Media, Propaganda and Vietnam

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  • by Anup Shah
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The official or commonly accepted version of how and why the U.S. was involved in Vietnam sort of goes along the following lines:

  • Non-communist South Vietnam was invaded by communist North Vietnam
  • The United States came to the aid of the regime in the South.
  • The regime in the South was democratic

Yet, it turns out that this is untrue, and it required massive propaganda to create this standard and accepted image.

A lot of the following is a summary of part of journalist John Pilger’s book, Heroes, (Jonathan Cape 1986, Vintage 2001), mainly chapters 15 and 20, mostly written in the 1980s (and reprinted in 2001, from which the citations are taken. Where page numbers are cited in parenthesis, it is from this book unless indicated otherwise). He was in Vietnam many times, during the war, and returned on various occassions as well. He received a number of awards for his Vietnam reporting. He has generally been quite critical in his writings about power and authority.

Pilger described some studies in the 1980s where some people by then had already forgotten some of the reasons for the Vietnam war, and that More than a third could not say which side American had supported and some believed that North Vietnam had been our allies (p. 178.) He describes why this historical amnesia might occur:

This historical amnesia is not accidental; if anything it demonstrates the insidious power of the dominant propaganda of the Vietnam war. The constant American government line was that the war was essentially a conflict of Vietnamese against Vietnamese, in which Americans became 'involved', mistakenly and honourably. This assumption was shared both by hawks and doves; it permeated the media coverage during the war and has been the overriding theme of numerous retrospectives since the war. It is a false and frequently dishonest assumption. The longest war this century was a war waged by America against Vietnam, North and South. It was an attack on the people of Vietnam, communist and non-communist, by American forces. It was an invasion of their homeland and their lives, just as the current presence in Afghanistan of Soviet forces is an invasion. Neither began as a mistake.

John Pilger, Heroes, (Jonathan Cape 1986, Vintage 2001), p.178 (Emphasis is original)

Many have claimed that the media contributed to the U.S. losing the war, because the media was generally against the war. Further below, we will look at this as well, but first a look at the war itself.

On this page:

  1. The Vietnam War
  2. Media and the War
    1. The media lost the war for America
    2. Reflecting on the Events
    3. Television
    4. Journalism
  3. More Information

The Vietnam War

The context in which Vietnam appeared to fall under Soviet influence is critical. Vietnam had actually approached the U.S. for assistance in building a nation in the wake of the Second world war and particularly from French imperialism both of which had taken their toll on this region. (President Roosevelt for example, had already vilified France which, he said, had milked Vietnam for a hundred years. The people of Indo-China are entitled to something better, the President had said, and the United States supported their independence and self-determination. (p.181).) The communist leader, Ho Chi Minh liked Americans, and enjoyed the openness of Americans (p.181).

Yet, having been turned down a number of times by the U.S., they turned to the other superpower at that time, the Soviet Union, even though they had shown a preference to the U.S. model of democracy:

Ho Chi Minh was the antithesis of other emerging communist leaders in one respect: he wanted his people to open themselves out to other societies, communist, capitalist and non-aligned. Like Tito in Yugoslavia, he knew that this was the only way his people could survive as a national entity. Indeed, so anxious was Ho for American support for his fledgling republic that he addressed twelve separate appeals to President Roosevelt, to his Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, and to the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee. Major Patti [a U.S. government liaison officer, working for the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA] later wrote that Ho pleaded not for military or economic aid,

...but for understanding, for moral support, for a voice in the forum of western democracies. But the United States would not read his mail because, as I was informed, the DRV Government was not recognised by the United States and it would be improper for the President or anyone in authority to acknowledge such correspondence. [DRV stood for Democratic Republic of Vietnam, later known colloquially by the Americans as North Vietnam.]

...As for relations with the Soviet Union, Ho had spent fifteen years in Moscow and expressed himself well aware of the tenuous and highly conditional nature of Soviet friendship. He told Patti, I place more reliance on the United States to support Vietnam’s independence, before I could expecet help from USSR.

John Pilger, Heroes, (Jonathan Cape 1986, Vintage 2001), pp.180 - 181 (Emphasis Added)

(Side NoteJ.W. Smith (cited below) suggests it was 6 times, that Ho Chi Minh sent letters to the U.S. government. I don’t know if what Pilger calls appeals is the same as the letters J.W. Smith refers to, but the point is, there were many appeals to the U.S.)

As the U.S. clumped Northern Vietnam into the same bracket as Communist China and Soviet Union, Minh felt no choice but to turn to them.

The immediate post World War II era for Vietnam was crucial:

  • As with other parts of the world, previous imperial rulers had carved up Vietnam as well.
    • The French had divided Vietnam into three, all sub-divisions of its colony in Indo-China.
    • The Allies divided it between two military commands headquartered in China and South-East Asia.
  • British colonial officer, Major-General Douglas Gracey, took surrender of the Japanese in September 1945, in Saigon, but immediately rearmed them and ordered them to put down the Vietminh, who had already formed an administration in the South. Like the Vietminh of the North, they were a popular movement of Catholics, Buddhists, small businessmen, communists and farmers who looked to Ho Chi Minh as the father of the nation. (p.181)
  • By 1947, thanks to the British and Gracey, the French were back in power in Saigon.

