DID FAKE NEWS LOSE THE VIETNAM WAR?
That was the eye-catching title of an Op Ed in the Wall Sreet Journal on January 30th by William J. Luti that I thought worthy of passing along to my blog readers in case they missed the article.
Mr. Luti is a retired career Navy captain who served as special assistant to President G.W. Bush for defense policy and strategy. I thought that title was an interesting way to look back and describe events occurring 50 years ago using the current buzz words, “fake news.” I highly recommend reading his well-reasoned opinion. Captain Luti makes a compelling argument that journalists wrongly portrayed the ’68 Tet offensive as a U.S. defeat and never corrected the record. I’ll briefly summarize the points he made.
Fifty years ago, in January 1968, VC and NVR forces stormed out of their sanctuaries in Laos and Cambodia attacking more than 100 towns and cities in South Vietnam. A key strategy of their offensive was terror. The attackers rounded up South Vietnamese government officials, doctors, missionaries and ordinary civilians and executed them, especially in Hue. They committed atrocities not often seen on the battlefield.
Despite this, the communists failed to capture and hold a major city or village. By military standards, they suffered an overwhelming defeat with her casualty ratio close to 15 to 1. But you would never would have reached that conclusion from the nightly stream of negative TV and print news bombarding the American public at that time. The news was so at odds with the reality in the war zone that many Vietnam vets believed truth itself was under attack.
As the late Washington Post war corespondent , Peter Braestrup, later pointed out, the event marked a major failure in American journalism. He suggested the press committed journalistic malpractice by not correcting the record once the fog of war lifted. He chastised the media for shirking their duty to “get the story straight,” asserting TV news editors put little premium on the breath of coverage, context, or fact-finding. Interpretive reporting…Does that have a familiar ring?
“Fake news” did not stop with the media. LBJ’s administration often issued rosy, announcements at odds with the reality on the battlefront. Disingenuous statements became the hallmark of his administration with a glaring disconnect with the tactical ebb and flow on the battlefield. The Tonkin Bay Resolution gave LBJ carte blanche authority to conduct the war, a Congressional mistake. LBJ’s administration soon lost its credibility as the anti-war fever rose, fueled by the media’s negativity, and often unabashed propaganda.
Negative, often sensational daily news stories and opinions about Vietnam disturbed the public and supported the escalating activism. Draft card burnings, riots, all forms of anarchy among the anti-war crowd increase.. Even if they were exaggerated, taken out of context, or against common sense, many believed so many reports could not be wrong- We were definitely losing the war. Walter Cronkite declared it “unwinnable.” A mountain of “evidence” supported that conclusion. Right?
Cognitive psychologists would beg to differ. All the reports could be wrong. Confirmation bias may look like a mountain of evidence. Critical analysis demands solid evidence. Not much of that was discernible during the confusion and controversies during the Vietnam war. Civil discourse was in tatters, the population polarized. Hindsight is 20/20. The military did not lose the war. The politicians and public opinion did, as Tet raged on in 1968. The enemy lost 58,000. We lost 4,000 in the most intense fighting of the war. Nevertheless, public opinion was the first domino to fall, not SE Asia.
“Fake news” like any form of propaganda has been around for years in many forms. Disinformation was an art form for Hitler and later perfected by the Russians. The CIA and other intelligence agencies have Psyop’s- like the Phoenix program in Vietnam. Disinformation is still a standard intelligence service and military practice.
When will we learn the lessons of history? When will we be able to critically analyze the news? That is the central theme in my historical narrative, RECALL , that recounts these controversial issues regarding the Vietnam war.
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