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Vietnam Was Lost in the Living Rooms of America – Not on the Battlefields of Vietnam

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Vietnam was lost in the living rooms of America – not on the battlefields of Vietnam (McLuhan, 1975)

The Vietnam War was a war like none before it. In addition to being the longest battle in United State history, the Vietnam War received unprecedented media coverage that depicted the traumatic events, largely uncensored, within hours of it unfolding. It was this uncensored rep2orting that made the media a very powerful player in shaping public perceptions of the war and ultimately contributed to the US defeat. Notably, reporting by credible reporters such as Walter Cronkite left an indelible mark on how Americans viewed the war, particularly the reporting of key events of the war such as the Tet Offensive and the My Lai Massacre. Media coverage of these and other atrocities stimulated considerable protest activity, with a resultant loss of public support. In addition, the media’s role in negatively portraying serving soldiers had a profound impact on their treatment upon their return.

Whilst earlier ‘modern’ wars, such as World War II, received widespread media attention, the Vietnam War was the first war to be brought into people’s lounge rooms due to large number of American families having access to televisions. During the early stages of the war, the media showed a considerable amount of support for the war and would often promote the war in a positive light, largely due to the determined propaganda campaign by the American government (Roberts, 2016). At this early stage of the war, radio was still the most common means American’s had to obtain the most cutting edge information on the battles (Wyman, 2016). This changed as television’s reach and influence deepened. By 1968, fifty-six million American homes had a television (Richards, 2016). McLaughlin (2016, p. 1) notes that “as the Vietnam War dragged on, more and more Americans turned to television as their primary source for news”. Arguably the most significant media influence during this time was the legendary Walter Cronkite who, in 1968, averaged eleven million viewers per episode on the CBS Evening News. This iconic figure in the eyes of the American public, “became the nation’s narrator and the ultimate reliable source for the American public” (Folkenfilk, 2009). It is suggested that Cronkite’s capacity to influence the American public and his depictions of Americans soldiers committing horrific war crimes is one of a very few factors of why public support of the war dropped from 76% in August 1965 to 46% percent in August 1968 (Gallup 2000 in USA Today, 2005). Seeing emotional and graphic images of the atrocities caused by the men who were meant to be American heroes came as quite a shock for the American public. Traditionally, Americans have a strong connection with their war heroes and the sense of betrayal would have been palpable as members of the public viewed the disturbing images that were vividly shown by the media, ( staff, 2009). The depiction of the war by the media clearly contributed significantly to the 30% decrease of public support for the war.

Several significant incidents of the Vietnam War strengthened the media’s capacity to influence public perception, not the least of which were the Tet Offensive and the My Lai Massacre. The Tet Offensive was a campaign of surprise attacks against the South Vietnamese and control centres in January 1968 (Willbanks, 2009). These horrific attacks were relived in colour in the living rooms of ordinary Americans as they watched in horror as Vietnamese children were burned to death, villages were destroyed and monks were pushed “into rice paddies” and shot “at gun point” (Unknown U.S. solider at My Lai, cited in Allison, 2012). Media reporting of the Tet Offensive contributed to a sizeable reduction in support for the war (Gallup 2000 in USA Today, 2005). Due to the extent of the horrendous images that the My Lai Massacre depicted, the American public felt so strongly opinionated on the attack. This no doubt played a considerable factor in the 11% loss of support for the war.

The negative influence of the Tet Offensive was further compounded by the My Lai Massacre that unfolded in March the same year when a group of American soldiers brutally killed an estimated 500 men, women and children of a small village in South Vietnam. Some of the women were



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