In addition, ideas about the role of the press are an important part of the mythology that has developed around the Vietnam War. As it has for all of the United States’ previous major military engagements, American society has developed a kind of public “consensus of memory” that designates certain topics and conclusions as safe, while dismissing or ignoring others altogether. That consensus has evolved over time, but at each step it has limited the questions that we can ask of that experience and the answers that might help us view current and future conflicts more clearly.
Since the end of the Vietnam War, two images of the press have appeared in this public memory. The first appeared only briefly, toward the end of the war and immediately afterward. In that conception, the press was something of a deliverer, dispelling government lies and enabling the American people to bring an ill-advised, unjust war to an end. That image was soon replaced by that of betrayer. In this manifestation, individual journalists and entire news organizations deliberately distorted news of the war to suit their own political biases. In this view, the press downplayed or ignored progress in the conflict and emphasized—or invented—negative reports. Over time, this barrage of bad news eventually sapped the public’s will to bring the “noble cause,” as President Ronald Reagan called it, to a successful end. Thus, the news industry became a villain that misled the American public, dishonored the sacrifice of American soldiers, and abandoned the people of South Vietnam to communist oppression.
Neither image, however, is based on a real understanding of two larger issues. First, they are not based on a thorough sense of the institution of U.S. journalism. During the 20th century, the news media in America underwent significant changes. The institutional characteristics that developed derived from economic and cultural issues rather than the supposed political motivations incorporated in the public images of the press. Second, during the Cold War a “national security mentality” developed. The potential Armageddon represented by a Soviet Union in possession of nuclear weapons encouraged and justified a culture of official secrecy. The ability and willingness of the federal government, especially the executive branch, to control and manipulate information—often for legitimate security reasons, but frequently for more self-interested political reasons—grew dramatically. An exploration of the relationship between the press and government and the role that relationship played in American involvement in Vietnam should include these two elements.
Journalism in the United States possessed several key characteristics during the Cold War and the war in Vietnam. The first is ethnocentrism—the belief in the superiority of one’s own culture—what Herbert Gans described as the tendency of news organizations to focus on stories featuring the members of their “home” societies as one of the “enduring values of the news” (Gans 1979, 42-43). For American editors and news directors, this meant a story was really news only if Americans were somehow involved. Stories that did not directly affect or involve Americans were shunted to the background, if they were covered at all. American news organizations were not alone in exercising such judgments. A British editor once declared that it would take the deaths of 1,000 Africans or 50 Frenchmen to equal the newsworthiness of the death of one Englishman; “1,000 wogs equals 50 frogs equals one Englishman” in his more colorful phrasing (Wyatt 2007, 267).
This ethnocentrism affected how news organizations allocated resources. Believing that coverage of domestic issues and domestics stories was what readers, listeners, and viewers wanted, and that this was where the profits were, editors and news directors kept the bulk of their resources at home. This meant devoting relatively little attention to foreign coverage, especially of Asia, in the late 1950s as the United States became involved in Vietnam. Most of the meager foreign assets were devoted to Europe. For example, Time had 14 overseas bureaus, but only two—Hong Kong and Tokyo, with a total of three reporters between them—were in Asia. That same year, Newsweek had two reporters in Tokyo and U.S. News covered all of East Asia with one regional editor. The New York Times had 28 foreign offices, but only three in Asia.
The danger of this practice was not lost on news and media professionals, even at the time. A 1960 study of public relations work in the United States on behalf of foreign governments concluded that “the economics of U.S. news coverage” resulted in “hordes of reporters” following the American president’s every move while “the ranks of American journalists covering the rest of the world are remarkably thin … The facts we need to know are often concealed from us or get to us too late. All of a sudden there may be a blow-up in a country with which we have been deeply involved” (Cater and Pincus 1960, 20). Otto Friedrich, working for United Press during the French war in Vietnam, said: “The basic fact is that it would have cost a lot of money to support one of those red-blooded American reporters in Vietnam. Figure at least $100 a week in salary and at least $50 a week in expenses, and is it worth it? It might be, if an American newspaper really wanted to know what was going on in Indo-China…. But that is not what American editors wanted. They wanted stories of good guys fighting Reds, and that is what they got” (Friedrich 1959, 474-480).
During this post-World War II period, growing national literacy, mobility, and prosperity led to two other important changes in the economics of American journalism. First, news became a big and profitable business. Newspapers evolved from being the creatures of single owner/publishers to being publicly owned, corporate entities. This transformation to big business was particularly true in television. Also, journalism changed from being a barely respectable craft to being a profession. It developed a canon of standards and a system of professional education. Reporters were increasingly college and graduate-school trained, the professional and social peers of the political leaders whom they covered.
