18 September 2011

Creating the Credibility Gap

William M. Hammond, Public Affairs: The Military and the Media, 1962-1968, Washington, D.C.: Center for Military History, U.S. Army, 1988, 429 pages.

In the years since the end of the Vietnam War, both war correspondents and historians have written extensively about press coverage of the war. Very few works, however, have covered this topic from the perspective of the government and the military, particularly the US Embassy and Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) personnel who fought on the front lines of the media war in Vietnam. This is the territory covered in William Hammond’s Public Affairs: The Military and the Media, 1962-1968. Hammond provides a fascinating “behind the scenes” look at the actions that shaped the official message on Vietnam throughout the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.

This book is an in-depth, “blow by blow” account of both media coverage of the war, and the efforts by both Saigon and Washington to shape that coverage. Public Affairs: The Military and the Media, 1962-1968 also covers two particularly interesting periods, both the “Americanization” of the war in 1964 and 1965 and the collapse of public support for the war after the Tet offensive. In the end, Hammond concludes, “Most of the public affairs problems that confronted the United States in South Vietnam stemmed from the contradictions implicit in Lyndon Johnson’s strategy for the war” (p. 385). Because Johnson wanted to commit the country to war without jeopardizing either America’s global commitments or his own domestic agenda, Hammond writes, Johnson placed public affairs personnel in Vietnam in an impossible position.

Public Affairs: The Military and the Media, 1962-1968 is excellent, meticulously crafted history. The rigor with which William Hammond has reconstructed the actors and decisions that shaped the government’s message in Vietnam is without equal. Yet, the book suffers for its perspective. This book was, after all, written for the US Army Center for Military History; throughout the book, Hammond is overtly sympathetic to the government/military perspective. Again and again, Hammond details the ways in which the US mission in Saigon and MACV, tried to hide, slant, or outright misrepresent the situation in South Vietnam to favor the government position. He unapologetically paints both the military and State Department as enthusiastically complicit in hiding both the scope and the nature of the war. Yet, at the same time, he paints the press as unreasonably adversarial, as if one were not connected to the other. Hammond’s underlying premise is that the role of military and embassy public affairs is not to inform, but to influence the American public--a premise roundly rejected both by other writers on the subject and modern military public affairs doctrine (largely shaped by the lessons of Vietnam).

Even if one disagrees with Hammond’s perspective, this is still very well executed history. In that respect, Public Affairs: The Military and the Media, 1962-1968 is a must read for anyone interested in media coverage of the Vietnam War.

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