Censorship During the War Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

After the U.S. defeat in the Vietnam War, a debate arose over the role played by newspaper and television reporters in that war. Censorship of the media by the United States government was undoubtedly less strict than in some earlier wars. Whether this relative absence of censorship was responsible for the American defeat in Vietnam has, however, been hotly disputed.

The Vietnam War was the first large-scale military conflict closely covered on television; the relative absence of censorship controls was blamed by many for contributing to the failure of the U.S. military effort.

After the U.S. defeat in the Vietnam War, a debate arose over the role played by newspaper and television reporters in that war. Censorship of the media by the United States government was undoubtedly less strict than in some earlier wars. Whether this relative absence of censorship was responsible for the American defeat in Vietnam has, however, been hotly disputed.

Contrasts with World War II

Because World War II began with a formal declaration of war, an Office of Censorship was set up almost immediately after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in December, 1941. Censors had to approve what appeared concerning the war in print (including combat photographs) and in motion picture newsreels. The American public was spared revelations about bungling or atrocities by the American military, although incidents of both occurred. Government censorship was supplemented by journalists’ self-censorship; war correspondents believed it was their patriotic duty to help build up homefront morale. In contrast, the Vietnam War was an undeclared war, in which large numbers of American combat troops did not see action until 1965. Unlike in World War II, there were no war-bond drives, featuring stars of the entertainment world, to arouse homefront enthusiasm for the war and hatred for the enemy; nor was there an Office of Censorship.

During World War II television was not yet a commercial medium; Americans learned about the war through newspapers, radio reports, and motion picture newsreels. Television news broadcasts, which were still in their infancy during the Korean War (1950–1953), had become, by the time of the escalation of the Vietnam War in 1965, the major source of information about the world for most Americans. The existence of communications satellites and regular jet transportation in the early 1960’s made the transmission of news faster than it had been in World War II or the Korean War, thereby making any government efforts to manage the news vastly more complicated than it had been in those earlier wars.

Although a ban on journalists’ accompanying airmen limited the coverage of the Vietnam air war, efforts by the United States and South Vietnamese governments to control news about the ground war were hampered by the guerrilla nature of much of the conflict, without clear front-lines, as were found in World War II. The military could sometimes keep bad news secret by denying reporters transportation to battlefields; but major battles could–as in 1968–erupt in unexpected places.

The contradictions of fighting a limited war made press self-censorship harder to maintain than in World War II, in which the aim had been the unconditional surrender of the enemy. During World War II journalistic self-censorship, and acceptance of official censorship, were encouraged by a national consensus that the war was necessary and just. The gradual breakdown of national consensus about the Vietnam War set media and government on the road to becoming adversaries rather than allies.

The Early Phase of the Vietnam War

The Geneva Peace Agreements of 1954, under which French colonial forces left Vietnam, divided the country into a communist north and a non-communist south. By the early 1960’s South Vietnam was troubled by a communist guerrilla rebellion in the countryside. When the U.S. military buildup was first begun by President John F. Kennedy in late 1961, only several hundred American military advisers were in South Vietnam; by the end of Kennedy’s presidency, there were twelve thousand such advisers.

In the spring of 1963, it became clear that the South Vietnamese government of Ngo Dinh Diem had a dangerously narrow base of popular support. On November 1, 1963, after five months of protests by Buddhists angered at what they saw as Diem’s favoritism to his fellow Roman Catholics, Diem was overthrown and killed in a military coup. On November 22, 1963, President Kennedy was himself assassinated in Texas.

At first, the Vietnamese developments were overshadowed by other crises around the world, all seen by Americans as part of the Cold War between American democracy and Sino-Soviet communism. Although some American advisers were being killed and wounded in Vietnam in 1963, the relatively low American casualty figures and the fact that all the advisers were volunteers, rather than draftees, kept the Vietnam story from arousing controversy in the United States. Hence, the American media still had only a handful of representatives in South Vietnam. The wire services were represented, but only one newspaper, The New York Times. In 1963 there was still no full-time correspondent in Vietnam from any of the three major networks that then dominated television. Network evening newscasts were not even increased from fifteen to thirty minutes until September, 1963.

