VIETNAM ON TELEVISION

Vietnam was the first "television war." The medium was in its infancy during the Korean conflict, its audience and technology still too limited to play a major role. The first "living-room war," as Michael Arlen called it, began in mid-1965, when Lyndon Johnson dispatched large numbers of U.S. combat troops, beginning what is still surely the biggest story television news has ever covered. The Saigon bureau was for years the third largest the networks maintained, after New York and Washington, with five camera crews on duty most of the time.

What was the effect of television on the development and outcome of the war? The conventional wisdom has generally been that for better or for worse it was an anti-war influence. It brought the "horror of war" night after night into people's living rooms and eventually inspired revulsion and exhaustion. The argument has often been made that any war reported in an unrestricted way by television would eventually lose public support. Researchers, however, have quite consistently told another story.

There were, to be sure, occasions when television did deliver images of violence and suffering. In August 1965, after a series of high-level discussions which illustrate the unprecedented character of the story, CBS aired a report by Morley Safer which showed Marines lighting the thatched roofs of the village of Cam Ne with Zippo lighters, and included critical commentary on the treatment of the villagers. This story could never have passed the censorship of World War II or Korea, and it generated an angry reaction from Lyndon Johnson. In 1968, during the Tet offensive, viewers of NBC news saw Col. Nguyen Ngoc Loan blow out the brains of his captive in a Saigon street. And in 1972, during the North Vietnamese spring offensive, the audience witnessed the aftermath of errant napalm strike, in which South Vietnamese planes mistook their own fleeing civilians for North Vietnamese troops.

These incidents were dramatic, but far from typical of Vietnam coverage. Blood and gore were rarely shown. A bit less than a quarter of film reports from Vietnam showed images of the dead or wounded, most of these fleeting and not particularly graphic. Network concerns about audience sensibilities combined with the inaccessibility of much of the worst of the suffering to keep a good deal of the "horror of war" off the screen. The violence in news reports often involved little more than puffs of smoke in the distance, as aircraft bombed the unseen enemy. Only during the 1968 Tet and 1972 Spring offensives, when the war came into urban areas, did its suffering and destruction appear with any regularity on TV.

For the first few years of the living room war most of the coverage was upbeat. It typically began with a battlefield roundup, written from wire reports based on the daily press briefing in Saigon--the "Five O'Clock Follies," as journalists called it--read by the anchor and illustrated with a battle map. These reports had a World War II feel to them--journalists no less than generals are prone to "fighting the last war"--with fronts and "big victories" and a strong sense of progress and energy.

The battlefield roundup would normally be followed by a policy story from Washington, and then a film report from the field---typically about five days old, since film had to be flown to the United States for processing. As with most television news, the emphasis was on the visual and above all the personal: "American boys in action" was the story, and reports emphasized their bravery and their skill in handling the technology of war. A number of reports directly countered Morley Safer's Cam Ne story, showing the burning of huts, which was a routine part of many search-and-destroy operations, but emphasizing that it was necessary, because these were Communist villages. On Thursdays, the weekly casualty figures released in Saigon would be reported, appearing next to the flags of the combatants, and of course always showing a good "score" for the Americans .

Television crews quickly learned that what New York wanted was "bang-bang" footage, and this, along with the emphasis on the American soldier, meant that coverage of Vietnamese politics and of the Vietnamese generally was quite limited. The search for action footage also meant it was a dangerous assignment: nine network personnel died in Indochina, and many more were wounded.

Later in the war, after Tet and the beginning of American troop withdrawals in 1969, television coverage began to change. The focus was still on "American boys," to be sure, and the troops were still presented in a sympathetic light. But journalists grew skeptical of claims of progress, and the course of the war was presented more as an eternal recurrence than a string of decisive victories. There was more emphasis on the human costs of the war, though generally without graphic visuals. On Thanksgiving Day 1970, for example, Ed Rabel of CBS reported on the death of one soldier killed by a mine, interviewing his buddies, who told their feelings about his death and about a war they considered senseless. An important part of the dynamic of the change in TV news was that the "up close and personal style" of television began to cut the other way: in the early years, when morale was strong, television reflected the upbeat tone of the troops. But as withdrawals continued and morale declined, the tone of field reporting changed. This shift was paralleled by developments on the "home front." Here, divisions over the war received increasing air time, and the anti-war movement, which had been vilified as Communist-inspired in the early years, was more often accepted as a legitimate political movement.

Some accounts of television's role regarding this war assign a key role to a special broadcast by Walter Cronkite wrapping up his reporting on the Tet Offensive. On 27 February 1968, Cronkite closed "Report from Vietnam: Who, What, When, Where, Why?" by expressing his view that the war was unwinnable, and that the United States would have to find a way out. Some of Lyndon Johnson's aides have recalled that the president watched the broadcast and declared that he knew at that moment he would have to change course. A month later Johnson declined to run for reelection and announced that he was seeking a way out of the war; David Halberstam has written that "it was the first time in American history a war had been declared over by an anchorman."

