Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Quotable: John F. Guilmartin on the Vietnam War, the media, and conventional wisdom


Saturday, December 19th 2015

Public Diplomacy officers – in their roles as Information Officers at Foreign Service posts and public affairs officers in State Department bureaus – always have a professional interest in how government and the media interact.  When roles are debated, the Vietnam War looms as a large case study.  Recall that during the war, the U.S. Information Agency and the Joint U.S. Public Affairs Office (JUSPAO, under USIA’s Barry Zorthian) was the primary venue for briefing the media in Saigon. 

Professor John F. Guilmartin Jr.. Professor of History at Ohio State University, challenged much of the conventional wisdom on the war in the 2014 General Andrew J. Goodpaster Lecture “The Vietnam War: Realities, Myths and Misconceptions,” sponsored by the American Veterans’ Institute.  Here are a few excerpts that relate to the media and how they portrayed the war to the American public.  I also include the headers on Guildmartin’s list of “myths.”  Click on the full text of the lecture for his supporting case studies and argumentation.

. . . the history of the Vietnam War is fraught with divisiveness, controversy and incoherence that rivals that of the war itself. The cause lies in the manner in which the history was written.

The first drafts of the histories of our previous wars were written by historians based on official records, supplemented by memoirs of senior leaders and intelligence on enemy capabilities and intentions that came to hand during and immediately after the war. The result—call it the orthodox interpretation—generally followed government policy. Then, as sources surfaced that were unavailable to the first wave of historians, new interpretations emerged. Call the resultant interpretations revisionist. Historians tested revisionist insights, and if they were valid incorporated them into their work and the quality of the history improved. That, at least, is how it worked in the past.

In contrast, the first draft of the history of the Vietnam War was written by journalists during the early stages of our military involvement. Moreover, the journalists in question were not detached observers, but were engaged in turning American public opinion against South Vietnam’s President Ngo Dinh Diem. Far from accepting the validity of our government’s policy, the authors of the first daft rejected it, beginning with support of the Diem regime, as they labeled it… and I should explain at this point the difference between a regime and a government: A government is a regime of which the writer approves. A regime is a government of which the writer does not approve.

Preeminent among the journalists in question were Malcolm Browne of The Associated Press; Neill Sheehan of United Press International; David Halberstam of The New York Times; Peter Arnett of Associated Press; and Stanley Karnow who reported for TimeLifeThe Saturday Evening PostThe Washington Post and NBC News.

The journalists’ campaign against Diem bore fruit, turning the Kennedy administration against him, leading to his overthrow and murder in a November 1963 coup implicitly endorsed by President Kennedy. Contrary to the journalists’ expectations, Diem’s removal did not lead to an improvement in the political and military situation. Instead, political chaos and military incoherence ensued, leading to the near collapse of South Vietnam in 1964 and massive American military intervention from the spring of 1965.

By then, the journalists’ revisionist interpretation had become orthodoxy, turning the usual process on its head. The new orthodoxy was well entrenched by the time of Diem’s fall and had been embraced by the bulk of the intelligentsia and the nascent but growing anti-war movement. It has showed remarkable staying power, the more so as it informed two popular television histories: The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation series, Vietnam: The Ten Thousand Day War, for which Peter Arnett was Chief Correspondent; and the Public Broadcasting Service series, Vietnam: A Television History, for which Stanley Karnow was Chief Correspondent. Both debuted in 1983, as did Karnow’s book Vietnam: A History, based on research for the PBS series. To the best of my knowledge, that book remains the most published and widely-read work on the subject in English and, together with the two television series, effectively forms the basis of what most Americans know—or think they know—about the war.

The underlying narrative in all these works holds that America’s military engagement in Vietnam was unjust, unnecessary and unwinnable. I am painting in the broadest of strokes and some orthodox works are more nuanced, but I am confident that my generalization is accurately descriptive of main stream orthodoxy. Beyond rejecting the validity of American policy, the orthodox interpretation is America-centric, holding that everything of consequence that happened did so as a result of American initiative. By contrast, Vietnamese are portrayed as stereotypes: passive peasant-victims; doughty Viet Cong; well-motivated and disciplined North Vietnamese regulars; brutal and corrupt ARVN (soldiers of the Army of [South] Vietnam); and so on. As is usually the case, there are elements of truth in these stereotypes, but there is much more to it than that.

Let me begin with the circumstances in 1960-1963 during which the orthodox interpretation was forged. The journalists who gave it birth had little if any previous experience in Vietnam. Much of their information concerning South Vietnamese society and politics came from Vietnamese journalist Pham Xuan An, a Reuters stringer who later became chief of Timemagazine’s Saigon bureau. As we now know, An was a communist agent of influence. We can be sure that he spoon-fed his interpretations of the Diem government’s crackdown on Theravada Buddhist demonstrations to his American colleagues: Karnow and Halberstam were particularly dependent on him. It was, of course, reportage of the crackdown that led to the Kennedy administration’s decision to support Diem’s overthrow. American media coverage of the self-immolation of Buddhist monks as an act of protest—coverage that was orchestrated by the communists, Buddhists, or both—was the tipping point.

News of An’s role as an agent of influence did not emerge until after the fall of South Vietnam in 1975, by which time the orthodox interpretation had gained general acceptance within academia and the mainstream news media. In the meantime, the imbedded notion that our military policy—citing a more extreme anti-war characterization—was one of atrocity, had gained legitimacy if not universal acceptance.

* * * * *

More myths and misconceptions with an emphasis on the American phase of the war:

Myth: It was a guerrilla war, a central tenant of the orthodox interpretation. Sometimes it was and sometimes it wasn’t. * * * * *

Next in our list of myths, “The sorry little bastards won’t fight”—meaning the soldiers of the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam, or ARVN—is one of the most pernicious. * * * * *

Myth: Our bombing of North Vietnam and the Ho Chi Minh Trail was unnecessary at best and inhumane at worst. This myth is closely linked to the “It was a guerrilla war” myth. * * * * *

Next on our parade of myths: The news media did not lose the war. * * * * *

It seemed clear at the time, and is clearer in retrospect, that the mainstream media were unwilling to publicize unsavory aspects of communist policy. * * * * *

. . . I would dispel another myth: that “television brought the war into our living rooms.” * * * * *

I will conclude with a final myth, one derived from those discussed above and revealing in its content: that the outcome of the war was not so horrible for the peoples of Indochina. * * * * *

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