Needing to get the French out of their country, Ho Chi Minh was still hoping for a U.S. alliance and he

...appealed again to President Truman while insisting to Patti that he was not a communist in the American sense. Although he had lived and worked in Moscow, Ho considered himself a free agent; but he warned that he would have to find allies if any were to be found; otherwise the Vietnamese would have to go it alone. And alone they went until 1950 when Ho Chi Minh believed he could no longer delay accepting the formal ties and material assistance under offer from the Soviet Union and especially from China. It was the success of the Chinese revolution in 1949 that was to give the Vietminh the means to defeat the French: military training, arms and sanctuary across an open frontier.

John Pilger, Heroes, (Jonathan Cape 1986, Vintage 2001), pp.181 - 182 (Emphasis Added)

As J.W. Smith summarizes:

During World War II, while working directly with American agents to rescue downed U.S. pilots, Ho Chi Minh sent six letters to the U.S. government asking for support and stating that the Vietnamese wished to pattern their constitution after America’s. Only after America refused to recognize and support their freedom, and instead supported the French suppression of their freedom, were the Vietnamese forced to turn to China and the Soviet Union. It is said that America lost in Vietnam but three million people were slaughtered (four million if one included the previous twenty years of French suppression), millions of acres of forest poisoned with herbicides were destroyed, rice fields were pockmarked with bomb craters and, after winning its freedom, Vietnam was further decimated by embargoes. Vietnamese resources are now available to intact imperial-centers-of-capital. That makes that war a success. After all, control of resources to feed the industries of imperial centers is what these wars are all about.

J.W. Smith, Suppressing the Former Colonial World’s Break for Economic Freedom1, , pp.159 - 160 (Emphasis is original)

As Pilger adds, the root of American concern was imperial in nature, which, citing Noam Chomsky,

...was over strategic resources of Southeast Asia and their significance for the global system that the US was then constructing, incorporating western Europe and Japan. It was feared that successful independent development under a radical nationalist leadership might cause the rot to spread, gradually eroding US dominance in the region and ultimately causing Japan, the largest domino, to join in a closed system from which the US would be excluded... The idea that US global planners had national imperialist motives is intolerable to the doctrinal system, so this topic must be avoided in any history directed to a popular audience.

Noam Chomsky, The Vietnam War in an Age of Orwell, Race and Class, Spring 1984, p.44. Quoted by John Pilger, Heroes, (Jonathan Cape 1986, Vintage 2001). p.182.

Summarizing mostly from Pilger again, the political background to the buildup of the Vietnam war is worth highlighting here:

  • Having declared a policy of containing communism in Asia, the American government in 1950 gave $10 million to assist the French in winning back their colony in the North. Within four years the Americans were paying 78 percent of a colonial war directed by the same French whom President Roosevelt had castigated (p.182)
  • While this was going on, an international conference in Geneva (July 1954) was held on Indo-China.
    • The final declaration divided Vietnam temporarily into two national regrouping areas.
    • The North and South were to be reunited after free national elections in July 1956.
    • There seemed no doubt that Ho Chi Minh was most likely to win and form Vietnam’s first democratically elected government.
  • But China also had geopolitical interests here. It was a role of exquisite duplicity which owed nothing to the solidarity of world communism, the current Western bogey. (p.183)
    • China wanted to end its diplomatic isolation, so took part in Geneva.
    • But it also wanted control in its backyard.
    • Hence, the later support for Pol Pot in Cambodia, for example. (p.183) (See below for more on this as well.)
  • Knowing that Minh was most likely to win those elections, the U.S. Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, refused to sign the Geneva accords and the U.S. moved to not only support France, but take command:

    According to the Pentagon Papers, the United States moved in secret to disassociate France from the levels of command, in southern Vietnam and to assume direct American control. This task was assigned to the newly formed CIA which, during the summer of 1954, invented a republic of Vietnam with Saigon as its capital. This was known by those assigned to the task as creating the master illusion.

    John Pilger, Heroes, (Jonathan Cape 1986, Vintage 2001), pp.183 - 184
  • The level to which the U.S. were willing to go to support France before this was quite extreme. Journalist Robert Weiner, who was CNN’s executive producer in Baghdad, Iraq, during the 1991 Gulf War, describes in the Los Angeles Times an aspect of this when watching Peter Davis’ 1974 Academy Award-winning documentary, Hearts and Minds.:

    The [Hearts and Minds] film makes a powerful case for how successive [U.S.] administrations, from Eisenhower to Ford, lied to the American public about U.S. policy in Vietnam and the threat of communism to world stability. It also revealed, for the first time, that the U.S. offered France two atomic bombs prior to its 1954 defeat at Dien Bien Phu. Mercifully, Paris declined.

