Air University Review, January-February 1983

Democracy and Protracted War:
the Impact of Television

Lieutenant Colonel Gerald S. Venanzi

". . . none of the networks made any effort to train their people to comprehend military matters."

Throughout history, relatively small nations or revolutionary groups have been able to defeat major democratic powers whose military and economic strength tower over that of the victor. Good generalship, strategy, and tactics may account for victory in specific battles and even decide the outcome of wars between nations of equal strength and size. They do not, however, supply the total answer for the victory of a small force at war with a world power. To find the answer, we must look at national will and how it can be influenced.

The role of a nation’s news media during wartime is critical. The media are a population’s source of news about world events. In war the media are like a weather vane, telling the people how things are progressing. If the media lead people to believe that their national interests are not at stake, the war is not going well, or their involvement is under less than honorable conditions, the people may force the government to end the war, even if it means the nation’s defeat.

How did the Vietnamese Communists defeat the French policy in Indochina? In 1947, a powerful member of the Vietnamese Communist Party, Truong Chinh, wrote a book entitled The Resistance Will Win. This book, written for the Viet Minh, outlined their strategy for protracted warfare against the French. Although touting the three classical stages of revolutionary warfare that would ultimately lead to France’s military defeat, Truong Chinh gave us an insight into the Communists’ real goals. He stated that the Vietnamese must prolong the war in order to discourage the enemy. "The more the enemy fights, the more critical his financial and economic situation."1 He told the Vietnamese to act in such a way that the French people would actively support the Communist cause and believed that the key to victory for the Viet Minh lay with the French people:

The French people will more strongly oppose the war day after day and will rise up to overthrow the reactionaries. . . . Their struggle will combine with that of the Vietnamese resistance war.2

While some scholars may believe that Truong Chinh’s statements were meant only for internal consumption, internationally the Viet Minh acted in accordance with these preceding statements. They emphasized international communist support and the mobilization of external sympathy for their cause.3

The Viet Minh used their armed forces more for their political shock effect than for the military damage inflicted on the French. For example, Dien Bien Phu was militarily insignificant in terms of its strategic location or the number of French soldiers stationed there, when compared to the total French contingent in Indochina. However, a Viet Minh victory, timed to influence the opening of peace negotiations, was meant to hurt the enemy so badly in a single battle that the French lost their will to continue the war.4 This is precisely what happened.

America suffered a similar fate in Vietnam. With the United States in the war, North Vietnamese leaders must have realized that for them military victory was impossible. They understood the economic and military power of the United States. In a war of attrition, the Communists were bound to lose. North Vietnam’s military losses compared to those of the United States were on the order of 10 to 1. Even Vo Nguyen Giap has admitted to losing 600,000 men in the fighting between 1965 and l968.5 They obviously thought they could win the war by other than military means. One clue to their intentions was stated early in the conflict by North Vietnam’s Prime Minister Pham Van Dong, when he explained their strategy of protracted war to an American journalist: "Americans do not like long, inconclusive wars . . . thus we are sure to win in the end."6 He admitted that the only way they could win was to outlast the United States. Again, they could not outlast America militarily or economically. They could outlast the United States only in terms of the political will needed to prosecute the war. For the North Vietnamese, American opposition to the war would be the stress point on which they would concentrate.7 Thus, the United States found itself in a political battle to control the sentiments of its own citizens.

Few inventions have done more to transform American society than television. By the mid-1970s, 97 percent of all American homes had at least one television set, and one in three had two or more sets. These sets were on an average of six hours a day and were usually turned to one of the big three: ABC, CBS, or NBC.8 These corporations compete with each other for audiences, advertising dollars, and prestige. For a network, prestige comes with being number one in terms of audience and revenue, which executives feel requires a first-class news department.

Polls reveal that since 1961 television has been the most believed news medium in the United States. In 1968 it reached a two to one advantage over newspapers for reliability and fairness in reporting.9 Research also indicates that the vast majority of Americans watch TV network news. In 1978, 67 percent of all Americans regarded television as the source of most of their news. By June 1980, polls showed that 65 percent of the American public received 100 percent of its national and international news from the three networks’ news programs.10 Who watches TV news? Early studies conducted in the 1950s and 1960s concluded that well-educated and professional people did not watch television. However, recent data have indicated there is no difference between the hours spent watching television by the college educated, professors, or journalists and the public as a whole.11 Although cable systems have increased the potential for local stations and specialized news channels to reach millions of people, national TV news is still the dominion of the three networks.

Much has been written about the term mass media, which refers to media that are national in scope and circulation (or audience). Although many newspapers and magazines can claim to be national in their coverage, few have national audiences and none with the audience of each of the major TV networks. Consequently, the term mass media properly refers to these three corporations. Together they have the ability to reach millions of Americans simultaneously and constitute a much more powerful force than newspapers and magazines combined.

