IntroductionThe Vietnam War is one of the most controversial events to have affected the world and the United States. One could argue that the War was one of the biggest blunders within the history of the US military. The most common school of thought contends that the conflict had underlying political motivations, revolving around the concept of the “domino theory” which aimed at preventing the spread of communist ideology from the North of Vietnam to the South.
The conflict in Vietnam was one that was extremely costly for the United States, the 20 year conflict beginning in 1955 and stretching to 1975 (Anderson & Ernst, 2014) consequently claimed the lives of 58,220 Americans, registered as “US military fatal casualties” (DCAS 2008) and “almost 2 million civilians,” however there is much debate regarding the most accurate number of civilians who lost their life during the conflict which Lewy analyses in his book titled “America in Vietnam.” (Lewy, 1978) In terms of the amount of resources spent on the war, the US military spent a total of $111 billion between 1955 and 1975, although in terms of of modern inflation rates, this figure is more like $738 billion. (Daggett, 2010) The Vietnam conflict was the first to be publicly televised which resulted in uncensored images and other sources of information being open available to the public within the US and the rest of the world. This paper will analyse the significant contributions to the loss of the Vietnam War using the following research aims: To introduce Democratic Theory and assess the role of the media within a democracy. To assess the changes which occured in the news media during the Vietnam War. To assess the effects of domestic Anti War movements and the Kent state shootings in particular.
To evaluate ‘Agenda Setting Bias’ within the news media during the conflict and the effects it had on public opinion. To assess the effects of the Tet Offensive and the negative effects it had within the media which in turn affected the support for the war. To assess how the media affected the political elites in America. The project will investigate the above research aims guided by analysis and research from Vietnam historians and news articles. The aim of this paper will be to evaluate the effect of changing public opinion throughout the Vietnam War. Within this perspective, this paper will contend that public opinion throughout the conflict was splintered into many different stratas, whereby it is possible that not all of the public were accounted for and opinion polls were periodically bias. This paper will further assess the importance of the media with regards to the documentation of the fracturing within the american political elites and demonstrating the slow loss of confidence within the war effort. The first section of this paper will concern Democratic Political theory and the importance of the public opinion within a democracy.
The second section of this paper will refer to the background of the media within the United States and the ethnocentric nature it had. The third section of this paper will concern the rise of the domestic Anti War movements and the effectiveness of the media in portraying such events. In addition to this, this section of the paper will highlight the importance of public opinion within the US.
Finally, the fourth section of this paper will discuss the importance of the Tet Offensive and other events in 1968 both in domestic and non domestic in influencing the media swing within America and bringing about the withdrawal of American troops the following year. Section One: Media and the Democratic Political TheoryFirstly, it is important to understand the role in which the media plays within the state. Democratic Political Theory is closely linked with that of the ten amendments within the United States, whereby the first amendment states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…” (U.S. Bill of Rights 1791) Whereby it is suggested that the freedom of the press and the importance of the news media maintains a crucial role in shaping a healthy state. (Robinson, 2002) One could suggest that the role of the media within a democracy therefore is to illustrate the bare truth and harsh realities within the state, both domestically and internationally. However, within a democracy it is further possible to say that the role of the media is to speak for the people and constantly report on and question the political elites. (Gunther & Mughan, 2000) Democracy theory therefore contends that the media within a functioning democracy is tasked with the role of questioning the government and the decisions made within the state.
Hammond acknowledges the struggle between the state and the press with particular reference to the Vietnam War, whereby Hammond elaborates on the ability of the press to influence government legislation. (Hammond, 1998) The importance of civil liberty within a state such as that of the United States is therefore paramount to the functioning of a healthy democracy. Civil liberties consist of the “right to freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion and conscience.” (Heywood, 2000, p. 120) Within this perspective one could suggest that the liberty of the press is essential in the nature of a free state and the preservation of a democracy.
