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For this particular essay, there will be four principle sources used to understand the relationship between the media and the events that took place during the course of the Vietnam War. The first source will be Reporting Vietnam: Media & Military at War by William M. Hammond. The principle focus of this source is in documenting and analyzing different attributes of the reporting that was conducted in Vietnam. This source asserts that agencies responsible for handling the information and reporting in the beginning of the war were not given a significant amount of control over how the media represented the war itself and what limitations were to be set in place over what media came forth from the war efforts. As Hammond discusses, this had a large part in the portrayals of the war and what America’s interests were in the Vietnam War itself. This source calls into question the motivations of reporters and evaluates them thoroughly, claiming that the media’s interests initially represented those of the government’s, in that they were most specifically attempting to illustrate the effects of communism and the potential rise that it could have in a country such as Vietnam. As such, this source is particularly important in addressing the rudimentary causes of the escalation of the war in Vietnam, and places an emphasis in discussing the media’s effects on the war efforts in particular.
The next source came from Daniel C. Hallin, titled The Uncensored War: The Media and Vietnam. In this book, Hallin examines the nature of American media and why it had such a profound impact on governance and in particular, conflict and the decisions to go to Vietnam for the war. This essay brings to light various studies and references which were conducted that illustrated the authoritative power of the national media during this time, and how it was used to prominently regulate public opinion regarding certain social issues. Hallin also takes the time to summarize how the shift in the media’s representation of the war changed as the war itself progressed. Hallin’s viewpoints are summarized well and this source manages to draw on different attributes of the war that are rarely considered in-depth, such as the portrayal of televised violence and the public’s reactions. As such, this source is important because it extensively addresses how the media was able to skew and sculpt these particular stories and how this in turn affected the war efforts in Vietnam.
Going off of this theme is Ron Stienmann’s Inside Television’s First War. This source discusses at length the relationship that television played in the perception of the Vietnam War. Given the prominence of television as a media entity during this time, this source is instrumental in that it shows the impact of television as a news source and what effect this had on the general public. In a survey that was conducted in 1964, over 58% of the entire United States population responded that they received most of their news from televised sources. Television, as a result, became the leading news outlet for the American public over the course of the conflict. As Stienmann discusses, key events such as the battle of Ap Bac, the self-immolation of the Buddhist monks and the Tet Offensive all were portrayed in detail and at great length to the public, on national television, which in turn caused their views to drastically shift when presented with the real, unfiltered events that occurred in Vietnam. Steinmann’s analysis of television’s impact is thorough and articulated well, and given the impact that television had, it is important as a resource to emphasize the connections between the public and the events themselves.
Lastly, the final source that will be used is that of Douglas Kinnard, titled The War Managers. This source is relevant because it shows the events that happened from the perspective of a top ranking general and chief of staff during the war, Douglas Kinnard. Kinnard uses his platform to showcase the different ways that the Vietnam war failed and what happened to ensure the eventual collapse of public support. Contained throughout this book are several reports and extensive interviews with other members of the Armed Forces during this time that reveal a general consensus regarding the overall nature of the Vietnam war. One defining attribute of this assessment was the media’s ability to respond to events almost instantaneously as they occurred, and the capacity through which the public was able to seize this information unfiltered. This source draws upon this as a chief attribute as to why the Vietnam war was met with such scrutiny, and how the media’s portrayal of these events had a resounding impact on the conclusion of the war as well.
As these sources have illustrated, the principle reaction to the conflicts in Vietnam by the media were initially centered around the investigation of communist influences in the region, as well as the overall nature of the Cold War itself and how it was being conducted in foreign territories such as Vietnam. Initially, the conflict was perceived as an American endeavor to stifle the advancements of communism throughout the world, and to help curb the effects of countries such as China and Russia. The administration was able to largely influence how the overall framing of the war itself was conducted and reporting done on the conflict was based mostly off of the conditions of the Cold War, as viewed by the administration. The focus of the newly elected South Vietnamese president at the time, Ngo Dinh Diem, was largely centered around the anticommunist tendencies that he exhibited. Yet, this was affected tremendously when several citizens were killed in an attempted coup against Diem towards the latter part of 1960.