    Robert Weiner, Truth May Sink in Desert Sand 5, LA Times, January 20, 2003
  • A democratically electable leader was opposed.
    • Instead, through the CIA, a fascistic one was put into power in the South, Ngo Dinh Diem.
    • At the same time the CIA provided mass propaganda of the horrors that Ho Chi Minh would supposedly impose on the people of the North, urging them to flee to the South.
    • This would provide enough justification to raise the good conscious of the American people to demand something be done.
  • Diem’s excesses proved too much, and in November 1963, Diem was overthrown by a triumvirate of his generals, organised by the CIA. (p. 186)
  • Some of these generals approached the NLF (the national liberation front, also known as Vietcong, Vietnamese Communists) seeking a ceasefire and negotiation towards a neutralist non-communist coalition government in Saigon. According to a study by George Kahin, based on extensive interviews, the generals, who were seeking a negotiated agreement among the Vietnamese parties themselves without American intervention, regarded the NLF as overwhelmingly non-communist and sufficiently free of Hanoi’s control to have made [a political settlement in South Vietnam] quite possible. (pp. 186 - 187)
  • However,

    The Vietnamese were never allowed to choose. The historian David G. Marr wrote that the generals’ mere countenance of peace negotiations

    ...was one of the main reasons why the US government, or at least the US military commander in Saigon encouraged their overthrow in turn only three months later. From then on, every Saigon military officer knew that contacts with the NFLSV, or even internal discussion of negotiation options, risked vigorous American counteraction. Some were still prepared to take that risk, but with the arrival of US combat troops in 1965 the historical opportunity vanished. Henceforth the US government had the means ... to ensure that no neutralist-included RVN officer came close to Power. [RVN stood for Republic of Vietnam - Saigon regime.]

    John Pilger, Heroes, (Jonathan Cape 1986, Vintage 2001), pp.186 - 187
  • "The creation of more illusions and a legal justification for an expanded war now became an urgent necessity", as Pilger continues. While there was secret bombing by American planes of Vietnam on its border with Laos, domestic politics and civil rights upheavals preoccupied the news.
    • The Gulf of Tonkin incident provided the justification for use of military force.
      • An alleged attack on US spyship USS Maddox was engineered that became the pretext for war in Vietnam.
      • This was later known as the Gulf of Tonkin Incident and as a direct result, a resolution was sent by the White House to Congress seeking authority for the United States to invade Vietnam. Seven years were to pass before the Pentagon Papers, the official secret history of the war would reveal that administration officials had drafted the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution two months before the alleged attack on the Maddox (p. 188, Emphasis is original.)
    • And a U.S. State Department-published White Paper was to provide the legal justification for war.
      • In early 1965,

        the State Department published a White Paper whose centrepiece was the provocation of the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, together with seven pages of conclusive proof of Hanoi’s preparations to invade the South. This proof stemmed from the discovery of a cache of weapons found floating in a junk off the coast of central Vietnam. The White Paper, which would provide legal justification for the American invasion, was, in the words of Ralph McGehee [former CIA agent], a master illusion. McGehee told me:

        Black propaganda was when the US Government spoke in the voice of the enemy, and there is a very famous example. In 1965 the CIA loaded up a junk, a North Vietnamese junk, with communist weapons — the Agency maintains communist arsenals in the United States and around the world. They floated this junk off the coast of Central Vietnam. Then they shot it up and made it look like a fire fight had taken place. Then they brought in the American press and the international press and said, Here’s the evidence that the North Vietnamese are invading South Vietnam. Based on this evidence two Marine battalion landing teams went into Danang and a week after that the American air force began regular bombing of North Vietnam.

        ... The scale of American bombing in the mid-1960s, both in the North and South, together with the American-directed terror of the South, eventually persuaded Ho Chi Minh to send regular army units south in support of those South Vietnamese opposing the American invasion.

        John Pilger, Heroes, (Jonathan Cape 1986, Vintage 2001), pp.188 - 189

The scale of propaganda needed to pull all this off was immense. The official version which most are familiar with, is quite different to the above. Pilger comments on this difference:

This was not how propaganda in the United States explained the origins of the war. Neither is it how many people remember the war today. In the opinion poll quoted at the beginning of this chapter, in which more than a third of those questioned expressed confusion as to who were our allies, almost two-thirds said they were aware that the United States had sided with South Vietnam. As Noam Chomsky has pointed out, this is the equivalent of being aware that Nazi Germany sided with France in 1940 and the Soviet Union now sides with Afghanistan.

The accredited version of events has not changed. It is that non-communist South Vietnam was invaded by communist North Vietnam and that the United States came to the aid of the democratic regime in the South. This of course is untrue, as documentation I have touched upon makes clear. That Ho Chi Minh waited so long before sending a regular force to assist the American attacks seems, in retrospect, extraordinary; or perhaps it was a testament to the strength and morale of those South Vietnamese who had taken up arms in defence of their villages and their homeland. In 1965 the American counter-insurgency adviser, John Paul Vann, wrote in a memorandum addressed to his superiors in Washington that a popular political base for Government of South Vietnam does not now exist and the majority of the people in South Vietnam primarily identified with the National Liberation Front.

John Pilger, Heroes, (Jonathan Cape 1986, Vintage 2001), p.189

And as an article from Media Beat in 1994 explains, the heavy reliance on U.S. government officials as sources of information8 and reluctance to question official statements on national security issues led to a lot of inaccurate media reporting, such as that on the Gulf of Tonkin incident.

That the end result was costly is an understatement:

During those years the United States dispatched its greatest ever land army to Vietnam, and dropped the greatest tonnage of bombs in the history of warfare, and pursued a military strategy deliberately designed to force millions of people to abandon their homes, and used chemicals in a manner which profoundly changed the environmental and genetic order, leaving a once bountiful land petrified. At least 1,300,000 people were killed and many more were maimed and otherwise ruined; 58,022 of these were Americans and the rest were Vietnamese. President Reagan has called this a noble cause.