What Americans watch on the network news shows is created through a process of selection having two dominant characteristics. The first of these is the profit motive. For all of television, the commercial message is of primary importance. Viewers are counted and evaluated in terms of income level, age, and sex and then sold to advertisers.12 Although Edwin Diamond thinks the most profit-minded network executive is not a pure economic being, he believes that in a business like broadcasting, the importance of the profit motive cannot be overstated.13 Max Kampelman, a critic of the mass media, notes that as television has grown more powerful it has also become more profit oriented.14 The three networks are in competition with one another for audience share which equates to advertising dollars. Therefore, as Professor Doris Graber observes: "News is geared to attract and entertain rather than educate."15

The second dominant characteristic of news selection is in part related to the profit motive. This characteristic is the selection of the relatively few items to be shown nightly, out of hundreds of potential stories. While some television executives think that the TV news mirrors reality, Edward Jay Epstein, a well-known TV critic, believes otherwise. He states: "What is reflected on TV as national news depends, unlike a mirror, on certain predecisions about where camera crews will be assigned."16 In a 1950 study, David Manning White called this process of news selection "gatekeeping."17 The gatekeeping system is required because of the scope and cost of television news, which results in an "immense weight of administrative management from above."18 This "micromanagement" reaches all levels of the organization, including who will be assigned to cover a story and how it will be reported. Time magazine has identified twelve announcers, commentators, editors, and producers who control TV news.19 These people are, in effect, the gatekeepers. Epstein notes that the network news is centrally assigned by editors in New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles.20 Although the assignment editor is a powerful figure, Lester Bernstein, a managing editor for Newsweek, suggests that the "most influential single editor in network news is the producer of the evening news show."21 The producer determines the story, format, the order of items, and the time given to each story.22 Thus it is this small group of editors and producers who determine and limit what 65 percent of all Americans understand as the news of the day.

Television news is limited not only by the gatekeeper system but also because of technical constraints as well as the nature of TV drama. The very size of the TV camera and its field of view cause problems. Navy Lieutenant Commander K. C. Jacobsen likened this to looking through a pair of binoculars:

The things that you see are magnified and in sharp focus but everything outside the field of view is hidden. In the most literal sense, it is often impossible to see the forest for the trees. The television screen makes this illusion even more powerful. The viewer cannot take the binoculars from his eyes and observe the whole horizon. He sees only what is on the screen. He can do nothing that the cameraman does not do.23

As a result of this limitation, Jacobsen feels that TV alters both the dimension and the form of the event, causing the appearance of something which is not true. In addition to technical limitations, the very presence of the TV camera often distorts a story. Demonstrators have been known to start an event only when the camera crews were on the scene, and some events have even been restaged because the cameras were not initially available.24 Since nearly everyone is a ham at heart, this urge often causes human actions to occur in front of a TV camera that are not normally part of a person’s outward personality. One example is the way striking air traffic controllers cheered into the camera when President Reagan’s 48-hour return to work deadline had expired. This dramatic gesture no doubt resulted from the presence of a TV camera. As Bernstein points out: "There is a premium of show business value— on drama and good looks—and a plethora of ego."25

According to Edward Jay Epstein, the networks’ news departments select not only which events will be portrayed as news but also which parts of the filmed portions of the event, when combined with editing, will stand for "the whole mosaic." Epstein believes this requires choosing symbols that have a more general meaning to a national audience. The picture is no longer a fact unto itself but becomes a symbol. One child crying on TV becomes the symbol of all children. Epstein refers to what Walter Lippmann called a "repertory of stereotypes." This repertory is the result of the same images or symbols being used consistently to depict the behavior of groups or individuals. They result in stable images or the groups or issues as seen in the eyes of the viewers, who usually watch the same network news show, night after night.26 In this way, what Americans know about various groups or issues is controlled by the media. Professor Graber points out: "Much of what the average person learns about political norms, rules and values, about events in the political universe and about the way people cope with these happenings, comes, of necessity, from the mass media."27 Reuven Frank, former executive producer of the NBC Evening News, has claimed "there are events which exist in the American mind and recollection primarily because they were reported on regular television news programs."28 It naturally follows that if television’s coverage of an issue were slanted or biased in the same way night after night, the public perception of that issue would be skewed accordingly.

Although objective reporting was an industry standard throughout the nineteenth and the first part of the twentieth centuries, in the late l960s, a new form of journalism began to gain in strength. It has been called by different names: "investigative reporting," "adversary," or "partisan journalism." In essence, this form advocates a point of view on an issue and often creates issues. It "begins with an explicitly political point of view" and stems from the theory that the media are responsible to discover and report the truth, not merely state the facts.29 Speaking of the new journalism, Michael Novak writes: "Good and evil are rather clearly placed in conflict. ‘Hard hitting’ investigative reporting is mythically linked to classic American forms of moral heroism; the crimebuster, the incorruptible sheriff.’’30 Interestingly, today most journalism awards are given to the investigative reporter, the discoverer of the truth.31 Senator Daniel P. Moynihan sees this adversary journalism well established in the media and growing as the new, college-educated reporters reach management positions.32

Adversary or partisan journalism has affected the relationship between the government and the media. The new journalism implies a distrust of government. Walter Cronkite believes newsmen "have come to feel very little allegiance to the established order. I think they are inclined to side with humanity rather than with authority and institutions."33 Newspeople now see themselves with a special mission to be the watchdogs and guardians of democracy.

While Mr. Cronkite believes that a good reporter leaves his personal views at home, others feel today’s TV reporters are "impatient with the standards of objectivity or with any standard that would prevent them from placing their own views before the public."34 Even when attempting to hide their personal views, human nature prevents newscasters from being completely objective. ABC’s Frank Reynolds is quoted as saying: "You can’t expunge all your private convictions."35 The expression of opinion crops up in TV news reporting, "often inadvertently but sometimes deliberately."36

Bias reporting is also present because of what newscasters call "herd instinct." TV news works on this principle. NBC reporter Mike Gavin has noted there is pressure to ensure that his network covers what the competition is covering. "If they’ve got it, we’ve got to get it, too."37 Ted Koppel of ABC also explains the herd instinct: "Someone seems to set the tone. There are opinion leaders both in network television and newspapers. . . magazines. We have a tendency to go along, traveling that same carefully carved channel."38 No network news organization wants to be left behind during a fast-breaking news story.