Meanwhile, three young reporters–Americans David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan and New Zealander Peter Arnett–ran into difficulty with the U.S. military mission in South Vietnam (which wished to minimize publicity for American efforts) because of their frank reporting. Frustrated by the bland optimism of the head of the U.S. military mission, these reporters sought information from lower-level American military advisers working in the field. In October, 1963, President Kennedy himself, unhappy about the pessimism in Halberstam’s reporting, secretly–and unsuccessfully–urged The New York Times to recall him. Historians who have studied press-military relations for the 1961–1963 period can, however, detect no profound doubts among American reporters about the American goal of preserving a noncommunist South Vietnam.

However much frustration the American military mission caused them, American journalists faced much greater harassment from the South Vietnamese government during the Buddhist crisis of May-November, 1963. Relations became particularly bad after an American reporter photographed a Buddhist monk setting himself on fire in protest. At one point, Arnett was physically beaten by Vietnamese police. To outwit Diem’s censors, American reporters sometimes persuaded American military or civilian officials traveling back to the United States to serve as couriers for their film stories.

The Period of Escalation

Following Kennedy’s assassination, his successor, President Lyndon Baines Johnson, at first tried to keep the military mission at the level that he had inherited. In the summer of 1964, Johnson won a resolution of support from Congress (the Gulf of Tonkin resolution) after an incident at sea between the U.S. Navy and North Vietnamese forces. Following his election in 1964 to the presidency for a full term, Johnson widened and deepened American involvement, ordering the bombing of North Vietnam in February, 1965, and in July, 1965, for the first time, sending large numbers of American combat troops into South Vietnam. As American casualties and draft calls increased sharply, more and more television reporters were sent to cover Vietnam full-time for the three major television networks.

A controversy that erupted over a single television story in August, 1965, clearly demonstrated both the risks of iconoclastic reporting and the limited ability of the Johnson administration to censor reporters. A correspondent for the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) in South Vietnam, Canadian-born Morley Safer, produced a film piece with his own commentary, showing a detachment of American soldiers deliberately setting fire to the huts of a village from which enemy fire was supposed to have originated. After agonizing deliberation by Safer’s CBS superior, news division chief Fred Friendly, the decision was made to broadcast the piece on the evening news. After it was aired, Press Secretary Arthur Sylvester wrote an angry letter to Friendly. President Johnson made an angry telephone call to Friendly’s superior, CBS network president Frank Stanton, and angry telephone calls and letters poured in from viewers throughout the country. In the end, however, both Friendly and Stanton stood by Safer despite official pressure.

Further examples of dissenting journalism followed. In February, 1966, the voices of dissent from politicians were first heard when the television networks broadcast Arkansas senator J. William Fulbright’s Foreign Relations Committee hearings on the war. During World War II no American journalist had reported from an enemy capital; hence, print journalist Harrison Salisbury was harshly criticized when, after returning from a trip to North Vietnam in December, 1966, he reported in The New York Times that– contrary to U.S. government statements–American bombing of the north had produced civilian casualties.

As late as 1967 CBS refused to broadcast in full a documentary film on North Vietnam that it had commissioned British journalist Felix Greene to make, when it realized that the film criticized American bombing. Throughout 1966 and 1967, many television reports from South Vietnam still expressed support for the American military effort and hostility toward the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong.

Reporting on the Tet Offensive of January-March, 1968, in which the Viet Cong launched bold (and ultimately unsuccessful) assaults against South Vietnam’s major cities, bred distrust for the press in military circles. Film coverage of the Tet offensive, which was often transmitted by satellite in unedited form, was particularly disturbing to the average American viewer. Especially shocking was a film showing South Vietnam’s chief of police, Brigadier General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, shooting a captured Viet Cong insurgent in the head. In his report from the village of Ben Tre, Peter Arnett provided a catchy slogan for the American antiwar movement by simply relaying the conclusion of the American military commander, that American forces had had to destroy the village in order to save it. On February 27, 1968, Walter Cronkite, anchor of the CBS evening news broadcast, departed from his usual impartiality to urge the government to negotiate in good faith with the communist regime in North Vietnam. Shocked by the Tet offensive, Cronkite’s defection, and setbacks in the primary elections President Johnson declared, on March 31, 1968, his decision not to run for re-election. Peace talks began in Paris, and Richard Nixon was elected president of the United States later that year.

