Cowboy: interpreter, warlord, one more casualty

Television Coverage of the Vietnam War and the Vietnam Veteran

By Erin McLaughlin


Growing up as the daughter of a Vietnam veteran, I've always been proud to say that my father is a war hero. When I was younger, I enjoyed bragging to classmates and teachers about my father's honors because I believed that all Americans respect Vietnam veterans as much as I do. As I grew older, however, I noticed in movies and on television that the Vietnam veteran is not portrayed as a brave soldier; rather, he is a violent psychopath who continuously experiences flashbacks of the war. What was coverage of the war like, and did it affect the image of the Vietnam veteran? Many Vietnam veterans feel that uncensored and overly negative television coverage helped turn the American public against the war and against the veterans themselves.

The horrors of war entered the living rooms of Americans for the first time during the Vietnam War. For almost a decade in between school, work, and dinners, the American public could watch villages being destroyed, Vietnamese children burning to death, and American body bags being sent home. Though initial coverage generally supported U.S involvement in the war, television news dramatically changed its frame of the war after the Tet Offensive. Images of the U.S led massacre at My Lai dominated the television, yet the daily atrocities committed by North Vietnam and the Viet Cong rarely made the evening news. Moreover, the anti-war movement at home gained increasing media attention while the U.S soldier was forgotten in Vietnam. Coverage of the war and its resulting impact on public opinion has been debated for decades by many intelligent media scholars and journalists, yet they are not the most qualified individuals to do so: the veterans are. Journalists based in Saigon daily reported facts about battles, casualties, and the morale of the troops, yet only a soldier could grasp the true reality of war. Veterans understand what really occurred in the jungles of Vietnam, and only they can compare the truth to what was portrayed on television. Furthermore, their homecoming stories most accurately reveal how the American public has cruelly mistreated the Vietnam veteran. Therefore, after having researched the power of television and its coverage of the war, I interviewed four Vietnam veterans in order to understand how they interpreted the coverage and how they feel it contributed to the image of the Vietnam Veteran.

Section 1: Television Power and the Vietnam War

Why Television?

By the mid-1960's, television was considered to be the most important source of news for the American public, and, possibly, the most powerful influence on public opinion itself. Throughout the Korean War, the television audience remained small. In 1950, only 9 percent of homes owned a television. By 1966, this figure rose to 93 percent (Bonior, Champlin, Kolly, 1984, p.18). As televisions became more popular in the home, more Americans began to get their news from television than from any other source. 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, 1986, p.106). Thus, as the Vietnam War dragged on, more and more Americans turned to television as their primary source for news.

While a large audience is crucial in influencing public opinion, credibility is a much more significant factor. The Roper surveys mentioned above also asked respondents which medium they would trust if the media gave conflicting accounts of a story. In 1972, 48 percent said television while only 21 percent said newspapers (Hallin, 1986, p.106). Television is "consistently evaluated as more attention-grabbing, interesting, personally relevant, emotionally involving, and surprising"(Neuman, Just, Crigler, 1992, p.56) because of two elements: visuals and personality. The visual element of television allows viewers to feel as if they are part of the action. When news programs aired images of battles and death, Americans at home felt as if they too were in the jungles of Vietnam. Additionally, intense visuals helped explain the complex nature of war to Americans who could not understand the military's technical language. Anchors and reporters quickly became trusted, household names because the public turned to them every night for the day's information; Walter Cronkite was even referred to as the "most trusted man in America" throughout the war (Hallin, 1986, p.106). This trust allowed the opinions and biases of television news personalities to have some influence on the way in which many Americans viewed the war. Thus, Americans increasingly depended on television for images and accurate accounts of the Vietnam War; what they were watching, however, were edited, thirty-minute versions of an extremely complex war.