Television news works on the same show business principles as any other form of entertainment. As a result, the salaries of TV personalities, including network newscasters, have risen dramatically and now easily exceed those of government cabinet officers. Their large salaries, visibility, and public respect have made them a part of society’s elite, ranking them with college professors and doctors. Senator Moynihan feels that news personalities now constitute one of the most important social elites in Washington, D.C., "with all the accoutrements one associates with a leisured class.’’39

Newscasters are able to exert considerable influence over their viewers. One reason for this influence is the development of a parasocial relationship between the viewer and the news personality. Studies have found the viewer thinks of his newscaster as a friend or close acquaintance.40 For example, Walter Cronkite has been cited by scholars as a father figure to many Americans. One network executive said Cronkite almost represents, "God, mother, the American Flag, the four minute mile and Mount Everest."41

In addition, research indicates when a newscaster shakes his head, raises an eyebrow, or changes voice inflection, 3l percent of the viewers respond with a similar gesture, corresponding outrage or amusement.42

Can TV change the opinion of the public on a variety of complex issues? The answer is yes. This change of attitude is not based on a single broadcast, but the result of a constant stream of images and symbols projected on the same issue. Michael Novak believes that television molds the soul’s geography incrementally, in much the same way as school lessons—"slowly, over the years, tutor the unformed mind and teach it ‘how to think.’ "43 Dr. Mark R. Levy of Albany’s State University of New York has completed research on how TV affects public sentiment. His results show that more than 80 percent of the people surveyed compared their own ideas to those expressed by their favorite newscaster. Levy’s study proves that TV directly affects people and can be a powerful influence on viewer opinion, attitudes, and behavior.44

Television correspondents and network executives were initially in favor of United States participation in the war. The media felt that American policy in Vietnam could work, and they generally supported the South Vietnamese government. However, support for the war by either the media or the people was not to last. Professor Peter Burger of Boston University was a member of Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam. He thinks the news media, including television, started being biased against the war in l967.45

Like the United States military, TV reporters were sent to Vietnam on a rotating basis. On the average, correspondents spent six months to a year in South Vietnam.46 Most reporters felt that a tour in Vietnam was essential for proper career progression. Robert Elegant, a British reporter, has noted: "Fame or at least notoriety rewarded the correspondent who became part of the action. . . . Quick careers were made by spectacular reporting of the obvious fact that men, women and children were being killed."47 This "short tour" of newspeople in Vietnam created some problems for them. For example, none of the networks made any effort to train their people to comprehend military matters. Also, because of the short time spent in South Vietnam, there was little incentive for reporters to learn Vietnamese. As late as 1968, not one American reporter in Vietnam could speak the language. Consequently, most correspondents were isolated from the Vietnamese, their culture, and their problems.48 Such circumstances can hardly lead to a satisfactory understanding of such a complex military and political situation as the Vietnam War.

Television reporters did understand their own private attitudes about the war. Epstein interviewed correspondents in 1968 and 1969 and found that most of those interviewed were against the war, against President Nixon, and for the black power movement. Most of the reporters felt the United States should get out of Vietnam and classified themselves as doves.49 John Roche, former foreign policy advisor to President Johnson, cites an example of the media’s feelings about the war:

Just before going on the air, [news] staffers would ask me how anyone can support an immoral war. On one news program I felt like a nun in a whorehouse. The producer was using a picture of Johnson for a dartboard. The whole atmosphere was of contempt for me and the views I accept. 5

As we have observed, newspeople do let their personal views influence their reporting, no matter how hard they try to avoid it.

According to Elegant, during most of the Vietnam War, the media felt obligated to be more partisan than objective.51 This partisan journalism, coupled with the reporters’ personal feelings, gave the American people a biased picture of the war on a nightly basis. One example illustrates the general nature of this biased point of view. Epstein speaks of an NBC news story in which David Brinkley played the song "Ruby Don’t Take Your Love to Town" accompanied by a three-minute film clip showing what was said to be the room of a crippled Vietnam veteran. The room was complete with mementos, trophies, and photographs, including a picture of Ruby, the veteran’s wife. Ruby could be heard leaving, the door slammed shut, and a funeral ended the film clip. Brinkley told his viewers the song was written for Vietnam and was a social documentary commenting on "our times" and the war. Epstein reported that the song was originally written in 1942 and the veteran’s room shown in the film clip was a rented set in Los Angeles. The producer of the show told Epstein the props were carefully selected "to create an atmosphere of futility and absurdity." The film and song were featured on the same evening Mr. Brinkley told his audience that the news was neither "produced nor created."52

Another way broadcasters slanted their coverage of Vietnam was by exaggeration of atrocities committed by the Americans and South Vietnamese. Cameramen in Vietnam were ordered to "shoot bloody."53 Robert Elegant points out that "the competition for beastliness among the networks was even more intensive than the similar competition among the representatives of the print media."54 This competition was so widespread that Guenter Lewy, author of America in Vietnam, reported: " . . .the tendency on the part of all too many newspaper and television reporters and editors was to see the war in Vietnam as an atrocity writ large, . . . Some allegations were repeated so many times that they seemed to supply their own confirmation."55 The burning of a Vietnamese village by American Marines was shown on television. According to Murray Fromson, former correspondent for CBS: "In an era of symbolism, that incident was not just a case of one village being burned."56 Correspondents did not satisfy themselves with just reporting alleged atrocities. There are several documented instances where newspeople actually tried to coerce American soldiers into committing illegal and immoral acts. A reporter is said to have given his Zippo lighter to a soldier with the suggestion he use it to set fire to a house. Another example involved a cameraman who offered a soldier a knife and dared him to cut the ear off a Vietcong corpse.57 After all, such atrocities were news and widely accepted as standard practice. As previously indicated, single isolated incidents of misconduct became symbols of America’s involvement in Vietnam. Fully as important as what correspondents reported about American atrocities is what they did not report about the other side. For example, during the 1968 Tet offensive, the North Vietnamese massacred 3000 Vietnamese at Hue, yet the media scarcely reported the fact.58 Every American knows about My Lai, but few know about Dak Song, where 250 Montagnards were killed with flame throwers by the Communists.59 Such one-sided coverage reinforced the idea that the United States was involved in an unjust and immoral war that could not be won.

