Vietnam, the First Television War

 2. prosinec 2014  Markéta Šonková   komentáře

Vietnam War still prevails as one of the most traumatic incident in history of the United States. Sometimes it is called as the first television war. But is it true media caused that the USA lost the Vietnam War? Examine this question with Markéta Šonková in her article!

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It is no news that mass media and television in particular have been shaping public opinion. It is also no news that media have been manipulating information. It is more than true when it comes to the Vietnam War. The Vietnam War is also referred to as “The First Television War” or as “The Living Room War”, thanks to the wide media and television coverage of the events both in Asia as well as in the United States. Also, since the sixties marked a boom of the television, it was only natural that the Vietnam War was covered not only by the printed press, but also by the television. Showing people in their living rooms the vivid pictures of what was going on in Vietnam meant a turning point in the perception of war conflicts. For the first time in the human history were people so directly confronted with the atrocities and events of the war and could thus feel the atmosphere of the conflict even if they were miles away in their homes in the United States. Television companies were well aware of that and were also well aware that if it bleeds it leads, so the pictures and the coverage which got back to the US were often more dramatic than was the reality, and thus the public opinion might have been shaped by the news that was not necessarily true. However, the television networks did not transmit only the combat footage; they also transmitted the anti-war movement footage. In the end, the television companies and networks have been repeatedly attacked by politicians that they caused the failure of the war. Notwithstanding these accusations, as professor John A. Cloud from the U.S. Naval War College notes in his article Vietnam: A Censored War, “[The] wars are not won and lost on the television screen”. This essay will thus examine the way the news, and the television news in particular, was presented to the American citizens, how and if it reflected the reality, and in what ways it might have shaped the public opinion.

The American media have been repeatedly accused that they caused, or at least heavily contributed, to the fact that the United States lost the Vietnam War. These accusations are more than topical when the television and the TV coverage are concerned. From the psychological point of view, camera and film footage made people more aware of what was going on, since the “television undoubtedly affords a more direct experience of war than newspapers, radio, or even cinema newsreels” (Mandelbaum 161). The printed news can hardly have the same effect as the film and the television have. Photographs are very powerful indeed, but it is still the television that transmits both the image as well as the sound and thus makes the experience probably the most real, given the living room conditions, and since the 1960s marked the television boom (Mandelbaum 158), the way to the living rooms was easier than ever before. Television thus became “an electronic window on the world, shaping perceptions of the ordinary citizens and even affecting high-level policy decisions. The war was never far away, it was right there in our living-rooms. Every night” (Pike). On the other hand, it was Michael J. Arlen, an Armenian-American writer and author of Living Room War, who raised an interesting question when he asked whether “were Americans watching [the] television or [whether] were they watching the war” (qtd. in Rollins 429), and Cloud also mentions that even though the audience of the TV news during the wartime quite naturally expanded, any “huge audiences rarely formed during the eight years of media attention given to the Vietnam War . . . [because] for many, the war was just another story”.

Regardless the question mentioned above, the fact remains, as Frank D. Russo, American lawyer and the author of “A Study of Bias In Television Coverage of the Vietnam War” article, states, that for many Americans was the “television the sole source of national and world news . . . [and thus any possible] ‘bias’ of television news coverage of the Vietnam war [was] a question of tremendous national impor­tance” (539). More importantly, Russo claims that “not only that TV [was] the primary source of news for most Americans, but that it has widened its lead over the other media as being the most believable source” (539). This makes clear that people tended to believe what they were presented on the television screen. And there were 35 million of these TV screens in the American households that were tuned to news every evening (Russo 539). Contrastingly, Michael Mandelbaum, professor from The Johns Hopkins University, thinks that even though the TV became the main medium for acquiring the news, the Americans might have, paradoxically, received less information than they would have from the press, because they were used to use the TV as the background noise to their everyday tasks (159). Nevertheless, the TV companies were aware of their rising influence and “in an effort to polish the public image of television that the ‘quiz show’ scandals of the fifties had tarnished, the three major networks did increase the number of hours they devoted to news programs. To cultivate a reputation for seriousness and civic-mindedness, they began to put documentary on the air” (Mandelbaum 158) and as a result were “in 1963 the evening national news programs . . . expanded from fifteen minutes to a half hour” (Mandelbaum 158).  Apart from the effort to polish the public image, the reasons for this were particularly financial, since these programs were “extremely profitable for the networks” (Mandelbaum 158).

