Television and Vietnam

Television and Vietnam

The 1960s was a period of "rising affluence" and "consensus"

Peter Arnett with burned-out airplane near Bien Hoa in 1965 (AP)
  • McHale's Navy, Gomer Pyle, Hogan's Heroes, F Troop, Wild Wild West

1964 Gulf of Tonkin resolution

  • gave LBJ authority for "all necessary measures"
  • began "massive escalation" of the war
  • press cooperated, no "really big falsehoods" but only "endless little ones" according to John Mecklin of London Times
  • "racism became a patriotic virtue"
  • Gen. James Hollingsworth of the Big Red One
  • Peter Arnett became hard-boiled, never involved, but won Pulitzer Prize 1966 and stayed in Vietnam 13 years for AP, then went to CNN and stayed in Baghdad for the Gulf War in 1991
  • Larry Burrows shielded his readers from the horror
  • combat footage edited down to 3 minutes, lost its context, horror

telefilms of "paranoia" 1964-66

  • Bill Cosby and Robert Culp in I Spy
  • Robert Vaughn in Man from U.N.C.L.E.
  • Peter Graves in Mission Impossible "enshrined the official lie"
Buddhist monk (Time 1963)
Tet attack in Saigon, Life 1968/02/09
Loan executes a VC, by AP's Eddie Adams

Harry Rasky in 1965 filmed the war from the USS Kitty Hawk

  • "Alice-in-Wonderland" feeling
  • photo op of 20 ships in TF77 was expensive public relations (was a better tactice than censorship)
  • narrated by Glenn Ford from script written in NY
  • Rasky wroteLetters to Holly, about what he felt, not what he saw

Vietnam consensus broke down

  • David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan quoted John Vann after 1963 Ap Bac defeat
  • Malcolm Browne photographed immolation of Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc 6/9/63
  • But correspondents only critical of effectiveness, not intervention itself
  • few stories of Diem's corruption, CIA's Air America, massive heroin addiction
  • World War II analogy failed
  • William Fulbright, Morely Safer, Eric Sevareid
  • Pacific radio went to North Vietnam, challenged the "no-guts journalism" of the commercial media
  • LBJ "credibility gap"
  • Felix Greene produced Inside North Vietnam in 1967, rejected by CBS, shown on NET


  • Tet offensive caused Walter Cronkite to change
  • death of M. L. King, R. F. Kennedy
  • Democratic convention in Mayor Daley's Chicago
  • no more opening shootout on Gunsmoke

Nixon era of "upheavals" 1969-74

  • caused TV to become "fortress" a psychological refuge
  • family shows Bonanza, Big Valley, Addams Family
  • "prime time world" celebrated "American ethic of hegemony and supremacy"
  • power shows I Dream of Jeannie, Bewitched
  • beautiful people, glitter, success, fortune
  • Nixon promised to end war, but expanded
  • atrocities of My Lai, defoliation, lawnmower bombing
  • "rising opposition" of TV documentaries Selling of the Pentagon, Who Invited Us?, Behind the Lines
  • Lessons of Vietnam

Watergate 1972-74 "came at a crucial moment in the history of public television"

  • televised hearings in Congress by Sen. Sam Ervin
  • TV cannot be a "neutral conduit" when the conduit is controlled by the establishment
  • TV can be an ombudsman finding problems and revealing solutions

"Power of Pictures," part 4 of Television series on PBS hosted by Edwin Newman, 1987


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