Vietnam is a country rich in history, which was entangled in armed conflicts for nearly two decades. Different forces played significant roles in shaping the historical landscape of the country. The players ranged from the United States whose involvement in the war some observers termed as undefined and unmerited, to cultural groups and the media fraternity. According to Ferrari and Tobin (3), the Vietnam conflict remains a unique war in the history of media reporting because of the peculiarities that characterized reporting of events. In the United States, events of the conflict were broadcast live during prime time hours, while in the battlefront, untrustworthy sources were used to get information that was then misrepresented by journalists. This paper examines the role of the media in the Vietnam conflict, with a particular emphasis being placed on media reporting. It specifically explores the work of David Halberstam, a US journalist, and the way he influenced the Vietnam conflict.
David Halberstam: The Role of the Media during the Vietnam War
David Halberstam, a 1964 Pulitzer Prize winner, was a journalist and author who covered the events of the Vietnam war, which produced a major impact on the later course of the conflict. However, his work was criticized for manipulation and misrepresentation of the way the Vietnam conflict was fought. According to Tibbitts (4), Halberstam influenced the way the Vietnamese people were reacting to the war through his reports that were misrepresentations of the actual situation on the ground. It is important to note that during the conflict, Halberstam was an authoritative source of information to many people both in Vietnam and the United States, and thus he had a moral authority to objectively report on the events of the war. However, Tibbitts (4) notes that Halberstam failed in his duty as a trusted source by playing partisanship in a conflict where even the US government itself did not know the next step to take. What was more saddening is that being a trusted source, Halberstam did not possess a single view that he could pursue, but instead engaged in seeking sensational information to quench his thirst for fame.
According to McLaughlin (2), any battle is likely to be won or lost depending on the media reports that people receive. And this was the case with the Vietnam conflict, where the United States was engaging a revolutionary government led by Ho Chi Minh to try to prevent the expansion of communism. From the beginning of the conflict in 1965, the media did not provide much coverage of the war, and public support for the conflict was fairly high, with only 24% disagreeing with the war (McLaughlin, 2). However, as the media continued to report on the events of the war, dissenting voices started to increase, and in 1968, during the My Lai massacre, only 46% of Americans were in favor of the war. This came about after the media started to provide false and distorted news reports on the events in Vietnam. However, the American people did not fall to this partisan role that the media in the United States were playing, but sought information from the alternative media.
Nevertheless, foes and allies alike enjoyed Halberstam’s reporting of the events in Vietnam. At some point, he was widely considered as being opposed to the war, working for unknown Vietnamese agents. This prompted the then United States president John F. Kennedy to call for replacement of Halberstam at The Times. The exact position of Halberstam was unclear, since Communist guerrillas and their North Vietnamese allies saw him as being antiwar, while his reporting was associated with the South Vietnamese government supported by the United States. It was this kind of reporting that escalated the situation and made people view it as having a hidden agenda amidst the conflict that was claiming thousands of lives.
The reason why reporting of the Vietnam conflict was distorted and biased is the moral responsibility that the US government negated during this war. According to Hallin (20), it was a well-known fact in the US political and military circles that the Vietnam conflict was unwinnable because of the forces involved. Nevertheless, it was necessary, according to the architects of the conflict, that the Communist guerrillas and North Vietnamese be defeated at all costs. This put the media in a difficult situation and presented it with a choice between patriotism and morality. This is the reason why most of news reports from Vietnam tended to be single-sided, with a veteran reporter like Halberstam making sensational reports and giving unverified information about the general populace in Vietnam.
