The Propaganda of Imperialism Introduction

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The Propaganda of Imperialism

Areen, Gullapalli, Swanson

The Propaganda of Imperialism


"The US has about 50% of the world's wealth but only 6.3% of its population. In this situation we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and daydreaming, and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford the luxury of altruism and world benefaction. We should cease to talk about such vague and unreal objectives as human rights, the raising of living standards and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better." George Kennan, U.S. State Department, 1948.

In the following paper, we examine the recent history of US imperialism and the propaganda used to justify it to the American people. Emphasis is placed on the historical context of the conflicts.
Vietnam Geography

To understand Vietnam’s rich history it is necessary to examine the geography of this area. Vietnam is found directly south of China and is a coastal region surrounded by the Gulf of Tonkin, South China Sea, and Gulf of Thailand. Cambodia and Laos are found on its western border. The Red River delta is found in the north and in the south is the Mekong delta. North Vietnam is mountainous with flat lands around the Red River and South Vietnam is mostly flat marshland. The tropical climate and fertile land of Vietnam allow agriculture to flourish in several areas, particularly the river deltas, while fishing is the primary industry along the coast. [Leuhusen]

Vietnam Early History (Pre-Nineteenth Century)

The term “Viet” is an ethnic phrase whose linguistic origin is unknown. “Nam” is the Chinese word for south and “Viet” is theorized to mean “beyond borders.” Other names of locations are better understood, such as “Annam” or “pacified south” and “Tonkin,” which means “eastern capital.”

Vietnam history is marked by continuous periods of foreign rule and native resistance. Little is known of the first kingdom, the Kingdom of Nam Viet, which estimated to have existed around 206 BC. By 111 BC, the Han Dynasty of China took control of Vietnam. Thus, the area became a Chinese province and this remained the case until 939 AD when the first independent state was established in Vietnam. Then from 1075-1077 AD the Vietnamese fought against the Sung Dynasty. During the thirteenth century, the Vietnamese faced several Mongol attacks, the first (1258 AD) of which was a defeat and the second two (1258 AD and 1287 AD, respectively) involved Vietnamese fighting off Mongolian invaders. In 1407, the Ming dynasty of China assumes control over Vietnam until 1428 when the Le dynasty replaces Chinese rule. The late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries brought on the arrival of several western traders as European powers sought to explore and colonize all over the world. [PBS Online] The Portugese came first to open trading posts and were later followed by the Dutch and French. Vietnam itself, however, was self-governed at this time and power was split in the nation between the Trinh family and Nguyen family. In the north, the Trinh family settled around the capital of Hanoi while in the south the city of Hue was a major center in the fertile Mekong delta. The feud between these two families was one of the several examples of conflict between the north and south regions of Vietnam before the twentieth century. A short period of fighting amongst Vietnamese clans and peoples led up to the French bombardment and seizure of Danang from 1847-1858.
French Indochina: Colonization and Expansion (19th Century)

During the nineteenth century, as Western nations began asserting international dominance through regional imperialism, the French sought to control Vietnam and its resources. The French landed in Danang in August 1858 and originally intended on just installing a Consulate and trade center. However, when the Vietnamese Imperial Court denied this action, the “French responded by occupying Danang. Colonizing Vietnam was part of France’s plan of establishing a strategic and religious sphere of influence in Indochina” [VWAM]. The French justified their imperial aggression in Vietnam by an anti-Catholic policy, for after Buddhism and Confucianism, Catholicism was a dominant religion in Vietnam. This event in Danang marked the beginning of many decades of French colonial occupation in Vietnam.

Vietnam was particularly vulnerable to Western dominance because the nineteenth century Emperors had become ingrained in their Confucian philosophy and did not allow the nation to progress properly. This doctrine also involved a Vietnamese policy of isolation that further impeded development, both social and technological. Some members of the Imperial Court saw the problems of the emperor’s ideology and lead an effort to advance and modernize Vietnam. These progressives traveled to western countries in Europe and America and created a proposal to advance Vietnam based on international experience and Vietnamese traditions. This proposal was rejected in Vietnam and made it rather easy for the French to invade and occupy the country.

After Danang, they first established the protectorate of Cochin China in southern Vietnam and in 1861 declared Saigon to be the French colonial capital rather than Hanoi and Hue (the traditional Vietnamese capitals). In 1883, Vietnam officially lost its independence as France extended control in northern regions, as well. Tonkin and Annam were added to France’s imperial holdings during the 1880s. Tonkin (where Hanoi is located) was the northernmost of the three divisions of French colonial Vietnam while Annam (where Hue is located) was the central and Cochin China was the southernmost. These three protectorates maintained distinct government structures. Cochin China was originally a military government but eventually a civil governor and council was elected by civil servants and naturalized French; this structure was the model which Tonkin adopted. In Annam, the Vietnamese Emperor maintained his title but was subjected to French control and regulation. By 1891, France combined Laos and Cambodia with these three protectorates forming French Indochina, which existed until World War II. [Ferraro]

The Vietnamese have consistently fought against foreign dominance throughout their history and this tradition was again evident when the French arrived. Vietnamese government officials, or “mandarins,” in the Cochin China protectorate refused to cooperate or serve the French. The French also faced opposition when they added Tonkin and Annam as protectorates as the educated elite of Vietnam organized peasant forces in guerilla attacks. [Olson] Superior French military capabilities eventually defeated the Vietnamese resistance and asserted French control of the region.

