This Picture Was the Turning Point for the Vietnam War 50 Years Ago

This picture, taken at the turning moment of the Vietnam war 50 years ago exactly, had a very significant contribution towards U.S. defeat:

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Stephen J. Morris explains:

The classic episode (of media manipulation), one that had a huge effect on the U.S. public, was the street execution of a Viet Cong prisoner by South Vietnamese police chief General Nguyen Ngoc Loan during the 1968 Tet Offensive. This execution was captured as a color moving picture by an NBC cameraman and as a black-and-white still photo by Eddie Adams of the Associated Press. Adams’s photo became one of the best-known images from the war. It is a powerful image, and, reprinted as it often is with little explanation or context, it can be powerfully misleading.

In their (excellent) 2017 documentary on the Vietnam war, and countless others, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick show the NBC footage. But they don’t mention the circumstances surrounding the execution, other than that the man being shot was “a Viet Cong agent.” Having watched countless movies and documentaries about the war, having read many books about it too, I had never heard of this particular tale told by Morris:

A viewer unfamiliar with the story is likely to be left with the misimpression of a young man, perhaps roughed up by his enemies, about to be killed for no clear reason. The violence seems grotesque and gratuitous. The companion book for the PBS series at least offers some of the relevant background: “He was an NLF [Viet Cong] agent named Nguyen Van Lem and may have been the head of an assassination squad. (He had been found with a pistol adjacent to a hastily dug grave that held the bodies of seven South Vietnamese policemen and their families.)” The execution without trial by General Loan may still have been unjustified. But it obviously appears in a different light if one knows those circumstantial facts. (“Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world,” Eddie Adams would later write about his Pulitzer-winning photo. “People believe them, but photographs do lie, even without manipulation. They are only half-truths.”)

On the ground, the Tet Offensive was, surprisingly for somebody who doesn’t know the ins and outs of the Vietnam War, a tremendous Communist defeat. Exposed and pinned down out in the open, the brave, tough, resilient Vietnamese fighters didn’t have a chance against massive American firepower.

The offensive led to the destruction of armed units that had been set up, trained and supplied for the attack for close to a year, without significant gains on any front. The Viet Cong practically disappeared as an armed force after Tet, and from that point it had to be constantly refilled with Northern recruits, in place of the now-dead Southern insurgents.

Still, Tet was a huge propaganda win for the Communists, as it came on the heels of multiple, mendacious statements by the LBJ administration that the war was almost won. But, of course, you can’t win propaganda if the propagandists won’t help you out.

In Triump Forsaken, his classic study of the pre-1965 phase of the Vietnam war, prior to U.S. ground troops arriving on the country, Mark Moyar depicts U.S. administrations that grew extremely frustrated by U.S. correspondents, as they were free to roam across the fronts and were very gullible when it came to dealing with sources.

In 1961, as a massive American aircraft carrier was unloading material in Saigon in full view of journalists watching from the roof of a neighboring building, Moyar writes that U.S. officials could still be breezy. “Is that a carrier?”, the journalists asked. “No comment,” was the reply from an embassy official.

By 1963, two of the sources upon whom the American journalists – including the famous Neil Sheehan, David Halberstam and Stanley Karnow – relied most heavily, Pham Ngoc Thao and Pham Xuan An, were actually Communist agents.

Later in the year, JFK lost it about Halberstam of the New York Times, saying that Halberstam was “running a political campaign… he is wholly unobjective, reminiscent of (Herbert) Matthews in the Castro days.” This Matthews who turned Fidel Castro of Cuba into a household name in the U.S. and the example of a perfect Socialist revolutionary is, of course, just the previous link in a long chain of Times correspondents with highly positive views of the Communist bloc.

Whatever goodwill was left amont the Western press for the U.S. military by 1965 was gone after three years of brutal combat and huge body counts. Uwe Siemon-Netto, a German correspondent, told in his memoir (A Reporter’s Love for the Wounded People of Vietnam, 2013) of how fellow reporters tried to convince themselves that the victims of North Vietnamese death squads in occupied Hue had actually been killed by American bombers. Sean Wilentz writes in The Age of Reagan:

Adams’ stunning photo of the prisoner’s grimace as the bullet struck his head ran on the front pages of newspaper all across America two days later. Only the Associated Press reported Loan’s remark to Adams that “They killed many Americans and many of my men.” Most news accounts of the photo ignored this context; the drama of the picture was just too irresistible for most news organizations to try to put it in any kind of balanced context. NBC, which had only a silent film clip because no sound man had accompanied its camera man, went so far as to embellish its TV broadcast of the episode by adding the sound of a gunshot. Tom Buckley, a writer for Harper’s magazine, said Adams’ photo was “the moment when the American public turned against the war.”

The visual shock of the Adams’ photograph… was soon matched by the journalistic interpretation of events. On February 7, Associated Press reporter Peter Arnett filed a story from the Mekong Delta town of Ben Tre, where hard fighting had inflicted severe damage and high civilian casualties. The third paragraph of Arnett’s report quoted an unnamed U.S Major: “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.” The phrase proved an immediate sensation, and was picked up and amplified by the media echo chamber. The phrase came to be repeated countless times by other media outlets, and was adapted into an all-purpose slogan to describe hard action in other cities such as Hue. For many Americans, and not just those in the anti-war movement, it became an epigram that captured the disproportion between America’s seemingly excessive use of firepower and our limited war aims. (Arnett refused to identify the source of the quote, but later revealingly referred to his source as “the perpetrator.” The New Republic identified the source at the time as Major Chester L. Brown.)

Arnett’s sensational quotation was only the beginning of the bad press the Tet offensive unleashed. “Rarely,” wrote Peter Braestrup in his two-volume analysis of the press coverage of Tet (Big Story), “has contemporary crisis journalism turned out, in retrospect, to have veered so widely from reality. . . To have portrayed such a setback for one side as a defeat for the other—in a major crisis abroad—cannot be counted as a triumph for American journalism.” Braestrup later went even further, describing media coverage of Tet as “press malpractice.” Media critics, especially conservatives, have long charged that antiwar bias emerged openly in the wake of Tet. Former Los Angeles Times and Newsweek correspondent Robert Elegant, who covered Vietnam for ten years, wrote that “For the first time in modern history, the outcome of a war was determined not on the battlefield, but on the printed page and, above all, on the television screen.” The coverage of Tet can be charitably attributed as much to press incompetence and a journalistic herd instinct as it did to outright bias. . .

Several months later an NBC producer proposed to correct the record with a three-part series showing that Tet had in fact been an enemy defeat. The idea was rejected by higher ups at the network because, a senior producer said, Tet was seen “in the public’s mind as a defeat, and therefore it was an American defeat.”

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About David Roman

Communicator. I tweet @dromanber.
This entry was posted in A Correspondent's Progress, Sights and Sounds and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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