All The News Fit To Print (Part III):
The Vietnam War and the myth of a liberal media
By Edward S. Herman
Z magazine, October 1998
It is part of conservative mythology that the mainstream media,
especially the New York Times, opposed U.S. involvement in Vietnam,
and, effectively "lost the war." Liberals, on the other
hand, while often agreeing that the press opposed the war, regard
this as a display of the media at its best, pursuing its proper
critical role. But they are both wrong: conservatives, because
they identify any reporting of unhelpful facts as "adversarial"
and want the media to serve as crude propaganda agencies of the
state; liberals, because they fail to see how massively the mainstream
media serve the state by accepting the assumptions and frameworks
of state policy, transmitting vast amounts of state propaganda,
and confining criticism to matters of tactics while excluding
criticism of premises and intentions.
Vietnam War Context
The U.S. became involved in Vietnam after World War II, first
in supporting the French from 1945 to 1954 as they tried to reestablish
control over their former colony following the Japanese occupation.
After the Vietnamese defeated the French, the U.S. refused to
accept the 1954 Geneva settlement, which provided for a temporary
North-South division to be ended by a unifying election in 1956.
Instead, it imported its own leader, Ngo Dinh Diem, from the U.S.,
imposed him on the South, and supported his refusal to participate
in the 1956 election. Eisenhower conceded that Ho Chi Minh would
have swept a free election, and from 19541965 a stream of U.S.
experts conceded that our side had no indigenous base, whereas
the Vietnamese enemy had the only "truly mass-based political
party in South Vietnam" (Douglas Pike). Pacification officer
John Vann stated in 1965 that "A popular political base for
the Government of South Vietnam does not now exist," that
our puppet regime is "a continuation of the French colonial
system...with upper class Vietnamese replacing the French,"
and that rural dissatisfaction "is expressed largely through
alliance with the NLF [National Liberation Front]."
When our puppet could no longer maintain control by the early
1960s, even with massive U.S. aid, the U.S. engaged increasingly
in direct military action from 1962, including the chemical destruction
of crops and mass relocation of the population. In 1963 it collaborated
in the assassination of Diem, replacing him with a series of military
men who would do our bidding, which meant, first and foremost,
refusing a negotiated settlement and fighting to the bitter end.
As U.S. official William Bundy put it, "Our requirements
were really very simple-we wanted any government that would continue
to fight." The U.S. was determined to maintain a controlled
entity in the South, and a negotiated settlement with the dominant
political force there-which opposed our rule-was consequently
dismissed. The strategy was to escalate the violence until the
dominant indigenous opposition surrendered and agreed to allow
our choice to prevail. We made sure that only force would determine
the outcome by manipulating the governments of "South Vietnam"<
so that only hard-line military men would be in charge. General
Maxwell Taylor was frank about the need for "establishing
some reasonably satisfactory government,'' replacing it if it
proved recalcitrant, possibly with a "military dictatorship."
Having imposed a puppet, refused to allow the unifying election,
evaded a local settlement that would give the majority representation,
and resorted to extreme violence to compel the Vietnamese to accept
our preferred rulers, a reasonable use of words tells us that
the U.S. was engaging in aggression in Vietnam.
The official U.S. position, however, was that the North Vietnamese
were aggressing by supporting the southern resistance, and, in
April 1965, actually sending organized North Vietnamese troops
across the border. In one remarkable version, the southerners
who were members of the only mass-based political party in the
south, but opposed to our choice of ruler, were engaged in "internal
aggression." We were allegedly "invited in" by
the government to defend "South Vietnam." The mainstream
U. S. media never accepted the view that the Soviets were justifiably
in Afghanistan because- they were "invited in"-they
questioned the legitimacy of the government doing the inviting.
If the Soviet-sponsored government was a minority government,
the media were prepared to label the Soviet intrusion aggression.
Their willingness to apply the same principles to the Vietnam
war was a test of their integrity and they-and the New York Times-failed
that test decisively.
In his Without Fear Or Favor, Harrison Salisbury acknowledged
that in 1962 the Times was "deeply and consistently"
supportive of the war policy. He also admitted that the paper
was taken in by the Johnson administration's lies on the 1964
Bay of Tonkin incident that impelled Congress to give Johnson
a blank check to make war. Salisbury claims, however, that in
1965 the Times began to question the war and moved into an increasingly
oppositional stance, culminating in the publication of the Pentagon
Papers in 1971.