For instance, in 1963, Halberstam presented a report to the US government on the troubling nature of the war in Vietnam. He went on to make a general conclusion on behalf of the American people that they all wished to dissociate themselves from the role that the Saigon government was playing in trying to shape the religious course of the people of Vietnam. Additionally, he rightfully stated that the president’s brother named Ngo Dinh Nhu was the one who planned and executed the attack on Buddhist pagodas and declared martial law in South Vietnam. Such blind reporting of the events in Vietnam was cited as the main reason why the United States government abandoned the then president Diem, leading to his assassination. The assassination was followed by an escalation of the war, and it became more precarious to try to negotiate for peace between North and South Vietnam. In essence, Hallin (25) notes that it is the accusatory reporting from the media, and especially Halberstam, that helped create sentiments of distrust and betrayal on the part of the group that was supported by the United States military, and led to withdrawal of support from the weaker government of President Diem. In fact, he notes that the US government ignored the information that Communists in the North were planning a coup against the government of President Diem.
Hallin (20) further observes that it is widely accepted among the critics of media reports that Halberstam’s reporting on the attack on Buddhist pagodas fuelled disenchantment among both the Vietnamese and American people. Consequently, this caused the instability that was witnessed even during the beginning of the conflict in Vietnam in 1965. It should be remembered that these damning reports from the media were trickling in before the situation in the country became completely unstable. According to Haberman (2), the immediate inference from the reports that were presented in the media prior to the war was that anti-Diem forces tirelessly worked to ensure that his government would not succeed, while still hoping that the transition would be without bloodshed.
Furthermore, Haberman (2) acknowledges that as a representative of a trusted watchdog, it was important for him in particular and the media fraternity in general, to refrain from reporting that in their moral judgment would cause havoc in Vietnam. For instance, it is clear Halberstam’s interview with Madame Nhu, in which she told the reporter that she was not her brother’s keeper, was in bad taste and contributed to what Hallin (15) called ‘media incitement’. Halberstam did a lot of infamous reporting on the situation in Vietnam that further escalated tension in that country. Through the media, Halberstam raised tension and rekindled anger against people that were fighting for the freedom they gained after the defeat of the French colonists.
Similarly, Hallin (31) observes that media reporting of the Vietnam conflict lacked objectivity in the way they presented information to the people. The majority of reports represented a hopeless people in Vietnam who strove urgent liberation. There was no attempt to portray the Vietnamese people as a nation capable of determining their own course. This kind of reporting was pro-government and sought to justify the invasion of the US military to Vietnam. In essence, Hallin (31) argues that there was no reason for the media to take such a dangerous stance, especially after it was clear that the United States involvement in the Vietnam conflict was unmerited, and that the United States military were bound to lose. Halberstam optimized this particular media group when he reported on a slowly decaying fiber in the people of Vietnam. Indeed, the Vietnamese people were being destroyed by the conflict, but it was inappropriate for the media to form a mental picture of the situation in Vietnam, as this indicated a lack of objectivity.
The extent to which the media distorted any piece of information from Vietnam made it impossible for the people to oppose change. Such reports were manipulative of the situation on the ground and were aimed at influencing the decisions people were going to make about the Vietnam conflict. In fact, it reached a level where the government of the United States operated on the reports presented in the media. The media had become so manipulative of this situation that it had stolen the show from the real actors. It is no more surprising that Henry Cabot Lodge, the United States Ambassador to Vietnam, believed reports from the media and decided that Vietnam could not succeed with Diem as President. This misinformation later resulted in a coup that saw the mainstream media, such as the New York Times, run large headlines praising the architects of the coup. For instance, a headline in the New York Times read, “DIEM AND NHU ARE REPORTED SLAIN, ARMY RULING SAIGON AFTER COUP; KENNEDY REVIEWS VIETNAM POLICY (Hallin, 70).
Cohen (4) indicates that the role of the media in the Vietnam war was also questionable, after the media intentionally chose to ignore reports on the atrocities being committed by the US troops in Vietnam. Cohen (4) believed thatthis was an attempt to cover up the negative reporting and that by concealing those negative reports they were going to be embarrassed. However, the reports managed to get into the public through the alternative media, and thus helped to inform people on what actually transpired on the battleground.