French Indochina: Exploitation and Resistance (20th Century)

By the twentieth century, the French had established the dominance, security, and organization necessary to begin exploiting the resources of Vietnam. Government was instituted and structured in a manner that maintained French control and regulations. The political system was controlled by French administrators and supported by Vietnamese at the lowest levels. Not only were the Vietnamese excluded from political participation, but protests and public demonstration were quickly and quietly extinguished. State monopolies were imposed on the production and sale of several products, including alcohol, salt, and opium. Such monopolies and other political actions were implemented to take advantage of the Vietnamese and generate the maximum profits for foreign industrialists. French settlers were given enormous plots of farm land in the fertile Mekong River delta of southern Vietnam. The few Vietnamese who furthered French interests were also compensated with land. A plantation system began to form and Cochin China became a major rice exporting region. However, steep taxes were again enforced and the rice consumption within Vietnam actually decreased.

Rubber and mines plantations were also introduced. These new jobs came with extremely hazardous conditions and contract workers were forced to be subjected to them as they could be fined and jailed if they tried to abandon their job. While the advanced French brought new technology and resources to Vietnam, these were only used to exploit the land and its people as educational opportunities for the Vietnamese people actually decreased during the period of French control of Indochina.

While the French made some efforts to show the Vietnamese that they were helping the country by sharing technology and developing the country’s resources, Vietnamese sentiment was clearly against French occupation. This lead to the formation of several nationalist resistance movements, which became more organized by the turn of the century. One prominent movement was established by radical Confucian scholars and comprised of virtually all intellectuals, aristocrats, and youth. They promoted democracy, which was a new concept in the region that contrasted sharply with traditional imperial forms of government. Japan’s victory over Russia in 1904 providing significant encouragement and inspiration to Vietnamese resistance efforts. In fact, many Vietnamese revolutionaries went to Japan to study, relay resources, and plan movements in Vietnam. French authorities eventually found out about this Japanese aid and made a deal with the Japanese government to extradite all Vietnamese students from Japan. This policy was not strictly enforced and many Japanese officials still assisted the Vietnamese rebels and students flee to other countries, such as China and Korea.

Other resistance groups believed they could appeal to progressive French politicians to liberate Vietnam based on the democratic process and legal stipulations outlined in the French constitution. This passive and legalistic approach was ineffective and unpopular. After World War I, nationalist sentiments in Vietnam grew even stronger. However, no substantial progress had been made and the French refused to offer any consideration or compromise to resistance efforts. Meanwhile, the Russian Revolution was underway and the rise of Communism would have a major influence of Vietnam.

Ho Chi Minh

At this time, a young Vietnamese revolutionary from Annam was working to organize a petition to present in Versailles. This student was named Nguyen That Thanh, with the alias Nguyen Ai Quoc, and would eventually be known throughout the world as Ho Chi Minh. He was very impressed and fascinated by the Russian Revolution and Communist movement. In 1921, he joined a group of French intellectuals to establish the French Communist Party. One year later, he traveled to Moscow for training as an agent of the Communist International. Russian leaders saw his potential and rewarded his eagerness. Nguyen Ai Quoc was sent to China in 1924 as a member of an advisory team for the Chinese Communist Party. [Olson]

He would use his contacts in Russia and China to found the Association of Vietnamese Youth, which would train Vietnamese communist youth recruits in Moscow and China (this division in training would actually lead to conflict within the Vietnamese Communist Party between Soviet and Chinese supporters). This organization competed with other radical groups in efforts of recruiting youth to liberate the country, but Nguyen Ai Quoc’s resources and vision were most appealing. While many resistance movements were patiently waiting for the French to change their policies in Vietnam, it soon became apparent that this would not occur unless more extreme measures were pursued, whic Nguyen Ai Quoc’s group would provide. He realized that he must first unite the many resistance organizations, or at least those with similar ideologies, and formed the Indochinese Communist Party in 1930. From this point on, the Vietnamese liberation efforts were split into two major groups along the line of Communism. These two sides were supported and influenced by correspondingly opposing foreign parties. The French, however, took a strong position against all resistance groups and acted accordingly.

World War II: French Defeat and Japanese Rule (1939-1945)

World War II brought a new foreign rule to Vietnam as Japan quickly invaded and occupied areas throughout Asia. Vietnam was also effected by events in the European theater. When Germany invaded France, the Vichy Government was formed to govern Vietnam. Vichy accepted the Japanese occupation of Indochina and was allowed to continue an administrative role as a form of compensation. As the war was coming to a close and allied forces were about to claim victory, the Japanese forcefully overthrew French authorities throughout Indochina and declared Vietnam to be independent and under the protection of Japan. Just a few months later, Japan surrendered after the United States dropped two atomic bombs.

