Share This Article

One of the persistent myths about the Vietnam War is that the press was responsible for our defeat there. Two authoritative new books lay that notion to rest–one from William Prochnau, a former Washington Post reporter who served as a Vietnam war correspondent; the other from William Hammond, a historian at the Army’s Center of Military History who has written a second volume of a history on public affairs in Vietnam.

Prochnau’s Once Upon a Distant War (Times Books, New York, 1995, $27.50) is subtitled “Young War Correspondents and the Early Vietnam Battle” and covers part of the same time period as the first volume of Hammond’s official history, Public Affairs: The Military and the Media 1962-1968 (reviewed in the October 1989 issue of Vietnam). But Prochnau covers the subject from a different perspective, that of the reporters on the ground. Beginning with the arrival of Associated Press correspondent Malcolm Browne in Saigon in November 1961, his book concludes with the assassination of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem in November 1963.

Thus even the war is distant in Once Upon a Distant War, for the first major clash between U.S. military forces and North Vietnamese regulars in the Ia Drang Valley was still two years away. When Browne arrived in Saigon, there were 3,205 U.S. military advisers in South Vietnam. And when President Diem was assassinated, there were still only 16,300. In April 1969,5 1/2 years later, U.S. military strength in South Vietnam would peak at 543,400.

But that early period is crucial, for the official reaction to the news coverage by that band of young war correspondents–Browne, Neil Sheehan, David Halberstam and Charles Mohr, in particular–set the tone of cynicism and suspicion that would subsequently characterize the reporting of the war. The great irony, as Prochnau makes clear, is that the reason the correspondents’ dispatches were so critical is not because they were against the war but because they believed in what America was doing and wanted it to succeed. Browne and Sheehan were Army veterans, and Halberstam was an Army reservist. The Marines would later award Mohr the Bronze Star for bravery during the battle for Hue.

Hammond’s official history notes that “during the early years of the war…few reporters questioned the legitimacy of the American presence in South Vietnam or doubted that the United States would in the end prevail. If correspondents…criticized U.S. policy, it was only to argue for efficiency and effectiveness in the prosecution of the war.” Their military contemporaries in the field–the legendary Lt. Col. John Paul Vann was a case in point–knew that full well. When the advisers’ reports of things gone wrong were ignored by their superiors in Saigon, they turned to the press to get the truth told. Unfortunately, no one wanted to hear it. From President John F. Kennedy on down, the impulse was not to cure the problem but to kill the messenger. Writing about New York Times correspondent David Halberstam, Prochnau notes: “The Kennedys of Camelot would attack his patriotism, his bravery, his youth. They would shun him. They would try to have him removed.” Thus, even before the U.S. military buildup began, the stage had been set for the media coverage that would follow.

William Hammond’s Public Affairs: The Military and the Media 1968-1973 (U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1996, $43) picks up the story five years later, from where his previous volume left off. While that first volume focused on the prosecution of the war by the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and their ground commander in the field, General William C. Westmoreland, this second volume focuses on the Nixon and Ford administrations in Washington and Generals Creighton Abrams and Fred C. Weyand in Saigon.

Among the areas covered are the problems of fighting while negotiating; Hamburger Hill, and the contradictions involved in attempting to fight while at the same time limiting casualties; Vietnamization; the mounting disintegration of the U.S. military due to drugs, racial tensions and indiscipline and the loss of the soldiers’ sense of mission; My Lai; the Cambodian incursion; Lam Son 719; the 1972 Eastertide Offensive; and the U.S. withdrawal.

By the end of the war, the correspondents’ strong sense of solidarity with Americans in the field had disappeared. “With some exceptions,” Hammond notes, “the military and the news media were enemies.” Forced to remain in Vietnam after American society had repudiated the war, many in the military “fixed their anger upon the most visible element of society that appeared to have rejected them, the press, rather than upon the failed policies that had brought them to that point.” But the civilian decision makers from the start had successfully diverted attention away from their role in developing those policies.

In pursuit of their larger foreign policy goals, Hammond explains, “both Johnson and Nixon sought to enlist the military as spokesmen for their points of view. Where in earlier wars the president and his party had conducted most of the public relations, in Vietnam the military rather than the political sector came to bear heavy responsibility for the effort.” But in the end it proved counterproductive, for the result was a decline in military credibility. During the 1968 Tet Offensive, says Hammond,” much of the press and many within the administration itself questioned General Westmoreland’s accurate avowals that the enemy had suffered a costly setback.”

But too much can be made about military-media relations. “The question can legitimately be raised,” Hammond concludes,”whether either the press coverage of the conflict or the government’s efforts to marshal public opinion had much effect upon the people of the United States. There is evidence that from the beginning of the war, whatever the efforts of the government or the press, the American people had gone their own way….At the end of the war as at the beginning, they had followed their own, third course, marked by independence of judgment and a substantial measure of contempt for all those who sought to manipulate the public mind.”

By Colonel Harry G. Summers, Jr.