However, it is important for the reader to understand that during the period of the Vietnam War, America was experiencing many changes affecting its social structure and as a result, one could suggest that the public opinion was difficult to record. In addition to this, it is important to mention the freedom of the press within a democracy, whereby with regards to the war in Vietnam one could present the argument that the press was not granted the freedom to report on the conflict up until ‘Operation Candor’ in 1964. (Anderson & Ernst, 2014) In terms of the Vietnam War, the political elites in America at the time were faced with the problem of the evolving media and risk of uncensored images from the theatre of war being witnessed from the comfort of an American home. (Hallin, 1989) It is possible to say that the “issue of the press” throughout the Vietnam War has had significant implications for today, as governments have a far greater understanding of the influence of the news media and therefore the notion of government information policy and the development of a “National Security Mentality.” has been heavily considered. (Anderson & Ernst, 2014, p.
265)Section Two: Background of the Media.The Vietnam War presented the first situation of its kind whereby the media would play a forward role in the documentation of War and the influencing the public. Upon the beginning of the Vietnam War and the introduction of televisions into every home in America, it was not possible to quantify the extent to which the press would be an influence on public opinion. In addition to this, it was not certain to what extent the presence of the media within Vietnam would affect the government and public opinion. In the early stages of the war journalism within the United States was focused around the concept of “ethnocentrism,” whereby American domestic politics dominated the news and the media. (Gains, 1979, p.
42) Mainly because it was also believed that this area of news was where profits were made. Therefore, one could present the argument that little attention was given up until 1963, based on the principle that international news, especially concerning that of Asia. Anderson and Ernst acknowledge the changes which affected the American Press, suggesting that as a result of social and economic influences it was possible that profit maximisation became a driving force in media reports on Vietnam. (Anderson & Ernst, 2014) Little attention was given to the Vietnam War prior to 1963, whereby the curiosity of the media was drawn to the Battle of ‘Ap Bac.’ Within this conflict the US experienced its first military setback. The conflict resulted in approximately 80 killed in action and another 100 South Vietnamese soldiers wounded, including the death of American advisers. It was reported in the press that conflict was “from beginning to end, a communist victory.” (Kirkpatrick, 1990) It is possible to label the conflict as the first issue of doubt with regards to the war effort, whereby journalists began to contradict and question the relativity of the war effort.
For example, one journalist went to state that “The war in Vietnam is being lost.” (Wyatt, 2014, p. 276)However as the war progressed, more and more attention was designated to the conflict in Vietnam. Within this perspective there are two narratives expressed within Anderson and Ernst’s book ‘The War that Never Ends’ concerning the role of the Media throughout the Vietnam War. One concept contends that the press developed the role of a “deliverer” whereby the media became an effective body in “dispelling government lies and enabling the American people to bring an ill- advised, unjust war to an end.” (Wyatt, 2014, p.
266). However, the second narrative would suggest that the media developed even further, especially towards the end of the war and the climax of the Tet Offensive, contending that the press came to be known as that of a “betrayer.” (Wyatt, 2014, p. 266). Therefore it is possible to suggest that the progressively more intense stream of images and information available to the public was responsible for stimulating much of the anti war feelings. Within this latter narrative, it is important to for the reader to understand the concept of ‘Agenda Setting Bias’ within the press, whereby in the case of the Vietnam conflict, it can be suggested that the media after 1963 “downplayed or ignored progress of the conflict and emphasized negative reports” in order to influence public opinion on the war. (Wyatt, 2014, p.
266). It is possible to say that as a result of the media, the American government was forced to become more careful with what was disclosed to the press and the public. Although the press was protected through the constitution, one could present the argument that until the mid 1960s “elite rhetoric was heavily tilted towards the pro war view” (Zaller, 1992). Therefore, one could suggest that prior to the rise in the curiosity of the media in 1963 and ‘Operation Candor’ in 1964 much of the American public was not aware of the truth regarding the war and it was not until the war became that of an “American Story” that the media showed significant interest. (Anderson & Ernst, 2014) Anti War Movements. The movement itself largely consisted of students in particular, however, also distraught parents, trade unionists, religious groups and a growing number of national newspapers who cared little for a protracted war of attrition involving Americans being drafted into the army.
However, out of all of the anti war movement participants, one could argue that the students were by far the most radical in terms of rallies and protests against the government. (Lau, Brown & Sears, 1978). The student protests challenged the morality of U.S. actions and eroded national support for the conflict in what was the “most widespread student activism and protest in american history” (Fry, 2014 p. 219) Self-interest and civilians’ attitudes toward the Vietnam War.