With French and Japanese governments overthrown, Vietnam was finally in a position to declare and establish true independence. Nguyen Ai Quoc was determined to take advantage of this situation and, in 1941, his Indochinese Communist Party announced the formation of the Revolutionary League for the Independence of Vietnam. This organization was better known as the Viet Minh, and Nguyen Ai Quoc used this force as an instrument to execute his revolutionary plan. This United Front contained an extremely diverse collection of ideologies and not all of them were aware of or in agreement with Nguyen Ai Quoc’s communist beliefs. The United States supported Nguyen Ai Quoc for he was fighting against Japan, a principal United States enemy, and provided him support in exchange for intelligence and manpower. [Ferraro] Nguyen Ai Quoc’s contrasting communist ideology was secondary to his role as a liberator. The Chinese Nationalist officials first supported the United Front, but when they realized Nguyen Ai Quoc’s political affiliation, they imprisoned him. By 1943 they soon recognized that Nguyen Ai Quoc wielded significant influence and ability and was necessary for the success of Vietnamese independence. Nguyen Ai Quoc was established by all as the leader of the Viet Minh Front and took on the new name of Ho Chi Minh, or “Bringer of Light.”

Post-World War II Vietnam

When World War II ended, Vietnam was left in political disarray. With the French and Japanese no longer in power, the Chinese and British took control. The Chinese Nationalists occupied area from the north as far south as the sixteenth parallel according to the allied agreement for them to accept Japan’s surrender while the British occupied southern Vietnam. Even with Chinese and British presence in Vietnam, the country was completely disorganized and provided a perfect opportunity for Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh to assume control of as much territory as possible and asserted itself as the dominant political force of Vietnam. In August 1945, the August Revolution began and Ho Chi Minh’s guerilla forces took control of Hanoi and then Hue, where they took the royal seal. Most of the people of Vietnam believed that the Viet Minh represented the true national front and by September, Ho Chi Minh declared himself to be president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. He established a provisional government in Hanoi that was in place by the time allied forces arrived in Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh realized he must mask the communist aspects of his movement to placates the international community, and in November 1945 the Indochinese Communist Party was formally dissolved (though it still actually maintained its operation).

Ho Chi Minh originally intended on negotiating Vietnam’s independence with France in early 1946. Ho Chi Minh expected to receive continued support from the United States after their cooperative working relationship during World War II. However, the United States’ closer alliance with France made it more inclined to provide French aid. Also, mounting Cold War fear made Ho Chi Minh’s communist beliefs an issue as the United States feared a domino effect of communism and preferred France’s western influence in the region. Thus, they provided France with billions of dollars of aid, as well as military capabilities. France eventually recognized the Democratic republic of Vietnam as a free state within the French Union and established a referendum to determine if Vietnam would be united or not. This delicate relationship could not be maintained and tension mounted and climaxed when France bombed Haiphong. Ho Chi Minh then ordered an offensive attack against France in December 1946. This offensive included battle in Hanoi and North and Central Vietnam. This event marked the beginning of what would be a decade of war for Vietnamese independence.

Vietnamese Struggle for Independence (1945-1954)

This decade following World War II represents a confusing and misunderstood era of Vietnamese and world history. Not even the Vietnamese people realized exactly who and why they were fighting during this time. A long history of resisting foreign rule and the presence of a strong nationalist leader in Ho Chi Minh were enough for the Vietnamese to mobilize and fight a long war against the French. The French clearly possessed a far superior military force, yet the Vietnamese employed clever tactics and took advantage of their familiarliy and comfort in less vulnerable, rural areas. The Vietnamese avoid large-scale battles and focused on destroying individual French facilities and units.  The nationalists were able to mobilize a large force that allowed them to sustain a great number of casualties. The French attempted to reach out and rally some Vietnamese to fight for them, particularly non-communists, but were unable to achieve this on any significant scale.  

In an attempt to appease Vietnamese nationalists, France agreed to an autonomous Vietnamese government within the French Union in 1949. The French also began to feel more pressure in their struggle with Vietnam as communism emerged in China, which provided a major boost for the Vietnamese effort. The Viet Minh took control of the crucial region of northern Vietnam bordering China and China was able to directly provide them with military aid and equipment. [Olson] Once again, Ho Chi Minh’s communist connections were extremely useful and in turn helped him rally more support among his people in Vietnam. In 1951, he merged the Unified Viet Minh Front with the National Union of Vietnam, or Lien Viet – a new, multiparty nationalist alliance. As part of more restructuring, Ho Chi Minh formed the Vietnamese Workers Party, or Lao Dong. This group served as a disguised for the Communist Party and again revealed the underlying communist nature of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. With so many different organizations in cooperation, the division was no longer between nationalists and non-communists, but simply between Vietnam and France.

In 1954, the Viet Minh attacked the French military base Dien Bien Phu in a crucial battle. What was meant to be a trap for the Vietnamese set by the French turned out to backfire as General Vo Ngyuen Giap was able to see through the French plan. He ordered Vietnamese peasants to carry artillery guns into the surrounding mountains in pieces on bicycles. These strategically located guns were used to destroy an airstrip which in turn allowed for a successful Viet Minh offensive strike on the base. While this Dien Bien Phu became known as a major victory for the Viet Minh, it came at a high cost as it is estimated that the Vietnamese had ten times as many casualties than the French. As would be seen in the Vietnam War, the Vietnamese were simply more willing to accept high numbers of casualties.

The French defeat at Dien Bien Phu was the proverbial straw that broke the horses back as public opinion turned decisively against the war in Vietnam. The French finally decided to end the fighting and on July 20, 1954 the Vietnam war for independence officially ended after diplomats from the United States, Soviet Union, England, China, France, and Vietnam met at the Geneva Conference to agree on a resolution in Vietnam. The Geneva Accords outlined that Vietnam was to be officially split at the seventeenth parallel into North Vietnam and South Vietnam. [Ferraro] The French were required to withdraw from North Vietnam and Viet Minh were required to withdraw from South Vietnam.