The Rise of the National Security Mentality
From the beginning of the Republic, American officials had attempted to conduct certain business in private. Because the federal government was so limited for most of the nation’s history, however, there was little concern over the maintenance of government secrets. This began to change in the 1930s and 1940s as the power of the federal government increased, especially with the advent of the atomic age and the Cold War. With the fear of subversion from within and the profound threat from without, with massive death and destruction just hours or minutes away, presidents felt the need to control information lest any slip signal weakness or overaggressiveness. This led the press and public to defer to the presidency, especially on matters of national security. Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower greatly expanded the ability to classify information and hold it from public, even congressional, view. In late 1945, the McMahon Act severely restricted access to information about nuclear technology. In September 1951, President Truman issued Executive Order 10-290, giving hundreds of executive branch employees authority to classify information. Executive Order 10-501, issued in November 1953 by President Eisenhower, created 30 new levels of classification and formed the basis of federal information policy for the next 15 years.
These developments raised concerns among congressional leaders, the press, and public figures. U.S. News editor David Lawrence called Truman’s order “our own iron curtain” and predicted that “the only information the public may get officially will be that which the President and his political advisors deem good for the Administration’s political fortunes” (Lawrence 1951, 6). Responding to Eisenhower’s order, Sigma Delta Chi, the press fraternity, declared: “The imposition of secrecy on the broad and undefined ground of ‘Executive Privilege’ has reached a new peak … posing the most serious threat to the theory of open government so far in U.S. history” (“Journalism Group” 1959, 12).
Although this increased control did serve legitimate security concerns, it also provided political cover for administrations. A prominent example is the May 1960 U-2 incident, in which American pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down and captured while flying photo reconnaissance missions over the Soviet Union. Such flights had gone on for years; the Soviets knew about them, as did key journalists and congressional leaders. Still, Eisenhower hoped to avoid embarrassment. Assuming the pilot was dead and the plane destroyed, the White House issued a cover story that described the mission as NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) weather research. However, when Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev produced pictures from the plane’s cameras and a live pilot before the Supreme Soviet, it became clear that only the American public had been deceived.
President John F. Kennedy raised information management to a high art. He understood how journalism had changed and how journalists worked much better than did his immediate predecessors. After all, he had worked as a reporter himself; he listed his occupation on his National Press Club bio as “a former newspaperman now in politics” (Wyatt 1993, 27). Kennedy understood reporters’ need for access and a steady supply of information.
Kennedy cultivated relationships with key news organizations and journalists. During the 1960 presidential campaign, he met several times with Henry Luce, hoping to at least neutralize the staunchly Republican publisher of Life and Time. His attentions had at least some effect—Luce told an aide that Kennedy “seduces me…. When I’m with him I feel like a whore” (Halberstam 1979, 352-355). Ben Bradlee of Newsweek and the Washington Post was JFK’s neighbor and drinking buddy. Charles Bartlett, the Washington correspondent for the Chattanooga Times, was a long-time Kennedy intimate, having introduced him to Jacqueline Bouvier. One White House reporter, in describing Bartlett’s close relationship to Kennedy, called Bartlett “a tomb of secrets” (O’Brien 2005, 827).
Kennedy also understood the rising influence of television and the ability it gave him to bypass the press. On January 25, 1961, Kennedy held the first presidential press conference to be broadcast live on television, and the event represented a major change. Kennedy moved the event from the Indian Treaty Room, where reporters could see every grimace and twitch in the presidential face, to the State Department auditorium, which created a physical distance between the president and the press and was much better suited to the needs of television. Reporters were told not to identify themselves or their employers when asking questions, supposedly to save time and allow more participants. Of course the practice also kept the focus on the star of the show, Kennedy himself. Many journalists hailed the live press conference as a move to greater openness, but it actually gave a president, especially a natural performer such as JFK, even greater ability to shape the news and public perception.
If this program of control through the appearance of spontaneity and candor did not work, Kennedy also showed a willingness to clamp down. He once denied Hugh Sidey, Time’s White House correspondent and Washington’s most influential reporter, access to the White House for weeks in retaliation for an irksome story. He also used federal investigators to find sources of unauthorized leaks.