John Pilger, Heroes, (Jonathan Cape 1986, Vintage 2001), p.190

And as Noam Chomsky adds, with slightly updated numbers:

As the 20th anniversary approached, the government of Vietnam released new figures on casualties, generally accepted here and conforming to earlier estimates. Hanoi reported that 2 million civilians had been killed, the overwhelming majority in the south, along with 1.1 million North Vietnamese and southern resistance fighters (Viet Cong, in the terminology of U.S. propaganda). It listed an additional 300,000 missing in action. Washington reports 225,000 killed in the army of its client regime (South Vietnam). The CIA estimates 600,000 Cambodians killed during the U.S. phase of what the one independent governmental inquiry (Finland) calls the Decade of Genocide in Cambodia: 1969 through 1978. Tens if not hundreds of thousands more were killed in Laos, mainly by U.S. attacks that were in large part unrelated to the war in Vietnam, Washington conceded.

Noam Chomsky, Memories9, ZMagazine, July/August 1995

As J.W. Smith and Noam Chomsky, cited above, described, one of the core aspects of this war and the cold war ideology in general was to try and contain the breaks for freedom of various nations and to ensure successful independent development was minimized, for fear of what Eisenhower had called the domino effect. William Blum, who worked at the State Department in the 1960s, and is now an investigative journalist summarizes the effect of the Vietnam war:

Most people believe that the US lost the war. But by destroying Vietnam to its core, by poisoning the earth, the water and the gene pool for generations, Washington had in fact achieved its primary purpose: preventing what might have been the rise of a good development option for Asia.

William Blum, Rogue State, (Common Courage Press, 2000) pp.87 - 88

To further demonstrate that Vietnam did not wish to pursue a communist ideology for its country, consider what happened after the war: it tried to look to the west, and to open up for foreign investment:

As soon as the war was over the Hanoi leadership began to extricate Vietnam from the embrace of the Soviet Union and to look to the West. They rejected both the Soviet view that ASEAN (the Association of South East Asian Nations) was an imperialist creation and Moscow’s offer of a treaty of collective security. Much to the Soviet’s chagrin the Vietnamese also resisted joining COMECON, the Eastern bloc economic alliance, and instead Hanoi took the Saigon regime’s seat in two pre-eminent capitalist institutions, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. To underline its independence the Vietnamese barred Soviet ships from using port facilities at the former American base at Cam Ranh Bay. To those who see the world in blocs and small countries as dominoes Vietnam’s stance must have seemed puzzling; the Soviet Union, after all, had been Hanoi’s principal weapons supplier. But communism was no more than a tool of Vietnamese nationalism and the rejection of one communist ally in favour of overtures to the West was entirely consistent with Vietnam’s past. Once again they were unravelling themselves from somebody else’s quarrel which, in the 1970s, was the war of attrition between China and the Soviet Union.

John Pilger, Heroes, (Jonathan Cape 1986, Vintage 2001), p.190

As part of the agreement to end war and rebuild, the Nixon administration offered $3.25 billion of grant aid over 5 years for U.S. contribution to postwar reconstruction, though Vietnam wanted reparation money not reconstruction money. It was never paid, because Vietnam apparently did not reveal all the prisoners of war that was part of the deal for the aid. This itself is a tragic and thorny issue for those Americans who for long periods have been unaware of the fate of their loved ones. Yet, for Vietnam, it was though they had to pay in turn for a war largely created by the U.S. as William Blum describes, almost cynically:

However — deep breadth here — Vietnam has been compensating the United States. In 1997 it began to pay off about $145 million in debts left by the defeated South Vietnamese government for American food and infrastructure aid. Thus, Hanoi is reimbursing the United States for part of the cost of the war waged against it.

How can this be? The proper legal term is extortion. The enforcers employed by Washington include the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and Export-Import Bank, the Paris Club and the rest of the international financial mafia.[sic]

... At the Vietnamese embassy in Washington ... the First Secretary for Press Affairs, Mr. Le Dzung, told the author in 1997 that this matter, as well as Nixon’s unpaid billions, are rather emotional issues in Vietnam, but the government is powerless to change the way the world works.

William Blum, Rogue State, (Common Courage Press, 2000) pp.87 - 88

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Media and the War

Media reporting and the general attitudes about the media on the whole, as well as how segments of society interpreted the events of Vietnam is interesting and important.

The media lost the war for America

Common themes about why the U.S. lost the war include criticisms of the media. John Pilger describes two influential 'myths' about the media:

The first is that the Americans lost the war because the media coverage in the United States, notably on television, undermined the military and political effort. The second is that most journalists and broadcasters opposed the war. Neither is true. Indeed the truth may well be the opposite ... that on the whole the American media, while questioning the way in which the war was being fought, supported what Stanley Karnow, formerly of the New York Times, has since called a failed crusade.

In his classic study of war correspondents, Phillip Knightley described the reporting from Vietnam during the early 1960s as

... not questioning the American intervention itself, but only its effectiveness. Most correspondents, despite what Washington thought about them, were just as interested in seeing the United States win the war as was the Pentagon. What the correspondents questioned was not American policy, but the tactics used to implement that policy...