As was mentioned before, there is a wide notion that the Vietnam War was unpopular and that it was mainly because the TV networks were showing people the unpleasant side of the war. However, professor Daniel C. Hallin of the University of California found out that “only about 22 percent of all television reports from Vietnam before 1968 showed actual combat . . . The American people simply did not see gore night after night” (qtd. in Cloud). The turning point in the television coverage was the Tet Offensive, where “the American defense of Saigon was militarily successful but [was] a public perception nightmare for the policymakers” (Smith, Background Report). As Mandelbaum mentions, the 1968 media coverage of the Tet offensive caused that the public was presented with a distorted picture of what really happened in Vietnam. He claims that “for reasons having to do not with political bias but with the habits of journalism, Tet was portrayed as a military defeat for the United States” (159). However, it was not only the TV, but all the media that were covering the Vietnam War that made the very same distortion of events, which as a result made the Johnson Administration less popular, because the Tet footage showed that the enemy was still very capable of fighting, contrary to the claims of the Administration that the war was being won and coming to an end (Mandelbaum 159).

The distortion of the information was, however, connected not only to the Tet:

The producers of the news programs encouraged their Saigon correspondents to shoot film of combat, especially before 1968. Combat scenes tended to be more dramatic, more exciting, and therefore - and this was the primary consideration - more likely to attract viewers than other kinds of coverage (Mandelbaum 159).

Simply, if it bleeds it leads, and thus the footage usually portrayed the Americans engaged in some kind of successful mission that was, however, not “tied to any particular event . . . which may have helped to give an unduly optimistic impression of the war, and contributed to the public´s disillusionment when events proved the optimism unwarranted,” as it happened with the impact of the Tet coverage (Mandelbaum160). Arlen also “chronicled [in his book Living Room War] a history of rigged enemy casualty figures, over-statements about the effectiveness of ‘search-and-destroy missions’ and air raids, and lies by senior administration officials about the need for more troops [and] all the while, this information went unquestioned by TV news” (qtd. in Cloud). As Cloud adds, “the military´s war had become the media´s war”, because it was the media who with their choice of footage dictated how will be the information presented to the audience. It was no longer the army who was the sole “constructor” of the war, because since the media reported the reality differently, it was in fact also the media who directed the war and its course (Cloud). However, it was again not only the television that was presenting the news in this distorted way.

On the other hand, television networks did not broadcast only the war pictures, but also the events connected to the anti-war movement. Their role in the anti-war protests was, however, not an active one, in the sense that the television would actively promote the anti-war movement or the war opposition, but it influenced the way it was expressed:

It served as a network of communication through which people in one part of the country discovered that others elsewhere shared their feelings about the war, and saw how they could demonstrate those feelings publicly. It became, as well, a forum for propagating antiwar views. The antiwar movement did not expect to stop the war itself, but rather hoped to persuade the American public that it ought to be stopped. This message could reach many more people through television than in any other way (Mandelbaum 164).

In that respect, the television networks behaved similarly as they did with the combat footage – it was a spectacle that earned them money. Thus, it is possible to claim that “the antiwar movement was the equivalent, on the home front, of combat footage in Vietnam itself; it made for good television” (Mandelbaum 164). Retrospectively were the media accused by their opponents that the “TV coverage during the Vietnam War era gave undue attention to antiwar protests, singlehandedly creating even more public opposition and prompting congressional hostility to the war effort” (Cloud). After the Tet, the number of protests naturally increased and thus the television covered the protests, too, “but never did the media support the antiwar movement with fervor” (Cloud). It is also true that the movement as such became in the end as unpopular as was the war itself, for it was associated with the counterculture which was despised for its connection to disorder and revolt (Mandelbaum 165-166), so even if the media would have intentionally promoted the anti-war movement, it is disputable what effect it might have had on the course of the war when the movement as such became unpopular. Taking this into consideration, the media propagated both, the battle as well as the anti-war footage, so it can be hardly claimed that they favoured any of those parties, they just sold what could be sold.

Whatever the main interest in the choice of the topic was, there is an undeniable power of the message the pictures carried, because according to Mandelbaum, “it was not the conceptual framework for interpreting the pictures of violence that appeared on American television screens that shaped public attitudes toward the war . . . but [it was] the pictures themselves” (161). According to Marshall McLuhan´s theory, “print, the linear medium, breaks the world down into artificial categories, while the electronic media, especially television, recreate the ‘plural simultaneity’ of real life.  [Thus] print divides and distances people from one another; [while] television engenders feelings of solidarity and sympathy” (qtd. in Mandelbaum 161). This claim implies that the vivid pictures the Americans saw made them feel solidarity which caused the wave of requests to discontinue the war, regardless any possible commentaries accompanying the reportages or the intended message of the footage. It was the power of the picture as such that determined the reaction. However, as Mandelbaum continues, “there is little empirical evidence of how people reacted to seeing the war on television” and one of the options he proposes is that “the constant exposure to the war on television may have made Americans apathetic about the killing half a world away” (161-162), and since the TV as such can have an alienating effect, the constant exposure might have diminished the desired outcome of the message. It might have made the war look as something trivial, “with the pictures of battle seeming no more urgent or alarming than all the others that regularly paraded across the small grey screen” (Mandelbaum 162).