Despite Kennedy’s personal relationships with key journalists and his understanding of the journalistic process, his information practices eventually created resentment. His attempts to suppress the New York Times story on the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis brought critical responses. New policies regulating contacts between executive branch officials and reporters also drew fire, even from Kennedy’s friends. In a private letter to the president dated November 24, 1962, columnist Joe Alsop, whose home had been the Kennedys’ last stop on inauguration night, decried the regulations, saying that openness was “the chief safeguard of the public interest” (Wyatt 1993, 46). Less friendly critics also weighed in. A Republican Party publication quoted a joke involving Defense Department spokesman Arthur Sylvester and presidential press secretary Pierre Salinger that was making its way around Washington: “When Sylvester says the government is lying, he’s telling the truth. When Salinger says the government is telling the truth, he’s lying” (Meyer 1963, 513).
The American Press Comes to Vietnam
President Kennedy brought these approaches to information management to his handling of the Vietnam conflict. The Vietcong had become much more aggressive in 1959 and 1960, putting greater pressure on the increasingly fragile regime of South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem. Two major priorities shaped Kennedy’s policies toward Vietnam: don’t lose South Vietnam, but don’t appear to be taking over the effort. After the October 1961 fact-finding mission by military adviser Maxwell Taylor and special assistant Walt Rostow, Kennedy responded to the higher level of insurgent activity by increasing military and financial aid to Diem, as well as increasing the number of American advisers working directly with South Vietnamese combat units.
The increased combat activity sparked greater interest among the American public. Combat reporting—simple, direct, and dramatic—appealed to editors and readers. Vietnam also emerged as a more prominent part of the continuing Cold War drama between Kennedy and Khrushchev. This heightening U.S. involvement made Vietnam more of an “American” story, and the increased press commitment in South Vietnam paralleled that of the Kennedy administration. In 1961 and early 1962, major news organizations established full-time offices in the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon. Among the early group were Homer Bigart for the New York Times, Peter Arnett and Malcolm Browne for the Associated Press, Neil Sheehan for United Press International, Nick Turner for Reuters, François Sully for Newsweek, and Charles Mohr and Mert Perry for Time.
However, Kennedy also did not want Vietnam to be seen as an American war. To create the appearance of distance, in November 1961 his administration ordered U.S. officials to provide the press with no information regarding military or political activity and to refer all inquiries to South Vietnamese officials—who were usually reluctant to speak with reporters. Admiral Harry Felt, commander in chief of U.S. forces in the Pacific, tightened access even more in early 1962 when he banned reporters from helicopter combat missions piloted by Americans. This made it more difficult for reporters to assess the effectiveness of this new tool and the effectiveness of the South Vietnamese troops it took into battle.
On February 20, 1962, a cable from Dean Rusk to Frederick Nolting codified the State Department policy of stonewalling, issuing a cable that established an information policy for U.S. government and military personnel in South Vietnam. The policy urged Americans not to “grant interviews or take other actions implying all-out U.S. involvement,” and declared that stories on civilian casualties “are clearly inimical to national interests.” Additional points emphasized the need to support Diem, claiming “articles that tear down Diem only make our task more difficult.”
The final guidelines held the key to the whole memorandum and provided the muscle by which the U.S. government could withhold or manipulate information. Item six said:
“Operations may be referred to in general terms, but specific numbers—particularly numbers of Americans involved—and details of material introduced are not to be provided. On tactical security matters, analyses [of] strengths and weaknesses and other operational details which might aid the enemy should be avoided.” The last point said: “Correspondents should not be taken on missions whose nature is such that undesirable dispatches would be highly probable” (Wyatt 1993, 92).
These two statements essentially denied the American people information on the greater role that their fathers, sons, and brothers were playing in the conflict, while also preventing them from hearing of any but the most favorable stage-managed operations.
In the meantime, President Ngo Dinh Diem also cracked down on reporters. Government officials refused to speak with them, military commanders denied them access to their areas of operations, and they were followed and harassed by Diem’s secret police. The regime even expelled reporters such as Newsweek’s François Sully on trumped-up charges of being a Vietcong spy, an opium smuggler, and a patron of sex orgies.
At this point most of the mythology surrounding the press’s role in Vietnam began to take shape. Reporters such as Bigart, Sheehan, and Browne represented a significant commitment of human and financial resources by their employers, who expected steady coverage of the conflict in return. Needing to satisfy this demand, but being shut off from American and South Vietnamese official information, reporters turned to the only available sources—American advisers in the field.
It was not surprising that a partnership developed between the Saigon press corps and the young captains, majors, and lieutenant colonels who made up the advisory force. They were peers in age, mainly in their twenties and early thirties. Advisers and reporters also shared a background of advanced professional training in their respective fields; they were all rising stars. Shaped by the legacy of World War II, they held similar views regarding the need to oppose aggression early and firmly, as well as the U.S. responsibility to lead the way. They also shared similar ideas on American power and, by extension, their own capabilities, sharing a sense of “candoism.” The reporters and advisers were committed to drawing the line against communism.