However, it is important to note that the media did not spoil the show for the two groups that were engaged in the war. As Halberstam himself stated in Ferrari and Tobin (6), the media was engaged in asking hard questions to the political and military leaders about human rights of the Vietnamese people that were being violated by the US troops. These kinds of questions actually prompted a request from the incumbent president of the United States for the removal of Halberstam, because of his interference in the matters of revolution in Vietnam. This clearly indicates the significant role that the media played in bringing together the sides of the conflict in trying to resolve what was sensationally referred to as the “stalemate” in the media. Ferrari and Tobin (6) argued that this reference was significant in expressing the wish of the media fraternity to resolve the Vietnam conflict and restore peace for the Vietnamese people.
Similarly, Hallin (40) observes that media was instrumental in making people in the United States and human rights activists, such as Dr. Martin Luther King and the clergy, realize the seriousness of the situation and raise dissenting voices. It has been observed that when the war started, a large number of people in the United States were in support of the military action. However, as the truth started trickling in through the media, the populace came to the realization that the government had made a tragic mistake by sending the US troops to Vietnam to fight a war they would never win. It was through daily media reports that Dr. King had learnt of the use of poor blacks against poor foreign nationals in a far off country. As indicated by Haberman (2), Vietnam was a unique kind of battleground because it was the first to be covered on television. Even though the media tried to censor most of the information that it was airing, it later became evident that people were analyzing this information keenly, and through this they had formed an opinion about the war in Vietnam.
Similarly, Cohen (5) notes that the media played a crucial role by showing the United States and South Vietnamese governments as being as corrupt as communist guerillas and their North Vietnamese accomplices. It was a powerful force in trying to bring people to analyze the actual reasons behind the war that had claimed so many lives. Halberberstam was always at the forefront of these reports and helped inform the public about the situation of the side of the conflict that was supported by the US government. It was important for this information to reach the pubic, because the American people based their support of the war on distorted information that had earlier originated from the supporters of the government. Through the media it came to be known that even the top United States brass were aware of the existence of corruption in the South Vietnamese government, but still chose to support it in its fight against the Communists whose claims seemed rational.
Additionally,Cohen (2) indicates that the television media played a crucial role in ensuring that the US citizens were always updated on what was happening on the battlefront. The Vietnam war was fought at a time when television was rapidly becoming a popular medium, and it was inevitable that more than 50 million people would be hooked to their television sets to get updates on the war in Vietnam. The powerful tool helped in forming opinion of the citizens of the two countries and helped peace activists in their efforts aimed at withdrawing the United States troops from Vietnam.
It is notable that the continued negative coverage of the war through television eventually led to withdrawal of the United States troops from Vietnam. In part, this was achieved due to the pressure that was applied on the US politicians. The continued coverage of death and destruction that faced the Vietnamese people was a sure way of attracting sympathy and attention for their plight. Notably, a lot of support was withdrawn after the Tet Offensive, which was seen by the public as an irrational act of killing the innocent. Similarly, increased coverage of the antiwar movement by the media caused many people to withdraw their support of the conflict and demand pullout of the US troops from Vietnam. Cohen (2)notes that this was a reversal of what the media had done earlier to the minds of the US citizens. It was through the continued witnessing of the irrational killing committed during the Tet Offensive that the media engaged in the activities that would later exonerate it from blame.
In conclusion, it is evident that the media played a major role before, during, and after the Vietnam War. However, it is clear that the influence of the media in shaping the public opinion about the war was significant and helped in finding a solution to what one reporter called as the “stalemate” in the Vietnam conflict. The situation made people understand that influential reporters, such as David Halberstam, wielded immense powers when it came to shaping the direction of the war. However, the discussion also notes that most of the reports that the media presented to people had ill motives and were mostly meant to appease certain government authorities charged with the media management. Biased reporting was extensively used, with reporters choosing to report basing on the impact it was going to have on the populace and not what was actually happening on the ground.