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Student Question: Media and the War

Louis E. Grivetti

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There are striking differences between the way the Second World War and the Vietnam War was reported in the United States. This is partly because of changes in technology. More importantly, it was due to the different way people reacted to the war.

It is worth considering the way the United States media reported the Second World War before December, 1941. The vast majority of the American public had no desire to get involved in this European war. This was reflected in the way the war was reported in the media. Leading figures in the America First movement were extremely popular during this period.

The most significant of these was Gerald Nye. In August 1940, Nye attacked Franklin D. Roosevelt for giving the leaders of England and France "reason to believe that if they would declare war on Germany, help would be forthcoming." He went on to argue that the United States had "sold out, by deliberate falsification, the two European nations with which we had the closest ties. We sent France to her death and have brought England perilously close to it."

Nye and other members of the America First Committee still objected to the way the media portrayed the war. In a speech in August 1941, Nye claimed that the motion picture industry had "become the most gigantic engines of propaganda in existence to rouse the war fever in America and plunge this Nation to her destruction". He added that the movies were "not revealing the sons of mothers writhing in agony in trench, in mud, on barbed wire, amid scenes of battle or sons of mothers living legless, or lungless, or brainless, or sightless in hospitals." His commented that this approach was partly due to the large number of refugees and British actors working in the industry.

Nye’s political career virtually came to an end on 7th December, 1941. The following day Nye voted in the Senate for war. He admitted: "The one thing an American can want to do - win the war and win it with the greatest possible dispatch and decisiveness. It is not time to quibble over what might have been done or how we got where we are. We know only that the enemy chose to make war against us. To give our Commander in Chief unqualified and unprejudicial backing in his prosecution of the war is an obligation which I shall gladly fulfil. Differences over matters of foreign policy up to this hour are abandoned and unity should be accorded in every particular."

Even so, this change of attitude could not save Nye and the man that many would one day become president, lost his seat in Congress (November 1944).

After Pearl Harbor the American public was united in fighting the war. This was also true of the media. Therefore controversial subjects such as blanket (terror) bombing were not discussed in the media. In fact, all types of atrocities such as the firebombing of Dresden were not criticised by the media.

The Vietnam War was very different. American territory had not been attacked by a foreign power. Understandably, the American public was deeply divided over the morality of going to war. Unlike the Second World War, people quickly protested against the actions of their government. In a free society the media had to report these protests.

In the Second World War details of atrocities could be kept quiet. This was impossible during the Vietnam War. The reporting of these atrocities led to even more people questioning the morality of the war.

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.




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I believe a lot had to do with what area you were in, what your mission was, etc. I commanded an independent Special Forces operation in An Phu, South Vietnam from 27 Dec 65 thru 2 Aug 66 and I did not permit any American Media in my area. My area comprised the entire An Phu District with its 64,000 Buddhist Hoa Haos (also about 1-200 Malaysian/Polynesiam Chams). I trusted the South Vietnamese press and they had free access to our area. See my book "EXPENDABLE ELITE - One Soldier's Journey INto Covert Warfare" for details.

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