Vietnam & media

JAR2 ("JAR2"
Tue, 5 Nov 1996 10:10:48 -0500

It is possible to address two questions at the same time: why did the
U.S. stay in Vietnam and the role of the media in the defeat.

First, American involvement dated back to when the French returned to
Vietnam after close of World War II. FDR had favored not allowing the French
back and that would probably have saved the world several decades of grief.
It is worth remembering that the U.S. funded the French Indochina War. All
this was tied up and part of the anti-Communist crusade and this I think is
the overriding reason for American involvement. Reagan spoke years later of
Vietnam in terms of a "crusade". Now former Defense Sec'y MacNamara admits
to a gross lack of information and knowledge of the Vietnamese. (There was
plenty of expert info but not in the State Dept and it seems the JFK and LBJ
Administrations did not accept outside advice well.)

The massive American ground involvement came after the South Vietnamese
had been largely defeated on the ground by the Viet Cong and North
Vietnamese Army in 1965. The American public was not told this but the
reality was clear to the people of South Vietnam. No Saigon regime ever
seemed to capture or hold the loyalty of the South Vietnamese people, which
was crucial, the "hearts and minds" aspect of the war. Post-war reports
strongly indicate the degree of Communist political infiltration and a
fairly massive intelligence operation through the various Saigon regimes.
The director of South Vietnamese intelligence was a secret Hanoi spy and he
knew most of the "secrets", which means so did Hanoi. The chief Time-Life
Vietnamese correspondent has a senior Hanoi agent. Different accounts
indicate Hanoi had at least 200,000 political agents in South Vietnam. It is
hardly in doubt why so few American or joint American-Saigon military
operations ever caught Hanoi by surprise.

The factual part played by the anti-Communist zeal as a reason for us
staying so long in Vietnam was simply that neither LBJ nor Nixon wanted to
admit American defeat or be in office when the effort collapsed. That was
ego politics, of course. The tragedy there was that so many lives were
expended for the politics of ego. Further, what logic would say it is better
to lose a war than to accept a negotiated settlement? The Kissinger 1973
peace accord was a fraud and hardly anyone was taken in. A real negotiated
settlement might have worked in 1969 to 1971, probably not after.

The role of the media? It brought the war home to tv viewers nightly.
Neither the White House nor the Pentagon could gloss over the realities with
such media coverage. I think more and more of the public grew horrified over
the attrition strategy of "body counts". If Defense Sec'y MacNamara could
not see road to victory and grew disillusioned (as was in fact reported at
the time), how could the American public believe in the war effort? Public
reaction was crystallized by reports such as "we had to destroy the village
in order to save it!"

It was not the media that lost the war. The Hanoi regime was in the
struggle for the long haul and willing to pay the price over the long haul.
American war psychology was not prepared for the long haul nor was the "long
haul" really sold in terms of effective public relations. Too many promises
of "light at the end of the tunnel" and none of the promises worth anything.
Nor was the war lost by the soldiers we sent there; the war was lost by
political leadership in Washington that failed to understand realities in
Vietnam and lacked the courage to face those realities. The handwriting, so
to speak, was on the wall from early on and Graham Greene, Paul Mus, Bernard
Fall, Robert Shaplen and many others understood it. Warnings unheeded meant