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News coverage didn't defeat U.S. in Vietnam, author says

By Christy Mumford Jerding


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ARLINGTON, Va. — The notion that the news media led to the loss of the Vietnam War is a fallacy, journalist and author Stanley Karnow says.

Gen. William Westmoreland, in his memoir — a "preposterous book" — promoted the idea, Karnow said. In reality, "He lost the war, but he's got to find someone to blame it on."

Karnow and other journalists talked about their experiences covering Vietnam at a Newseum program, "Reporting Vietnam" on June 28. The program was held in conjunction with the War Stories exhibit, on display through Nov. 11.

Military leaders of the Vietnam era had come out of World War II, where there were much tighter controls on the press. Vietnam, Karnow said, was completely different.

"The top brass and the politicians in Washington did not know how to handle it. We didn't have censorship in Vietnam. It was the first war where there was no censorship. You could go down to the black market in Saigon, buy yourself a helmet and go out to the airport, get in a helicopter and go to a battle," he said.

The war was complicated, so the stories were complicated, Karnow said. This complexity frustrated the architects of the war and led to their resentment of the news media.

Military historian William Hammond said the reason for the bad blood goes deeper. "What people interpret as opposition or spitefulness is purely and simply a reflection of what armies do," he said. "Armies exist essentially because they are capable of closing off information. An army that lets everything out is going to get killed."

"The media are diametrically the opposite," Hammond continued. "The media can't exist if everything is secret. So these are two institutions that are at loggerheads from the beginning."

Hammond said coverage of the war turned more negative as the war dragged on. The press reflected the public's changing attitude toward U.S. involvement. "Society is turning against the war and as society turns, so does the press," he said.

CBS anchor Walter Cronkite's famous anti-war editorial statement — which infuriated President Lyndon Johnson — was an example of the changing tide, Karnow said.

"One of the cliches is that Walter Cronkite changed public opinion in February 1968," he said. "In fact if you look at (public opinion) surveys, opinion had turned four or five months earlier."

CNN's Bruce Morton said that several news stories probably played a part in helping to shape public opinion, including coverage of the My Lai massacre on March 16, 1968. Charlie Company of the 11th Brigade, Americal Division, entered the village looking for Viet Cong. Under the command of Lt. William Calley, they fired on about 300 apparently unarmed civilians, including women, children, and the elderly.

"This was the first really documented American atrocity," Morton said. "Americans for the first time had to look at this and say, 'We did terrible things, too.' "

Free-lance television producer Laura Palmer said the Tet Offensive marked a turning point in people's attitudes. Reports of the massive, surprise attack by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese on Jan. 30, 1968, convinced many Americans that the insurgency in South Vietnam could not be crushed and the war would continue for years to come. Palmer called that news story "a pivotal moment."

But Hammond said that in both the Korean and Vietnam wars, people's support depended more upon the number of casualties overseas than it did news coverage. Citing outside research and surveys, he said, "Public opinion of the conflict falls in step with casualties. So when casualties rise by a factor of 10 there is a 15-point drop in public opinion of the war."


War Stories events coverage
Coverage of discussions relating to Newseum's War Stories exhibit.  07.31.01