It’s been 50 years. You’d think the old question, “Did the press lose the Vietnam War?” would have been put to rest.
But no. I was surprised to find it alive and posed at a new exhibit at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. The “Reporting Vietnam” exhibit asks right at the beginning: “Did the press lose the war?”
In an essay, former ABC News reporter Don North describes his frustration over the continuing falsehood “… that the war would have worked out just fine if not for the discouraging words of some reporters.”
Of course, the press did not lose the war. Truth lost the Vietnam War, not the news media. It was an unwinnable war.
Even William M. Hammond, the now retired senior historian with the U.S. Army Center of Military History, absolves the media of blame. Hammond is the author of the Army’s two-volume official history of its relations with the news media in Vietnam.
The war was brought to an end on the battlefield, but support for the effort had died at home years earlier, killed by the collective dismay over the returning coffins; 58,151 American dead. Sorrow over the plight of Vietnamese civilians caught in the middle. The waste. And the draft, when people’s neighbors started getting killed.
A weary American public was fed up with the war’s escalating cost, its length, Washington’s insulting public relations campaigns in the face of continuing defeats. The myths. The lies.
I was visiting the Newseum, driven by curiosity to see how the work of news reporters during the Vietnam War was portrayed — not as the pulsating reality I can still feel today as a former Vietnam War reporter — but as history, a remnant of the past.
I was a reporter in Vietnam for the Honolulu Advertiser from May 1966 through 1967. I covered everything from Marine battles near the Demilitarized Zone to lotus farmers in the Mekong Delta to protests by Buddhist monks in the streets of Saigon.
When I arrived in Saigon via Pan American World Airways, the American troop buildup was in full swing, I headed home to Honolulu at the end of 1967, sweating and shaking with malaria. But after I recovered, I returned to Vietnam three times for shorter reporting stints.
Walking through the exhibit, it was fascinating to see pictures of friends encased in glass with their working tools of war reporting — their portable typewriters, camera, helmets and notebooks on display as museum artifacts. People and items still so real to me today but now curiosities of the past.
Among the reporters featured under glass is Honolulu’s Beverley Deepe Keever, a professor emerita at the University of Hawaii, who was one of the first American reporters in Vietnam. Keever ended up covering the war for seven years for publications including Newsweek and the New York Herald Tribune.
My daughter Brett (who was born in Vietnam during the war) and I were given a personal tour of the displays by the Newseum’s exhibits writer, Ellie Stanton.
Stanton wrote the script for “Reporting Vietnam.” She is 24, the same age I was when I arrived in Saigon.
She says she studied the Vietnam War as a student at the University of Virginia majoring in history and media studies, but that she only began to embrace its history emotionally as she researched the lives of the reporters.
“They brought the war to life for me,” says Stanton
At the beginning of the exhibition, William Westmoreland, once commander of the U.S. Forces in Vietnam, is quoted saying, “Press and television had created an aura, not of victory, but of defeat.”
That is countered by a quote from Fred Friendly, former CBS News president: “It was not our war to win or lose, but it was our war to understand and to explain.”
Stanton says the debate about the media being responsible for America’s defeat is offered to engage visitors as they walk through the displays of more than 90 artifacts and 100 images, including photographs, magazines and newspapers.
“We hope visitors will reach their own conclusions,” says Stanton. They are encouraged to express their opinions in an interactive display at the end of the exhibit.
Through this telling, the exhibit offers insight into how and why public opinion about the war was shaky from the beginning, years before a large number of news correspondents began to write critical reports questioning the validity of the conflict.
It also makes clear how news reporters at the start of the war were generally supportive of the military effort, only becoming doubtful when what they saw in the field failed to jibe with what the military and the administration insisted was the truth.
Army historian Hammond, in his two volumes about the news media and the military during Vietnam, writes that the American public made up its own mind about the war without being told how to think by either the media or the government.
“There is evidence that from the beginning of the war that whatever the efforts of the government or the press, the American public had gone its own way. As early as March 1966, for example, a carefully balanced survey of public opinion revealed deep ambivalence on the part of many Americans, despite the efforts of the Johnson administration to mold a public consensus in favor of the conflict.”
In an email correspondence with Hammond begun after I returned from Washington, he observes what still continues to surprise me: the Vietnam War is quickly fading away.
“I am sure you’ve noticed that everyone’s forgotten Vietnam, but its lessons are still germane today. The mess we’ve made in the Middle East — how we got in and how Obama is trying to get us out — while hardly identical, very much resembles the one we made in Vietnam.”
Peter Prichard, the CEO of the Newseum, told Brett and me before we were taken to see the display that the exhibit is very popular, especially with young people who, Prichard observes, “don’t seem to know very much about the war.”
As we were walking through the displays, I asked a teenager named Gabriel Blank about his views on Vietnam. The 13 year-old from Humboldt County, California, said he had not thought much about the war until now.
It took him awhile to express why Vietnam fails to loom large in the lives of his contemporaries
“Maybe because there are no video games featuring Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers. There are many games featuring Nazi enemies to shoot but not Vietnamese. Maybe because the Vietnam War was so uncertain, so unclear, it is difficult today to make Vietnamese game targets, not like the Nazis.”
Thinking about this uncertain, unclear war still too controversial to ever be part of any video game, it makes me proud to know the reporters did the best they could to bring what they saw as the truth to the American public, even when they were being criticized and discredited.
The press did not lose the Vietnam War. The truth ended it, and honorable American people were smart enough to grasp the facts.