Looking Back From Ninety

Early Coverage

The television news industry is a business with a profit motive before it is a public service; consequently, producers and reporters attempt to make the news more entertaining by airing stories that involve conflict, human impact, or morality. Television news did not find material that was dramatic enough until the number of American troops was raised to 175, 000 in July 1965 (Hallin, 1986, p.115). Combat, interviews with American soldiers, and helicopter scenes all provided the television news industry with the drama that it required. The networks set up permanent bureaus in Saigon and sent hundred of correspondents there throughout the war. From 1965 through the Tet Offensive in 1968, 86 percent of the CBS and NBC nightly news programs covered the war, focusing mostly on ground and air combat (Bonior, Champlin, Kolly, 1984, p.4). This coverage was generally very supportive of U.S involvement in the war and of the soldier himself until 1967. The media labeled the conflict as a "good guys shooting Reds" story so that it could fit into the ongoing saga of the Cold War (Wyatt, 1995, p.81). As part of the human impact frame, network correspondents relied on American soldiers for their most important sources. During this early part of the war, the soldier was portrayed as a hero. One example is a striking story reported by TV correspondent Dean Brelis. As he was having his leg amputated, Marine colonel Michael Yunck said:

"I said hell, they can't be right around in there. So I didn't call bombs and napalm on these people. But that's where they were. I'm sure that's where they were. God damn it. I hate to put napalm on these women and children. I just didn't do it. I said, they can't be there." (Bonior, Champlin, Kolly, 1984, p.13-14)

Thus, the anti-communism frame significantly contributed to the positive coverage that vilified the war, not the soldier (Bonior, Champlin, and Kolly, 1984, p.13).

The Turning Point

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 (Bonior, Champlin, Kolly, 1984, p.4-5). Up until this time, the war had strong support from the media, the public, and Congress. The military continuously reported that the U.S was making encouraging progress. Gradually, however, support for the war began to decrease. Because no military censorship was established, journalists could follow the military into combat and report their observations without formal censorship. Thus, as journalists saw more grisly combat, they presented the public with more graphic images. Also, for the first time, interviewed soldiers expressed their frustration with the progress of the war.

Support began to decrease in the fall of 1967, but the major turning point in television's coverage of the war occurred during the Tet Offensive in late January 1968. Though North Vietnamese soldiers swept through more than one hundred Southern Vietnamese cities, Tet was actually a U.S victory because the North suffered enormous casualties. Television, however, portrayed the attack as a brutal defeat for the U.S; the media, not the military, confirmed the growing perception that the U.S was unable to win the war. The percent of television stories in which journalists editorialized news jumped from 5.9 percent before Tet to 20 percent in the two months after (Hallin, 1986, p.170). The most significant statement came from the "most trusted man in America", Walter Cronkite. In a CBS special, Cronkite concluded, 'To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the say that we are mired in a bloody stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory conclusion" (Hallin, 1986, p.170). After the Tet Offensive and Cronkite's statement, coverage of American involvement in the war became predominantly negative. Before Tet, journalists described 62 percent of their stories as victories for the United States, 28 percent as defeats, and 2 percent as inconclusive. After Tet, 44 percent of the battles were deemed victories, 32 percent defeats, and 24 percent inconclusive (Hallin, 1986, p.161-162). Combat scenes were also more graphic. Films of civilian casualties increased from a pre-Tet average of 0.85 times per week to an average of 3.9 times per week. Films of military casualties also jumped from 2.4 to 6.8 times per week (Hallin, 1986, p.171). The most negative change in coverage was the portrayal of the U.S troops. Before the Tet Offensive, there were four television stories devoted entirely to the positive morale of the troops and zero negative stories. After Tet, two and a half stories mentioned positive morale while the number of negative morale stories increased to fourteen and a half (Hallin, 1986, p.180). Most of these negative references included increasing drug use, racial conflict, and disobedience among the U.S soldiers.

Television coverage of the massacre at My Lai was perhaps the most damaging image for the U.S soldier's reputation. Though initial reports stated that the operation killed 100 enemy soldiers in March 1968, it was revealed a year later that First Lt. William Calley and his taskforce had killed up to 350 South Vietnamese civilians (Hammond, 1998, p.192). The massacre and Lt. Calley's trial became one of the war's leading stories. Moreover, it introduced the subject of American war crimes into television's remaining coverage of the war.

