How did the US lose the Vietnam War on TV?
The Vietnam War is one of the few contemporary armed conflicts which received extensive ideological media coverage. Both Cold War superpowers cynically used the victims and the suffering caused by the Vietnam War for propaganda objectives. In the end, the American soldiers thought they won the war on the ground, however, they claimed that their victory was stolen on the TV screens. The Vietnamese Syndrome was cured only in the anti-Iraqi Gulf War of 1991.
The conflict in Vietnam began in the 1950s as a colonial war and it ended in 1954 with the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu. In accordance with the domino theory, the war continued so as to contain the communist expansion in South-East Asia. The war ended in 1975 with hundreds of victims and also, with the victory of the Red Khmers and North Vietnamese at Saigon. Yet, this did not confirm the domino theory.
Even though General Westmoreland, the commander of the American forces in Vietnam, publicly affirmed the professionalism and the high morale of his soldiers, John Colvin, British general consul in Hanoi between 1965 and 1967, was of another opinion. He described the general mood of the American soldiers this way:“Between 1969 and 1972, the US military effort was diluted because of drug consumption, indiscipline, weak command, desertions, assassinations of officers, conflicts between whites and African-Americans.”
American Messages:“Go Home” and “Money for Arms”
Ever since 1963, the American forces in Vietnam implemented the extensive PSYOP programme called “Wandering Soul”.In exchange for surrender, the guerilla fighters and North-Vietnamese combatants were offered forgiveness and exoneration from the guilt of choosing the communist side. However, the word surrenderwas not used in the messages sent through the Wandering Soulprogramme. The ex-communists who surrendered were sent to special centres for a period of 45 to 60 days, after which they were freed and offered a sum of money as “food expenditure.”
The Americans knew very well that the ones who surrendered could never fight again in the communist camp, because they would be subjected to a merciless treatment. Furthermore, they employed special techniques, in order to make the Viet Cong and North-Vietnamese fighters understand the advantages of the Wandering Soul programme. For this purpose, the Americans sent special teams to the North-Vietnamese villages where they used mobile playback recording devices, millions of leaflets called “passports for passing” as well as a 62-pages bimonthly colour magazine called Long Me. It was edited by ex-communist Vietnamese propagandists and was sent through priests, teachers, bus drivers and small merchants to its designated targets-the South-Vietnamese families.
A very important part of the Wandering Soul programme was the “Money for Arms” campaign. This way, Americans offered a sum of money to those who turned in any type of enemy weapon or disclosed the location of arms deposits. In a typically pragmatic American fashion, the efficiency of the Wandering Soul PSYOP was analyzed:for the entire period of the war, 127 $ have been spent for each of the 75, 000 Viet Cong defectors, which meant, in total, 9, 500, 000 $. This amounted to less than the cost of the neutralization of insurgents through fighting- a total of 2, 25 billion $, 300$ for each.
“Humidor” and “Poisoned Pen Letters”
SOG (Studies &Observation Group-OPS 33) and not the regular army was entrusted with the black PSYOP missions. SOG consisted of volunteers from the special units of the Green Berets, commandos of the US Army Air Forces and US Navy SEALs troops. The budget for the SOG special unit reached 3, 7 million $ in 1967. SOG employed propaganda actions aimed at the maximum exploitation of the enemy’s psychological weaknesses. SOG implemented two major secret operations, in order to psychologically undermine the North Vietnamese people – “Humidor” and “Poison Pen Letters”.
The Humidor project meant, in practice, the kidnapping of North-Vietnamese fishermen and bringing them on a fast boat to a so-called secret anti-communist resistance camp, known as the “Sacred Sword of the Patriots League”. The general staging of the event and the high speed of the boat created the illusion that the camp was located in the North-Vietnamese territorial waters as well as the idea that the organization was very active and efficient in fighting against the Hanoi regime.
After a while, the fishermen were taken back home on a boat with the same speed so as to inform the communist authorities (who would not miss interrogating them) about what happened in the camp. The action was meant to create false targets, confusion and even disunity on the communist side. They were also influenced to believe that the “Sacred Sword of the Patriots League” was financed by their Soviet ally.
The “Poison Pen Letters” project was intended to discredit North Vietnamese communist leaders by falsely involving them into spying activities and even treason in favour of the US. The carefully chosen notabilities received hundreds of letters and postal cards from Hong Kong or Paris. They were meant to attract the attention of the North Vietnamese communist censorship:the SOG sent them birthday cards when it was not the case, hidden messages under stamps or through chemical means and also, information about receiving sums of money in foreign accounts or about the capture of agents.
SOG used pirated radio frequencies, in order to disseminate subversive messages concerning the destruction or the overthrowing of the Hanoi regime. To this end, SOG sent to North Vietnam thousands of radio transistor transmitters which were only able to pick up the SOG’s Radio Hanoi channel.
„The Fight is Less Important the Propaganda“
However, the North-Vietnamese propaganda operations had a very important role in the planning and the actual implementation of the military campaigns. In contrast with the Western Democracies, those in charge of the propaganda operations had always had a high place in the communist hierarchy, which gave them considerable power and authority in the decision-making process.
Westerners considered the propaganda itself a dirty business, full of lies and distorted truths, whereas the communists thought of it as the healthy driving force behind their whole political system. The communist fighters were massively indoctrinated on a permanent basis through phrases such as “Political activities are more important than the military ones”or “The fight is less important than the propaganda”. This way, even in the worst and extreme conditions, they should possess the morale to continue the fight without surrendering or giving up.
