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The Media and Vietnam

The American military action in Vietnam forever changed how American foreign policy is shaped and executed. A primary reason for this change was the involvement of the media in both reporting the conflict, and reporting on the political activities surrounding the conflict. It is clear that the media has a high level of effect on the perception of citizens of American military actions in Vietnam. While magazines and newspapers published many persuasive accounts, it was coverage on television that had the most influence on the opinions of Americans, and consequently, the actions of political leaders.

Newspapers have long been a source of information about the conduct, activities, and progress of American wars. (Rhodes, 2008) In terms of what was published, the government, pursuant to the First Amendment, could not have much influence. (Rhodes, 2008) However, until the Korean conflict, it was the inclination of newspaper publishers to be much muted in criticizing U. S. War efforts, and very careful about publishing details that would be harmful to the reputation of the American military. (Rhodes, 2008) This was done primarily for two reasons.

The fist is that patriotism sold newspapers better than anti-war rhetoric prior to the Korean conflict. (Rhodes, 2008) The second reason is that despite the wording of the First Amendment, the Government exercised a great deal of control of the content for the news. (Rhodes, 2008) Thus, unflattering tales of foreign war efforts were kept to a minimum. In the case of Vietnam, in the early stages of conflict, the newspapers were quite supportive of cold war policy, it was only later, that editorials began to appear.

(Rhodes, 2008) The Johnson administration, by then, was not in the position to push for censorship, because it would have been seen as politically motivated. (Rhodes, 2008) From that point on, the rhetorical battle between the Government and anti- war sentiment was fought in newspapers. (Rhodes, 2008) Despite this, much of American opinion was unaffected by this war of words, because relatively few people read everything that was printed every day. (Rhodes, 2008) A more compelling force in turning public opinion against the war was magazines, such as Time and Life.

(Rhodes, 2008) Unlike newspapers, which featured grainy, difficult to see pictures, these magazines contained full-color, close-up, and often graphic depictions of the unfortunate carnage of war. (Rhodes, 2008) The photojournalists who took these photos also supplied the stories behind them, which had a dramatic effect on those who read the magazines. (Rhodes, 2008) Even so, this effect was limited by the fact that relatively few people purchased and read these magazines. Both newspapers and magazines had high circulation at the time, but neither was as ubiquitous as the television media.

(Rhodes, 2008) Because of its ability to reach virtually every living room in America, and the advent of new technology, television did what magazines and newspapers could not do: show a real, and real-time, narrative of the War. (Darley, 2005) As the television media had an interest in gaining and keeping viewers engaged, it was in their interest to get the most compelling footage and stories possible. .(Darley, 2005) More than ever in history, virtually every American, whether literate, educated or not, could see exactly what was going on, and base their opinions on the facts presented.

.(Darley, 2005) As the media began to solidify their own opinion against the war, their coverage began to reflect that even more. .(Darley, 2005) Walter Cronkite, and other famous news anchors would begin his broadcasts each evening with a body count of American killed and wounded. .(Darley, 2005) The political justifications of the war became muted, and, to the average American, Vietnam became a place where young American men went to be killed. .(Darley, 2005) The question as to whether the “media” as a whole wields power over political decisions misses a rather obvious point.

There is no such thing now, nor was there then, as a “media” opinion. Each outlet had their own philosophy. Each reporter had their own opinions and politics. If disclosure of the objective facts of war turned people against it, the “media” can hardly be blamed for reporting those facts. War is ugly, and politicians simply could not sell the ugliness to much of Americans in exchange for abstract ideologies such as “The Domino Theory” or “Containment”. During and after Vietnam, politicians learned how to use the media, especially television, to achieve their own ends.

Johnson used a phony attack on US interests in the Gulf of Tonkin to stir support for activities in Vietnam. Today, politicians still attempt to control what the “media” sees and hears, but between the twenty-four hour news cycles, the internet, and the legions of journalists and muckrakers who would try to find the facts at any cost, makes deception difficult to get away with. Thus, as it reflects the will of the people by conveying to them true facts, the media does not upset the checks and balances of the U.S. Constitution.


Darley, W. (2005) “War Policy, Public Support, and the Media” Retrieved October 23rd, 2008 from The United States Army Professional Writing Collection website: http://www. army. mil/professionalwriting/volumes/volume3/august_2005/7_05_3_pf. html Rhodes, H. (2008). “The News Media’s Coverage of the Vietnam War. ” Retrieved October 23rd, 2008 from The Yale-New Haven Teacher’s Institute website: http://www. yale. edu/ynhti/curriculum/units/1983/4/83. 04. 03. x. html

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