The Vietnam War and the myth of a liberal media, Part 3


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The Vietnam War and
the myth

of a liberal media, Part 3

By Edward S. Herman

 

It is part of conservative mythology that the mainstream media,
especially the New York Times<D>, 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 1954-1965 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<D> 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 and costs.

 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 warfare. 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.

 

Propaganda Service

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 <D>
    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<D> 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<D> 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<D>, 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<D>, 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
    Mythmaking 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
adhered to the view that the Vietnamese were never sufficiently forthcoming about U.S.
servicepeople 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’s,” 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.
              Z