Flying Tigers
revised and updated

Withdrawal from Vietnam

The intensely negative coverage of the war influenced both politicians and the public. Americans depended on television to see and understand the war, but the death and destruction they saw appeared as irrational killing when prospects for the war became increasingly negative. Therefore, the majority of Americans withdrew their support for the war after the Tet Offensive. War coverage declined from 90 percent of all newscasts to 61 percent from Richard Nixon's election through February 1969 (Bonior, Champlin, Kolly, 1984, p.7). Though the media had been covering the anti-war movement before 1968, it now overshadowed the war itself. Draft-card burning and demonstrations provided television with fresher conflict, human impact, and moral issues. With the massive loss of public support for the war, politicians initiated withdrawal policies. Television no longer focused on combat, but on the political process. From 1965 to 1969, the percentage of combat stories had been 48 percent; from 1970 until the end of U.S involvement, only 13 percent of news stores involved soldiers in combat (Bonior, Champlin, Kolly, 1984, p.8). Thus, Bonior, Champlin, and Kolly (1984, p.16) best sum up the damage done to the Vietnam veteran's image: In the rush to declare the Vietnam War over through stories on Vietnamization and the Paris Peace Talks, in the rush to judgment without second thought on Tet, in the rush to avoid controversy at any cost, the U.S public was left with one climactic image of their soldiers in Vietnam: losing the Tet Offensive while massacring civilians at My Lai.

Section 2: Veteran Perspective

Most veterans returned home from Vietnam after television coverage began to focus on the dissent at home. Three million veterans served in Vietnam, yet only 200,000 had been discharged by 1967; the majority of all veterans served after 1968 (Bonior, Champlin, Kolly 1984, p.16). According to a Louis Harris poll conducted in 1979, nearly 60 percent of all Vietnam veterans felt that television was not positive. Additionally, more than two-thirds felt that the coverage of My Lai influenced the public's view of the typical Vietnam veteran (Bonior, Champlin, Kolly 1984, p.16). I interviewed four veterans (asking the same questions to each veteran) in order to understand how they feel the coverage truly reflected what they actually saw in Vietnam. Moreover, I asked them a series of questions regarding how they feel the coverage contributed to the Vietnam veteran's image.

Veterans' Pre-War Interpretations

My father enlisted in the U.S Army in January 1965 and was sent to Vietnam in September 1966 at age twenty. He served there for one year as a helicopter door gunner. At the time of his departure from the U.S, he believed that the U.S had a reason to be involved in the conflict. Throughout his time there and after reading extensively about the regime for which the U.S was fighting, however, he changed his mind. Personally, he wanted to go to Vietnam. Two of his uncles had died in World War II, and so he felt a sense of duty to follow in the tradition of his family. Before he left, my father understood television to be extremely "pro-war." Most of the stories he saw framed the conflict as one in which the "U.S soldiers were portrayed as the good guys fighting communism." He also argues that public opinion was in heavy favor of being involved in the war. The second veteran I interviewed was Mr. Ron Leonard. He was drafted and sent to Vietnam in 1968 at age twenty as well. He served there for thirteen months as Sp-4 Crewchief on a helicopter gunship. He too wanted to serve in Vietnam for "honor and country." Unlike my father, Mr. Leonard has always maintained that the U.S was correct in becoming involved with the war. When asked what public opinion was like before he left for Vietnam, he responded, "I didn't notice. I drive my own train. I went because it was the right thing to do. I was a jockey, a professional athlete. It was my duty to fight for this country." Mr. Leonard interpreted the coverage to be completely negative, most likely because he left for Vietnam during 1968. Veteran C (he wishes to remain anonymous) was drafted in 1966. Because he did not want to go to Vietnam as an infantryman, however, he later volunteered for Army schools and ultimately went to Vietnam in 1969 at age nineteen. Throughout his seven months there, he served as a commissioned officer and flight leader in an assault helicopter company. He did not want to go to Vietnam, nor did he feel that the U.S should have been involved in the war. Before he left for Vietnam, Veteran C understood public opinion to be mixed. When he was drafted in 1966, he thought that there was much confusion about the war and that the American public was "essentially ignorant of the issues." By 1969, he argues that the public was still confused:

"People confused patriotism and loyalty to the nation with patriotism and loyalty to the government. In other words, many persons who considered themselves patriots and loyal U.S citizens were not comfortable disagreeing with the government or the president, and much disconcerted by images on TV of others openly and sometimes violently against the war policy."