While there is some truth in Salisbury's portrayal, it is
misleading in important respects. For one thing, from 1954 to
the present, the Times never abandoned the framework and language
of apologetics, according to which the U.S. was resisting somebody
else's aggression and protecting "South Vietnam." The
paper never used the word "aggression" to describe the
U.S. invasion of Vietnam, but applied it freely with respect to
North Vietnam. Its supposedly liberal and "adversarial"
reporters like David Halberstam and Homer Bigart referred to NLF
actions as "subversion" and the forced relocation of
peasants as "humane" and "better protection against
the Communists." The liberal columnist Tom Wicker referred
to President Johnson's decision to "step up resistance to
Vietcong infiltration in South Vietnam." The Vietcong "infiltrate"
in their own country while the U.S. "resists." Wicker
also accepted without question that we were "invited in"
by a presumably legitimate government, and James Reston, in the
very period when the U.S. was refusing all negotiation in favor
of military escalation to compel enemy surrender, declared that
we were in Vietnam in accord with "the guiding principle
of American foreign policy...that no state shall use military
force or the threat of military force to achieve its political
objectives." In short, for all these Times writers the patriotic
double standard was internalized, and any oppositional tendency
was fatally compromised by acceptance of the legitimacy of U.S.
intervention, which limited their questioning to matters of tactics
Furthermore, although from 1965 onward the Times was willing
to publish more information that put the war in a less favorable
light, it never broke from its heavy dependence on official sources
or its reluctance to check out official lies or explore the damage
being wrought by the U.S. war machine. In contrast with its eager
pursuit of refugees from the Khmer Rouge after April 1975, the
paper rarely sought out testimony from the millions of Vietnamese
refugees from U.S. bombing and chemical war-fare. In its opinion
columns as well, the new openness was towards those commentators
who accepted the premises of the war and would limit their criticisms
to its tactical problems and costs to us. From beginning to end,
those who criticized the war as aggression and immoral at its
root were excluded from the debate.
The Times also remained to the end a gullible transmitter
of each propaganda campaign mobilized to keep the war going, as
the following examples illustrate:
Demonstration elections. The Johnson administration sponsored
"demonstration elections" in Vietnam in 1966 and 1967
to show that we were respecting the will of the Vietnamese people.
Although that country was occupied by a foreign army (U.S.) and
otherwise thoroughly militarized, free speech and freedom of the
press were non-existent, and not only the only "mass-based
political party" (NLF) but all "neutralists" were
barred from participation, the New York Times took these elections
seriously. Their news reports stressed the heavy turnouts, and
the editorials noted the "popular support" shown by
the peasants willingness "to risk participation in the election
held by the Saigon regime" (ed., September 4, 1967). In both
news and editorials the paper suggested that the elections might
lead to peace, because by legitimizing the generals it "provides
a viable basis for a peace settlement." As the whole point
of the exercise was to keep in place leaders who would fight,
this was promotional deception of the worst sort.
* Phony peace moves. Every six months or so, the Johnson administration
would make a "peace move," with a brief bombing halt,
described by the analysts of the Pentagon Papers as "efforts
to quiet critics and obtain public support for the air war by
striking a position of compromise," which "masked publicly
unstated conditions...that from the communists' point of view
was tantamount to a demand for their surrender." Although
from early 1965 onward the Times editorially favored some kind
of negotiated settlement, it was institutionally incapable of
piercing the veil of deception in the peace move ploy, to present
evidence of their fraudulence and PR design, and to call Johnson
and his associates liars. Reston greeted each of them at face
value, asserting that "the problem of peace lies now not
in Washington but in Hanoi" (October 18, 1965) and that "the
enduring mystery of the war in Vietnam is why the Communists have
not accepted the American offers of unconditional peace negotiations"
(December 31, 1965).
The Times gave back-page coverage to the disclosures late
in 1966 that the U.S. had sabotaged a string of negotiating efforts
in 1964, and the peace talks in late 1966 involving Poland, which
ended with a series of bombings of Hanoi, were given minimal publicity
("Pessimism in Warsaw," December 15, 1966). Altogether,
from beginning to end, the Times, in editorials and news articles,
failed to portray the true role of the "peace moves,"
even while allowing some modest criticism of their flaws.
* Paris Peace Agreement. In October 1972 an agreement was
reached between the Nixon administration and Hanoi that would
have ended the war on terms similar to those the U.S. had rejected
in 1964, with the NLF and Saigon government both recognized in
the South and an electoral contest to follow. The U.S., however,
following the heaviest bombing attacks in history on Hanoi in
December 1972, proceeded to reinterpret the agreement as leaving
the South to the exclusive control of its client, in contradiction
of the clear language of the document. The Times, along with the
rest of the mainstream media, accepted the Nixon administration's
reinterpretion without question, and continued thereafter to repeat
this false version and to cite the incident as "a case study
of how an agreement with ambiguous provisions could be exploited
and even ignored by a Communist government" (Neil Lewis,
August 18, 1987).
* The POW/MIA gambit. Nixon used U.S. prisoners of war and
men missing in action "mainly as an indispensable device
for continuing the war," allowing him to prevent or sabotage
peace talks (H. Bruce Franklin, M.I.A. or Myth-making in America).