John Pilger, Heroes, (Jonathan Cape 1986, Vintage 2001), p.254

An article from the French paper, Le Monde Diplomatique, titled Show us the Truth about Vietnam10, (April 2000), highlighted that the Vietnam war was the most covered topic in the US than any other issue. Yet that coverage was extremely one-sided. For example, just 3% of coverage was on enemy viewpoint.

An article from Media Beat in 1994 explains that the heavy reliance on U.S. government officials as sources of information11 and reluctance to question official statements on national security issues led to a lot of inaccurate media reporting, such as that on the Gulf of Tonkin incident.

Though eventually many stories about atrocities came out, initially they were rarely reported. Atrocities were neither isolated nor aberrations, Pilger continues (p.256). It was the nature of war that was atrocious; this was the big story of the war, but it was seldom judged to be news and therefore seldom told, except in fragments. Perhaps because it would have been so difficult for a nation to come to terms with what their leaders may have been doing, contrary to what they were saying, Atrocities were reported as mistakes which were blundered into. Behind this acceptable version appalling events could proceed as part of a deliberate and often efficiently executed strategy, contrary to the popular misconception of blundering generals and policy-makers.

Reflecting on the Events

But there was also difficulty in conceptualizing some of the main facets of the geopolitical makeup, because of the propaganda behind it, as Pilger details:

[Some of the war atrocities that had come to light] represented ... the war itself: an all-out assault on the Vietnamese people, regardless of whether they were communist or non-communist. But the war was not presented in this way, rather as teams: good teams and bad teams. The Americans were on the side of the good team, the South Vietnamese, who were defending themselves from against aggression by several bad teams of communists. Not surprisingly, this version exclusded the fact that the Americans had killed tens of thousands of their South Vietnamese allies and had destroyed their homes and crops, levelled their forests, poisoned their water and forced them into refugee programs. The propaganda version also excluded what American intelligence had known from the beginning: that the regime America had installed in Saigon, complete with the machinery of mass terror, had no popular base.

The standard version never satisfactorily came to terms with exactly who the communists were. If the NLF, or Vietcong, were South Vietnamese how could they possibly invade their own country? Words had to be found to describe what were, in effect, the actions of people defending their country against an invasion by the United States. The words chosen were internal aggression. The propaganda also had difficulty with the North Vietnamese who were said to be attacking the South. There had been no North Vietnam and no South Vietnam until the Geneva conference on Indo-China in 1954 temporarily divided the country to await national elections in 1956, which the Americans refused to allow, knowing the Ho Chi Minh would win hands down. Not only was Vietnam one country but there were southerners in Hanoi leadership in the North and northerners in the southern-based NLF. The first units sent south by Ho Chi Minh to support those resisting the foreign invaders were composed entirely of southerners. So once again, the South Vietnamese were invading their own country!

This was confusing to reporters (myself included) ... The easiest way was to adopt the jargon, euphemisms, acronyms, the whole language of propaganda on which, sadly, so much bad reporting was based. Criticism of events, individuals and even policies was not uncommon but this dissidence rarely exposed the false assumptions which underpinned the American war. Moreover, criticism which did not go too far and which remained objective and unemotional and incorporated the principles of the official line served to strengthen the impression that the war was being reported vigorously and entirely free of censorship. General Sidle told me, Two delegations of bureau chiefs called on me in 1968, asking me to please impose censorship. They were getting confused about what they could do, what they could say and what they couldn’t say.

John Pilger, Heroes, (Jonathan Cape 1986, Vintage 2001), pp.257 - 258

Famous atrocity stories such as the My Lai massacre only emerged after, or towards the end of the war. Pilger is worth quoting once again:

Death squads, which were to prove so effective in Central America, were expertly organised in Vietnam. An estimated 50,000 South Vietnamese were systematically murdered by assassins working for the CIA’s Phoenix Programme. The most decorated American soldier of the war, Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Herbert, wrote in his book, Soldier, They wanted me to take charge of execution teams that wiped out entire families and tried to make it look as though the VC themselves had done the killing. Like Agent Orange, the Phoenix Programme was not a story until the war was ending. Like Operation Speedy Express [an atrocity where the US Ninth Infantry Division had killed 11,000 people, 5,000 of whom were non-combatants], the massacre of between 90 and 130 men, women and children at the village of My Lai on March 16, 1968, was not a story until long after it had happened. For more than a year a soldier who had heard about the My Lai massacre tried to interest Newsweek and others, without success. Finally, the story was broken, not by any of the 600 reporters in Vietnam, but by a freelance in the United States, Seymour Hersh... Only then did the correspondents in Vietnam tell their own atrocity stories. There was a cataract of them. Everybody, it seemed, knew about or had witnessed at least one; and everyone had either not reported it or pleased that their office had spiked the story they had sent.

John Pilger, Heroes, (Jonathan Cape 1986, Vintage 2001), pp.258 - 259

But some documentaries were very powerful and did highlight some of the earlier atrocities:

Disaffection provided the key theme of the poignant Winter Soldier, a collective documentary in which Vietnam veterans spoke about the atrocities that they themselves had committed in Vietnam in the name of Western civilisation. Of all the anti-war documentaries, this one had the most impact on public opinion.

The films shows young veterans (20-27) returning from the war. They realise they have been taking part in an act of butchery, and that they have been conditioned, dehumanised and turned into criminal Terminators. They also realise that there will never be an international criminal tribunal to look into the Vietnam war: the politicians and generals responsible for the massacres, the use of napalm, the bombing of civilians, the mass executions in prisons and the ecological disasters resulting from the use of chemical defoliants will never be tried for their crimes against humanity.

