When one thinks about wars in the United States during the 20th century, people tend to think of rallied support associated with them; this was not the case for the Vietnam War. The United States became involved in the war during the 1950s to help their ally, France, control troubles within their colony Vietnam. Involvement intensified when President Lyndon B. Johnson sent troops in 1965 after passing the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in 1964. The thought was that this would be a quick victory, but it was a costly war for the United States, both in soldiers and morale, that ended in defeat.
A major factor causing disapproval for the Vietnam War was the power of television. The majority of households owned televisions and it was their primary source for news. This was the first war that had the power to depict the war directly to Americans, which brought a whole new dimension that no one was expecting. There were fewer regulations for reporters, so they had more freedom to go and capture what, today, would be considered graphic visuals and stories for TV news. Correspondents captured images such as American soldiers wounded, burning down villages, and harming civilians. This caused public outrage, leading to people speaking out against the war and calling for the United States to remove themselves. By the mid 1970s, with a push by the public and the media, the United States pulled out of Vietnam.
There are pros and cons to the television media’s role in Vietnam. In one sense, it created controversy more than any other war. On the other, this is the role of the media. In Streitmatter’s words, “When television news brought the ‘worst aspects’ of the Vietnam War into the American living room, it was doing its job” (174). Although it was not the heroic view the United States was used to when it came to war, it was necessary to show what was happening abroad, and to provide the truth through television.
- Gulf of Tonkin resolution: a response to a reported attack on American destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin by Northern Vietnam. President Johnson supported “all necessary action” to defend US forces, leading to the United States sending over massive amounts of troops and becoming heavily involved in the Vietnam War.
- Morley Safer: a reporter from CBS who reported on US soldiers burning a Vietnamese village using Zippo lighters. The footage aired, and was highly criticized for portraying the American soldiers in a negative light, including from President Johnson.
- Tet Offensive: an attack from the North Vietnamese that targeted over 100 sites in South Vietnam. Although from a military strategy perspective it was a fail for the North Vietnamese, many argue that it was still a success as it crippled American morale.
- “The Shot Felt Around the World”: the execution of a North Vietnamese soldier that was televised by NBC to about 20 million viewers. Correspondent Howard Tuckner caught the whole situation on film. Although it created controversy for being graphic, it had a significant impact on the public perception of the war, and people started questioning the actions of American troops.
- Walter Cronkite: A popular and well-respected CBS reporter who played a significant role in changing public perception after the Tet Offensive. Although originally a supporter of the war, his personal views changed after other news reports being aired from Vietnam. He made his opinion clear during his program, Report from Vietnam by Walter Cronkite, and many people, citizens and journalists alike, followed his lead. Cronkite was so influential that President Johnson made the comment, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the war” (172).
Footage from CBS Evening News. Originally aired March 27, 1970, reported by Richard Threlkeld in Vietnam. Published to YouTube on April 30, 2015.
Do you think that the television media crossed a line with the amount that they showed- why or why not?
With more ways for visuals and information to spread, a clear example being through social media, do you think that we have the chance to see harsh realities of war first-hand like Americans did in Vietnam, or are we more cautious about graphic visuals being shared?