Each group satisfied professional needs of the other. The advisers, frustrated with the ineffectiveness of U.S. policy, especially the commitment to the increasingly isolated Diem regime, needed an outlet to publicly air their concerns. Reporters needed reliable sources to support the coverage their employers demanded. The journalists did not want South Vietnam to fall to the communists, nor did they have an innate desire to criticize U.S. policy. They were motivated not by political or ideological bias but rather by the need to satisfy the imperatives of the American news industry.
The best-known example of this relationship involved Lt. Col. John Paul Vann, Neil Sheehan, and David Halberstam. Vann, the chief adviser to the commander of the South Vietnamese army’s Seventh Division, was a star among the American advisers, and the press gravitated toward him and the Seventh Division’s success against the Vietcong. That success quickly unraveled, however, as Huynh Van Cao, commanding general of the Seventh, grew cautious, fearing that aggressive action and the resulting casualties might jeopardize his political ambitions. Vann voiced his frustrations, particularly to Sheehan of United Press International and Halberstam of the New York Times, who had won Vann’s confidence by sharing the hardships of life in the field.
Reflecting the perspectives of these sources, coverage of the conflict grew more critical of the Diem regime and the U.S. commitment to it. The U.S. and South Vietnamese governments responded by continuing to stonewall the Saigon press corps. Kennedy sought to divide the press and discredit the reporters working in Vietnam. He cultivated editors and prominent columnists, encouraging them to reassign bothersome reporters or to dismiss them as inexperienced and their coverage as overly dramatic. For example, Joe Alsop received access to helicopter missions during a visit to Vietnam in the spring of 1962, an opportunity denied resident reporters. On a similar VIP tour in July 1963, New York Herald-Tribune columnist Marguerite Higgins enjoyed access to top American and South Vietnamese officials, including a rare interview with Diem himself. On the basis of these sources, Higgins concluded that the effort in South Vietnam was going quite well and that reporting to the contrary by the resident press corps was due to its collective inexperience and gullibility.
Otto Fuerbringer, the managing editor of Time, went so far as to disavow his reporters’ coverage in the very pages of the magazine. Charles Mohr and Merton Perry had been working in Vietnam for months. Their reporting, which had grown increasingly critical, was repeatedly rewritten to reflect a more positive tone. In the fall of 1963, Fuerbringer asked the two to file a status report on the conflict. Seizing the opportunity, Mohr and Perry filed a major assessment of the state of the South Vietnamese government and the effectiveness of the American effort. Holding no punches, the piece began: “The war in Vietnam is being lost.” An enraged Fuerbringer rejected the dispatch, and then dictated a story for Time‘s Press section. “The newsmen themselves have become a part of South Vietnam’s confusion,” he wrote. “They have covered a complex situation from only one angle, as if their own conclusions offered all the necessary illumination.” In the resident press’s eyes, Fuerbringer said, Diem was automatically “stubborn and stupid,” while his critics were treated with “sympathy.” The reporters also downplayed South Vietnamese successes as contrary to “the argument that defeat is inevitable as long as Diem is in power” (Wyatt 1993, 121-122). Not surprisingly, Mohr and Perry resigned.
Diem took a more direct approach. His brother and chief adviser Ngo Dinh Nhu unleashed his secret police on reporters. Halberstam and Sheehan discovered that their names were on an assassination list kept by Nhu. On July 7, police attacked reporters, including Peter Arnett of the Associated Press, who were covering an anti-Diem demonstration. Four policemen knocked Arnett to the ground and kicked him viciously until Halberstam, yelling “Get back, get back you sons of bitches, or I’ll beat the shit out of you,” rescued him (Sheehan 1988, 352-353, 356-357).
From January to September 1963, the conflict between American reporters and American officials in Vietnam became acute. At the beginning of the year, an operation near Ap Bac in the Mekong Delta had been designed as a showpiece of South Vietnamese prowess. When it failed owing to the incompetence of the South Vietnamese commander, American officials tried to claim it as a success and dismiss media coverage of the battle. Admiral Felt, visiting Vietnam at the time of the operation, characterized Neil Sheehan’s coverage as an example of “bad news … filed immediately by young reporters without checking the facts.” On seeing Sheehan two days later, Felt snapped “So you’re Sheehan. You ought to talk to some of the people who’ve got the facts.” “You’re right,” Sheehan shot back, “and that’s why I went down there every day” (Sheehan 1988, 314).
