The Media’s Involvement in the Vietnam War

Posted: February 17, 2016 in Uncategorized
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The Media’s Involvement in the Vietnam War

by Max Alva

“There’s something happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear; there’s a man with a gun over there, telling me I got to beware. I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound; everybody look what’s going down.” Buffalo Springfield sang these famous words in late 1966, during the heat of the Vietnam War. While the song makes many references to this era in history, it raises many points that are worth exploring. With the media reporting battles and protests, and the American public absorbing the numerous amount of information that was being released, there was a lot of confusion and clashing opinions over what was truly happening in Vietnam. The war began in 1959, after the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam), along with the Viet Cong, tried to impose a communist system of government over the entire nation. It was met with opposition from The Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam), which the United States chose to back in order to fight against the spread of communism. Although the U.S. offered South Vietnam supplies and military training, the American military did not directly engage in battle against North Vietnam until 1965. At first, the American public was supportive of U.S. involvement in the war. However, as it progressed, it became a highly controversial issue throughout the nation. Over time, the U.S. government began to face opposition from its people regarding the war. The mass media’s coverage, the rising momentum of the hippie movement, and the draft ignited America’s zeal against its involvement in the Vietnam War.

Throughout the Vietnam War, the media’s ability to convey coverage of events by way of audio and visual technology played a highly influential role in shaping the American public’s perspective of the war. Today, there is a general belief that the media sparked the lack of support for the war. It was the first war in which America issued full freedom to the press, allowing them to cover the war as they saw it. This granted media outlets a lot of control over the opinion of the American people. Without censorship, appalling images were shared with the public like they had never been during previous wars. United States television brought into the homes of U.S. citizens actual footage of the war. The Vietnam War, which was the first to actually receive such broadcasts, “clearly had a marked influence on the American population as a whole.” The war had been portrayed to the public as one in which a sophisticated and ultra wealthy super-power would have few problems defeating North Vietnam–a Third World nation. However, after body bags began returning to America in increasing numbers, protests against the war became more popular.

Previously, reporters had used the World War II format of combat coverage for the Vietnam war, which portrayed soldiers in ways that were sympathetic to their experiences. Many people believe, though, that the news began to overemphasize battle coverage and under report how the war was actually playing out. “The camera’s blurred the cultural, social, and historical aspects of the war, therefore, distorting American perception.” For example, The Tet Offensive, became one of the most controversial events in which the media played a role. Until then, the media had portrayed America as winning. However, when North Vietnam attacked the U.S. embassy in Saigon, Americans watched on television, seeing it as though they were there. As the images appeared on TV screens and magazines pages, people began to doubt President Johnson’s credibility. Therefore, after just a few days, American support for the war began rapidly decreasing. This was a result of the public only having half of the story. The media had reported that Vietcong soldiers invaded the embassy, when in truth, they had never made it. Twenty-six men had entered the walls of the embassy compound, but three marines had kept them from getting inside the actual building. The media never retracted their inaccurate stories, and therefore the people never found out the truth–a pattern that was repeated throughout the war.

Although The Tet offensive was a military failure, the way that the media portrayed it made it come across as a propaganda-like triumph for the Communists. The television footage boosted the morale for the enemy. At this time, the sight and sound of gunshots could reach American homes by way of television in less than twenty-four hours after real-time-offense.  Two specific images had a significant effect on the American public opinion of events in Vietnam. The first was a video of children fleeing from their village after being hit by a napalm strike; the second was from the streets of Saigon in 1968. It showed the execution of a V.C. suspect by a South Vietnamese police chief. In one reel of footage the public was able to view a Vietcong being put to death, over and over again. Moreover, it was actually silent footage, but NBC added the sound of a gunshot for effect. This did nothing to aid the American government’s cause. The events were broadcasted internationally, and the word spread that the napalm attack was a mistake against the wrong village. Additional stories came out about atrocities committed by American troops against the South Vietnamese people, whom they were meant to defend and support–most notorious was the My Lai massacre. This event showed the U.S. public the tremendous strain that frontline troops encountered on a daily basis from an enemy that was supposed to be easily defeated. By continuously focusing on the negative aspects of the war, specifically military failures, the media turned many people against the war.

In addition to covering combat, the media showcased protests against the war that were taking place in the United States. 1968 was the year most notorious for protests. Many believed that America was not only sacrificing its male youth but also sanctioning the death of children in both South and North Vietnam with the daily blanket bombing raids that were occurring. “Hey! Hey! LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?” became a common, hurtful cry during protests.  International coverage showed that the protests were growing larger and more vocal as the war progressed.

Left-wing activists, who were involved in more violent protests, were featured more often in the media than right-wing activists. This promoted the belief that pacifists and idealists were leading the anti-war movement; however it was actually the passionate Marxists who were paving the way. They were not looking or hoping for peace, but rather, desiring a Communist victory.