Though public opinion was mixed, Veteran C interpreted the television coverage to be polarized by the time he left for Vietnam. While there was a lot of coverage devoted to the anti-war demonstrators, he also feels that there was a lot of coverage that simply regurgitated the government's press releases.

Mr. Alex Horster, the fourth veteran I interviewed, left for Vietnam in 1970 at twenty-five years old. He volunteered for Vietnam, where he served for six months as a Marines Corps helicopter pilot. Like both Mr. Leonard and my father, he felt that the U.S was right to become involved in the war. Before his departure, Mr. Horster understood public opinion to be very "anti-war." Because he was attending college and working full-time, he did not pay much attention to television coverage of the war. What he did see, however, he believed to echo public sentiment.

Incident at Muc Wa

Experiences in Vietnam versus Portrayal on TV

Vietnam veterans are the most qualified people to assess television's portrayal of the war because they are the only group of people to directly experience the atrocities of war. Though reporters were sometimes present in the field, they could not experience the frustration, grief, fear, and confusion of a U.S soldier. John Laurence, a CBS reporter who covered the Vietnam War from 1965 to 1970, admits that the truth rarely got reported: "We decided where to go, what to observe, what to film, what not to film, what questions to ask, and how to describe what we saw and were told" (Laurence, 2001). After interviewing the veterans about pre-war coverage, I asked them to compare what they saw in battle to what television portrayed. All four veterans agree that they witnessed a lot of events that occurred during the war that should have been covered by television news but were not. Primarily, they referred to atrocities committed by the North Vietnamese (NVA) and Viet Cong (VC) armies, which outnumbered U.S committed atrocities by "one thousand to one" (Mr. Leonard). Both my father and Mr. Leonard made it a point to inform me that the NVA and Viet Cong committed atrocities as policy, yet the media failed to report on the enemy's policies. My father pointed out that, "The North Vietnamese thought nothing of attaching a bomb to a little kid and sending that kid into a group of American soldiers." Mr. Leonard added that, "Their favorite ploy to gain acceptance of the villagers (by fear) was to execute the village chief and threaten the village that worse could happen." He also condemns the media for not covering the flamethrower death of the entire village of Bu Dop at the hands of the NVA. Indeed, in all of my research for this paper, I never read about any coverage of Bu Dop or the NVA's policy; yet, My Lai was mentioned in every book devoted to media coverage of the war. Mr. Leonard also noted that there were not enough positive stories about the U.S soldier. He specifically mentioned the free medcaps they did for the villagers, the orphanages they financially supported as individuals, and the rebuilding of villages that the Viet Cong destroyed.

After asking the veterans what they believe did not have enough coverage, I asked if there were any events or subjects that they feel was given too much television coverage. I suspected that they would all mention My Lai and human casualties, yet I did not receive the unanimous answer that I suspected. Veteran C felt that "My Lai was covered appropriately for what it was." He was more disturbed by the media's focus on body counts, which he believes to be part of the limited coverage that the government and the military would permit.

Mr. Leonard and my father have a somewhat different opinion of My Lai's coverage than does Veteran C. They both said that My Lai's coverage was too extensive because television news did not cover the fact that the NVA and VC everyday committed worse acts as a matter of policy. My father attributes the massacre at My Lai to inadequate leaders, yet it was by far typical of the U.S troops. He said that, "Though what happened at My Lai was wrong, it wasn't policy." They both agree with Veteran C that extensive coverage of mistaken deaths of civilians and American body bags demeaned the war and the U.S soldiers even more.