Over the following weeks, tensions increased. Upon hearing that John Mecklin, the U.S. Information Agency chief in Saigon, had returned stateside for surgery, one reporter said, “I hope the son of a bitch dies” (Moyar 2006, 453, n. 52). Reacting to news that a reporter had narrowly avoided being shot, one embassy staffer snapped his fingers and said, “Darn.” The press corps created a little jingle, sung to the tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”—“We are winning/This I know/General Harkins told me so/If you doubt it/Who are you/McNamara says so, too” (Wyatt 1993, 104).
The crisis for the Diem regime and within the American community came to a head in the summer and fall of 1963. In May, a parade in Hue celebrating the anniversary of Archbishop Ngo Dinh Thuc’s appointment to the bishopric included the display of Vatican flags. Ngo Dinh Diem, Thuc’s brother, attended the parade and reminded his brother of the law against flying any flag but that of South Vietnam. Diem even issued a statement saying that the Vatican flags had flown in error. A few days later, when denied the right to display their flags during the celebration of the Buddha’s birthday, Buddhist priests launched nationwide protests. Within days, what became known as the “Buddhist crisis” attracted opponents of the Diem regime from across South Vietnamese society. The Kennedy administration was shaken by the depth of the anti-Diem actions, illustrated most vividly by photographs of a Buddhist monk burning himself to death at a Saigon intersection on June 11.
When Diem and his brother Nhu struck back by beating and arresting hundreds of Buddhist monks on August 21, Kennedy realized that the Diem regime was self-destructing. Kennedy replaced discredited Ambassador Frederick Nolting with Henry Cabot Lodge. Lodge privately indicated to a group of Vietnamese generals that the United States would recognize a new government in South Vietnam, giving the green light to a coup. More publicly, Lodge signaled a new relationship with the Saigon press corps. Immediately upon arriving in Saigon, Lodge began to meet with reporters, and exchanged blunt questions and candid answers. Lodge agreed with the reporters’ assessment of Diem and, as a savvy politician, knew the value of a sympathetic press. The embassy took a much tougher stand in response to attacks on reporters by the police, and Lodge even allowed reporters to use the embassy’s communications equipment to file stories when Diem shut off the government facilities.
Various plans by South Vietnamese officers finally came to fruition on November 1, when Diem’s government was overthrown. Despite U.S. calls for safe passage for Diem and his family, Diem and his brother Nhu were murdered. Exactly three weeks later, an assassin would kill President Kennedy.
The Rise of Maximum Candor
In its last days, the Kennedy administration realized that its policy of denying reporters access to official information only drove them to other, less controllable sources. A shift in approach was evident by the time of President Kennedy’s death. As the United States became more deeply and directly involved in the war in Vietnam under President Lyndon Johnson, that new policy, known as “maximum candor,” formed the basis of information policy until U.S troops began their gradual withdrawal from Vietnam in 1969.
Although several officials in the government and military argued for a change in press policy, Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs James Greenfield was the most forceful and articulate advocate. In a memo dated December 8, 1964, he told his counterparts at the Defense Department and the White House that “the press will write whether we brief or not. You can’t prevent stories by not providing information…. Whenever we have taken pains to keep the press abreast of what is happening it has worked to our advantage” (Wyatt 1993, 158).
Beginning in the summer of 1964, the new policy sought to remove the chief irritants between the resident press and American officials in Vietnam. Barry Zorthian, a senior U.S. Information Agency official, was named coordinator of information for the entire U.S. effort in Vietnam, and significantly increased the staffs of the civilian and military information operations. The Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) expanded its briefings, distributed a much greater volume of information, and made access to top officials easier. Reporters received more help in getting out to the field, and the press received improved facilities in Saigon and other locations.
Over the following months, a coordinated information effort, operating as the Joint U.S. Public Affairs Office (JUSPAO) evolved. Working under Barry Zorthian was a small army of information officers, all the way down to provincial and battalion levels. This apparatus quickly became extremely effective at furnishing the American press what it needed most—the information and logistical support necessary to report the hard news of American activity in Vietnam.
To work in Vietnam, a journalist had to receive accreditation from JUSPAO and the South Vietnamese government. This required only a valid passport and visa, a letter of employment, and a current immunization card. Accreditation gave journalists access to the full range of facilities provided by the U.S. effort in South Vietnam—commissary and post exchange stores, officers’ clubs, military transportation, and press facilities. At the height of U.S. combat involvement, more than 600 people held official press accreditation.