By steering their cameras away from the communist and Viet Cong flags that were held during rallies and practically ignoring organizers of the “peace movement” reporters softened left-wing ideology and ignored the conservatives entirely.

Unfortunately, the more restrained behavior of the right-wing activists left them in the shadows during the protests. They were not overly dramatic in demonstrations; they did not lock themselves in buildings or chain themselves to trees, as did their left-wing counterparts. They did not get the attention of the press because most reporters were opposed to their cause. The perception of the term “conservative” drastically changed as a result of the Vietnam War. Today, many people seem surprised to hear “the sixties” even associated with the term “conservative students.” It is not only that the media did not mention the growing conservative trend among the American youth, but also that they did them a disservice. A conservative recalls:

The press was predisposed to portray American youth as Peace Corps volunteers, pacifists, and civil rights activists…that wasn’t what most young Americans were all about. We were unabashedly patriotic, anticommunist, and a little suspicious of civil rights leaders (perhaps to a fault, in retrospect).

Most of the media’s focus and the majority of the historical reflection on the 1960s has revolved around left-wing radicals. This has resulted in a very one sided record of history, which demonstrates how the media can play a destructive role in people’s understanding of historical times.

The media’s desire to focus on the sometimes violent and often dramatic protests that were led by the Marxist and left-wing activists tainted the American public’s perception of the young adult population. It led people to believe that the majority of young adults were opposed to the war, when in reality, the right-wing activists actually had a larger following. The vocal, demonstrative hippies were truly the minority, but because they captured the media’s spotlight, they went down in history as the voice of the sixties. It is clear that the mass media escalated the American public’s zeal against the war by leading people to believe that the anti-war mentality was the popular belief, even when it was not.

During the time of the Vietnam War, a loud minority of young adults began adopting expressive attitudes that preached love over war, which captivated the media’s attention and exacerbated the American public’s opposition to the war. College students divided their campuses politically, because the continuation of the war could have meant a one-way ticket to Vietnam. As the war progressed, the campuses became prime sites of anti-war protests. Since many young adults wanted to avoid fighting in the war, many of the activists concerned themselves with opposition to the draft. The voices of the youth were not easily silenced, as they outwardly challenged authority on all matters that concerned them. This “hippie movement” included many young men and women who said that they wanted to escape society. They felt no obligation to act patriotically or to consider how to best support their nation. During this turbulent time, it is unsurprising that “peace, love and sexual freedom” became the motto of the era.

In defiance, students began burning their draft cards. Everything escalated together: the war and the protests. Various campuses across the U.S. hosted now-famous events, such as T-Day, which was held at the University of Michigan on March 24, 1965. The event consisted of seminars opposing the war. It hosted over 3,000 attendants. After this, the Antiwar March to Washington D.C. that took place on April 15th consisted of 25,000 protesters. Those who marched included professors, clergy, and peace organizations, along with the college students–who truly dominated the demonstration. By the end of 1965, a small but outspoken liberal minority was making its voice heard. The majority of this minority was comprised of students, but the group also included prominent artists, intellectuals, and members of the hippie movement, which rejected authority and embraced drug use. Members of the leftist organization known as Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) began organizing “teach-ins” on college campuses to express its opposition to the way in which protests were being run. On October 21, 1967, one of the most prominent anti-war demonstrations took place. Approximately 100,000 protesters met at the Lincoln Memorial, and about 30,000 of them march onward to the Pentagon. Hundreds of demonstrators got arrested after a confrontation with the U.S. soldiers and marshals who were protecting the building. By 1969, 253 student body presidents from various universities had written to the White House, saying that they were planning to refuse army induction, along with the half million others who did so during the war. Overall, the hippie movement spread its antiwar passion and helped increase the American public’s opposition to the Vietnam war.

Refusing induction and other forms of draft dodging were very popular during the Vietnam War.  Actually, draft evasion hit a historic peak, nearly stunting the Selective Service System. In addition to the large civilian antiwar movement, draft resistance created another barrier for the government that needed to be overcome in order to achieve victory over seas.  “Under the draft system, as many as 40,000 young men were called into service each month, adding fuel to the fire of the anti-war movement.” Tearing up or burning draft papers became a common occurrence. The most famous person to do this was Muhammad-Ali, the world heavyweight-boxing champion. Although he was punished by having his boxing title taken away, his public stance brought worldwide attention to the draft problem in America. Some draft resisters filed for conscientious objector status. Others did not report for induction when called, and some attempted to claim disability.

