Rarely in a well-played propaganda campaign will a fundamental fact that discredits the intended message and exposes a brazen lie be left on the table. So when the martyred Viet Cong Nguyen Van Be was found to be undisputedly alive in early 1967, U.S. psywarriors assembled a massive arsenal of truth to expose the myth and annihilate the enemy’s credibility.
By July 1967, according to Robert Chandler’s book War of Ideas: The U.S. Propaganda Campaign in Vietnam, South Vietnam’s 17 million people had been blanketed with the story of Be in 30 million leaflets, 7 million “cartoon” leaflets, 465,000 posters, 175,000 copies of a special newspaper edition, 167,000 photographs, 10,000 song sheets, multiple motion pictures and numerous radio and television broadcasts.
While the U.S. campaign ramped up, Hanoi responded in kind to mark the first anniversary of Be’s martyrdom: Some 300,000 copies of his biography hit the shelves, a number of short films and poems were released and statues honoring him were unveiled.
On May 25, 1967, Hanoi’s Tien phono newspaper published a song honoring Be:
Along the shore of the Mekong River, there rose a hero, just 20, he was
Full of promise like spring coming to the countryside, how glorious he is
This Nguyen Van Be, his gentle countryside has become more beautiful because of him
And three days later, May 28, 1967, Tien phono reported:
In preparation for the new program entitled “Follow the examples of Nguyen Van Be and Nguyen Viet xyla; improve the revolutionary spirit of attack; and resolutely carry out the counsels of Uncle Ho” on the occasion of the first anniversary of hero Nguyen Van Be, the Central Group has coordinated with the Association of Musicians to emphasize the importance of promoting the writing of new songs using the subject of hero Nguyen Van Be.
The paper also reported on performances about Be, including the musical Three Times a Hero, and a play, The Hero of Rach Gam.A group of comedians had even created a show about the hero, according to the report.
Taking the psywar to the North, as U.S. bombs rained down, so too did some 12 million leaflets in late 1967 through 1968, seeking to undermine the Communist’s credibility among the North Vietnamese. One leaflet pictured Be reading reports of his death. Another showed Be alongside NVA soldiers who had defected in the South and who had addressed a letter to President Ho Chi Minh expressing sorrow that they had been misled by Lao Dong propaganda and stating that, in reality, the South was free, independent and more prosperous than the North.
Ultimately, every time the U.S. and South Vietnamese psychological warriors launched an assault on the Be lie, Hanoi and the National Liberation Front counterattacked, to great effect, claiming that it was the Americans and their South Vietnamese “lackeys” who were the true liars. In the case of Nguyen Van Be, the truth could not conquer the lie.
Originally published in the October 2012 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.