The North became the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and was controlled by Ho Chi Minh and the Lao Dong party. The South became the Republic of South Vietnam and was led by Ngo Dinh Diem. Diem was originally extremely popular within South Vietnam and supported by the United States, but public opinion would turn against him as he enforced policy persecuting peasants, Buddhists, and Communists. The Geneva Accords also stipulated for reunification to take place after a free election scheduled for 1956, but this election never occurred due to the sharp tension and conflict between North and South Vietnam.

Precursors to War

As Cold War tensions grew between the United States and the Soviet Union, the international spotlight began to glow brighter on Vietnam. The sharp divide between North and South Vietnam was a microcosm of the Cold War, with the battlefront being the seventeenth parallel. North Vietnamese military capabilities increased and its radical behavior made it feared by the United States. [Hammond] Thus, it provided greater support to Diem and South Vietnam in an effort to stop a domino effect of communism throughout Asia and the world. The Kennedy and Johnson administrations sent significant troops, supplies, and funds into Vietnam leading up to the Vietnam War in 1965. Meanwhile, Diem’s alienating practices only made the Viet Cong, communist forces in South Vietnam, grow stronger especially from 1961-1962.

When Diem ordered more repressive acts against Buddhists in 1963, he motivated a number of Buddhist priests to commit suicide by burning themselves as a form of protest. One particularly significant event occurred on June 11, 1963 when “the Venerable Thich Quang Due, a 66 year old monk, immolated himself on a street corner in Saigon in protest of Diem's anti-Buddhist campaign. The flames which consumed him burnt into the conscience of the Vietnamese, American, and international public alike, as his image blazed across the world's television screens and newspapers. This signaled the beginning of the end for President Ngo Dinh Diem's regime.” [VWAM] This act was also one of the first of countless publicized and media-covered events that would affect the American psyche and sentiment concerning Vietnam.


Although much controversy still swirls around the 1968 Tet offensive, most observers agree on one broad proposition: the Tet Offensive was instrumental in causing a major reassessment of U.S. policy toward the Vietnam War, given the perception that the offensive had caused a shift in public opinion. In other words, Tet helped push the American public towards a deepening pessimism about the war and America’s role in it; this pessimism, then, was instrumental in causing an alteration in U.S. policy. The media’s inaccurate portrayal of the Tet Offensive was the root to the shift in public opinion.

In Tet!: The Turning Point in the Vietnam War Don Oberdorfer argues that Tet “was a pivotal event, one of the great turning points of our day” (329). He emphasizes the offensive’s “powerful impact on American public attitudes and governmental decision-making” and concludes that “the American people and most of their leaders reached the conclusion that the Vietnam War would require greater effort over a far longer period of time than it was worth” (331). Writing two decades later, James Olson and Randy Roberts make the same point in Where the Domino Fell: “Tet was an overwhelming strategic victory for the Communists...Americans were no longer in the mood for more talk about victories” (186). For Olson and Roberts, Art Buchwald’s column entitled “We Have the Enemy on the Run, Says General Custer” aptly symbolizes the public’s Tet-induced pessimism about the war (187). Finally, one of the most recent accounts of Tet, James Wirtz’s masterful The Tet Offensive: Intelligence Failure in War, echoes the views of Oberdorfer and Olson and Roberts. Wirtz proclaims at the outset that

“The Tet offensive was the decisive battle of the Vietnam war because of its profound impact on American attitudes about involvement in Southeast Asia. In the aftermath of Tet, many Americans became disillusioned...To the American public and even to members of the administration, the offensive demonstrated that U.S. intervention...had produced a negligible effect on the will and capability of the Vietcong and North Vietnamese” (1-2). The Tet Offensive, finally, “contradicted the claims of progress...made by the Johnson administration and the military” (2).

The Tet Offensive was indeed a very dramatic turning point in the Vietnam War. While this offense was not hugely successful from a military standpoint, it was indeed very successful from a political and psychological one. This offensive came as a shock, and in the process of trying to regain control, the Americans and South Vietnamese suffered casualties, although not as many as the North Vietnamese did. Allied casualties during the fighting totaled in excess of 12,000, with about two-thirds suffered by the South Vietnamese compared to the communist who lost about half of their attacking force, more than 40,000 from an estimated 84,000 men. In the end however, what proved to be the most significant aspect of this offensive was the media and the reaction of the American people. The images on the television screens of Americans created a huge reaction and a massive outcry against this war.

The American people had been led to believe by the government that the Vietnam War was being fought very successfully and that our troops were winning and annihilating the North Vietnamese. When the footage of the Tet Offensive was shown via the nightly news, however they were shocked, outraged, and disheartened. The vast majority of the American public demanded that our troops return home and an end to this senselessness. Because of this, the Tet Offensive became a very critical turning point in this war. It changed the way people saw this war and their ability to support it. Due to the media’s portrayal of the offensive, Americans thought U.S. troops had actually made no impact, and this sudden realization was shocking. Because of this, anti-Vietnam resistance grew and even government officials started speaking out publicly against the war.

