Thirty years after U.S. opinion turned decisively against America's participation in the Vietnam War, three veteran reporters rehashed a question that has bugged policymakers and the press since: Did reporting cause America to lose the war?
Their conclusion: No, the communists won the war on the battlefields of Vietnam, not on the television screens or the front pages of America.Even if the American people had seen and read only U.S. government handouts, they would have turned against the war out of disenchantment with the loss of American lives at no apparent gain, said Bernard Kalb, who reported from Vietnam during a 15-year career as a television correspondent.
Kalb moderated a discussion Thursday at the Newseum, a museum of journalism that is undertaking a look at the year 1968, a year of political assassinations, civil rights ferment and antiwar sentiment. He was joined by David Halberstam, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the war for The New York Times; Stanley Karnow, author of a highly regarded history of the war; and Barry Zorthian, the chief U.S. government spokesman in Saigon during much of the war.
"Without a single media paragraph, public opinion would have turned against the war," Kalb said, because of the American military's inability to win it or conclude it, he said.
"If there had been no media and no television, would the Viet Cong have suddenly surrendered?" asked Karnow, asserting that press coverage was not decisive. His fellow panelists agreed.
"I'm suggesting it didn't make any difference," he said. The communists "were not fighting the war to be in the living rooms in America."
The U.S. Army, in its multivolume history of the Army's role in Vietnam, years ago reached the same conclusion.
"What alienated the American public, in both the Korean and Vietnam wars, was not news coverage but casualties," wrote Army historian William Hammond in a volume called "Public Affairs: the Military and the Media, 1962-1968," published in 1989.
"Public support for each war dropped inexorably by 15 percentage points whenever total U.S. casualties increased by a factor of 10," he wrote.
On the other hand, Gen. William Westmoreland, the American commander in Saigon for much of the war, felt that television in particular bore some responsibility for turning American public opinion away from the war.
"Television's unique requirements contributed to a distorted view of the war," he concluded. "The news had to be compressed and visually dramatic, and as a result the war that Americans saw was almost exclusively violent, miserable or controversial." And a survey of American generals who served in Vietnam found that 52 percent thought that television coverage concentrated on the sensational and that "was counterproductive to the war."
Zorthian said unwarranted optimism from official Washington had the effect of increasing skepticism by reporters on the ground in Vietnam. He said he doubted that the United States would ever again be able to fight a long war because live coverage of the battle would have a severe effect on public opinion.
The year 1968 was a crucial one in Vietnam largely because of the Tet offensive.