Due to this and the nature of how the conflict began to grow, several reporters began flocking to Saigon to report directly from the region. At the time, it was perceived that America’s intentions were to only maintain a sense of active advice and to help oversee any efforts to keep stability in the region and to keep it free of Communist interference. William M. Hammond illustrates this, arguing that initially, the media has a different idea of what the United States would be doing in Vietnam and as this changed and escalated, so did the coverage that the media provided of the events. One of these particular events was that of the Battle of Ap Bac. The correspondence on this issue made it appear as if there were many questions regarding the conflict, without directly addressing them as such. While it can be said that they didn’t outright state that America’s involvement was not likely to help win the war or that the administration’s claims of it being solely to halt Communism’s spread were only a portion of the reason the country got involved, the coverage was enough to lead the Kennedy administration to blast the editors in the United States with what they believed to be inaccurate representations of the events. Yet, these portrayals and the subsequent reactions, created a stark divide between the government and the media, with many individuals and media entities in the United States beginning to believe that there might be more to the whole conflict than what the government was willing to divulge. This set a precedent for further coverage and correspondence, as many outlets began back-peddling on their support of military intervention from the United States.
This further compounded upon itself during the Buddhist Crisis in 1963. It was during this time that the Diem government began to consider the foreign press and entities within the press as vehement antagonists and started opposing intervention from foreign media. While it can be stated that the United States military officials present in Saigon were not open towards the media, many of the people in Saigon, mostly those who opposed the support of Diem, leaked information from Diem to members of the press. This was a central attribute of Kinnard’s book, as he discussed how divisions between the information that the government was spreading and the information that was being reported in Saigon grew, and as such, so did public opinion. The South Vietnamese government had been attempting to repress many of the resistant Buddhist monks attempts to display their religion, including prohibiting Buddhist flags in celebration. These events came to a traumatic head, when in June of 1963, one monk by the name of Thích Quảng Đức lit himself on fire, while a photographer was there to capture the image. Despite the attempts to suppress the photo being released, it eventually found its way into media circulation in the United States and furthered the questions and lack of trust that the American public had for the South Vietnamese government, and by extension, the support of the American government.
Lastly, and possibly the most defining moment in the division between public support and the government’s motives and operations, came from the representation of the Tet Offensive. Historically, much of the war between the North Vietnamese and the South Vietnames and American allies came from guerilla operations in the jungles. Yet, the Tet Offensive brought the conflicts to the urban areas and exposed serious flaws in the American war efforts. While it can be said that the Tet Offensive was unsuccessful in its attempts for the Communist North Vietnamese, it came as a tremendous blow to the American public and the war efforts in general. The efforts had been publicly shown to not have halted the North’s advances into the South, which was also poorly covered by the White House. It was apparent that they hadn’t had any prior warning of the events, which resulted in heavy casualties. This came towards the end of a propaganda campaign from the United States government, which had been emphasizing that the Americans were winning the war, when in fact it was evident that quite the opposite was true. As a result, the public was irreparably skeptical of the actions of the government and their dissemination of information.
The media covered this attack more significantly than any other attack before it, televising the events that occurred and the depth to which the North had been able to influence the region with these attacks. The coverage of the Tet Offensive brought a sobering reality to the American populace, and in conjunction with the aforementioned events, the level of damage that occurred to the government’s image create deep resentment in the American public. The media was largely responsibly for receiving this information, and for showcasing the constant stalemates that the Vietcong had created, when it was being reported from the White House that the nation was winning the war.
What is evident from these accounts and the many different sources themselves is that there was a significant level of misinformation from the government to the American public. The development of television as a primary news source made it so that the government was unable to properly screen the information reaching the public, and the ability of journalists to actively and almost simultaneously engage the public through television as these events arose compounded upon this issue. The media itself was largely responsible for the growing resentment that the American public had gained over the course of the war. While it appeared from the on-set that the Americans were only attempting to help advise the South Vietnamese government, whom the public were led to believe was generally benevolent, both of these claims were brought to a harrowing and different light. The United States began leading a rather unsuccessful campaign against the North Vietnamese and were attempting to inflate their successes and deflate their losses in the process. As more information came out regarding the South Vietnamese, American viewers and readers were shown a different image of the government that the United States had been supporting. The media was a powerful entity in this regard, able to portray what the government had been attempting to deny. Battles such as Ap Bac and the Tet Offensive illustrated that the United States was capable of losing conflicts. This became a serious issue for the government as the media began representing the events as they occurred, rather than stating that they were as victorious as the government was attempting to state. The media’s influence, especially when considering the prominence of television, at the time, was profound in the sense that the American public was exposed to the realities of the Vietnam conflict and in turn, were shown the depth to which the government attempted to suppress the truths regarding the conflicts themselves. As Douglas Kinnard illustrated, this was one of the most defining attributes as to why the Vietnam conflict was largely unsuccessful and resulted in an eventual stalemate between the two entities.
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