Having built a bond of trust between themselves and the American public that seemed to be made of iron and steel, how did the press ever come to the point where no one on either side of the political divide trusts much of anything they say, write, or show?
The answer is one of the 20th century’s greatest ironies: they lost our trust because they insisted on living up to it.
The two most important challenges of the post-WW II US were the Viet Nam War and Richard Nixon’s presidency. The first was based on lies, excused and explained by the sophomoric – not to say childish – Domino Theory, and kept going long after it was clear that it was a monumental bungle because neither Lyndon Johnson nor the people around him – chiefly McNamara – could admit that they’d made a mistake. The second was the nation’s first real experience with quasi-authoritarianism: an imperial president with no conscience and few scruples who was paranoid and semi-delusional. He was a drunk who thought he was above the law, a failure out for revenge on imaginary enemies, and an anal-retentive with an almost psychotic need for rigid controls put into office during a time when the foundations of society were in upheaval and flexibility and patience were what was desperately needed.
As voters, we blew that election Big Time. Instead of pitying Queeg and sending him to the showers, we put him in charge of the whole shebang.
In both cases, it was left to the American press to make it clear what a mess we’d made, and in both cases they did, coming through for us with flying colors.
For which we never forgave them.
Not that they started out as heroes. In the beginning, they bought the Johnson Administration line that Tonkin Gulf and the Communist hunger for world domination left us little choice but to “help” Southeast Asia stave off the Commie menace. That the former might have been a scam and the latter a fantasy didn’t occur to them for quite some time.
All unnecessary wars need an excuse. What we learned in the case of the Viet Nam War was that that excuse didn’t have to be valid. It didn’t even have to be real.
The official story was that North Vietnamese torpedo boats launched an “unprovoked attack” against a U.S. destroyer on “routine patrol” in the Tonkin Gulf on Aug. 2 — and that North Vietnamese PT boats followed up with a “deliberate attack” on a pair of U.S. ships two days later.
The truth was very different.
Rather than being on a routine patrol Aug. 2, the U.S. destroyer Maddox was actually engaged in aggressive intelligence-gathering maneuvers — in sync with coordinated attacks on North Vietnam by the South Vietnamese navy and the Laotian air force.
“The day before, two attacks on North Vietnam…had taken place,” writes scholar Daniel C. Hallin. Those assaults were “part of a campaign of increasing military pressure on the North that the United States had been pursuing since early 1964.”
On the night of Aug. 4, the Pentagon proclaimed that a second attack by North Vietnamese PT boats had occurred earlier that day in the Tonkin Gulf — a report cited by President Johnson as he went on national TV that evening to announce a momentous escalation in the war: air strikes against North Vietnam.
But Johnson ordered U.S. bombers to “retaliate” for a North Vietnamese torpedo attack that never happened.
Which didn’t prevent the press from reporting them as if they had.
“American Planes Hit North Vietnam After Second Attack on Our Destroyers; Move Taken to Halt New Aggression”, announced a Washington Post headline on Aug. 5, 1964.
That same day, the front page of the New York Times reported: “President Johnson has ordered retaliatory action against gunboats and ‘certain supporting facilities in North Vietnam’ after renewed attacks against American destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin.”
But there was no “second attack” by North Vietnam — no “renewed attacks against American destroyers.” By reporting official claims as absolute truths, American journalism opened the floodgates for the bloody Vietnam War.
To be fair, it appears from Johnson’s diaries, released after his death, that during those first few hours he actually believed what he was selling – that the destroyer had been attacked. But by Aug 5, he knew it wasn’t true.
One of the Navy pilots flying overhead that night was squadron commander James Stockdale, who gained fame later as a POW and then Ross Perot’s vice presidential candidate. “I had the best seat in the house to watch that event,” recalled Stockdale a few years ago, “and our destroyers were just shooting at phantom targets — there were no PT boats there…. There was nothing there but black water and American fire power.”
In 1965, Lyndon Johnson commented: “For all I know, our Navy was shooting at whales out there.”
The incident may not have been planned and Johnson may have believed it in the beginning but the fact remains that within 48 hours he and his advisors knew it was bogus. Nevertheless, they went right ahead using it an excuse to do what they’d been aiming at for some time: declare war on North Viet Nam and invade the South. The US press dutifully went along, the US public believed what they read in the papers, Congress passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, and the Viet Nam War began in earnest.
The Domino Theory
Lots of people nowadays seem to be unclear about why they would have wanted to do such a thing. What was so important about Viet Nam anyway? To understand that, we have to understand a prevalent post-war foreign policy doctrine developed by the Truman Administration called “containment”.
In the wake of WW II, the American right-wing, which had begun by favoring Hitler in the 30’s and had only moved as far as a fervent isolationism by the time he declared war on us, took a much more militaristic stance when it came to Stalin’s Soviet Russia. While they had before the war managed to blind themselves to everything except the Hitler/Mussolini friendliness to business, after the war they blinded themselves to everything but Communism’s nationalization of business. They saw Soviet Communism – and had since the 1917 Revolution – as a direct threat to their ideal of private property. It was American business interests who created and financed the White Russian Army and its doomed invasion of western Russia, and it was those same interests who pushed Truman to invade the Soviet Union and destroy the “Communist threat”.
But Truman knew the US – the world – was war-weary and not prepared to begin another one, especially when there was likely no real threat from Stalin. Where American conservatives were hysterical on the subject, cooler heads soon realized that Stalin was no more interested in another war than they were. What he wanted was security – a zone of Soviet influence along the USSR’s borders that would prevent yet another invasion (Russia had been invaded three times in the past century, once by Napoleon and twice by the Germans).