The Last Years of the War

Under President Richard M. Nixon, the U.S. government tried gradually to shift the burden of fighting to the South Vietnamese. American casualties remained high, however, in 1969 and 1970. Nixon was able to hide enough information from the press so that the American entry into Cambodia in May, 1970, came as a surprise. Throughout his presidency, a markedly adversarial relationship prevailed between the administration and the media over Vietnam, one that contrasted strikingly with the government-media cooperation of the earliest phases of the conflict. There were reports in American newsmagazines of breakdowns of discipline in the American expeditionary force in Vietnam (nothing similar to that had ever been revealed in the newspapers during World War II); and in June, 1969, Life magazine put out a special issue listing–with photographs–all the American soldiers who had died in Vietnam in a single week.

President Nixon had his vice president, Spiro Agnew, publicly denounce the media, and also used threats to make the television networks more sympathetic to the administration’s viewpoint. After being criticized by the White House for allowing a television news reporter to speak favorably about a North Vietnamese peace proposal, the networks ended the policy of allowing instant analysis by television newsmen in front of the camera.

Yet the growing division of opinion over Vietnam in Congress had, by the early 1970’s, emboldened at least some journalists to risk displeasing the executive branch of the government. In June, 1971, the Nixon administration tried to prevent The New York Times from publishing the Pentagon Papers, U.S. government documents on the war’s origins that had been stolen by Daniel Ellsberg, a Defense Department bureaucrat who had been involved in planning the war effort. The documents were embarrassing to American officials, but they endangered no American soldier’s life; a Supreme Court decision guaranteed the people’s right to see them in print.

As the number of American troops in Vietnam dwindled between 1971 and 1973, American media interest in the war also dwindled. American correspondents still in South Vietnam found themselves dealing less and less with American military censorship, and more and more with South Vietnamese government censorship. The Vietnam peace accords were signed in January, 1973. Nixon’s resignation in August, 1974, in the wake of the Watergate scandal, ended all presidential attempts to pressure the media into supporting government policy on Vietnam. When Nixon’s successor, Gerald Ford, asked for American aid to South Vietnam, a Congress mindful of popular war-weariness flatly rejected the idea. Coverage of the war ended after the North Vietnamese army overran South Vietnam in March-April, 1975.

Television Images and Public Opinion

Those who blamed the press for the U.S. defeat in Vietnam argued that excessively gory television coverage of the war so weakened popular support as to make defeat inevitable. Yet many scholars contend that the television coverage that critics of the medium remember most vividly–the burning of the village of Cam Ne and the police chief’s killing of a captured Viet Cong–was atypical of the combat scenes presented on the evening news. Television news broadcasts tried to avoid showing the bodies of dead American soldiers. Most combat footage simply showed American soldiers trudging onward, with enemy fire merely a menacing sound in the distance. Television reporters who tried to get combat footage were handicapped by the elusive nature of guerrilla foes, and by the fact that much combat occurred at night, when it could not be filmed. The most bloody American atrocity, the My Lai massacre of March, 1968, was not captured on film by a television journalist; it was uncovered a year after it happened by a United States-based print journalist. Revulsion against the war, many scholars contend, was caused not by images on the television screen but by high American casualty levels sustained over a long period of time.

Legacy of the War

Although many scholars question whether any conceivable American strategy could have won the Vietnam War, the belief grew in some military and governmental circles that lack of press censorship had doomed the American effort in Vietnam to defeat. To prevent further such debacles, President Ronald Reagan decided that future military expeditions would be accompanied by tight controls over the press. Such strict censorship characterized the American expeditions in Grenada in 1983 (from which all newsmen were excluded) and Panama in 1989, and the Persian Gulf War of January-February, 1991.

Yet it is unlikely that strict censorship, by itself, assured victory. The more decisive role of air power in the Persian Gulf War, the complete absence of guerrilla warfare from that conflict, and Iraq’s total diplomatic isolation may all be more important than censorship policy in explaining the difference between failure in Vietnam and success in the Persian Gulf.

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