In addition to such assistance, the press in Vietnam worked under extremely light official restrictions. Formal military censorship was considered briefly in the spring of 1965 but was rejected as legally unworkable and politically problematic. Instead, reporters in Vietnam agreed to abide by a set of ground rules detailing the types of information that could and could not be released. Although the rules changed slightly from time to time, restricted information generally fell into the following categories: (1) future plans, operations, or strikes; (2) information on or confirmation of rules of engagement; (3) amounts of ordnance and fuel on hand in combat units; (4) exact number and types or identification of casualties suffered by friendly units; (5) during an operation, unit designations and troop movements, tactical deployments, name of operation, and size of friendly force involved, until officially released by MACV; (6) intelligence unit activities; and (7) a variety of information about air operations against North Vietnam.
As the number of American troops and the level of combat action grew, the press corps faced an increasingly daunting task. The war spread across the difficult terrain of South Vietnam and consisted mainly of small unit actions that lasted a few minutes or hours. Even with access to military transportation, it was hard for reporters to reach many of these engagements while in progress. Although the number of accredited news personnel eventually grew to more than 600, that figure does not accurately reflect the press corps’ news-gathering capability. Everyone who worked for a news agency, from the bureau chief to the driver, had to be accredited. Even at the height of the press presence in Vietnam, probably no more than 30 or 40 people were actually involved in gathering and producing news for organizations with national audiences. Finally, American editors and producers made covering the day-to-day action of Americans in combat their first priority. All of these factors made it impossible for news organizations to gather and verify independently all information about combat action. As a result, they depended on the flood of information provided by the official U.S. information machine.
All of this points to the central factor—and the central problem—of the relationship between the American press and the American government and military over Vietnam information. Taking advantage of the characteristics of the American news industry, the maximum candor approach largely achieved its goals. It made the press dependent on the government for information concerning the war and, consequently, allowed the government to shape the news. As one of James Greenfield’s aides wrote to him on April 30, 1965,
The preoccupation of the press with each day’s story can be made to our advantage to minimize the impact and duration of unfavorable events, but only if we tell the story whole, all at once. It’s never a good idea to conceal from reporters what they may find out for themselves—because in Viet-Nam they will. And when they do they’ll write it their way, not in a context of our choosing (Wyatt 1993, 163).
To be sure, some minor incidents occurred. In the summer of 1965, reporters were denied access to the airbase at Da Nang, a chief staging point for the bombing campaign against North Vietnam. Later that year, military efforts to downplay growing American casualty rates and inflate those of the enemy, especially after the fierce fighting in the Ia Drang Valley, inspired anger and sarcasm from reporters. In June 1968, John Carroll of the Baltimore Sun had his accreditation suspended for six months for violating a news hold on Operation Pegasus along the demilitarized zone. One of the most famous incidents occurred in August 1965. Morley Safer of CBS filmed a group of Marines setting fire to thatched huts. On the morning after the film had aired, CBS president Frank Stanton was awakened by a phone call. “Frank, are you trying to fuck me?” the voice bellowed. “Who is this?” asked the groggy Stanton. “Frank, this is your president and yesterday your boys shat on the American flag.” Lyndon Johnson followed up his tirade with an investigation into Safer’s background, as well as pressuring Stanton to reassign Safer from Vietnam (Halberstam 1979, 490). Many journalists expressed growing concern and frustration over this dependence and its consequences. In a 1967 assessment of the press’s performance, Newsweek lamented the fact that “coverage of Vietnam … suffers from undue reliance on centralized sources.” New York Times Saigon bureau chiefs repeatedly asked their editors to allow them to stop writing a daily summary of combat action—“a tedious collection of largely meaningless scraps,” as Charles Mohr called it. The emphasis on the “bang-bang,” Mohr continued, “severely limits our ability to do the deep, thoughtful, interesting, funny, investigative, and analytical reporting which will be our real record here.” When he made a similar request, R. W. Apple was told that “we get an arbitrary space allotment and the spot news has to be covered” (Wyatt 1993, 141).
All of this added up to a sense of near helplessness on the part of many journalists. “It’s the only story I’ve been on in my life where I get a hopeless feeling when I try to get on top of things,” said CBS’s Dan Rather. William Tuohy of the Los Angeles Times complained that “we’re drowning in facts here, but starved for information” (“Crud” 1966, 53).
Despite these frustrations, the journalistic/information system in Vietnam gave each participant what it needed in a largely complementary relationship—not the adversarial one that has come down to us as conventional wisdom. For example, from 1965 through 1972, fewer than a dozen reporters had their accreditation suspended or revoked for violating the ground rules. For several reasons, major news organizations had become, as institutions, more cautious and conservative. Especially as regarded stories involving foreign policy and national security, the press was reluctant to appear disloyal in the face of the threat from the Soviet Union. The professionalization of journalism, with its quest for objectivity, was part of this trend, as was the need to maintain access to sources within the government. Major news organizations had become big, profitable businesses subject to all of the pressures stockholders and the marketplace brought to bear. This was particularly true for the television networks, which were subject to Federal Communications Commission regulation and licensing.