So Truman ignored the right-wing demand for invasion and developed a counter-strategy: to contain the Soviet Union inside its acknowledged “sphere of influence” and resist any attempt by Stalin to breach the line that had been drawn between Western and Eastern Europe. The Western Alliance (which would later become NATO) would act as a buffer of containment in the west, but what was there to prevent Soviet expansion in the east? Not much. In 1953, VP Richard Nixon explained the core of what was shortly to become the Domino Theory:
If Indochina falls, Thailand is put in an almost impossible position. The same is true of Malaya with its rubber and tin. The same is true of Indonesia. If this whole part of South East Asia goes under Communist domination or Communist influence, Japan, who trades and must trade with this area in order to exist must inevitably be oriented towards the Communist regime.
This was a nightmare for conservatives. In less than a decade, Japan had become a major trading partner, and for the democratic, business-friendly country that we had, so they said, created out of the rubble of two atomic bombs to become a Communist bulwark was unthinkable. The idea that Japan’s security rested on unhealthy, unstable regimes in Third World hell-holes like Jakarta and Saigon was all but insupportable. When the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, US conservatives went into full panic-mode. They were positive the Soviets were working with the Chinese on a plan to take over the whole of Southeast Asia.
They weren’t, of course, but fear isn’t about facts as they exist, it’s about facts as they might exist. Responding to the Right’s hysteria, Eisenhower began to beef up US support going to South Viet Nam – including troops, who were put in as “advisors”. By the time of the Tonkin Gulf incident, the Domino Theory had grown an extra arm: “Fight them there or fight them here.” HW Baldwin wrote in the NY Times:
Vietnam is a nasty place to fight. But there are no neat and tidy battlefields in the struggle for freedom; there is no ‘good’ place to die. And it is far better to fight in Vietnam – on China’s doorstep – than fight some years hence in Hawaii, on our own frontiers.
At the same time the Domino Theory was dominating US foreign policy, though, it was also being debunked. Barely two months after Baldwin’s NYT piece, Cornell University Prof of International Studies Emeritus George Kahin pointed out in a speech that:
Those who still are impressed by the simplistic domino theory must realize that non-communist governments of Southeast Asia will not automatically collapse if the Communists should come to control all of Vietnam. So long as Southeast Asian governments are in harmony with their nations’ nationalism, so long as they are wise enough to meet the most pressing economic and social demands of their people, they are not likely to succumb to Communism.
Two years later, in his book Abuse of Power, Theodore Draper bluntly compared fears that the fall of Cuba to Castro in 1959 meant that the whole of Central and south America would turn Communist to the reality of the 60’s.
The Latin American dominoes did not fall after Castro’s victory (in Cuba) because the world is far more complex and unpredictable than the theory gives it credit for being. Castro’s growing force immediately set in motion counterforces throughout Latin America, not sponsored by the United States alone, which was most ineffective, but in the domestic policies of each Latin American country… The Cuban experience does not prove that the Latin American dominoes could not have fallen; it merely proves that Castro’s victory by itself was not enough for them to fall.
In other words, the Domino Theory was simple-minded nonsense that took no account of the complicated dynamics of international realities.
Unfortunately, Prof Kahin’s speech drew little press attention, which was centered on Johnson’s war build-up, and Draper’s book was swallowed by the noise of a counter-culture rebellion in full swing (1967). As usual in war-time, dissent was ignored unless it was in the streets chanting and blocking traffic.
The Tet Offensive
Until 1968, the press – and therefore the public – was floating along on a diet of Good News about the war. The peace demonstrations were alienating a lot of people because they were raising uncomfortable questions and there were disturbing signs that the massive deployment of troops to the Nam wasn’t making the situation any better, but by-and-large news reports were relentlessly upbeat, fed as they were by govt releases and statements by Johnson Administration figures committed to the war.
The Tet Offensive blew that illusion all to hell. The electronic media – tv – started showing American soldiers returning in body bags and the print media began noticing that Westmoreland’s enemy body counts, taken seriously, meant that every adult male in North Viet Nam must have been killed in battle by US forces. Doubts began to surface. Walter Cronkite called the war a “stalemate”, the first time non-victory-related verbiage was used in the mass media. The wholesale inflation of body counts was proved beyond a reasonable doubt, and the careful military and governmental PR picture of the war began to unravel.
It was a shock to the system of the country. We had to absorb the knowledge that America was actually losing a war – something that had never happened before – and worse, that our government had been lying to us about it from the very beginning.
We didn’t take it well.
The press, though, responded magnificently. Having been thoroughly scammed in the first years of the war, they reacted by becoming fact-scavengers, digging out truth after truth and exposing lie after lie, finally telling the straight story of what was really happening. We listened and slowly, so slowly, began turning against the war. A lot of us felt that after what the press had shown us, we had little choice, as if the media had backed us into a corner and forced us to face our illusions. We didn’t care for it one little bit, but we did it. By 1971, Nixon, taking our change into account, had to shift the Victory rhetoric of his first presidential campaign to a “Peace with Honor” slogan for the re-election effort, insisting that he had a “plan” to end the war in an “honorable” way.
There was no “plan”, of course. It was a fiction invented by Roger Ailes as a campaign tactic. The press wasn’t terribly friendly to Nixon’s ploy but Ailes wasn’t assuming they would be. He was counting on the fact that 50,000 people had died in this war and that voters wouldn’t want to think it had been for nothing.
He had a point – and a piece of luck. The Democrats had nominated George McGovern.
(to be cont’d)