Mr. Horster answered the question differently than the other three veterans. Instead of placing the blame for television's extensive coverage of My Lai and casualties solely on the media, he claims that the media only covers what makes a profit: "The media tends to cover what they think they will sell, so while I have no use for the bulk of them (media types), I do not feel they ought to get all the blame."

Overall View of Television Coverage

All four veterans agree that television coverage was negative, yet they each provided somewhat different answers for why they believe it was negative and how it affected the outcome of the war.

My father feels that television coverage of the war was extremely negative, but he places some of the blame for this on the government. "The Tet Offensive was the major turning point in the war, even though it was a total victory for the U.S," he said. "After Walter Cronkite made his statement against the war, all of the other journalists followed his lead. So did the American public." Because the government and the military lied to the media about the progress of the war, he suggests that the media wanted to expose the war in a negative light. Thus, as part of an anti-war agenda, news producers and journalists purposely selected stories that depicted the war as uncontrollable and the U.S soldier as a crazed baby-killer. According to my father, television's slanted view of the war, the anti-war movement, and the chaos of the Civil Rights Movement caused Americans to grow tired of violence and war. All of these factors combined to turn the American public against the Vietnam War.

Veteran C also blamed the government for negative coverage, but he does not feel that it was as negative as my father feels it was. Whereas my father said that anchors and reporters "absolutely" revealed their anti-war biases, Veteran C answered that they did only "sometimes." Moreover, he does not believe that television set an anti-war agenda. Instead of deliberate negativity, he suggests that coverage was "fragmented, inaccurate, and incapable of providing a coherent story line" because the media was often reduced to reiterating military press releases. Because the government did not trust its citizens to understand its goals in the war, these press releases did not reflect the actual lack of progress. Veteran C, therefore, does not believe that the media cost the U.S the Vietnam War; rather, he blames the lies and deceptions of the government.

Mr. Horster and Mr. Leonard both emphasized profit motive as the reason behind the negative coverage. Mr. Horster claims that the media covered what it could sell, and that the anchors and reporters were a "product of their environment." He continued by saying that while war is never positive, television did not cover the U.S military's humanitarian efforts, its attempt to spread democracy, or the heroism of the troops after 1967. He used the slogan "We the unwilling, led by the incompetent, doing the unnecessary for the ungrateful" to describe the Vietnam War era. Mr. Leonard believes very strongly that television set an anti-war agenda and that journalists revealed their biases because the television audience consisted of sixteen million draft dodgers. He gave me an article that summed up his opinion:

"Once the dodging anti-war numbers started climbing through the stratosphere, it was not in the media's best interest to say something good about Vietnam to an audience that was guilt ridden with shame and with a deep psychological need to rationalize away the very source of their burden of guilt." (Sears, 2001)

Therefore, both Mr. Horster and Mr. Leonard feel that the profit motive led its reporters and producers to air anti-war coverage that reinforced the draft dodgers' sentiments of the war. While Mr. Leonard says that the media "without a doubt" cost the U.S the war, Mr. Horster feels that the media should not get all the 'credit' for losing the war. Overall, he believes that lack of resolve lost the war.

The Only War We've Got

The Vietnam Veteran's Image

The homecoming stories of Vietnam veterans reveal how bitterly divided the country was. Three out of the four veterans I interviewed were belittled by people who referred to them as "baby-killers" or "crazy Vietnam vets." It was their experience that even family and friends did not want to talk about the war with them; those who did bring the war up often did so in an extremely negative fashion as a result of their own guilt or anger. The only veteran who was not accosted was Mr. Horster, who stayed in the Marine Corps and did not interact with the civilian sector often.

According to all four veterans, the Vietnam veteran was stereotyped during and after the war. When I asked them what some of these stereotypes are, I received answers such as "baby-killer" (all four), "crazed nut" (my father), and "drug-taking, worthless, spineless, garbage" (Veteran C). My father gets particularly disturbed when reporters make it a point to mention that a suspect involved in a shooting or other criminal act is a Vietnam veteran. I then asked them if they are disturbed by any movies, television shows, or books that they feel portray the veteran in this stereotype: two veterans identified Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now as being complete farce.