A number of examples illustrate this caution. In late 1966 and early 1967, Harrison Salisbury, veteran foreign correspondent for the New York Times, became the first reporter from a major American news organization to visit North Vietnam. In his dispatches he acknowledged that his hosts showed him what they wanted him to see. Still, fellow Times correspondent Hanson Baldwin, concerned about “the effect that these stories will have upon the country and upon the Times,” wrote a refutation of Salisbury’s reporting and pressured editors into publishing it on the front page of the paper. Among other attacks, he referred to Salisbury’s reports as “grossly exaggerated.” A few days later a Times editorial further distanced the paper from Salisbury, and editor Clifton Daniel instructed his staff to “do everything we can in the coming weeks to balance the Salisbury reports” (Wyatt 1993, 155-156).
Reluctant to jeopardize access or profits, major news organizations also approached the big stories that supposedly defined the adversarial relationship between the press and the government with similar caution. The My Lai Massacre took place on March 16, 1968, in a small village on the northern coast of South Vietnam. According to charges later filed against Lieutenant William Calley, American troops murdered several hundred Vietnamese civilians. No reporters were present that day, only Army photographer Sgt. Ronald Haeberle. After the incident, officers, including the division commanding general, invoked a conspiracy of silence that held for more than a year. A soldier named Ron Ridenhour, who had not been present at My Lai, pieced together enough bits of stories from other troopers to conclude that something terrible had happened. He wrote to President Nixon, the secretaries of state and defense, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and several members of Congress. His letters led to an Army investigation and the filing of charges against several officers involved in the alleged incident, principally platoon commander Calley.
Even then, no major news organization picked up the story, leaving the field to former Associated Press reporter Seymour Hersh. From interviews with Calley and other participants and witnesses, Hersh put together a detailed account of the day. However, no major news outlet would touch the story. Only after the tiny Dispatch News Service, an alternative media organization based in California, marketed the story did the big organizations, now able to blame any problems with the story on Dispatch, pick it up.
A second example of caution involves the Pentagon Papers. In 1967, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara grew increasingly concerned about the direction and prospects of U.S. policy in Vietnam. Hoping to figure out how the situation had reached its current point, he authorized the compilation of a top-secret documentary history of U.S. involvement that became known as the Pentagon Papers.
One of the authors of the Pentagon Papers was political scientist Daniel Ellsberg, who had worked in the Pentagon and in Vietnam as a pacification analyst. Before going to Vietnam, Ellsberg had been an ardent supporter of the war, but his exposure to the war turned him into a similarly passionate opponent. By 1971, he was convinced that if the Pentagon Papers were released to the public, a popular outcry would bring the war to a quick end. Still possessing his security clearance, Ellsberg copied significant portions of the papers and looked for an outlet. He began with antiwar members of Congress, none of whom would touch the papers. He finally found a kindred soul in Neil Sheehan, who now worked for the New York Times. Sheehan convinced his editors and Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger to authorize a series of articles based on the Pentagon Papers. Sulzberger devoted a team of reporters and more than $100,000 to the series, which began on June 13, 1971. The Times endured immense political and economic pressure, as well as a legal challenge by the Nixon administration, to continue publishing the series.
As dramatic as these stories were, and as courageous as were the journalists involved, they still indicate the limits on reporting the Vietnam story. First, neither of these stories broke in Vietnam. Reporters there, committed to covering the day-to-day action of the war, did not have time to take on long-term investigative projects. Second, insiders broke both stories. Seymour Hersh and Neil Sheehan displayed significant courage and industry, but without Ron Ridenhour, the massacre might yet be unknown to all but a few Americans. Without Daniel Ellsberg, the Pentagon Papers could well be gathering dust in the bowels of the National Archives.