Cronkite's change of views certainly dramatized the collapse of consensus on the war. But it did not create that collapse, and there were enough strong factors pushing toward a change in policy that it is hard to know how much impact Cronkite had. By the fall of 1967, polls were already showing a majority of Americans expressing the opinion that it had been a "mistake" to get involved in Vietnam; and by the time of Cronkite's broadcast, two successive secretaries of Defense had concluded that the war could not be won at reasonable cost. Indeed, with the major changes in television's portrayal of the war still to come, television was probably more a follower than a leader in the nation's change of course in Vietnam.

 


A reporter records battlefield activity in Vietnam for ABC News

Vietnam has not been a favorite subject for television fiction, unlike World War II, which was the subject of shows ranging from action-adventure series like Combat to sitcoms like Hogan's Heroes. During the war itself it was virtually never touched in television fiction--except, of course, in disguised form on M*A*S*H. After Hollywood scored commercially with The Deer Hunter (1978), a number of scripts were commissioned, and NBC put one pilot, 6:00 Follies, on the air. All fell victim to bad previews and ratings, and to political bickering and discomfort in the networks and studios. Todd Gitlin quotes one network executive as saying, "I don't think people want to hear about Vietnam. I think it was destined for failure simply because I don't think it's a funny war." World War II, of course, wasn't any funnier. The real difference is probably that Vietnam could not be plausibly be portrayed either as heroic or as consensual, and commercially successful television fiction needs both heroes and a sense of "family" among the major characters.

An important change did take place in 1980, just as shows set in Vietnam were being rejected. Magnum. P.I. premiered that year, beginning a trend toward portrayals of Vietnam veterans as central characters in television fiction. Before 1980 vets normally appeared in minor roles, often portrayed as unstable and socially marginal. With Magnum. P.I. and later The A-Team, Riptide, Airwolf and others, the veteran emerged as a hero, and in this sense the war experience, stripped of the contentious backdrop of the war itself, became suitable for television. These characters drew their strength from their Vietnam experience, including a preserved war-time camaraderie which enabled them to act as a team. They also tended to stand apart from dominant social institutions, reflecting the loss of confidence in these institutions produced by Vietnam, without requiring extensive discussion of the politics of the war.

Not until Tour of Duty in 1987 and China Beach in 1988 did series set in Vietnam find a place on the schedule. Both were moderate ratings successes; they stand as the only major Vietnam series to date. The most distinguished, China Beach, often showed war from a perspective rarely seen in post-World War II popular culture: that of the women whose job it was to patch up shattered bodies and souls. It also included plenty of the more traditional elements of male war stories, and over the years it drifted away from the war, in the direction of the traditional concern of melodrama with personal relationships. But it does represent a significant Vietnam-inspired change in television's representation of war.

-Daniel Hallin

FURTHER READING

Anderegg, Michael A. Inventing Vietnam: The War In Film And Television. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Temple University Press, 1991.

Berg, Rick. "Losing Vietnam: Covering The War In An Age Of Technology." In, Rowe, John Carlos and Rick Berg, editors. The Vietnam War And American Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.

Braestrup, Peter. Big Story: How the American Press and Television Reported and Interpreted the Crisis Of Tet 1968 in Vietnam And Washington. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1977.

Gibson, James William. "American Paramilitary Culture And The Reconstruction Of The Vietnam War." In, Walsh, Jeffrey and James Aulich, editors. Vietnam Images: War And Representation. New York: St. Martin's, 1989.

Hallin, Daniel C. The "Uncensored War": The Media And Vietnam. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Hammond, William M. Public Affairs: The Military And The Media, 1962-1968. Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, U.S. Army, 1988.

Heilbronn, Lisa M. "Coming Home A Hero: The Changing Image Of The Vietnam Vet On Prime Time Television." Journal of Popular Film and Television (Washington, D.C.), Spring 1985.

Martin, Andrew. "Vietnam And Melodramatic Representation." East-West Film Journal (Honolulu, Hawaii), June 1990.

Rollins, Peter C. "Historical Interpretation Or Ambush Journalism? CBS Vs Westmoreland In The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception." War, Literature, and the Arts (U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colorado), 1990.

_______________. "The Vietnam War: Perceptions Through Literature, Film, And Television." American Quarterly (Washington, D.C.), 1984.

Rowe, John Carlos. "'Bringing It All Back Home': American Recyclings of the Vietnam War." In, Armstrong, Nancy and Leonard Tennenhouse, editors. The Violence of Representation: Literature and the History of Violence. London: Routledge, 1989.

_______________. "From Documentary to Docudrama: Vietnam on Television in the 1980s." Genre (Norman, Oklahoma), Winter 1988.

Rowe, John Carlos, and Rick Berg, editors. The Vietnam War and American Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.

Springer, Claudia. "Vietnam: A Television History and The Equivocal Nature Of Objectivity." Wide Angle (Athens, Ohio), 1985.

Trotta, Liz. Fighting For Air: In The Trenches With Television News. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991.

Turner, Kathleen J. Lyndon Johnson's Dual War: Vietnam And The Press. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.

 

See also China Beach; Documentary; Selling of the Pentagon; 60 Minutes; Uncounted Enemy; Vietnam: A Television History; Wallace, Mike