The Vietnam War was near its height 50 years ago and is getting renewed attention, in part through a PBS series this month. One common belief has been that news coverage of the conflict, especially through television, was more negative, more graphic and more focused on casualties, and that the coverage drove the loss of popular support for the war. But little of that is true, says Scott Althaus, the director of the Cline Center for Democracy at the University of Illinois, based on his extensive study of war coverage and public support. He spoke with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.
One reason this belief about news coverage makes sense is because this was the first time images of war were broadcast into most people’s living rooms. What might we be overlooking?
The Vietnam War was the first in American history to feature television news as the primary way Americans received news about an ongoing war. However, Vietnam was not the first American war to be extensively reported using moving images.
That honor belongs to World War I, long before television was invented. Back then, people watched images of combat in movie theaters by way of newsreels. Before the war, newsreels had developed into an interconnected global system of visual information exchange, much like CNN would become after 1980. The newsreel system operated in the U.S. until 1967, and the number of people exposed to these newsreels in the 1940s and 1950s was far larger than the television news audience tuning in to see war coverage even today.
For instance, in 2015, the average total combined audience for all news programming on the three national network television newscasts plus Fox News, CNN and MSNBC amounted to around 8 percent of the U.S. adult population. During World War II, the total American newsreel audience was three to six times that percentage because most people were regular movie-goers then, and everyone who went saw a newsreel.
Your research team has looked at war coverage from World War I through the 2003 invasion of Iraq. How did Vietnam compare in the coverage of combat?
Popular wisdom holds that television news coverage of the Vietnam War was routinely more graphic than anything Americans had regularly seen before. That simply isn’t true. We compared the graphicness of combat imagery from all those wars and found that newsreel coverage from World War II and the Korean War was far more disturbing in its visual portrayal of combat than television coverage of the Vietnam War ever was.
It is important to keep in mind that moving images from Vietnam were not a common feature on television news during that conflict because it took so long to get film back to the U.S. By the time it was flown over the Pacific Ocean and then to New York, the topics that had been filmed were often no longer timely. As a result, the typical television news imagery was Walter Cronkite sitting in front of a map, describing where the most recent battles were raging.
What about the coverage of casualties?
In our research, we looked through The New York Times coverage of casualties from World War I through the first few years of the Iraq War. We found that the amount and focus of coverage of American casualties during the Vietnam War was just about the same as it had been during the earlier wars, as well as Iraq. Vietnam War coverage was no more likely to mention American casualties, or to humanize them.
Television news coverage of Vietnam showed far fewer images of death than the newsreels had in the previous wars. We also found that newsreel coverage of dead combatants was even more graphic in its depictions of death than was CNN’s coverage of the invasion of Iraq. If anything, Vietnam War coverage was mainly notable for presenting a more sanitized view of wartime casualties.
Another Vietnam narrative suggests that there were key news stories or images that dramatically shifted public opinion about the war. Does your research support that?
A number of especially unsettling stories and images are widely thought to have moved public opinion against the Vietnam War. Those most commonly mentioned include a 1965 CBS News story about U.S. Marines igniting the thatched roofs of Cam Ne with Zippo lighters, as old men and women begged them to stop; footage from the 1968 Tet Offensive showing a South Vietnamese general executing a bound Viet Cong prisoner with a gunshot to the head; the graphic images of civilian dead from the My Lai massacre, which were publicly released in late 1969; and a Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a 9-year-old girl running naked from a burning village, her clothes and much of her skin seared off by napalm bombs.
The Gallup Organization conducted the only polling effort that measured changing levels of American support for the war across the entire 14-year span of American involvement. It showed that that support peaked at 64 percent in late 1965 and bottomed out at around 30 percent starting in late 1969. The more-or-less continuous drop during those years shows no deviation associated with any of those disturbing images. War support was still going up after the Cam Ne story, was largely unaffected by the Tet Offensive, and had already bottomed out before the My Lai and “napalm girl” images were published. I have found no convincing evidence to support the idea that these particular glimpses of warfare had any important impact on the nation’s collective support for the war.
What does your research, or that of others, suggest about the keys to popular support for war? What drives it up or down, or causes it to collapse?
There are at least two main insights for understanding popular support for America’s wars. The first is that Americans are very discriminating about the type of war they are willing to support. Popular support tends to start high for conflicts involving clear and immediate threats to American national interests, like the war in Afghanistan – which was a direct consequence of the 9/11 attacks – and the current campaign against the Islamic State. Popular support tends to start low for conflicts that are intervening in other countries’ civil wars, such as the 2011 Libya campaign and the 1999 NATO-led air war over Kosovo.
The second insight is that regardless of how much Americans support a war at the beginning, that support tends to fall away at a fairly steady rate over time. So the longer wars last, the lower support goes. There have been no exceptions to this general tendency from 1950 to the present, and even for World War II there is some evidence suggesting that popular support for continuing the war went down over time.