In April 1975 Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, fell to the Communists, ending 30 years of conflict. The statement made by the BBC commentator suggests that television was a significant reason why America lost the war. Certainly, by 1963 Americans were receiving most of their news from television and during the 1960’s there was a steady increase in the number, size and quality of colour television sets. I will study eight sources and analyse whether they support these claims that television was a significant reason why America lost the war.
Source D is a North Vietnamese poster depicting American soldiers surrounded by unseen guerrillas, tactics regularly used by the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong against the enemy. I know from my background knowledge that such tactics posed serious problems for the Americans. The aim of guerrilla tactics was to wear down the enemy and destroy their morale. The guerrillas worked in very small groups and with very few weapons. However, they were hard to tell apart from the peasants in the fields because they did not wear uniform. The US soldiers lived in constant fear of ambushes and booby traps.
This was a poster produced by the North Vietnamese; and was aimed at persuading the South Vietnamese that guerrilla tactics were effective. It is unlikely that the American public would have seen this poster on the television or in the media elsewhere. This poster therefore indicates that it was the tactics used by the Communists and their refusal to give in to a greater military force, rather than the power of television that lost the war. For these reasons this source does not support the statement above. Source E is a photograph published during the Vietnam War and shows children suffering from a Napalm attack.
I know that Napalm was a widely used chemical weapon, and used to flush out guerrillas hiding in the jungles. As well as destroying forests, it also burnt through the skin to the bone, and killed many civilians. This photograph in particular became one of the most enduring images of the war. Similar disturbing images would have been beamed back to America, where they would have been seen on television. Such scenes were likely to cause more anti-war feeling in America. This source supports the commentator’s views that television broadcasts were an important reason for America losing the war.
Source F is written by a journalist in 1970 and gives an American view of fighting guerrillas. It questions the way in which American soldiers are fighting the war, and implies that the Americans are in a moral dilemma. He gives a sense of the fear of the soldiers, as he graphically describes a guerrilla throwing mortar, killing and injuring soldiers. It goes on to explain the dilemma of the soldiers; “Should you kill all of them, or none of them”. I am aware that this was a situation faced almost daily by the Americans in Vietnam. The source continues in a contrasting way, questioning the way America was morally justified.
It criticises the way Americans “defoliate” and “deform its people” in a country where they are attempting to “persuade them of the foe’s evil nature. ” This source would not have been seen or heard on a television screen, but rather published in American newspapers. This could have made people reading this article question the morals of the war, however as it was not on television, this source fails to support the interpretation above. Source G tells us about the aftermath of the My Lai massacre of 1968. It gives the reaction of an American soldier having just been told about the My Lai massacre.
The soldier compares his comrades involved in the massacre to Nazis. I know that the My Lai massacre destroyed the ancient city, and killed around 400 civilians, mostly women, children and elderly men. The soldiers had been on a “search and destroy” mission. The 48th Viet Cong Battalion – the intended target of the mission – was nowhere to be seen. Not a shot was fired at the US army during this mission. I am aware that it took over a year for the truth about what happened at My Lai to be uncovered and reported back home. When Americans heard about My Lai it had a huge impact on the anti-war feeling in America.
American opinion had become increasingly divided after the TET offensive, which took place a year before the revelations of My Lai. My Lai brought about more public attention, and confirmed for many Americans that this was not a war America should be involved in. The horrors of My Lai and the events of the TET offensive were brought into the living rooms of Americans each night. Now, public opinion started to favour peace in Vietnam. It is unclear whether this particular source was shown on TV in the form of an interview or published after the war.
However similar interviews would have been viewed on screen and had a devastating effect on the American support for the war. For these reasons, this source does indeed support the BBC commentator’s claims. Source H illustrates the costs of the war. It is a British cartoon and shows how the war affected Presidents Johnsons “Great Society”. The source shows a train representing the war, being fuelled by the money set aside for the “Great Society”. I know that the Great Society was aimed to tackle social injustice and poverty, and improve health care and education.
As billions and billions of US tax dollars began to be pumped into the war, less and less money was going into education and health care. America had 500,000 soldiers in Vietnam, at a cost of 2 billion dollars every month. This source is unlikely to have been seen in America. However it may be that it reflects the changing opinion of Americans because of the lack of progress of President Johnson’s plans for the Great Society. I believe that this source does not support the statement because it could be that the lack of public spending in America was a more significant reason for the anti-war movement, rather than the impact of television.
Source J is a photograph of an anti-war demonstration at Kent State University in 1970. I am aware that the protest was broken up by the National Guard, and four students were killed. Many were horrified by what had happened. The demonstration took place after the announcement of the invasion of Cambodia. Nixon had promised to withdraw troops with Vietnam; this latest news had given America the impression that Nixon was expanding a war already lost. Incidents such as the TET offensive being covered by television meant that some Americans were turning against military involvement in Vietnam.
Source J reflects the changing attitudes in America which could be because of this television coverage. I believe this source J to supports the BBC commentator’s statement that television lost the war for America. Source K shows the results from Australian public opinion polls. I know that the Vietnam War was the longest conflict in which Australians, as America’s ally have been involved; it lasted ten years, from 1962 to 1972, and involved some 60,000 personnel. Australians were asked in April 1969 if they wanted their forces to continue in Vietnam. Here, a small majority did want forces to continue.
Similar figures continue through to October 1970. It is clear from this source that opinion in Australia was divided. I know that similarly American public opinion polls remained steady between 1969 and 1970. However, in March 1970, 78% of Americans felt that no progress was being made in Vietnam. If TV did affect these statistics it is clear that it did not sway American or Australian citizens dramatically away from keeping troops in Vietnam. Therefore there is insufficient evidence to support the quote. We have seen several different video sources during class.
These have ranged from documentaries made recently on the war, to news broadcasts live from Saigon. One of these sources included an interview with an injured soldier as he was about to be carried away. He was asked “do you think the war is worth fighting for”. He replied, “I don’t know, they say we’re fighting for something, I just don’t know what it is”. This would have been heard in living rooms all around the country and many would be affected by what soldiers were saying about the war. Other news broadcasts showed the horrors of the war, and Americans were provided with a nightly exposure to the violence.
Footage of the war which I have seen in class, and which Americans would have seen regularly may have indeed caused an anti-war feeling within the public, and led America losing the war. This is what the BBC commentator talks about in his statement. The Vietnam War has been labelled `the living room war`, but until incidents such as the TET offensive and the My Lai massacre, television coverage had been usually neutral or even favourable towards the government. However since 1968 I am aware that television became much more critical.
Although it can’t be proved, it seems to me that the change in attitude towards a much more critical view reflected the shift in public opinion, rather than caused it. The sources I have studied range in origins and seem to give opposing views. However I do not believe that the United States lost the war in Vietnam because of television. Other factors such as guerrilla tactics, which made it impossible for the army to recognise the enemy, and the lack of progress in education and health care back home, were much more significant factors for the Communist victory.