Further evidence of partisan journalism can be found in the treatment reporters gave to the 1968 Tet offensive and the battle at Khe Sanh. The Tet offensive was seen by the press as a Communist victory even though the Vietcong were so badly beaten that for the remainder of the war they would comprise only a small percentage of the Communist force. Peter Braestrup, in his excellent examination of the media’s coverage of Tet, has stated: "TV coverage of the Tet Offensive veered widely from reality."60 His detailed documentation of this event leaves no doubt that television saw Tet as a Communist victory and reported it as such, regardless of the military facts. Network coverage of the offensive indicated that the U.S. and South Vietnamese were badly defeated. After the battle, NBC thought about filming a retrospective program to show Tet had been misrepresented and was really a decisive American victory. In the end, the network rejected the idea because Tet was already "established in the public’s mind as a defeat and therefore it was an American defeat."61 The reporting of events at Khe Sanh was equally misleading. Howard K. Smith is quoted as saying: "That terrible seige of Khe Sanh went on for five weeks before newsmen revealed that the South Vietnamese were fighting at our sides and that they had higher casualties. . . . We just showed pictures day after day of Americans getting the hell kicked out of them."62 The few wrecked American planes were frequently shown to television viewers as symbols of Khe Sanh’s imminent defeat. In an attempt to draw parallels between American and French involvement in Vietnam, the media consistently compared Khe Sanh to Dien Bien Phu.63 Again, rather than a defeat, Khe Sanh was an American victory with Communist losses many times those of the United States and South Vietnam.

The reporting of Khe Sanh and Tet had profound impact on network coverage of the Vietnam War. Although previous coverage of the war was somewhat biased, the Tet offensive rapidly accelerated the network’s shift to an antiwar position.

Walter Cronkite, anchorman and managing editor of the CBS Evening News, was initially in favor of the war. When the first reports of Tet reached Cronkite, they began to disturb him. He decided to take a fact-finding trip to Vietnam in order to get a firsthand view. The following account of his trip and subsequent events were taken from Air Time—The Inside Story of CBS News by Gary P. Gates.

Walter Cronkite met with General William Westmoreland, who told Cronkite that Tet was a dramatic American victory. Cronkite and his entourage were flown to Hue. There, Westmoreland had assured him, the situation was under control. At Hue, Cronkite saw the war in miniature. According to Gates, it was a moving experience for the anchorman and one which would change his views concerning the conflict. Throughout the rest of the trip he would wonder how such a thing as Tet could happen if the United States were winning the war as the government had stated on numerous occasions. After returning home, Cronkite used his power as anchorman and editor to expound his personal views and thus phased into the world of partisan journalism. He used the "CBS Evening News" as a forum for his personal, critical remarks about the war. Throughout February and March of 1968, he criticized every aspect of the war, from the pacification program to the overall military strategy. He "did not align himself with the militant antiwar groups, the raucous protestors. Instead, he reached out to his natural constituency. "64

The number one network news show during the late 1960s and early 1970s was the "CBS Evening News," edited and anchored by Walter Cronkite. The CBS Network has since come under considerable criticism because of reported bias in its presentation of the news.

In his book, TV and National Defense, Dr. Ernest Lefever demonstrated how CBS slanted its coverage of the Vietnam War in 1972. His analysis covered the "CBS Evening News," "60 Minutes," and the various news specials on Vietnam throughout the year. For the "CBS Evening News," Lefever classified comments and stories as either supportive (favorable) or critical (unfavorable) of United States policy in Vietnam. The percentage of comments for each of the three parties involved in the conflict may be noted as follows:

CBS Themes on Vietnam



United States 19.03% 80.97%
South Vietnam 16.67% 83.33%
North Vietnam 57.32% 42.68%

According to Dr. Lefever, the critical themes concerning the United States were directed against its military presence in South Vietnam, against atrocities committed by American forces, and for deceiving the public about the entire Vietnam situation. His analysis of "60 Minutes" and the news specials yielded much the same information. Here, comments critical of American involvement, policy, or action in Vietnam outnumbered supportive statements by 5 to 1. Dr. Lefever also conducted a by-name analysis of comments made by 10 categories of newsmakers or newsmen, including North Vietnamese. Individuals in these 10 categories had expressed specific viewpoints about the war on the "CBS Evening News." He found CBS overwhelmingly selected for airing those viewpoints which were against United States involvement. Significantly, of the 16 CBS reporters expressing their views, only one aired a sentence supporting the government position on the war. Except for the group of antiwar activists, CBS newsmen constituted the most heavily antiadministration category of Americans in the study. Additionally, Lefever found that the views of CBS newsmen were aired more than the views of the administration, Congress, or any other category of spokesperson on Vietnam.