At the height of student protests, 30,000 people participated in a march on the pentagon in an effort to stop the draft. (Karnow, 1988). What became known as “Stop the draft week” culminated in a growing majority of anti war demonstrations on the domestic front of the Vietnam war and by 1971, almost 71% of Americans felt that the war in Vietnam was wrong and pointless, according to Karnow. (Karnow, 1988). Moreover, the events of Kent State University in May 1970 dramatically affected public opinion and tilted it against the war in Vietnam. However in addition to this, it is likely that the deaths at Kent State University contributed to the downfall of President Nixon.
(DeBROSSE, 2013)In addition to this, it is important to pay attention to events like the Tet Offensive and in particular the My Lai Massacre of 1968 which completely undermined the global image of the US and brought to light the illusion that the US is no longer the “good guy,” so to speak, in this particular conflict. Furthermore, the war had drained money from social aspects and projects, for example, Martin Luther King saw the war as an enemy of the poor in America, the cost of the war was climbing creating a federal deficit which had much opportunity which substituted improving the average standard of living in America, for eliminating the Viet Cong forces. (Isserman & Kazin, 2004). This therefore brings the domestic reasons for America’s defeat and withdrawal from the war due to the high costs both foreign which refers to the costs of the war effort such as the loss of life, but also the impact the war was having in domestic terms, through student rallies and anti government rallies. (Small, 2002)Section Three: Media swing and the Tet Offensive.It is possible to suggest that the year of 1968 acted as a turning point in the majority of opinions regarding the war in Vietnam. (Schmitz, 2005) The escalation of the war in Vietnam in 1968 acted in conjunction with an escalation in the domestic the anti war movements across America. The ‘tet Offensive’ was possibly one of the most controversial events to have occured during the Vietnam War.
President Lyndon. B Johnson states that the Tet had been a devastating defeat for the Communists and in terms of a military defeat one could argue that he was right in this statement. The American press during the Tet greatly focused on the battle for the city of Saigon, however the communist offensive was happening all across Vietnam in a series of coordinated attacks. During this bloody part of the Vietnam War, the Tet Offensive had marked itself as one of the most significant events in the influence of public opinion on the War. (Schmitz, 2005) American television screens had been filled with blood and violence, illustrating the true brutality of the war and consequently causing doubt that the war was never going to end. The events of the Tet Offensive were widely distributed and displayed within homes across America. Stone acknowledges the importance of the television by referring to the controversial images which were shown on television each night with the U.
S, whereby he suggests that such images were likely to have influenced the public’s confidence for the success of the war in Vietnam. (Stone, 2011) News coverage of the events shocked the world and the American population who had been led to the illusion that up until the Tet, the American military had been making progress in the winning of the Vietnam War. (Ward & Burns, 2017) The media and the political administration of America had been informing the public that the war was being won and thus presenting the notion that the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong were near to defeat. However the Tet Offensive contradicted such statements and therefore affected public opinion through a dramatic loss of confidence in the war effort and the rattling of confidence of the political elites. (Hammond, 1998) Furthermore, one could suggest that the way it had been documented and displayed was responsible for playing a large part in the deepening implications for the splintering of the government and political elite, but also the splintering of the middle class within America. (Schmitz, 2005).
Following the outbreak of conflict, many images and events were broadcasted on American television. Perhaps one of the most controversial was the murder of ‘Nguyen Van Lem, ‘ by South Vietnamese military officer Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Tuan. (Keever, 2013) Whereby the image depicts the moment that the Vietnamese Officer executes a Viet Cong commando with his revolver. (Fischer & Fischer, 2000) In addition to this, images of the My Lai massacre were finally unveiled to the public following the government’s attempts to hide one of the United States’ largest acts of military insubordination. (Anderson, 2004, p. 98) Such images began to fracture much of the public opinion within the war and influence spikes in anti war protests within America including protests against Johnson’s presidency, as the public began to question why the american troops were supporting the South Vietnamese and began to question the war itself.