The people specialized in daily propaganda were permanently active in the communist work force, be it in the jungle or in the camps hidden under the surface of the earth. There was never a moment when the propaganda was forgotten. The communist authorities were always organizing parades, demonstrations and employing visual propaganda (mandatory conferences on political and economic subjects, billboards, catchphrases, flags, portraits of the communist leaders etc.). The Americans did not perceive in time the grand scale of the propagandistic maneuvers, however, its consequences were effective against the US.
The communist authorities from North-Vietnam and the Viet Cong – together with all the communist countries and parties of the world – transformed each and every of their actions and political gestures in a propaganda act. To this purpose, they used a large amount of money and means as well as time, energy and human resources, in order to make their point of view known to their own citizens and the world.
The Viet Cong used interpersonal communication (worked very well with the Vietnamese mentality) so as to limit to the maximum the desertions from their camp. The North-Vietnamese public was influenced more by the confessions of an ex-prisoner from the South-Vietnamese or American Army than reading a text or seeing a billboard. The ex-prisoner talked publicly about the horrors he was forced to live through. Also, the prisoner unveiled the lies of the Saigon regime which were used for exploiting the Vietnamese psychological trait of not making a decision without collective approval (or at least from a trusted person).
„Dan van“, „dich van“, „binh van“
The Viet Cong used three types of PSYOPS – Dan Van, Dich Van, Binh Van. Dan Van were the psychological support operations conducted in the Viet Cong controlled areas;Dich Van referred to the Viet Cong operations in the South-Vietnamese and American territories;Binh Van were the actions employed in order to determine the South Vietnamese people and Army to defect in the favour of the Viet Cong.
The Binh Van persuasion techniques were the most delicate, because they were intended to attract a lot of people from the South Vietnam enemy camp to the North. The techniques consisted of:the promise that the ex-servants of the imperialism were to receive a fair treatment;money for the defectors who stole or destroyed the American military techniques;constant terrorist threats to the lives of important South-Vietnamese political leaders;the use of influence agents for a direct communication with the South-Vietnamese soldiers and their families;the dissemination of two books which contained emotional songs infused with communist ideas as well as propagandistic patriotic feelings and the great qualities of the communist guerilla.
American Propaganda ruined by cultural barriers
The American Administration controlled the USIA (United States Information Agency) and the PSYOP military units had important audio-visual, graphic, radio, editing and analytical capabilities as well as mobile studios, transmitters and amplification devices. In the end, nine different institutions were involved in the American PSYOP and propaganda actions in Vietnam.
More than 250 American and 600 South-Vietnamese officers participated in the psychological actions and their principal objectives were:the undermining of the popular support for the communist insurgents;the enhancement of the image of the South-Vietnamese government;explaining the reasons of the American presence in Vietnam as well as extending the popular and international support for the US policy in Vietnam. However, despite the huge material and human resources employed in Vietnam, the Americans could not overcome their propaganda image of “foreign invaders” and “colonial exploiters” created by the communists of North Vietnam.
In 1968, Human Science Research Incorporatedconducted a study (through a questionnaire to which 360 Vietnamese and 300 Americans answered) that revealed five major differences between the American and Vietnamese people. These differences may explain the inefficiencies of the American PSYOP campaigns:the Americans saw the human nature in more idealistic terms, whereas the Vietnamese were more pragmatic;the Americans were concerned with controlling the environment, whereas the Vietnamese tended to accept the surroundings as such;the Americans were ready to sacrifice the present for future goals, whereas the Vietnamese lived more in the present;the people of Vietnam thought that there was only to gain from the economic activities, whereas the Americans wanted to extended their businesses;in order to make a decision, the Vietnamese needed the approval of the elderly council, whereas the Americans believed in their own individual conscience and will. Under these circumstances, it is no wonder that the 50 billion leaflets (1, 500 leaflets for one Vietnamese) affected the Vietnamese only marginally (some leaflets depicted Vietnamese pin-up girls, considered attractive by the Americans, but proved counterproductive for the Vietnamese) and the daily official briefings at the Continental Palace in Saigon were considered by the media “five o’clock foolies”.
Movies which “explained” the war
In contrast with the WW2, Hollywood did not keep up with the Pentagon in the propaganda effort in the Vietnam War.
The Vietnam War was perceived as a serious trauma of the American society and Hollywood devoted many more convincing movies against it rather than for the military intervention in Indo-China.
John Wayne’s 1968 The Green Beretswas the most important pro Vietnam War film. It was released right after the Tet Offensive and the revealing of the May Lai massacre and it supported the American view of a just war in Vietnam. However, it was criticized as a reactionary, militarist and primitive anti-communist movie.
Moreover, the revenge-movies of the 1980s conservative Reaganist-cinema were box-office hits, because they tried to do away with the defeat and humiliation of the American Army of the previous decade. Representative for this type of cinema were the action trilogiesRambo(with Sylvester Stallone)and Missing in Action(with Chuck Norris) released in 1982 and 1984 respectively.
Yet, these movies could not overcome the more powerful feeling created by the anti-Vietnam War films such as Hal Ashby’s 1978 Coming Homewith Jane Fonda and John Voigt;1979’s The Deer Hunterby Michael Cimino with Robert de Niro and Christopher Walken in the principal roles;Oliver Stone’s 1986 Platoonwith Tom Berenger, William Dafoe and Charlie Sheen or his 1989 movie Born on the Fourth of Julywith Tom Cruise.
These films (some of them won many Academy Awards) created a sombre image of a decadent American Army with its soldiers indulging in drugs, sadism and in scenes of extreme physical and psychological violence. Also, the movies’ main messages were the absurdity of war and the impossibility of living a normal life after being involved in such a traumatic war. Mel Gibson’s 2002 movie We Were Soldiersis a more balanced production in emotional and ideological terms. We Were Soldiersshows that the American people are almost cured of the Vietnam Syndrome, however, the Iraqi one might take its place.