Most Americans who watch the network news are loyal viewers, tuning in the same network night after night. They have developed a parasocial relationship with the newscasters. Dr. Lefever summarizes his analysis as follows:

The citizen viewer who relied solely on CBS-TV Evening News during 1972 would have received a vivid, dramatic and clearly etched picture of the Vietnam War—US participation in this essentially civil conflict in Southeast Asia was cruel, senseless, unjust and immoral; the South Vietnamese Government was corrupt, repressive, unpopular and an obstacle to peace, and its armed forces were inefficient and cowardly; and in contrast, the North Vietnam government had the support of its stoic people, its armed forces fought courageously and it treated American POWs well. The responsible course for the United States, according to this portrayal, would be to cease bombing military targets in the North, speedily withdraw its troops from the South and show less concern with the fate of South Vietnam.65

It would be grossly unfair to suggest that CBS was alone in its portrayal of the Vietnam War. The other networks were also highly critical of administration policy. For example, in March 1969, ABC published a list of stories that should be covered by its Vietnam correspondents. They included black marketeering in South Vietnam, treatment of former Vietcong, possible corruption on the part of a province chief, and political opposition to the South Vietnamese government.66 The types of stories give an indication of the partisan journalism that emerged over ABC. Additionally, ABC had chosen to interview Averell Harriman after President Nixon’s 3 November 1969 speech on Vietnam. Time believes the choice indicated ABC meant to criticize the President, since Harriman had been a vocal opponent of Nixon’s Vietnam policies. NBC has also been accused of biased reporting concerning the war. Again, Time notes that hours before President Nixon’s November 1969 speech, the network carried films of atrocities committed by South Vietnamese troops.67 NBC was accused by its affiliates of not showing enough coverage of Nixon’s view of the war, of giving too much air time to peace demonstrators, and of not showing the government’s side of Kent State.68

Just as the media attempted to portray Khe Sanh as another Dien Bien Phu, political analysts also have likened the Tet offensive to the famous French battle. While the military outcomes were totally different, their effect on public opinion was virtually identical. Both had the effect of destroying the political ability of the government to effectively continue the war through their impact on public belief. Network coverage of Tet convinced Americans that a military victory in South Vietnam was impossible. According to John Spanier, the Tet offensive caused the public increasingly to think of the war as "morally ambiguous if not downright immoral."69 Additionally, because of the wide discrepancy between official announcements that the war was being won and the media’s portrayal of a Communist victory, there was an acceleration in the so-called "credibility gap" at home.7 Finally, the impact of TV’s Tet coverage can be summarized by an analysis done by the Roper organization. It shows that February and March of 1968 appear "to have led to a turning point in opinion on the war."71 We should recall that in these months the most one-sided stories were reported by the networks. These stories showed Tet as a major American defeat.

If the Communists’ aims were to win a military victory during Tet, they failed badly. If, on the other hand, the offensive was meant to gain political advantages and weaken America’s resolve, the Communists succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.

To win, Hanoi knew it had to break America’s will to fight. The Vietcong strategy of protracted war, formulated first against the French, would have a new and unwitting ally—television.

In a democracy, the will to fight is lost when the public turns against the cause. Several scholars believe that American public opinion was the crucial "domino" in the war.72 Although some members of the television profession have denied TV’s key role in the war, Hanoi has stated it could not have won without the Western media.73 Television was the agent for changing American beliefs on the war.

This change was reflected in the continued growth of the antiwar movement. Hanoi used the movement as its key to victory, and the strategy was successful. Most leaders of the Vietnam antiwar movement did not believe they would essentially determine the war’s end. However, Henry Kissinger points out that the movement did have a dramatic effect on the policymakers in Washington. He believes that from 1968 until the end of the war, the government was influenced by the growing power of the movement.74 Richard Nixon feels that antiwar activists not only influenced the public and policymakers but also had a serious effect on the morale and discipline of the U.S. Armed Forces.75 We may argue that this reduction in morale was partially due to perceptions of the movement’s strength as portrayed by the networks. Additionally, military men and women saw commentators whom they had watched since childhood and grown to respect report that the war was wrong and the United States should withdraw as soon as possible. Undoubtedly, this reporting significantly impacted morale.

The growth of the antiwar movement was largely a result of TV’s Vietnam coverage. Michael Novak states that the movement tried to obtain TV coverage for its activities. "Everybody knew the media was the battleground. The youth movement was acutely aware of the power of television. It was, after all, the first media generation."76 Professor Peter Burger points out that the war came to his attention because of television’s coverage, and he believes it was the same with the vast majority of Americans. He states, "It was television images that aroused my moral outrage and led me to become a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War."77 John Hulteng and Roy Nelson confirm the contention that the antiwar movement gained strength due to the power of television and its treatment of the war.78

Although many scholars believe the antiwar movement was the primary factor in America’s withdrawal from Vietnam, the Communists did not tell the movement about its role in achieving Communist objectives. In fact, Hanoi continually told the movement’s leaders that a Communist victory was not dependent on the American domestic situation.79 Rather than a direct alliance with TV, Hanoi watched as television reported on issues created by the Communists and the antiwar movement. The networks’ broadcasting of these issues, placed in the context of their partisan position on the war, resulted in shifting American opinion to an antiwar attitude.

Communist actions as well as those of the antiwar movement were staged for American consumption through television. Politically, Hanoi used time to legitimize its cause. For example, Henry Kissinger found the Communists were unwilling to negotiate seriously at Paris. He thought they were using the negotiations as a propaganda device, designed to undermine America’s domestic support and split the United States from South Vietnam.80 At Paris, the networks interviewed Communist negotiators and aired their views on the war. The networks also continually broadcast the views of the antiwar movement and covered their demonstrations. On occasion, demonstrations were even restaged for the benefit of late camera crews.

