Book Review: The Powers That Be by David Halberstam; Part Two: Journalism During the Vietnam War

A large section of “The Powers That Be” is taken up with describing journalistic coverage of the Vietnam War, and the contrast between how the war was perceived by the correspondents there on the field and how it was presented to the American public by the administration in power.  No one is better able to write on such a topic than Halberstam.  He was one of the first full-time reporters in Saigon, reporting for the New York Times.  He knew the situation firsthand from the early days of American involvement.  He was closer to the action than the generals who were calling the shots.  He was certainly closer to it and knew more about it than the presidents who were authorizing the escalation.

Reading Halberstam’s books on modern history, some of my favorites on the seemingly simple but ultimately confusing and complex era of the 1950s and 1960s, I often wish he had written a personal memoir.  He lapses briefly into first person as he tells of his early days in Saigon, and it immediately evokes intensity and emotional depth in an otherwise objective narrative.  Not that it would always be seen as objective.  Halberstam gives his own take on the subject, and it is the viewpoint of a journalist who had to fight great bureaucratic and political obstinacy in his effort to impart the facts as he saw them, the facts of bloody body counts mounting up and America sinking deeper and deeper into a quagmire that for a long time no official voice would admit existed.

For the fact is that during the Kennedy and most of the Johnson administration, as the war and American involvement in the war intensified, the highest echelons of both print and TV journalism were playing along with the presidential line, regardless of the conflicting reports and footage coming to them from their men in the field.  As Halberstam brings out, Kennedy was a master at manipulating the new medium of television, not only in his political campaign for the presidency but during his term in office when presenting foreign and domestic affairs to the public.  He was always acutely aware of the cameras and communicated with and courted those behind them.  The men who worked for him presented national reporters with what they wanted them to report.  They would assure the American public that the situation in Vietnam was proceeding according to plan and that is what the public would read or see.  The reporters in the field, meanwhile, would grow increasingly frustrated with the difference between the copy they were sending in and what saw print.

When Johnson assumed the presidency after Kennedy’s assassination, the situation worsened.  Pushing the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution past Congress,  a move that gave the president vast authority to escalate the war on his own initiative, involved circumventing not only the reports from field journalists but from the military itself.  Johnson assured those who helped him push the measure through that he would not use the added authority to put combat troops on the ground, yet within a year he was landing the first Marines, and not long afterwards there were hundreds of thousands of American troops deployed in an unwinnable war.  For years the administration persuaded a significant portion of the American public to support the war by feeding the press optimistic reports of soon-coming American victory through press offices in Washington, while on the field the situation steadily worsened.

As Halberstam explains, a journalist arriving in Vietnam would go through several stages.  He might arrive in a state of ebullient optimism, shored up by official assurances of America having the situation well in hand, critical of his colleagues in the field who tried to set him right about the true situation.  As the months passed, his doubts and cynicism would grow, and as the inevitable truth dawned on him, a nagging despair would set in.  Some of the best journalists of the era went to Vietnam, because it was the action place to be, but eventually they would become angry and frustrated with their superiors who insisted on towing the official line.  The president himself and his cabinet and most trusted advisors, after all, would assure them that all was well and victory was in sight.  Who were they to believe: their underlings or the highest authorities in the land?

Finally, though, the tables began to turn, and a few media events hastened the change. The Life Magazine issue that featured photos of all the hundreds of Americans killed during a week of fighting was one.  The Fulbright senate hearings on the war was another.  A key event was Walter Cronkite’s visit to Vietnam during the Tet Offensive.  At the time, Cronkite was the most trusted name and face in broadcasting; not only the public but also the president himself trusted him to be fair and impartial and, as far as the president was concerned, to uphold the administration’s stand.  For the first time, however, Cronkite saw the war in all its blood and brutality; moreover, he realized the extent that the administration was trying to cover up what was really happening.  When he had arrived, he had been briefed by General Westmoreland and other top brass that the Tet Offensive was over and the Americans had achieved victory; but when he went out into the field, he saw that the Viet Cong were still in the midst of the offensive, that the Americans and their South Vietnamese allies were hard pressed, and that there was a major cover-up, a diminution and alteration of the facts, going on.  Cronkite began to cover the war more objectively, which inevitably led to his being more pessimistic about its outcome.  One of the factors in Johnson’s decision not to run for another term as president was his certainty that if Cronkite no longer supported him, neither did the American public.

That’s the power of media.  Halberstam writes about print and television journalism, but how much more influential is the instant news, or much more often non-news, of the Internet?

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