Ignacio Ramonet, Show us the Truth about Vietnam12, Le Monde Diplomatique, April 2000

But the way the American establishment tried to come to terms with these, which could no longer escape the mainstream and the public, was to try and reflect on a tragedy. As Pilger continued from the above, The My Lai massacre eventually made the cover of Newsweek under the banner headline AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY, which invited sympathy for the invader and deflected from the truth that the atrocities were, above all, a Vietnamese tragedy. (p.259, Emphasis is original.)

Noam Chomky also highlights this, that regardless of mainstream political persuasion, left or right, American elite typically regarded the Vietnam as a mistake or tragedy. He commented heavily on the former U.S. Defense Secretary, Robert McNamara’s influential memoirs, In Retrospect:

Scholarship is hardly different [than the mainstream media]. Thus in a critique of U.S. ideology from the liberal left, Michael Hunt describes Reaganite neo-conservatives as unexpectedly obtuse, rejecting the notion that the Vietnam commitment was a fundamental mistake and insisting that the United States should defend freedom around the world whatever the price. The price to whom? To the peasants massacred as we defended their freedom in the Mekong Delta and Quang Ngai province? But McNamara was better than most: To his credit, McNamara recognized earlier than most of his colleagues that the war was not winnable, a leading historian of the Vietnam war, George Herring, observes, departing from the norm by at least mentioning that the American failure was far more of a tragedy for Vietnam than for America.

... McNamara’s goal [in his memoirs] is to explain how such vigorous, intelligent, well-meaning, patriotic servants of the United States ... came to get it wrong on Vietnam. We acted according to what we thought were the principles and traditions of this nation, he writes. What they thought was correct, at least if principles and traditions are illustrated by historical fact, as in the clearing of the continent, the conquest of the Philippines, Wilson’s Caribbean exploits, and much else. These well-meaning planners were wrong, McNamara concludes, but it was an error not of values and intentions but of judgments and capabilities — remarks that are superfluous in a cultural environment that lacks the concept of wrong-doing. The worst of the mistakes, McNamara writes, was the failure to see the Communist movement in Vietnam as a nationalist movement, as it appears in hindsight: We totally underestimated the nationalist aspect of Ho Chi Minh’s movement.

McNamara’s regretful account of this mistake has been accepted with much respect. It is utter nonsense. Even from the Pentagon Papers that he commissioned, McNamara and those who repeat his words could have learned that in 1948 the State Department understood perfectly well that the Communists under Ho Chi Minh had captur[ed] control of the nationalist movement — by implication, illegitimately.

... McNamara assumes that the U.S. war was a failure and a defeat, a judgment that is widely shared. But these conclusions again reflect the narrowness of his vision. That the major U.S. war aims had been achieved was clear enough 25 years ago, and was recognized by the business press not long after.

Noam Chomsky, Memories13, ZMagazine, July/August 1995

Note also Chomsky’s point about winning or losing the war. It is commonly believed, and depending how you look at it, that America lost the war in Vietnam. Yet, while they may have lost militarily, the damage they caused and from looking at the end goal, of containment and preventing independent development, commentators such as Chomsky and others point out that the result was a success. (See also the J.W. Smith citation above.)

Mainstream history has often been quite in favor of the official lines, as Pilger describes, even as far back as the mid-1980s:

Legacy of [what President Reagan described as] a noble war ... is gaining certain currency as revisionists work quickly, ... demanding a change in perspective, when the old facts remain at bay, in shadow, unheeded. This is known as the new Vietnam scholarship. New Vietnam scholars include the familiar, discredited faces and the new facts they present are familiar, discredited lies.

...The epitome of the new scholarship is a 700-page history of Vietnam which [new scholar at Berkely, Douglas] Pike has described as more objective than earlier angry works. This is Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam: a history ... His readers are told that the war was a failed crusade conducted for the loftiest of intentions, that the communists were terrorists who were merciless and brutal in contrast to the Americans who were sincere and earnest and whose instincts were liberal.

John Pilger, Heroes, (Jonathan Cape 1986, Vintage 2001), pp. 266, 267-268


Television news in particular was said to have helped America lose the war. Yet, television news coverage was arguably poor, and full of news-bites, rather than detailed documentaries, thus not providing sufficient context:

Images usurped the judgements of experienced reporters who affected the roles of innocent bystander and caption writer. Public attitudes follow from perspectives; by allowing the false neutrality of television images to dominate the coverage of war, journalists allowed misconceptions to become received truths. The first casualties were truth and context; bang-bang and contemporary history were deemed not to blend on the screen. That the Geneva peace conference in 1954 had been undermined by Washington, that communist China was no friend of communist Vietnam, that the NLF had sought the establishment of a non-communist, neutral coalition in South Vietnam — these truths went unremembered and unconnected.

John Pilger, Heroes, (Jonathan Cape 1986, Vintage 2001), p.260

Various Hollywood movies involving Vietnam have since been released. Yet, hardly any connect the global politics at the time, and instead concentrate Indo-China in isolation. Nor do they really explore the suffering of the Vietnamese at the hands of Americans, or Chinese, for example, but are more contemplating about their own soldier’s actions. (see pp. 268 - 274 for more discussion on this aspect.)