There is one more important issue to be considered, though. Interestingly, even though the Vietnam War was, according to the former CBS News president Fred Friendly, “an undeclared war with no censorship” (Russo 543), the censorship was there, however, it was not imposed by the  military, but by the media themselves (Cloud). Cloud further on comments that the media did not question the administration policy, or at least not until the public favoured the withdrawal of the troops from Vietnam by the end of the war anyway. As he mentions, “the reasons [for this self-imposed censorship] ranged from fear of offending the parents of soldiers to conservatism among the network brass” (Cloud). In that respect, the accusation of the then vice president Spiro Agnew that it was the fault of the media that the credibility gap appeared (Smith, Background Report) could be questioned, as well as could be questioned the true reasons for the “openly adversarial relationship [that] developed between the press and the presidency during the Johnson years. . . [and that] continued to grow with his successor” (Smith, Background Report). The media reported the events distortedly, but the distortion was not aimed at harming the administration, it was targeted at getting the audience and thus subsequently profit. It is nevertheless true that after Vietnam, the military censorship started to play an important role, which was particularly apparent during the Gulf War in the 1990s (Cloud). As Christiane Amanpour who works as an international correspondent for CNN confirms, the military learned the lesson and today

. . . you [as a journalist] either have to join what some of my colleagues have called the ‘propaganda machine,’ or you don´t go and cover it at all, which is much more different than in Vietnam, where reporters were invited to come along on helicopters, they were given transportation; they were given access. This has changed totally, which makes it so much more difficult for journalists today to actually cover wars if they want to go with the big militaries (Smith).

In conclusion, the Vietnam War definitely was the first television war, but it surely was not the first unpopular war in the history of the American warfare. It is true that the public opinion influenced the American policy regarding the Vietnam War, but as Mandelbaum asserts, “the correlation between the outcome of the war and the way Americans learned about it [that is from the television] . . . is spurious; or, if not plainly spurious, at least not proven and not plausible” (158). It is also true that the public opinion changed after the Tet, and so did the TV coverage, however, the networks still kept covering both the combat as well as the anti-war protests. To claim that the TV networks were largely responsible for the failure of the Vietnam War would require a proof for the assumption that “the way people receive information determines how they respond to it” (Mandelbaum 161), which would eliminate viewers´ personal assessment of what they watched. It is beyond the scope of this essay to draw any conclusion why the Americans lost the war in Vietnam. The aim of this essay was an attempt to evaluate the way media, particularly the television news, presented the materials connected to the Vietnam War. To generalize and claim that all the networks were biased would be hardly possible; on the other hand, to claim otherwise is likewise impossible. It is apparent that the information has been for multiple reasons distorted and thus the message reaching the target audience in their living rooms was not necessarily accurate. It is questionable, though, how much it was responsible for the final failure of the whole war.


Cloud, John A. "Vietnam: A Censored War." The Harvard Crimson. 09 March 1991, n. pag. Web. 16 Jun. 2013. .

Mandelbaum, Michael. "Vietnam: The Television War." Daedalus. 111. (1982): 157-169. Web. 16 Jun. 2013.

Pike, Douglas, dir. Vietnam War: The Impact of Media. Acurracy In Media, Inc., 1984. Web. 16 Jun. 2013. .

Rollins, Peter C. "The Vietnam War: Perceptions Through Literature, Film, and Television." American Quarterly. 36. (1984): 419-432. Web. 16 Jun. 2013. .

Russo, Frank D. “A Study of Bias in TV Coverage of the Vietnam War: 1969 and 1970,” The Public Opinion Quarterly, 35. 4 (Winter 1971-1972): 539-543. Web. .

Smith, Terence. "Covering the War." NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), 20 Apr. 2000. Web. 16 Jun. 2013. .

  • --. "Covering the War: Background Report." NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), 20 Apr. 2000. Web. 16 Jun. 2013. .

Jak citovat tento text?

Šonková, Markéta. Vietnam, the First Television War [online]., 2. prosinec 2014. [cit. 2017-07-22]. Dostupné z WWW: <>. ISSN 1801-1438.

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