The New York Times editors jumped quickly onto this bandwagon,
denouncing the Communists as "inhuman," accepting the
disinformation that 750 U.S. POWs were still alive, and claiming
that the POW question "is a humanitarian, not a political
issue" (ed., May 29, 1969). Reston argued that Americans
"care more about the human problems than the political problems...The
guess here is that they will be more likely to get out of the
war if the prisoners are released...than if Hanoi holds them as
hostages and demands that Mr. Nixon knuckle under to them"
(April 21, 1972). The ready transformation of the POWs into hostages,
and the failure to see the cynicism and managed quality of this
concern over POWs, shows the Times at its most gullible as it
again joined a deceptive propaganda exercise that contributed
to large-scale violence and death.
Postwar Imperial Apologetics
After the Vietnam War ended, and during the ensuing 18 years
of U.S. economic warfare against the newly independent Vietnam,
the Times' adherence to the traditional and official viewpoints
never wavered. That the U.S. was guilty of aggression has never
been hinted at; the U.S. fought to protect "South Vietnam."
In 1985 the editors chided public ignorance of history, evidenced
by the fact that only 60 percent knew that this country had "sided
with South Vietnam"-a creation of the U.S. with no legal
basis or indigenous support, but legitimized for the Times because
it was official doctrine.
In reconstructing imperial ideology it was also important
that-the enormous damage inflicted on the land and people of Vietnam
by this country be downplayed and that the Vietnamese now in command
be put in an unfavorable light. The Times accommodated by giving
the damage minimal attention and by consistently attributing the
difficulties of the smashed (and then boycotted) country to communist
mismanagement. While featuring selected refugees who presented
the most gruesome stories and blamed the communists, the Times
repeatedly sneered at the "bitter and inescapable ironies...for
those who opposed the war" and who had "looked to the
communists as saviors of the unhappy land" (ed, March 21,
1977). This not only implicitly denied U.S. responsibility for
the unhappiness, but misrepresented the position of most antiwar
activists, who did not look on the Communists as saviors, but
objected to the murderous aggression designed to deny their rule,
which the Times supported.
For the Times, our only debt was to those fleeing "communism."
On the other hand, with the POW/MIA gambit institutionalized in
the U.S., throughout the boycott years the Times agreed to the
view that the Vietnamese were never sufficiently forthcoming about
U.S. service-people missing in action (the vast numbers of missing
Vietnamese have never been a concern of the U.S. establishment
or the Times). In 1992 the editors were even retrospectively criticizing
Nixon for having failed to pursue the issue sufficiently aggressively
with Hanoi. ("What's Still Missing on M.I.A," August
18, 1992). Their gullibility quotient in this area also continued
at a high level, so that when, with normalization of relations
threatening in 1993, the right-wing anti-Vietnam activist, Stephen
Morris, allegedly found a document in Soviet archives showing
that Hanoi had deceived on POWs, the Times featured this on the
front page, without the slightest critical scrutiny.
When Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1979, despite the serious
provocations that led it to invade and the frenzied Western outcries
over Pol Pot's murderous behavior, Vietnam immediately became
the "Prussia of Southeast Asia" for the Times, and it
received no credit for ousting the Khmer Rouge (nor did the ensuing
U.S. support of the Khmer Rouge elicit any criticism). Vietnam's
failure to withdraw over the next decade was given as a reason
justifying their ostracization (ed., Oct. 28, 1992). The contrast
with the Times treatment of the regular Israeli assaults on Lebanon
and refusal to withdraw from occupied neighboring territories
is striking. In one of the most revealing displays of the Times'
arrogance and double standard, in 1993 Leslie Gelb classed Vietnam
as one of the "outlaw" states, for its behavior in Cambodia,
foot-dragging on the MIAs that count, and because "These
guys harmed Americans" (April 15, 1993). As in the case of
Nicaragua in the 1980s, nobody has a right of self defense against
any U.S. exercise of force, which is by definition just and right.
The Times was not only not "adversarial" during
the Vietnam War, it was for a long time a war promoter. As antiwar
feeling grew and encompassed an increasing proportion of the elite,
the Times provided more information and allowed more criticism
within prescribed limits (a tragic error, despite the best of
intentions, because of unwinnability and excessive costs-to us).
But even then it continued to provide support for the war by accepting
the official ideological framework, by frequent uncritical transmissions
of official propaganda, by providing very limited and often misleading
information on government intentions and the damage being inflicted
on Vietnam, and by excluding fundamental criticism. It is one
of the major fallacies about the war that antiwar critics were
given media access-those that opposed the war on principle were
excluded from the Times, and the antiwar movement and the "sixties"
have always been treated with hostility by the paper.