During the Vietnam War, although Canada claimed neutrality, while secretly aiding America and South Vietnam, it actually enabled Americans to dodge the draft and therefore further the anti-war sentiments permeating the American population. Twenty thousand American draft-dodgers and twelve thousand army deserters found refuge in Canada during the war. Soldiers went AWOL and fled to Canada through underground railroad networks of anti war supporters. Several Canadian organizations actively assisted expatriates. The Canadian newspaper The Stanford Daily published an article in 1966 that stated:

The Student Union for Peace Action with headquarters at 659 Spadina St. has become the Welcome Wagon for American draft dodgers. It helps new arrivals to settle. Many Canadian organizations… welcome and assist american draft dodgers.

Although Canada welcomed AWOL American soldier and draft-dodgers, the country was not by any means anti-war or anti-American. Canada claimed to be neutral and participated in political actions in order to validate its claim.

During the years of 1954 to 1975, Canada served on two international truce commissions and provided medical supplies and technical assistance. Canadian diplomats were involved in negotiations between Washington and Hanoi and successive Canadian governments, both Liberal and Conservative, maintained that Ottawa was an impartial and objective peacekeeper, an innocent and helpful bystander negotiating for peace and administering aid to victims of the war.

Despite these neutral actions, cabinet papers, confidential stenographic minutes of the truce commissions, and top-secret United States government cables unveiled Canada as a willing ally of America’s counter-communism efforts.

In spite of accepting American draft resister and participating in neutral actions, Canada showed a support for America and South Vietnam. Its record on the truce commissions was a partisan one, presuming Hanoi’s guilt and Saigon’s innocence. Additionally, Canadian aid during the war went only to South Vietnam, totaling $29 million between 1950 and 1975. The funds were routed through the Colombo Plan and the Canadian Red Cross. According to the Canadian Encyclopedia article titled Vietnam War, “Canadian assistance was an integral part of the Free World Assistance Program, coordinated by the US Department of State with the International Security Office of the Pentagon as the point of contact.” This shows that Canada was in agreement with the United States. Moreover, Ottawa stopped a shipment of medical relief to civilian victims of the war in North Vietnam, which demonstrates its disagreement with North Vietnamese pursuits. Most notably, Canadian delegates engaged in espionage for the CIA, aiding the covert introduction of American arms and personnel into South Vietnam. So while thousands of American draft dodgers took refuge in Canada, ten thousand young Canadian men joined the US military and fought alongside Americans in the war.

Although Canada aided America in various ways throughout the Vietnam War, its act of assisting draft dodgers did a lot of damage to America’s mission in Vietnam. The numbers of draft resisters was so high that in 1977, President Carter passed a general amnesty to all those who had fled to Canada in order to evade the draft. This allowed them to return to America; overall, 209,517 people were accused of draft-dodging. This number embodies the antiwar zeal that spread throughout America during the Vietnam War and demonstrates the damage that was done by Canada’s open border policy.

The mass media’s coverage, the rising momentum of the hippie movement, and the draft ignited America’s zeal against its involvement in the Vietnam War. This is evident after examining the reactions brought about by the media’s portrayal of the war, the inaccurate depiction of the hippie movement’s power, and the opposition that the U.S. government faced regarding the draft. The Vietnam war marked a very significant time in American history, because it divided the nation and polarized political parties. It was the first time that veterans felt alienated from their own people; it caused enmity between many soldiers and college students. The veterans did not receive the support that they deserved or needed when they returned home. Although they fought for America’s adopted cause and risked their lives to combat the spread communism, they were looked down upon by the cowards who were not willing to risk their lives, freedom, or peace for their nation. There is a reason why Vietnam veterans have such a high rate of PTSD, involving depression, anxiety, and suicide. What will it take to get people of this country to finally support the men who were courageous enough to enlist in services or not dodge the draft? Will they ever be viewed as the heroes that they truly are?

Works Cited

Kindig, Jessie. “Vietnam: Draft Resistance.” Accessed February 6, 2015. http://depts.washington.edu/antiwar/vietnam_draft.shtml.

“Media’s Role during the Vietnam-Era.” Media. Accessed February 6, 2015. http://www.trincoll.edu/classes/hist300/media.htm.

“Muhammad Ali: How One Man’s Dissent Illustrates the Story of the American Opposition of the Vietnam War.” History Engine. Accessed February 6, 2015. https://historyengine.richmond.edu/episodes/view/5600.

“Protests against the Vietnam War.” Protests against the Vietnam War. Accessed February 6, 2015. http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/protests_vietnam_war.htm.

Rapoport, Roger. “Canadians Endorse Draft-Dodgers’ Rights.” The Stanford Daily, October 28, 1966. Accessed February 6, 2015. http://stanforddailyarchive.com/cgi-bin/stanford?a=d&d=stanford19661028-01.2.2&e=——-en-20–21–txt-txIN-student army training corps——#.

“Vietnam War.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. Accessed February 6, 2015. http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/vietnam-war/.

“Vietnam War Protests.” History.com. Accessed February 6, 2015. http://www.history.com/topics/vietnam-war/vietnam-war-protests.

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