The Communists used their military to convince Americans they could not win militarily and that the South Vietnamese were unworthy allies. Major offensives such as Khe Sanh, Tet, and the 1972 drive across the demilitarized zone were aimed at this goal. It is interesting to speculate why both the Tet and 1972 offensives took place in American presidential election years. No one can seriously think General Vo Nguyen Giap believed the South Vietnamese people would actually rise up in mass during the Tet offensive, thus enabling the Communists to overthrow the government. Nor can anyone believe Giap felt the Communists were strong enough in 1968 to defeat the South Vietnamese Army and throw the United States into the sea. Why, then, sacrifice thousands of lives—unless Giap was seeking psychological advantages both in the United States and internationally? As far as the networks were concerned, Tet was a clear-cut Communist victory, and it was reported in that context. In addition, the networks continually showed combat film supplied by the North Vietnamese. This film usually depicted air action over North Vietnam and the resultant destruction. Who could not begin to sympathize with this poor nation, fighting for its life against the sophisticated weapons of the United States? North Vietnamese reports on the bombings of hospitals, dikes, and schools were retold almost verbatim by the networks. This forced the United States to respond and deny the charges. However, such responses often fell on deaf ears. As one TV commentator is reported to have said, "It’s an awful thing when you can trust Ho Chi Minh more than you can trust your President."81 The continued, one-sided reporting of atrocities swayed public attitudes by casting the United States and its ally into the light of immoral combatants pitted against just and heroic fighters for liberation.

Television’s treatment of the Vietnam War was not part of a plot against the government. There was no collaboration between the three networks to stop the war or bring down a president. Rather, TV’s coverage was the result of the national tendency of the media toward partisan journalism; the tendency toward an antigovernment position regardless of the issue.

In addition, honest, well-meaning Americans differed on the issue of Vietnam. It is only natural that some prominent newscasters and reporters would honestly think the United States was involved in an unjust, immoral war. They would believe American lives and treasure were being wasted in a war where a victory appeared remote, regardless of official government announcements. And why Vietnam? What were our real interests and objectives? These questions confused even the most ardent supporters of administration policy.

Also, some reporters were angry because of the faulty information they received through official channels in Vietnam.82 Often this information differed greatly from the truth, thus exacerbating the hostility of the journalists. They soon came to distrust the official government position on almost all matters. The reporters’ search for "truth" and the other view became a part of the Vietnam scene.

Lastly, there was the "herd instinct." It became fashionable to criticize official policy on the war as the networks followed the lead of the more prominent in their field. None of the three networks wanted to be left behind supporting a policy that others had abandoned. Once the public’s opinion had shifted to an antiwar attitude, a network being objective might find itself without any viewers.

If Vietnam was television’s first war, how can we account for insurgent victories in other conflicts? We have cited the case of France in Indochina. In this war, television was just entering its infancy.

In protracted war, the crucial variable is public opinion. What has been said about TV applies in general to the printed media. In the past, the American press had substantial influence on local politics through the editorial page. While newspapers in the United States are local in circulation, those in European countries are nationally distributed. Thus opinions and editorials had a tremendous impact on French beliefs during the war. In Indochina, the combined effect of the media (radio, newspaper, and some television) provided the insurgents with victory. The victory came about by changing French sentiment on the war.

Today there is a new giant on the scene. TV dwarfs the combined ability of other media both in size of audience and its power to persuade that audience. It has replaced all other media as the primary source for news and consequently as the main target of insurgents.

In the Vietnam example, the catalyst for the change in American public sentiment was television. This medium’s ability to influence people has significant implications for any democratic world power involved in a protracted war.

Andrew Mack tells us, "Vietnam has been a reminder that in war the ultimate aim must be to affect the will of the enemy." He points out that in every successful insurgency, victory was not due to the adversary’s military defeat but because of the progressive erosion of its will to wage war. In addition, he believes that "superiority in military force [for the insurgent’s opponents]. . . may, under certain circumstances prove counterproductive."83

A major democratic power aiding a small Third World nation against another or helping that nation against an insurgency movement places itself in a tenuous position. This is especially true if it is operating with a free and uncontrolled television broadcasting system. In the situation described here, the allied Third World nation will be in a struggle for its very existence, as will the enemy. In such a case, the allied country will probably be forced to institute measures that will appear to the citizens of the world power as undemocratic and probably immoral. After all, the major power is essentially at peace. If the country is the United States, another problem arises. Because of America’s historic antimilitary tendency, the United States will not directly involve itself in the conflict until the turning point has been reached. This is the point where the allied Third World nation will collapse unless America intervenes directly and immediately. It is the point of desperation where the only perceived alternatives are "send in the Marines" or let the ally perish. At this point, the enemy has such a stranglehold on the ally, it may appear useless to intervene.

Because the democratic world power is fighting a relatively small force, it will be reluctant to use all its military might. Neither will it declare war since it does not want to appear as a bully. Instead it will send in a small but reasonable force, something adequate to do the job. There will be rules of engagement and, of course, sanctuaries for both sides.

The democracy will enter the conflict with the support of the majority of its citizens. Objectives for the war will have been publicized and generally accepted. Everyone hopes it is a short war—"get in and get out."

At this juncture, if the enemy engages in protracted war, the situation may be lost. As the war is prolonged and reports of casualties and atrocities begin reaching the major power, strains will develop in the public consensus. Once the elite of television begin to change their views on the war, there will begin a significant change in the view of the public at large. Over time, the citizens of the major power will demand a disengagement under the best possible terms. The original objectives for fighting the war will have been forgotten or will no longer make sense. At this point the war is at best stalemated, and most probably lost.