Source: (Adams 1968)Furthermore, decisions to step up the war effort were met by the the media beginning to pick up the implicitly growing concerns of the American middle class which had been insulated by the worse effects of the war up until 1968. (Stone, 2011) For the first time within the duration of the Vietnam conflict, arguments had erupted within the government demonstrating the controversial fracturing of political elites in America. In addition to this, it must be considered in the evaluation of this project the work of Halin, whereby “the apparently growing prominence of the media coincided with what seemed to be a crisis in political institutions.” (Halin, 1989, p. 4) Halin argues within his book that the rise in the media’s attention to the Vietnam conflict was met by an apparent loss of confidence for the political system in America, therefore suggesting the relevance and importance public opinion in the end of the Vietnam war.
It is further possible to say that the reports from Vietnam during the Tet led to the questions and challenges arising among the political elites based around the decline in confidence for the war effort, for example “The War within Vietnam is being lost” (Anderson & Ernst, 2014, p. 276) After years of fighting it became popular opinion that it was not possible for the American military to bring about a swift end to the conflict and for the first time, the costs of the war were questioned. In February 1968 Gallup polls suggested that 49% of people opposed the war in Vietnam where as 41% of people remained in favour. (Saad, 2016) However, by September, 58% of people were against the war and in belief that the war of attrition in Vietnam was a mistake, whereas at the same time 31% of the poll remained in favour. (Saad, 2016) Therefore illustrating the importance of public opinion in both Johnson’s fall from power and the end of the Vietnam War.
It is important to note that during this time, more and more members of the president’s own party felt free to express their doubts on military victory in Vietnam, for example; “The White House had been stunned by what was happening in Vietnam as were the commanders in the field.” (Ward & Burns, 2017, p. 273) During this time, Senator Robert Kennedy stated “Our enemy has finally shattered the mask of official illusion” (Kennedy, 1968), Kennedy later went on to argue that America has been unable to break its enemy or break the will of the enemy and must seek a peaceful settlement. In addition to this, another controversial moment dramatically affecting the American public opinion stemmed from Walter Cronkite. Cronkite was the most respected anchor of the CBS evening news at the time.
On the evening of February 27th 1968, Cronkite came out in public stating that victory was no longer possible. “to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds. For it seems now more certain than ever, that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate.
” (Cronkite, 1968) Following the Tet Offensive, the Cleveland Press was reported saying “something enormous has gone wrong” and suggested that what had happened could not simply be shrugged off with “flimsy explanations” (Ward & Burns, 2017, p. 276) suggesting that in the time following the Tet Offensive, the press were in a state of “frustration and genuine anguish.” (Ward & Burns, 2017, p. 276) Conclusion. To conclude, it is possible to say that there was a clear change of public opinion which developed throughout the conflict from a pro war nature into a more pessimistic view of the war in Vietnam. One could illustrate the effects of public opinion through Lyndon B.
Johnson’s decision to not run for a second term, whereby his decision was based upon the notion that he had lost the faith and support of the media. For example, 63% of the public disapproved of Johnson’s handling of the Vietnam war. (Saad, 2016) In terms of the growing levels of unrest and anti war movements within America and the media, it is possible to suggest that both factors fed off of eachother in a symbiotic matter.
In terms of democracy within the United States, there are many stratifications of public opinion located in different cultures and diversity due to the political scope of the United States. Within this perspective, it is possible to suggest that the media had been capable of influencing some certain ‘publics’ however failed to ‘twist the arm’ of others. For example, in the fourth chapter of this paper, gallup in the United States suggest that there was a total of 58% in favour of the anti war movement, 31% remaining in favour of the war and the remainder standing without an opinion. (Saad, 2016) However, it is important to assess the notion of ‘disillusionment’ within the Vietnam War, whereby the significance of the media and public during the war can be demonstrated due to the exposure of the political elites. For example, one could suggest the the surge in media coverage of the conflict and the emphasizing of negative events, (Wyatt, 2014, p. 266) coincided with the fracturing of political elites within America which as a result instigated a decline in confidence both within the administration and in the public itself.
However, further factors such as that of military and political failures could be focused as a potential contributor for the loss of the Vietnam War whereby the US tried to fight a war of attrition and was unable to pursue an all out war with the Viet Cong, which it would have easily won. One could therefore argue that the US underestimated the power and determination of the Viet Cong and was unable to bring an end to the war through constant bombing campaigns. (Karnow, 1988) Therefore, this paper has illustrated that within a democracy, including that of the United States, public opinion holds an essential role within society and can be regarded as a social entity.