The infamous four-star General Vo Nguyen Giap was responsible for masterminding this surprise offensive. On January 31, 1968, the Vietnamese Communists launched a major offensive throughout South Vietnam. The conflict is given the name Tet Offensive because it began on the Vietnamese Lunar New Year called Tet. It was a tremendous surprise to the U.S. because it was customary for both sides to observe a truce during the holiday celebrations. It took weeks for the U.S. and South Vietnamese to retake all of the captured cities. Even though this was not very successful militarily for the Vietnamese Communists, it was indeed very successful both psychologically and politically. “It dramatically contradicted optimistic claims by the U.S. government” says Wirtz, “that the war had already been won”. The plan had two major objectives: attack the U.S. Marines firebase at Khe Sanh while also attacking all of South Vietnam’s major cities and provincial capitals such as Hue, Ban Me Thuot, My Tho, Can Tho, and Ben Tre. The second objective was to invade the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. In his book, Giap: Volcano Under Snow, John Colvin believes that “[t]he primary goals of this combined major offensive and uprising were to destabilize the Saigon regime and to force the United States to opt for a negotiated settlement” (19). Not only did this result in the deaths of North Vietnamese, but it also proved to be exceptionally destructive in regards to the U.S. and media coverage. Essentially, President Lyndon Johnson was ruined because of this and the Tet offensive indeed turned the tide of this war.

However, there are other aspects to the Tet Offensive as well which must also be considered when evaluating this military battle. From a tactical standpoint, the Tet Offensive was indeed a stroke of brilliance. In fact, North Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap will perhaps always be remembered for this offensive and the successes which can be attributed to it. Perhaps most interesting is the fact that he did not necessarily set out to actually win from a military perspective. He realized that the cities he took would likely be taken back by South Vietnamese and American forces. However, he also realized the significant damage he could cause in the interim, both in terms of physical damage as well as damage in terms of perceptions. Physical damage came in the form of bombings and artillery attacks which left many historic cities with little but rubble left in their wake. Damages in terms of perceptions were perhaps the greatest victory however, and this came in the form of the American media who voraciously covered the events. Through their coverage, General Giap realized that he could intensely affect public perception in America. It is because of this shift in perception that American support for the war dwindled to essentially nothing. People no longer could tolerate American troops fighting what was believed to be an unattainable victory.

General Giap was a man ready to take a gamble. He felt there was little to lose since his troops were being battered and pushed back in conventional battles. Therefore, Giap wanted to formulate a plan which undermined the legitimacy of the Saigon government while also leaving Washington reluctant to carry the cause in Vietnam any further. Therefore, Giap prepared a bold plan which involved two major points. First, they would attack the U.S. Marines firebase at Khe Sanh while also attacking virtually all of South Vietnam’s major cities and provincial capitals. The rationale behind this plan was that the U.S. could not possibly defend the Khe Sanh in all of its locations because this would stretch them to the limit. Because of this, Giap knew that suffering many little defeats would add up to one huge disaster. Clearly, the North Vietnamese did not believe they would be able to secure all of the towns they attacked, but the expectation that the South would revolt against the U.S. did not happen. Colvin notes “The object of attacking the cities was not so much to win in a single blow as it was to inflict a series of humiliating defeats on the Americans and to destroy the authority of the Saigon Government” (24). They figured that when the U.S. was able to reorganize their troops enough and push them back, there would not be much of anything left, except for an extraordinary amount of discontent. Giap figured this would be too much defeat for the U.S. to bear and they would therefore back out of the war.

In the wake of this offensive, there were many realizations that indeed this event had been regarded as the turning point of the war. Although the North Vietnamese were overtaken, the devastating effects of the offensive along with the unfavorable media coverage of it forced Johnson to concede to pull out of the war. General William C. Westmoreland was clamoring for 206,000 more troops in order to secure South Vietnam. Furthermore, Westmoreland wanted to take some of these troops and execute a limited invasion of North Vietnam. President Johnson faced a major dilemma. He could not meet the general’s manpower requests without either depleting Europe of American troops, which was unacceptable, or without calling up the active reserves which would have been a political disaster. His most senior advisors had turned against the war and Johnson took another briefing from the CIA whose gloomy reports had soured some of his most hawkish counselors. Therefore, on March 31, 1968, President Johnson went on television and stated the U.S. would stop bombing North Vietnam and that America was willing to meet with the North Vietnamese to seek a peace settlement. He also declared that he was not a candidate for reelection under any circumstances and would spend the rest of his term in a search of peace in Indochina. There was no support for this war to be found anywhere; everyone turned their back on this issue.

The American people were shocked by Tet. They had been told repeatedly that the enemy in Vietnam was not only under control, but that the American initiative had been very successful. “By late 1967, the US command in Vietnam was issuing very optimistic statements about weakening of the Communist forces and the likelihood that the war would be won - however,” says Edwin Moïse in The Tet Offensive and it’s Aftermath, “these statements were based to a considerable extent on wishful thinking”. The Tet Offensive proved to the American people what a disaster the situation actually was. There was no turning back from the harsh realities of the Tet Offensive, and the American people were aghast with the morbid truth of Vietnam. John Colvin proposes that “the fact that the enemy suffered far more and had lost a major gamble mattered little because the war looked like a never ending conflict without any definite, realistic objective” (33).

