Facts About the Vietnam War, Part IV: U.S. Journalists Didn’t Lose the War, Celebrate the Enemy, or Vilify American Soldiers
Editor’s Note: This is the fourth installment in a short series before the documentary series The Vietnam War (directors Ken Burns and Lynn Novick) premieres this Sunday. Do not miss Part I (“They Didn’t Fight With One Hand Tied Behind Their Backs“), Part II (“The Draft Was a Moral Disgrace“), and Part III (“Peace Marchers Didn’t Turn U.S Policy Around“).
Today’s accusations of “fake news” from American media echo earlier charges of slanted coverage by journalists in Vietnam.
The common claim is that Vietnam war reporters in general sympathized with the Communist side, saw U.S. troops as war criminals, and contributed to the American failure by critically undermining public support at home. Those making those charges, however, have typically presented no authentic examples to document their case — mainly because there are virtually no examples to be found.
The Army’s two-volume official history of its public relations operations paints no such picture of Vietnam war reporting. Nor does any dispassionate look at the actual content of mainstream coverage. Stories on U.S. war crimes were extremely rare. Civilian casualties in general were under-reported, by any reasonable measure. The biggest atrocity story of the war, the My Lai massacre, was not disclosed by a correspondent in Vietnam. As the Army history confirms, Radio Hanoi broadcast a fairly accurate account a few weeks after the killings, but no one in the Saigon press corps checked it out until a U.S.-based writer, Seymour Hersh, broke the story many months later after learning that the Army was prosecuting 1st Lt. William Calley for the My Lai shootings. Hersh’s story first appeared not in any mainstream news organization but in a small alternative news agency called Dispatch News Service.
As for celebrating the enemy, I can testify from my own experience covering the late chapters of the war that my colleagues and I did not report the coming Communist victory as a triumph for the right side. I saw those events as a great human tragedy, and our coverage reflected that. Earlier in the war when U.S. forces were heavily engaged, American reporters focused overwhelmingly on U.S. troops in battle, to the exclusion of nearly all other news. In those years journalists wrote relatively little, favorable or unfavorable, about either Vietnamese side. With very few exceptions, the Communists often appeared in news reports only as the opposing force on the battlefield, without any further explanation or background. South Vietnam’s government and army got a little more coverage, but seldom in any depth. If news reports affected opinion at home and frustrated American policymakers and commanders, it wasn’t because they were tilted toward the Communists or against U.S. policy, but because they did not show any visible progress toward victory.
The true fault of American journalism in Vietnam is not that it was biased against American troops or U.S. policy. It’s that in reporting almost exclusively on the American war, reporters paid far too little attention to Vietnamese realities and thus essentially failed in their core mission, to explain the war’s real nature and help readers and viewers understand why it unfolded and ended as it did.
As a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, Arnold R. Isaacs covered both the war in Vietnam and the antiwar protests at home. He is the author of Without Honor: Defeat in Vietnam and Cambodia, Vietnam Shadows: The War, Its Ghosts, and Its Legacy, and From Troubled Lands: Listening to Pakistani Americans and Afghan Americans in Post-9/11 America. Isaacs lives in Anne Arundel county, Maryland.