Robert Elegant has described the "Vietnam Syndrome" as the media’s tendency to treat all foreign involvement as "another Vietnam." He used El Salvador as an example where television’s portrayal of the situation has impacted public opinion even before the White House could establish a firm policy:

…..the conclusion was not implied but hammered home time and again: United States policy [in El Salvador] was, presumably by direct intention, rendering tens of thousands homeless and killing hundreds of women and children. El Salvador, the viewer could not but conclude, was a deliberate replication of Vietnam. And "Vietnam" has become synonymous with absolute evil—practiced of course, by the United States.84

Consequently, the United States may never find itself in the scenario as described since the mass media will never allow the building of an initial consensus supporting any American intervention.

If opinion polls are any indication, Robert Elegant may be correct in his assessment. A survey was conducted in 1976 by Ole Holsti and James Rosenau on the foreign policy viewpoints held by people in a variety of occupations. The results found media personalities of all ages generally opposed to American military intervention throughout the world. The media tend not to believe in the "domino theory" or that the United States exists in a bipolar world.85 Such views on the part of news people can definitely be carried over to the public at large.

Can a democratic power win a protracted war? Guenter Lewy thinks perhaps not:

The capacity of people in a modern democracy to support a limited war is precarious at best. The mixture of propaganda and compulsion which a totalitarian regime can muster in order to extract such support is not available to the leaders of a democratic state. Hence when such a war for limited objectives drags on for a long time it is bound to lose the backing essential for its successful pursuit. It may well be, as an American political scientist has concluded, that "unless it is severely provoked or unless the war succeeds fast, a democracy cannot choose war as an instrument of policy."86

The American experience in Vietnam as well as media coverage of events in Central America may well prove Lewy’s assessment to be correct.

Finally, President Truman has been quoted as saying: "The biggest problem facing any president is to sell the American people on a policy. They have to be led forward."87 With today’s instant analysis of presidential speeches and the partisan viewpoint of many TV newscasters, the President’s power to persuade has been dramatically altered. Although a nation’s leaders determine national strategy and policy, they require the support of the people. When a

democracy chooses war as an instrument of policy, it must have this support. In the age of television, can a democracy successfully prosecute a protracted war? When one considers the number of Third World nations threatened by Communist insurgencies, the future of our democratic way of life may lie in the answer to this question.

Air War College
Maxwell AFB, Alabama

Editor’s note: This article was adapted from Colonel Venanzi’s Air War College thesis, which won the Orville Anderson Award from the National Geographic Society.


1. Troung Chinh, Primer for Revolt; The Communist Takeover in Vietnam: The Resistance Will Win (New York: Praeger, 1963), p. 112.

2. Ibid., p. 169.

3. Chalmers Johnson, Autopsy on People's War (Berkeley: University of California Press 1973), p. 47; Jean Baechler, "Revolutionary and Counter Revolutionary War: Some Political and Strategic Lessons from the First Indochina War and Algeria," Journal of InternationalAffairs, vol. XXV, no. 1, 1971, pp. 73-74.

4. Robert Thompson, No Exit from Vietnam, updated edition (New York: David McKay Company, 1970), p. 77; Johnson, p. 50.

5. Johnson, p. 50,

6. Jon M. Van Dyke, North Vietnam’s Strategy for Survival (Palo Alto, California: Pacific Book Publishers, 1972), p. 30.

7. Leslie H. Gelb and Richard K. Betts, The Irony of Vietnam: The System Worked (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1979), p. 332.

8. Edwin Diamond, The Tin Kazoo—Television, Politics and the News (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1975), p. 13; John L. Hulteng and Roy Nelson, The Fourth Estate (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), p. 234.

9. Roper Organization, Public Perceptions of Television and Other Mass Media (New York: Television Information Office, 1969), p. 4.

10. Ibid., p. 3; Marguerite Michaels, "The Media and the News," Current, June 1980, p. 15.

11. Douglass Cater and Richard Adler, Television as a Social Force: New Approaches to TV Criticism (New York: Praeger, 1975), p. 21.

12. Richard F. Hixson, Mass Media: A Casebook (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1973), p. 252.

13. Diamond, pp. 76-80.

14. Max M. Kampelman, "The Power of the Press: A Problem for Our Democracy," Policy Review, Fall 1978, p. 10.

15. Doris A. Graber, Mass Media and American Politics (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Press, 1980), p. 84.

16. Edward Jay Epstein, News from Nowhere—Television and the News (New York: Harper & Row, 1978), p. 16.

17. David L. Altheide, CreatingReality (Beverly Hills, California: Sage Publications, 1976), p. 21.

18. Michael J. Arlen, Living Room War (New York: Viking Press, 1969), p. 113.

19. "Agnew Demands Equal Time," Time, November 21, 1969, p. 19.

20. Epstein, p. 35.

21. Lester Bernstein, "Does Agnew Tell It Straight?" Newsweek, November 24, 1969, p. 91.

22. Ernest W. Lefever, TV and National Defense, An Analysis of CBS News, 1972-1973 (Boston, Virginia: Institute for American Strategy Press, 1974), p. 47.

23. Lieutenant Commander K. C. Jacobsen, USN, "Television and the War: The Small Picture," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, March 1975, p. 56.

24. David J. Leroy and Christopher H. Sterling, Mass News (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1973), p. 75.

25. Bernstein, p. 91.

26. Epstein, p. 5.

27. Graber, p. 122.

28. Epstein, p. 5.

29. Paul H. Weaver, "The New Journalism and the Old— Thoughts after Watergate," The Public Interest, Spring 1974, p. 69.

30. Cater and Adler, p. 14.

31. Kampelman, p 17.

32. Daniel P. Moynihan, "The Presidency and the Press," Commentary, March 1971, p. 43.

33. Cater and Adler, p. 123.

34. Kampelman, p. 18.

35. "Agnew Demands Equal Time," p. 21.