Even with these stories, public interest in Vietnam began to wane. Richard Nixon came into office determined to stabilize American power in the world by achieving some degree of rapprochement with the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. The war in Vietnam represented a major inconvenience to achieving this goal. Nixon first attempted to end the war quickly through increased bombing of North Vietnam. When that failed, in November 1969, he initiated a gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops and a buildup of the South Vietnamese military. As this process of “Vietnamization” continued, the number of American troops—and of American casualties—steadily declined. Declining with them was the press and the American public’s interest in the conflict. The antiwar movement lost momentum and fractured. A survey of college freshmen in the fall of 1970 revealed that the environment, not the war, was their top public policy concern. News organizations reduced or eliminated altogether their presence in Vietnam. The elaborate information apparatus that had once issued daily reams of statistics and summaries had less American activity to report. On January 9, 1971, a MACV press officer took the podium at the daily briefing in Saigon and announced there would be no morning release that day. “Normally we report B-52 strikes in Vietnam,” he said. “There were no indirect fire attacks. Normally we report ground action involving U.S. troops. There were no ground actions. There just wasn’t anything to report” (“U.S. Command” 1971, 2).
The war would, of course, continue for another four years and on occasion still intrude into the headlines: later in January 1971 with the failed invasion of southern Laos by the South Vietnamese military; the Easter Offensive in spring 1972, when the North Vietnamese seized control of the northern provinces of South Vietnam; and the final, tragic collapse of South Vietnam in March and April 1975. The press enjoyed a temporary glow of public acclaim during the Watergate period. However, news organizations proved not to be immune as the public lost confidence in the major institutions of American life—government, big business, education, and the press. With the end of the war, the process of assigning blame and drawing lessons began. With the conservative ascendancy of the 1980s, criticism of a supposedly liberal press became the conventional wisdom and shaped assessment of the press’s role in the failure of American will in Vietnam.
Basing their thinking about the press on this characterization, military and civilian leaders determined to keep the press on a tight leash in future conflicts. During the October 1983 invasion of Grenada, the government banned the press entirely for the first two days. Reporters who approached the island on their own in small boats were turned away at gunpoint. Under great pressure, the military allowed 15 reporters, out of the 700 staging on Barbados, access to the island. After Grenada, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. John Vessey appointed a commission headed by former MACV chief information officer Winant Sidle to draft a press policy. The main result was the development of the National Media Pool, an “emergency response team” of press from major media organizations. Panama was the first test of this new policy, and it did not work well, as the military deliberately did not mobilize the pool until after the initial invasion. The pool was mobilized at the beginning of Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm in August 1990, and accompanied the first troops into Saudi Arabia, but as U.S. troops poured into the region, so did journalists. The press corps soon exceeded 1,600, and the pool arrangement crashed and burned. Reporters had very limited pool access to the battlefield, and then only under the most tightly controlled conditions. Most coverage came from reporters at the briefings by commanding general “Stormin’ Norman” Schwarzkopf. This stonewall approach worked in Grenada, Panama, and Desert Storm only because the periods of intense combat were short, and journalistic and public attention shifted elsewhere before the controls began to crack. Even in Desert Storm, journalists struck out on their own to reach the battlefield. The most notable case was CBS’s Bob Simon, who was captured and held for 40 days by Iraqi troops.
Beginning in 2002, officials in the Defense Department came to the same realization that Assistant Secretary of State James Greenfield had back in late 1963 and early 1964. They understood that any war in Iraq aimed at removing Saddam Hussein and instituting new political and social structures would be longer than Desert Storm. They also understood that the characteristics of American journalism that had operated in Vietnam—the draw of covering American troops under fire, the “police beat” approach that the media took, justifying the massive economic investment that ensued, and the need to fill the even bigger news hole created by 24/7 news networks and the Internet—were still present and gave the government and military the same opportunity to shape the story. Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Victoria Clarke and her deputy Bryan Whitman developed an approach that greatly resembled Operation Maximum Candor. The heart of this approach was the embedded media policy—assigning reporters to units for extended periods. This eventually placed more than 600 reporters with units, with ground rules calling for relatively few limits on what could be reported, similar to the ground rules used during Vietnam.
As was also the case in Vietnam, the American public’s support for this conflict rests ultimately upon some hardheaded judgments. Is the goal achievable, and is it achievable at a price the public is willing to pay? In Vietnam, the reality of a complex struggle with no simple solutions eventually led the majority of Americans to answer “No.”
For a brief period at the end of the Vietnam War, Americans engaged in a consideration of the appropriate uses, and the limits, of American power. In a few years, the desire for simple answers to complex questions won out, and citizens began to compartmentalize and sanitize their experience in Vietnam. Americans eventually made the veterans of that war the focal point of their shared memory of Vietnam. Of course, honoring the service and sacrifice of these men and women is more than appropriate, but it also allowed us to ignore the hard questions that we confront yet again. The American people have a right to expect their government, their military, and, yes, their press to provide honest information. But the answers regarding the right or wrong, the worthiness, and the effectiveness of the sacrifice of blood and treasure rests ultimately with a wary, skeptical citizenry.