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
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.
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.
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.
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 .
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
Daniel C. The "Uncensored War": The Media And Vietnam. New
York: Oxford University Press, 1986.
William M. Public Affairs: The Military And The Media, 1962-1968.
D.C.: Center of Military History, U.S. Army, 1988.
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.
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.
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.
John Carlos, and Rick Berg, editors. The Vietnam War and American
Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.
Claudia. "Vietnam: A Television History and The Equivocal Nature
Of Objectivity." Wide Angle (Athens, Ohio), 1985.
Liz. Fighting For Air: In The Trenches With Television News.
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991.
Kathleen J. Lyndon Johnson's Dual War: Vietnam And The Press.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.
See also China
of the Pentagon; 60
Enemy; Vietnam: A Television