Vietnam and the Mass Media

The US administration, unlike-most governments at war, made no official attempt to censure the reporting in the Vietnam War. Every night on colour television people saw pictures of dead and wounded marines. Dean Rusk, US Secretary of State, pointed out that: "This was the first struggle fought on television in everybody's living room every day... whether ordinary people can sustain a war effort under that kind of daily hammering is a very large question."

Newspaper reporters and television commentators were free to question the wisdom of fighting the war. Military leaders accused their critics of being "unpatriotic" and guilty of "helping the enemy." The Generals were especially angered by the way the media covered the Tet Offensive. General Maxwell Taylor wrote later: "The picture of a few flaming Saigon houses, presented by a gloomy-voiced telecaster as an instance of the destruction caused in the capital, created the inevitable impression that this was the way it was in all or most of Saigon."

Admiral Grant Sharp was another critic of the mass media. He argued: "The reality of the 1968 Tet offensive was that Hanoi had taken a big gamble and had lost on the battlefield, but they won a solid psychological victory in the United States." Sharp believed that the biased reporting of the Tet offensive convinced the American public and the government that the war was being lost and the only option was to withdraw from Vietnam.

One of the most influential acts during the war was the decision of Life Magazine to fill one edition of its magazine with photographs of the 242 US soldiers killed in Vietnam during one week of the fighting.

It was this type of reporting that encouraged General William Westmoreland, commander of US troops in Vietnam, to accuse the mass media of helping to bring about a National Liberation Front victory. However, defenders of the mass media claimed that reporters were only reflecting the changing opinions of the American people towards the war.

Public opinion polls carried out at the time suggest that the tax increases to pay for the war and the death of someone they knew, were far more influential than the mass media in changing people's attitude towards the war.

Primary Sources

(1) George Lansbury, Looking Backwards and Forwards (1935)

(2) Michael Parris, The American Film Industry and the Vietnam War (1987)

The American film industry can hardly be accused of ignoring the Vietnam War. But what it has ignored are some of the more unpleasant aspects of that conflict. No film has yet presented any real justification for Americans going to South East Asia other than in the most vague terms such as "treaty obligations". No American feature has dealt with the end of the war, the withdrawal of American troops in 1973 or the subsequent fall of Saigon in 1975. It appears that Americans have yet to come to terms with defeat and it seems fashionable to soften the truth with phrases like "the war that nobody won"... All of which diverts attention from the harsh reality - that America suffered a costly military defeat. Other aspects of the war have also been ignored in the cinema's view of events. There has been no mention of the defoliation programmes or reference to other chemical weapons; nor of the massive bombing campaigns against North Vietnam or Laos.

The most recent features have dealt with commando raids into present-day Vietnam to release prisoners-of-war still held by the communists. Uncommon Valor (1983), Missing in Action (1984) and the phenomenally successful Rambo have all shown that the communists can be beaten and have attempted to restore military self-respect.