The Tet Offensive, which was portrayed by the media as a defeat for the U.S. was in fact, as General Westmoreland and all historians agree, an almost disastrous defeat for the North Vietnamese. Not only did they lose half of the 84,000 troops they had committed to battle, the Viet Cong was virtually destroyed. Contrary to the expectations of the North, the people of the South did not take one step to assist the invaders. Instead, they rose up in revulsion and resistance with the U.S. forces and the people galvanized into unity for the first time and volunteers for the South Vietnamese army doubled.

In the U.S., the facts made clear by the Tet Offensive, that the war was not just a civil war, that the South clearly did not wish to live under Communist rule and welcomed American aid, and that it was the North Vietnamese who were engaged in genocide and aggression with the mass murders at Hue and the rocket attacks on helpless civilian populations, should have ended the arguments of the peace movement. It was the moment of truth for those in the universities and the media and they failed the test. The lying continued with renewed fury.

The media, recognizing an opportunity to manipulate the news to effectively impose its view of the war on the American people, now created and deliberately sustained an image of disaster even in the face of incoming battlefield reports that contradicted that image. This image was taken seriously by advisors to President Johnson, totally altering the outcome of the war at the very moment when victory might have been possible. The media robbed the United States government and the American people of the ability to make critical judgments about their most vital security interests in a time of war. The true reason for the tragic change in policy after the Tet offensive is seen in what Johnson now told General Westmoreland, that to pursue the war more aggressively was politically unfeasible. In one of the most incredible phenomena in the history of warfare, there was during this period, thanks to the media, no logical connection between what was actually happening in Vietnam and the response on the home front. The response to victory was despair. This is what the media calls the “psychological victory”, which they themselves created.

And to their everlasting shame, the peace movement responded to any hint of success by American forces at Tet with panic, fearing that their own country might win the war. As presidential candidate George McGovern said to Vietnam veteran and former Secretary of the Navy James Webb, “What you don’t understand is that I didn’t want us to win that war” (Webb). The April-June 1986 edition of The National Vietnam Veteran’s Review had a front page article titled “Professor Calls for Congressional Investigation of Media’s Treatment of the Vietnam War.” During that period Leonard Magruder distributed a “Request to Congress” calling for a Congressional investigation into how a major American victory had been reported to the American people as a defeat .The request was supported by twelve large Vietnam veteran organizations and General Westmoreland.

Copies of the material Magruder sent to Congress were distributed to news organizations throughout the National Press Building in Washington, but no mention of it ever appeared in print. The media has always tried to dismiss the charge of having lied about the Tet Offensive as a right-wing fantasy, but in his material distributed to Congress Magruder quoted from 21 histories and commentaries on the Vietnam War. Magruder quotes Peter Braestrup saying,

“Rarely has contemporary crisis journalism turned out, in retrospect, to have veered so widely from reality. Essentially the dominant themes of the words and film from Vietnam added up to a portrait of defeat for the Allies… To have portrayed such a setback for one side as a defeat for the other - in major crisis abroad  - cannot be counted upon as a triumph for American  journalism and it could happen again” (Braestrup).

Magruder also referenced General William Westmoreland’s A Soldier Reports: “The war still could have been brought to a favorable end following the defeat of the enemy’s Tet Offensive. But this was not to be. Press and television had created an aura, not of victory, but defeat.”

By Tet, though, the sight and sound of gunshots could be moved from the battlefields and into American homes in less than 24 hours. Reporters had previously used the World War II idea of combat coverage in the early years, by portraying soldiers in ways that were sympathetic to their experiences. Many historians argue, though, that the news media began to over emphasize combat coverage and under report the context in which the war was played out. The camera’s blurred the cultural, social, and historical aspects of the war, therefore, distorting American perception. The media, for example, widely reported that Vietcong soldiers had invaded the U.S. embassy building, when in fact they never made it. Twenty-six men did make their way inside the walls of the embassy compound, but three Marines kept them from entering the actual building. The media, however, never retracted their stories. This pattern of misrepresentation of events and stories was repeated throughout the war.

Many media sources were against the U.S. role in Vietnam and held a critical attitude toward the war. The images they captured affected everyone who viewed them. They had the power to leave unforgettable and lasting impressions on an entire nation. One of the most memorable scenes of the war was a South Vietnamese officer firing a pistol into the temple of a smaller man who has his hands tied behind his back.

In just one image the world was able to see a Vietcong being punished by death, over and over again. What is more disturbing is that it was silent footage, and NBC added the sound of a gunshot for effect. The sound is significant because it brings the American public even closer to the reality of the war. With the addition of sound, it is no longer a picture of a man with a gun to another man’s head; rather it is a man being shot in his temple and dying. Eddie Adams’ picture of the imposing, militarily-clad General Nguyen Ngoc Loan shooting a young, smallish Vietnamese suspect in the head is undoubtedly one of the most disturbing photographs of the period. The suspected Viet Cong soldier is dressed in a plaid shirt, in contrast to General Loan, and has his arms tied behind his back. In effect, he gives the appearance of a defenseless young boy, and, although this description is far from the truth, the power of the photograph comes from the boys somewhat pitiful appearance, offset by the authoritarian stature of Loan. It is not surprising that this photograph dominated the American media for weeks, and even months after it was taken, it became a symbol for everything that was going wrong in the Vietnam War. The photo personified for many the idea that the South Vietnamese, the very people that Americans were sacrificing their lives for, were not the helpless victims of a communist onslaught that the government would have had them believe; rather, they were a people just as capable as the North Vietnamese of all types of brutality.