When asked whether they feel that the Vietnam veteran's image has improved throughout the years, two out of four believe that it has. Mr. Leonard says that the image is excellent today, but only because the veterans themselves took care of each other (i.e. building the Wall). Veteran C understands the image to be mixed, but more positive than it used to be. Mr. Horster says that he does not buy the "let's let bygones be bygones" routine that exists today. My father feels very strongly that the image has not changed. He mentioned a newspaper article, written less than five years ago during the week of Veteran's Day, that upset him because it "made heroes out of the protestors and belittled the veterans."

Do Vietnam veterans blame television for their image? Do they resent the television and the media because of it? Veteran C differs from the other three veterans in that he is the only one who does not blame television for creating the Vietnam veteran's image, nor does he resent television for its coverage of the war. My father and Mr. Leonard feel very strongly that television news played a large role in stereotyping the Vietnam veteran. While U.S soldiers were portrayed as villains, the NVA and VC were often portrayed as victims. My father can never forget the image he saw on television of Jane Fonda sitting on an NVA anti-aircraft gunner that was used to shoot at American planes, and he can never forgive her for referring to U.S soldiers as murderers. He resents the media because it "sensationalized rather than reported" the true war. Mr. Leonard resents the media because, "they told lies and untruths or nothing positive at all." While Mr. Horster does not blame the television media 100 percent, he suggests that it "needs to be aware of the responsibility that it brings, rather than how it will affect their ratings." He also resents television for stereotyping Vietnam veterans. Thus, three out of the four veterans I interviewed blame and resent the media for its coverage of their images and the war itself.


As television news became more and more popular throughout the turbulent years of the Vietnam War era, Americans increasingly relied on visuals to inform them of the situation in Vietnam. Television coverage brought images of the war home to the American public, yet these images were rarely a true reflection of the war itself. War is a complex, bloody, and brutal event that cannot accurately be condensed into thirty minutes of evening news. It is clear that after the Tet Offensive, the news media deemed the war to be a complete failure. After interviewing four veterans, whose experiences make them better qualified to interpret the coverage than any media scholar or journalist, I found that all four believe the coverage was quite negative. Specifically, body counts and the lack of attention to NVA and VC committed atrocities vilified the war and the U.S soldier. Before I started interviewing, I hypothesized that a majority of the veterans would at least partially blame television coverage for the rise in the anti-war movement. Moreover, I hypothesized that the same number would blame the coverage for the Vietnam veteran's image. Three out of the four veterans I interviewed feel that television coverage contributed to the American lack of resolve, which ultimately cost the U.S the war. Though they vary in their interpretations of the reason behind the negativity, three out of four agree that the negativity contributed to the crazy, baby-killer stereotype of the Vietnam veteran.

In conclusion, I would like to thank my father, Mr. Ron Leonard, Mr. Alex Horster, and Veteran C for all of their time and generosity in helping me complete this paper. They were willing to revisit disturbing memories of the war in order to help a college student whom most of them did not even know.


Bonier, David E. Steven M. Champlain and Timothy S. Kolly, The Vietnam Veteran: A History of Neglect. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1984.

Hallin, Daniel C., The Uncensored War: The Media and Vietnam. Los Angles: California University of California Press, 1986.

Hammond, William M., Reporting Vietnam: Media and Military at War. Lawrence: Kansas University Press of Kansas, 1998.

Laurence, John. History Today, "A Failed Truth - A Reporter's View of Vietnam". Gale Group, Oct 2001 v51 i10 p8.

Neuman, W. Russel, Marion R. Just and Ann N. Crigler, Common Knowledge: News and the Construction of Political Meaning. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Sears, K.G., "Vietnam: Looking Back at the Facts". K.G. Sears, 2001. [presumably an unpublished document--DF]

Wyatt, Clarence R., Paper Soldiers: The American Press and the Vietnam War. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

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