In 1998 there was lot of hype in the mainstream about CNN having to retract a story about the US military’s use of Nerve Gas in the Vietnam War. The impression CNN and other media tried to portray in this incident was that the media institutions take such issues seriously. Those who saw this may recall how often this issue was bought up on CNN. However, as media watchdog, Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting suggests, it seems that a lot of the news reports during that war (and others) was fabricated14, especially claims about the actions of the enemy. But none of those were ever retracted.

At the time of the war, there was pressure to conform, else a reporter could risk losing their career. In other cases, criticism or unacctepable portryal would be met with accusations of being anti-American, communist, unpatriotic, or some other derogatory term. This pressure even came from high government officials:

So rare were those like [former CBS news correspondent, Morely] Safer, who would describe in his reports what he saw as well as the camera saw, that he was accused of being anti-American: the catch-all tag for those who stepped even briefly outside the consensus view. When in 1965 Safer’s CBS crew filmed marines burning down a village with Zippo cigarette lighters, President Johnson himself intervened. David Halberstam related what happened, in his book, The Powers That Be:

Frank, said the early-morning wake-up call, are you trying to fuck me? [Frank Stanton was then the president of CBS.]

Who is this? said the still sleepy Stanton.

Frank, this is your President, and yesterday your boys shat on the American flag, Lyndon Johnson said, and then administered a tongue lashing: how could CBS employ a Communist like Safer, how could they be so unpatriotic as to put on enemy film like this? Johnson was furious. ... (Johnson was insisting that Safer was a Communist, and when aides said no [after also getting to check him out in depth], he was simply a Canadian, the President said, Well, I knew he wasn’t an American.)

... Safer’s crime had been to give a mass American audience a glimpse of the real war. When British journalist James Cameron and cameraman Malcolm Aird raised their own finance to make a filmed report from Hanoi in 1965, they were castigated as communist dupes a charge Cameron later told me, he relished. Only when they call you a dupe, not a communist outright, but a dupe, he said, did you know you’d broken the great mould that covered the reporting of the Vietnam war and that maybe you’d got it right!

John Pilger, Heroes, (Jonathan Cape 1986, Vintage 2001), pp.262 - 263


Philip Knightley, who was cited above by John Pilger, wrote what has been regarded a classic on war reporting. His book The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero and Myth-Maker From the Crimea to Kosovo (Prion Books, 2000) is an updated version of the one that Pilger cited from. In it, he provides immense details of war journalism from the various wars in recent decades. His chapters on Vietnam (pp. 409 - 469) give a detailed account and insight of the field of journalism and how it was affected by the Vietnam war, and how it reported the war. It would be futile to try and cite all the examples he has shown, including some very, very gruesome details of atrocities, but some of the summaries he made are worth highlighting:

  • In reporting on the bombing campaigns, even though the intensified carpet bombing of Cambodia, Laos and North Vietnam wasn’t always known in detail, correspondents did their best given the circumstances they were in (p. 464).
  • However, the surge in the air war in Indo-China remained poorly reported, and what was revealed passed with amazingly little outcry. (p. 464). It was at this time of increased bombing, and in neighboring countries, plus the creation of a huge number of refugees (some 3 million), that news reporting was actually declining:

    At a time when the most damage of the was was being inflicted on Indo-China, the news coverage was at its worst, because editors and producers had decided that the ground war was virtually over and that, with the steady withdrawal of U.S. troops underway, public interest had declined. The second unfortunate result was that those editors and producers decided that there was no further interest in American atrocity stories.

    Phillip Knightley, The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero and Myth-Maker From the Crimea to Kosovo, (Prion Books, 2000), p. 438
  • But Knightley also highlighted that American reaction might well have been different if the same attention that had been paid to the ground conflict in Vietnam had been given to the air war, if the reader had been told graphically and at the time about the bombing of Indo-China. In the face of official obstruction — at one state the surge in the war, the military authorities imposed an embargo on the news and then an embargo on the embargo — how could this have been achieved? (p. 469)
  • Knightley conceded that the war reporting was better than in previous wars, but also noted that this is not saying a lot. (p. 465) Even though war correspondents were generally free to move around and there was no official censorship, as journalist Murray Kempton has reminded us, with a million-dollar corps of correspondents in Vietnam the war in Cambodia was kept hidden for a year. (p. 465)

Knightley also detailed the racism that accompanied the war (as with all wars):

As all governments realise that to wage war successfully their troops must learn to dehumanise the enemy. The simplest way to achieve this is to inflame nationalistic or racist feelings, or both. This, American racism, which had first been aroused on a national scale in the Second World War and then revived in Korea, reached a peak in Vietnam. But Vietnam was an insurgency war. The enemy was physically indistinguishable from the ally. Racist hate directed at Charlie Cong the enemy made no provisions for exempting those Vietnamese that the United States had intervened to save. In motivating the GI to fight by appealing to his racist feelings, the United States military discovered that it had liberated an emotion over which it was to lose control.

Phillip Knightley, The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero and Myth-Maker From the Crimea to Kosovo, (Prion Books, 2000), pp. 424

Many of the gruesome attrocities that Knightley described, including the killing of civilians was partly due to this racial sentiment. Knightley continued:

In Vietnam, racism became a patriotic virtue ... All Vietnamese became dinks, slopes, slants, or gooks, and the only good one was a dead one. So the Americans killed them when it was clear that they were Vietcong.... And they killed them when it was clear they were not Vietcong.