Adams’ photograph, which graced the front page of The New York Times the next day under the headline “Street Clashes Go On in Vietnam, Foe Still Holds Parts of Cities; Johnson Pledges Never to Yield” (Braestrup 461), served as fuel for the Vietnam protest movement. It inspired many editorials such as the one entitled “The Logic of the Battlefield,” printed in The Wall Street Journal on February 23, 1968. In it, the editor states that “the American people should be getting ready to accept, if they haven’t already, the prospect that the whole Vietnam effort may be doomed.” Opinions like this spread like wild fire in the aftermath of the Tet Offensive. So, the American people, with the Adams’ image still burning in their minds, and President Johnson’s pledge never to yield echoing in their ears, began to withdraw their support for the war in Vietnam. When General Loan died on July 14, 1998, Eddie Adams read the eulogy at the funeral and it goes as follows:

“I won a Pulitzer Prize in 1969 for a photograph of one man shooting another. Two people died in that photograph: the recipient of the bullet and General Nguyen Ngoc Loan. The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera. Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world. People believe them, but photographs do lie, even without manipulation. They are only half-truths. What the photograph didn’t say was, ‘What would you do if you were the general at that time and place on that hot day, and you caught the so-called bad guy after he blew away one, two or three American soldiers?’ General Loan was what you would call a real warrior, admired by his troops. I’m not saying what he did was right, but you have to put yourself in his position. The photograph also doesn’t say that the general devoted much of his time trying to get hospitals built in Vietnam for war casualties. This picture really messed up his life. He never blamed me. He told me if I hadn’t taken the picture, someone else would have, but I’ve felt bad for him and his family for a long time. I had kept in contact with him; the last time we spoke was about six months ago, when he was very ill. I sent flowers when I heard that he had died and

wrote, ‘I’m sorry. There are tears in my eyes.’”

The very man who captured arguably the most significant picture of the Vietnam War, admitted that often times the media can manipulate a story. Through this eulogy and other evidence, it is clear that General Loan’s actions were justified.

Another example of media manipulation is when Walter Cronkite denounced the Vietnam War. Cronkite’s pronouncement of the Tet offensive as a defeat is widely credited as a turning point in American support for the war. In a famous half-hour news special, he declared that in the aftermath of Tet “it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate” (Auster). Lyndon Johnson was reported to be dismayed at the prospect of losing Cronkite’s support for the war. And indeed, public support for the war dropped 25% following Cronkite’s declaration and media coverage of the offensive in general. Cronkite admits that the media does tilt toward liberalism, although he denies any political partisanship.

With the U.S. in Vietnam, the American people wanted the latest news. They now had the opportunity to follow the war via newspaper, radio, magazine, and television. While many families heavily relied on the coverage to keep them informed, voters relied on this coverage to keep them posted on the progress of the war. On television, the press exercised their freedom by displaying photographs or film footage of dead and wounded soldiers and civilians on a regular basis. This scenario was commonly known as, “Steak and potatoes with body counts,” (Patterson {1}, 80). Steven King summed up his description of Vietnam’s television coverage as, “Our daily dose of blood and gore” (Patterson {1}, 80).

As the war progressed, so did the attitude of the media and the public. In the print media, the traditional press conferences, official news releases, and reports of official proceedings tended to sway, as reporters exercised their free power. With the war reaching the period of heaviest American involvement (1964-1969), reporters started doing more research, conducting interviews and publishing more analytical essays. The traditional method of reporting dropped from 65.9 percent in 1949 to 50.1 percent in 1969 (Hammond {2}, 102). The trend for television coverage of the war was even easier to notice. The audience could see the war happening, but did not get the details. However, researcher George A. Bailey did several studies on the television coverage as viewed by the different networks. He concluded that between 1965 and 1966 ABC broadcast only 13 percent of the time interpretive stories. By 1969 and 1970 that figure had risen to 47 percent. For that same time period, Bailey found that CBS went from 37 percent to 48 percent, while NBC went from 28 percent to 58 percent. However, even with all the freedom the press was given to cover this war, Bailey concluded that as the war continued, the amount and type of coverage changed as well.

Between August and November 1968, the three network news programs covered the war 91 percent of broadcast days. After the election in November 1968 the coverage plunged to 61 percent. It is believed that the networks became tired of the war. Robert J. Northshield, producer of the “Huntley-Brinkley Report” on NBC told an interviewer in 1974 that by the end of 1968 fatigue was s definite problem for him. Often times, the executive producer’s feeling is, “‘Oh, God, not Vietnam again,’” (qtd. in Hammond {2}, 102-103). Also, with a prolonged war, the news started to become stale, not worth listening too. Therefore, many reporters pursued investigative stories, which in many cases lead to more problems.

