The role of public opinion
and the media in the
Vietnam war
Key words
• The mass media are various media
technologies that are intended to reach a
large audience, such as TV, newspaper,
radio, film, internet, etc.
Evolution of Mass Media over
nearly 170 years
The age of Print
The pre-Cinema Period 1839-1895
Arrival of Cinema 1895
Arrival of Radio 1901
Arrival of TV 1926
Arrival of Internet 1990
• Think about the inherent reliability of each
of these types of sources of information.
Key words
• Public opinion can be defined as the
collection of opinions of many different
people and the sum of all their views. It
tends to represent the mainstream or the
majority view.
Public Opinion
• Remember:
- “Public opinion” is just that, OPINION.
- It is a “social fact”, not an “empirical fact”
- It may not be based on hard data or be
objectively true.
Public Opinion
Public opinion is best thought of as:
a. the will of the people
b. a diversity of opinion within a particular
c. media reflection of public attitudes
d. voter attitudes
e. like shifting sands…subject to change.
Think: Can public opinion be measured?
Vietnam: A televised war
• In 1950, only 9 percent of homes owned a television. By
1966, this figure rose to 93 percent.
• A series of surveys conducted by the Roper Organization
for the Television Information Office from 1964 until 1972
demonstrates the growing power of television.
• With multiple answers allowed, respondents were asked
from which medium they "got most of their news". In 1964,
58 percent said television; 56 percent, newspapers; 26
percent, radio; and 8 percent, magazines.
• By 1972, 64 percent said television while the number of
respondents who primarily relied on newspapers dropped to
50 percent (Hallin)
Vietnam: A televised war
• By the fall of 1967, 90 percent of the evening news was
devoted to the war and roughly 50 million people
watched television news each night.
• In a detailed study of the way the three major US TV
networks (ABC, CBS and NBC) covered the war from
1965 to 1970, sociologist George Bayley found that
almost half the coverage dealt with action by US ground
troops or the US air force; about 12% consisted of direct
quotes from government sources (Washington and
Saigon). Only 3% recorded the "enemy" viewpoint - a
graphic illustration of American television’s one-sided
The debate over the role of the
media in the Vietnam war
• The “mirror theory” vs. the “elitist opinion
• The mirror theory suggests that the media
reported the news accurately & objectively,
including the disenchantment of officials.
• The media did not create or script any
events of the war.
• Only when the elites began to question
American strategy did news reports take
on an anti-establishment/anti-gov’t slant
The mirror theory
• According to Daniel Hallin of the University
of California, elite consensus eroded
before the media’s view did.
• Thus, to a certain degree, changes in
public opinion influenced the media
Evidence drawn from Hallin
• Floyd Kalber, NBC correspondent admits,
“to the degree we in the media paid any
attention at all to that small, dirty war in
those years; we almost wholly reported the
position of the government” (qtd. in
Epstein 215).
• According to Daniel Hallin, the dramatic
structure of the uncensored "living room
war" as reported during 1965–1967
remained simple and traditional, "the
forces of good were locked in battle once
again with the forces of evil. What began
to change in 1967...was the conviction that
the forces of good would inevitably
• On those rare occasions when the
underlying reasons for the American
intervention were explicitly questioned,
journalists continued to defend the
honorableness of American motives.
The elitist opinion theory
• Elites, such as General Westermoreland, President
Johnson, and Nixon believed that the media was
responsible for America’s devastating loss in Vietnam.
• The elitist opinion theory claims that the media used its
unrestricted access to present the facts in a negative
light; therefore, forcing American disillusionment with the
war effort.
• The media failed to “rally around the flag”
The elitist opinion theory
• Negative reporting such as at Cam Ne did
nothing to help boost support for the war.
• The key turning point however was after
the Tet Offensive (Jan. 1968). Key issues
include the Walter Cronkite editorial, the
US embassy attack, the attack on Hué,
and the battle of Khe Sanh.
• Public opinion really turned against US
involvement in Vietnam because of this
negative reporting, and is hence a key
cause of why the US “lost” in Vietnam.
The elitist opinion theory
Walter Cronkite reporting from Vietnam in Feb. 1968
See “We are Mired in Stalemate” editorial text.
Tet Offensive
When Pres. Johnson (LBJ) heard about Cronkite’s
comment he said, “That’s it… I've lost middle
LBJ withdrew from the Presidential race on March
31 and he would begin to pursue peace
negotiations after the events of early 1968.
Key media moments during the
Vietnam war
• 1963 Thich Quang Due by David
• 1965 Morley Safer’s report for CBS on the
burning of Cam Ne
• 1968 Tet offenisve
• 1969 My Lai and Life magazine photos
Key media moments during the
Vietnam war
• 1972 Phan Thi Kim Phuc photo
• This photo in particular shocked public
Phan Thi Kim Phuc in a recent photo
Vietnam in film documentaries
• In the year of the Pig, 1968
• Hearts and Minds, 1974
• Fog of war, 2003
Vietnam in film
• How is the war to be remembered?
• A heroic struggle against the evils of
• An unjust and dishonourable war that
should never have been fought?
Vietnam in film
• The Green Berets, 1968
• John Wayne was prompted by
the anti-war atmosphere and
social discontent in the U.S. to
make this film.
Vietnam in film
• Rambo: First Blood, 1982
• Missing in Action, 1984
Vietnam in film
• Apocalypse Now, 1979
• Platoon, 1986
• Born on the Fourth of July,
• Heaven and Earth, 1993
• The Oliver Stone Vietnam
Vietnam in film
• Full Metal Jacket, 1987
• Good Morning Vietnam, 1987
• Hamburger Hill, 1987
Vietnam in film
• Forrest Gump, 1992
• We Were Soldiers, 2002
Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Washington DC
The Pentagon Papers
• The Pentagon Papers were a
United States Department of
Defense history of the United States'
political-military involvement in
Vietnam from 1945 to 1967.
• The papers were leaked to The New
York Times in 1971 by Daniel
The Pentagon Papers
• The Pentagon Papers, "demonstrated,
among other things, that the Johnson
Administration had systematically lied, not
only to the public but also to Congress,
about a subject of transcendent national
interest and significance".
The Pentagon Papers
• Undersecretary of State George W. Ball
issued a scathing memorandum that
stated, “no matter how many hundred
thousand white troops the US deploys
there is no assurance of success against
the Vietcong” (Pentagon Papers July 1,
1965). Ball believed that negotiation,
despite the risk it presented to American
credibility, was the only solution to prevent
a protracted war.
Think: How might the disclosure of the
Pentagon Papers have affected public
Tet Offensive
• The Tet Offensive highlighted something new about
warfare – Vietnam was the first televised war.
Americans could see how the media coverage
compared with what the administration said.
• Before 1968, media coverage largely echoed what
the administration claimed. But 1968 was the
turning point in media coverage of the war.
• By January 1968 the American press began to ask
tough questions about the war. It was CBS’s Walter
Cronkite (“the most trusted man in America”) who
openly began to challenge the administration’s
version of the war. Cronkite famously claimed in a
Feb. 27, 1968 TV editorial that the war was headed
for a stalemate.
• Pres. Johnson and his generals were caught in a
credibility gap – the reality of the situation
contradicted their rosy characterization. He had lost
the peoples’ trust.
Public opinion polls and the
Vietnam war
• Study the handouts that show public
opinion trends and the Vietnam War.
• Think: To what extent did the media,
especially television, affect public opinion
on the Vietnam War?

Vietnam Public opinion and the media