36. Hulteng and Nelson, p. 247; Joshua Muravchik and John E. Haynes, "CBS vs. Defense," Commentary, September 1981, pp. 44-46.

37. Joe Saltzman, "How to Manage TV News," Human Behavior, March 1979, p. 64.

38. ABC, "Viewpoint—Nightline Special Edition," October 14, 1981.

39. Moynihan, p. 43.

40. "Growing up with Cronkite: TV as a Friend," Human Behavior, March 1979, p. 27.

41. Harold Jackson, "The Age of Cronkite," World Press Review, April 1981, p. 46.

42. "Growing up with Cronkite," p. 27.

43. Cater and Adler, p. 10.

44. "Growing up with Cronkite," p. 27.

45. Peter L. Burger, "Indochina and the American Conscience," Commentary, February 1980, p. 32.

46. Peter Braestrup, Big Story—How the American Press and Television Reported and Interpreted the Crisis of Tet 1968 in Vietnam and Washington Volume I (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1977), p. 38.

47. Robert Elegant, "How to Lose a War," Encounter, August 1981, p. 75.

48. Martin F. Hen, "Tet versus Electronic Journalism," The Officer, August 1977, p. 9; Elegant, p. 74.

49. Epstein, p.211.

50. Bernstein, p. 92.

51. Elegant, p. 73.

52. Epstein, p. 60.

53. Ibid., p. 163.

54. Elegant, p. 78.

55. Guenter Lewy, America in Vietnam (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), p. 321.

56. Lawrence Lichty and Murray Fromson, "Comparing Notes on Television’s Coverage of the War," Center Magazine, September-October 1979, p. 45.

57. Elegant, pp. 321, 322.

58. Leroy and Sterling, p. 142.

59. Nguyen Cao Ky, How We Lost the Vietnam War (Briarcliff Manor, New York: Scarborough Books, 1978), p. 153.

60. Braestrup, p. 705.

61. Herz, p.31.

62. Edith Efron, The Newstwisters (Los Angeles, California: Nash Publishing, 1971), p. 84.

63. Herz, pp. 9, 31.

64. Gary P. Gates, Air Time—The Inside, Story of CBS News (New York: Harper & Row, 1978), pp. 209-11.

65. Lefever, pp. 104-26.

66. Epstein, p. 18.

67. "Agnew Demands Equal Time," pp. 18, 19.

68. Epstein, p. 59.

69. John Spainer, American Foreign Policy since World War II (New York: Praeger, 1977), p. 221.

70. W. Scott Thompson and Donaldson D. Frizzell, The Lessons of Vietnam (New York: Crane, Russak, 1977), p. 108.

71. Braestrup, Big Story— Vol. 1, p. 676. This article is written by Burns Roper and included in Big Story as Chapter 14 of Volume I.

72. Lewy, p. 436; Gelb and Betts, p. 332.

73. Elegant, p. 76.

74. Henry Kissinger, White House Years (Boston: Little and Brown, 1974), p. 261; Burger, p. 29.

75. Richard M. Nixon, The Memoirs of Richard Nixon (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1978), p. 356.

76. Michael Novak, telephone interview conducted on 21 December 1981.

77. Burger, p. 29.

78. Hulteng and Nelson, p. 241.

79. Van Dyke, p. 32.

80. Kissinger, p. 256.

81. Leroy and Sterling, p. 142.

82. Elegant, p. 85.

83. Andrew Mack, "Why Big Nations Lose Small Wars: The Politics of Asymmetric Conflict," World Politics, January 1975, pp. 177, 178.

84. Elegant, p. 88.

85. Ole R. Holsti and James N. Rosenau, "Does Where You Stand Depend on When You Were Born?" Public Opinion Quarterly, Spring 1980, p. 15.

86. Lewy, pp. 432-33.

87. Cecil V. Crabb, Jr., American Foreign Policy in the Nuclear Age (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), p. 59.

An assumption, tenaciously held by both television’s critics and its champions, is that the visual impact of TV nightly news "turned the American people against the Vietnam war" and, later, pushed Richard M. Nixon out of the White House. Yet there is no empirical evidence that TV news "shapes" mass public opinion—or that any news medium does.*

*Critic Michael Arlen reminded us in the Aug. 16, 1982 New Yorker that "what a television viewer of the Vietnam war [usually] saw . ..was a nightly, stylized, generally distanced overview of a disjointed conflict which was composed mainly of scenes of helicopters landing, tall grasses blowing in the helicopter wind, American soldiers fanning out across a hillside. . . with now and then (on the soundtrack) a far-off ping or two, and now and then (as a visual grand finale) a column of dark billowing smoke a half a mile away, invariably described as a burning Viet Cong ammo dump."

Lawrence W. Lichty, "Video versus
Print," The Wilson Quarterly,
Special Issue 1982 (Vol. VI, No. 5), pp. 55-56


Lieutenant Colonel Gerald S. Venanzi (B.S., Parks College of St. Louis University; M.A., Auburn University at Montgomery) is Coordinator, Prisoners of War/Missing in Action Affairs, Office of the Secretary of Defese, Washington, D.C. He has been Commander, 363rd Tactical Training Squadron, Shaw AFB, South Carolina; flight commander, Chief of UNT Curriculum, and instructor navigator, Mather AFB, California; and was assigned to the RF-4C, Udorn AFB, Thailand; he was shot down southwest of Hanoi and interned for six years. Colonel Venanzi is a graduate of Air Command and Staff College and Air War College.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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