It was the racist nature of the fighting, the treating of the Vietnamese like animals, that inevitably led to My Lai, and it was the reluctance of correspondents to report this racist and atrocious nature of the war that caused the My Lai story to be revealed not by a war correspondent, but by an alert newpaper reporter back in the United States — a major indictment of the coverage of the war.

Phillip Knightley, The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero and Myth-Maker From the Crimea to Kosovo, (Prion Books, 2000), pp. 424, 428 (Emphasis is original)

Yet, in other cases, Knightley highlighted how journalists faced pressured to dumb down or struggled to find outlets to publish their harrowing accounts:

No newspaper in the United States would publish the series of articles [by Miss Gellhorn detailing some of the details of the war]. Everywhere I was told that they were too tough for American reader. Eventually, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch took the two mildest ones. Miss Gellhorn had to turn to Britain to get all five published. They appeared in the Guardian, and ended Miss Gellhorn’s career as a war correspondent in Vietnam. When she applied for a visa to return there, her request was refused. She tried over the years since then, applying to various South Vietnamese embassies around the world, and was refused every time.

...Philip Jones Griffiths, one of the few photographers to concentrate on portraying what the war did to Vietnamese civilians, had great difficulty in find an outlet for his work in the United States. I was told time after time that my photographs were too harrowing for the American market. When, eventually, a book of his photographs, Vietnam Inc., was published in the United States, the South Vietnamese government banned his return to Saigon.

Phillip Knightley, The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero and Myth-Maker From the Crimea to Kosovo, (Prion Books, 2000), pp. 424, 428 (Emphasis is original)

And as Knightley concluded:

So in the reporting of Vietnam each day’s news was swiftly consumed by the next day’s. Too few correspondents looked back and tried to see what it added up to, too few probed beyond the official version of events to expose the lies and half-truths, too few tried to analyse what it all meant. There were language problems: few correspondents spoke French, much less Vietnemese. There were time problems: Kevin Buckley’s investigation into Operation Speedy Express took two men two and a half months. And there were cultural problems: apart from Bernard Fall’s and Frances FitzGerald’s, there were no serious attempts to explain to Americans something about the people they were fighting. On the whole, writers for non-daily publications came out better than most of their colleagues because, free from the tyranny of pressing deadlines, they could look at the war in greater depth.

Phillip Knightley, The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero and Myth-Maker From the Crimea to Kosovo, (Prion Books, 2000), pp. 466 - 467

The Vietnam experience highlights a multitude of factors that contributed to what can only be termed as propaganda for Cold War ideological battles.

  • A mixture of ideological goals, geopolitical and military goals, and issues to do with the nature of reporting and the structure of the media and how it worked, combined with cultural norms, all impacted the way that things were reported, not reported, portrayed, or misrepresented.
  • This ultimately provided legitimacy for a war that saw millions killed.
  • That the war need not have happened in the first place is almost never discussed now, and it is more of a tragedy or bad mistake for the sole superpower to come to terms with; good intentions carried out poorly.
  • The good intentions are rarely questioned.

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More Information

The above may be considered long for a web page, but it really isn’t much detail at all. In addition, many other important aspects have not been touched upon here such as:

  • The huge anti-war protest movements in the 1960s;
  • The issue of those missing in action; the details of the devastation of Indo-China;
  • Vietnam’s attempts at development after the wars, amidst trade and aid embargoes;
  • The various sociopolitical, environmental and economic consequences up to today;
  • The Vietnam syndrome;
  • The impact the Vietnam war has had on American culture, on the attitude to sending military troops abroad, etc;
  • And many more issues.

For more details on various aspects, discussed here, and not discussed, consider the following, which is by no means anywhere near a comprehensive list, but will be added to over time:

  • Covering Vietnam15 from the Media Channel provides various articles about the media on Vietnam.
  • Asia articles16 from media watch-dog, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting.
  • The books cited above are listed here (they themselves list many more sources):
    • John Pilger, Heroes, (Jonathan Cape 1986, Vintage 2001), especially part IV, chapters 14 to 23. (John Pilger’s web site17 also includes a lot of articles on Vietnam18.)
    • Phillip Knightly, The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero and Myth-Maker From the Crimea to Kosovo, (Prion Books, 2000), especially chapters 16 and 17
    • Works by J.W. Smith from the Institute for Economic Democracy19. At his web site you can find on line books, in full, for free. These detail in far more breadth and depth, the context in which Vietnam occurred.
    • Works from Noam Chomsky20. His web site contains numerous articles, interviews, speeches, and books on all sorts of aspects of U.S. foreign policy, and like Smith, details the wider context as well.
    • William Blum, Rogue State, (Common Courage Press, 2000)
  • Buried Secrets, Brutal Truths21, an investigation by The Blade, Toledo, Ohio, released October 22, 2003, reveals a number of articles detailing how members of a platoon of American soldiers from the 101st known as Tiger Force slaughtered an untold number of Vietnamese civilians over a seven-month period in 1967. In addition, a decision was made not to prosecute those who committed the war crimes.

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  • by Anup Shah
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