Many people do not realize how much influence the media had on the war. However, NBC News anchorman David Brinkley did. He used his freedom of the press to express exactly how he felt, and influenced the minds of his viewers. At one time, Brinkley introduced his report of the latest Vietnam casualties as follows:

‘The president said at his news conference last week that the only thing that had been settled when he came to office was the shape of the table. Well, in the five months since then, they have used the table in the shape agreed on, settled nothing, and in Vietnam the war and the killing continues. Today in Saigon they announced the casualty figures for the week. And though they came in the form of numbers, each one of them was a man, most of them quite young, each with hopes he will never realize, each with families and friends who will never see him alive again. Anyway, these are the numbers…” (qtd. in Hammond {2}, 104).

Although Brinkley questioned the war all along, these remarks, made on television were perhaps among the strongest he has made. Once again, by one reporter exercising his freedom to report what he wants, when he wants, and without any guidelines or censorship from the government, Americans began to question the war as well. This was a two part war, the one the U.S. was fighting in the fields and the war the media was fighting as well. But, what would have happened if the Vietnam War was fought under the same censorship and stipulation as the Gulf War?

The big difference between the two wars is Vietnam contained no press censorship, where during the Gulf War the media had 12 rules they had to follow regarding all news coverage. Of the twelve rules, only rules 3, 8, 10, 11, and 12 apply to this paper and go as follows:

“The following should not be reported because its publication or broadcast could jeopardize operations and endanger lives:

3. Information, photography, and imagery that would reveal the specific location of military forces or show the level of security at military installations or encampments. Locations may be described as follows: all Navy embark stories can identify the ship upon which embarked as a dateline and will state that the report is coming from the ‘Persian Gulf,’ ‘Red Sea,’ or ‘North Arabian Sea.’ Stories written in Saudi Arabia may be datelined ‘Eastern Saudi Arabia,’ ‘Near Kuwaiti border,’ etc. For specific countries outside Saudi Arabia, stories will state that the report is coming from the Persian Gulf region unless that country has acknowledged its participation.

8. Information on the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of enemy camouflage, cover, deception, targeting, direct and indirect fire, intelligence collection, or security measures.

10. Specific operations forces’ methods, unique equipment, or tactics.

11. Specific operating methods and tactics, (e.g., air angles or attack or speed, or naval tactics and evasive maneuvers). General terms such as ‘low’ or ‘fast’ may be used.

12. Information on operational or support vulnerabilities that could be used against U.S. forces, such as details of major battle damage or major personnel losses of specific U.S. or coalition units, until such information no longer provides tactical advantage to the enemy or is released by CENTCOM. Damages and casualties may be described as ‘light,’ ‘moderate’ or ‘heavy.’”

(Patterson {2}, 23-27).

According to a study done by Patterson, of a sample size of 847 stories, 289 were from CBS, 286 from ABC, and 272 were from NBC. Now, comparing these 12 rules to this media sample, the facts are astounding. From these 847 Vietnam related stories, there were a total of 901 rule violations. “Rule 3” dealt with information, photographs, etc. that would reveal were troops were located. There were 204 stories (24.2 percent) that related to this rule, which gave locations of specific military forces; this included city and village names. It must also be remembered, that even with all the freedom the press was experiencing, technology was not the same as it is today. Pictures on the battlefield often took 24 hours to reach the American public, and military communication occurred by wire and radio. This is one possible reason for the reduced number of violations here. “Rule 8” accounted for 61 violations (7.2 percent) which made specific reference to enemy camouflage or security measures. Of these 61 stories, there were 19 stories (2.2 percent) that dealt with direct and indirect enemy fire. Surprisingly, with all the freedom that the press possessed, there were no stories that violated “Rule 10.” However, there were 8 stories that reported on the case involving eight Green Berets accused of murdering an alleged double agent. But, no stories discussing anything about methods, equipment or tactics were reported. “Rule 11” rang up 222 story violations (26.2 percent). Of these stories, the media discussed different aspects of ground, air or naval action. Seven of the stories went as far to mention the specific detail that B-52s dropped their bombs from an altitude of 30,000 feet. Information such as this could be found beneficial to the North Vietnamese’s war efforts. Finally, “Rule 12” dealt with the worst part of war, the casualties. Each week, the media reported to the people of America the weekly body count along with the number wounded and the number missing. The casualty figures reported were official numbers received directly from the U.S. Military. The “missing” figures only reflected the United States’ allied troops. Of the sample stories that were analyzed, there were 45 (5.3 percent) that dealt with this and another 26 (3 percent) that dealt with major battle damage (Patterson {3}, 27).

In the end, the Tet Offensive will be remembered as a media campaign. Because Vietnam was the first major war to be entirely televised, the media played a tremendous role in shaping the public’s perception. North Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap understood this and used the media to his advantage. Also, the fact that the media coverage was not censored worked towards his benefit as well. Although he knew he could not necessarily secure the cities which he was going to attack, he knew that if he could devastate them by bombing, fires, etc. and if the media picked up on this then they would appear much more powerful than they actually were. The media inaccurately portrayed the Tet Offensive, causing the American public to no longer support the war. The American public saw the exaggerated atrocities depicted by the media and did not want their troops exposed to them. This was the brilliance of General Giap’s plan; he saw the media as a potential “ally” and used it to defeat the U.S. Although he suffered tremendous casualties during this offensive, he was successful in getting the U.S. to withdraw from the war. Giap achieved his goal on March 31, 1968 when President Johnson went on national television and stated the U.S. would stop bombing North Vietnam and that America was willing to meet with the North Vietnamese to seek a peace settlement.

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