In war, truth is the first casualty.
avid L. Anderson writes in The Columbia Guide to the Vietnam War
"The American War in Vietnam is filled with ironies. There are, for example, some striking parallels in the histories of the two countries. In the eighteenth century, the United States fought for and gained its independence in an anti-colonial war against a European mercantilist power. The United States struggled both before and after its independence to achieve national unity and went through a bloody civil war between North and South."1
Though parallels can be drawn between the historical experiences of the United States and Vietnam, they are not especially meaningful. To begin with, the United States did not fight its "anti-colonial war" during the height of the Cold War. The American Civil War did not involve a global super-power third party. And though the American Civil War was the first war in which photography had a significant impact, it certainly was not broadcast on television.
Vietnam (which was never formally declared a war) is often characterized as the "living-room war" or the "television war." It was the first war to be systematically televised, and it was so televised during a period when television was becoming a more compelling presence in American life. A survey conducted in 1964 revealed that Americans depended equally on television and newspapers for information. By 1972, the percentage of Americans who relied primarily on television for their news had jumped significantly. But more importantly, respondents had actually come to trust television more than they trusted newspapers. When faced with conflicting or contradictory accounts, 48% of those surveyed responded that they would trust television, while only 21% responded that they would trust newspapers.2
These statistics attest to the growing power of television that occurred during the Vietnam era. Though many have suggested some kind of correlation between television's ascendancy and coverage of Vietnam, the impact of seeing war on television is difficult to determine. Some scholars argue that televised combat footage forced civilians to confront the dirty realities of war (contrary to popular belief, actual combat footage constituted a relatively small proportion of television coverage). Others argue that television was unable to convey the true nature of war; Michael Arlen writes,
"I don't for a moment suggest that the networks should stop showing film of men in combat-although I can't say I completely agree with people who think that when battle scenes are brought into the living room the hazards of war are necessarily made 'real' to the civilian audience. It seems to me that by the same process they are also made less 'real'-diminished, in part, by the physical size of the television screen, which, for all the industry's advances, still shows one a picture of men three inches tall shooting at other men three inches tall, and trivialized, or at least tamed, by the enveloping cozy alarums of the household."3
A comprehensive discussion of either the representation of reality or the total impact of television coverage of the war on the domestic audience (or the historical events that may or may not have been the result of such impact) is beyond the scope of this paper. Rather, the focus is on television's cultural role during the Vietnam War--not so much the perceived reality of war imagery, but the content and context of the war coverage itself. Why did television news media repeatedly capitulate to official statements? If television "brought home" the reality of war each night, why did eight years pass from escalation in 1965 to the cease-fire in 1973? Why did television news only begin to adopt a more adversarial position after the Tet offensive, when much of the public had already become disillusioned with the war? Television coverage of Vietnam, abetted by the particular characteristics of the medium itself and the network news format, reinforced Cold War ideology by marginalizing dissent, by emphasizing American exceptionalism and the trope of the frontier, and by relegating the Vietnamese to the enemy "other." This historical "event" is indicative of a larger process by which ideology becomes internalized--how cultural myths and symbols resonate with subordinate groups and sustain hegemonic power.