Before the 1960s, citizens of the United States and those back home during wars were never given up close and personal looks at what exactly soldiers were doing and experiencing. Then, in 1965, Lyndon Johnson’s deployment of large troops received national attention and was covered by news networks across the country.
Cameras then became windows to the eyes of those in Vietnam, allowing Americans to see for the first time what war was really like, and for a majority of citizens, it was not well received. It’s generally believed that these graphic images sparked the many protests and anti-war movements that the country saw almost immediately.
The United States military had originally reported that any story filmed and shown back home which reflected negatively on American would lose public support. However, the more footage shown that depicted the troops in a darker light, the more outcry heard throughout the country.
For example, CBS aired footage of U.S. Marines burning down Cam Ne, a village in central Vietnam, along with condemning commentary on how soldiers were treating the people that lived there. To no one’s surprise, this was met with outrage by President Johnson, though that would not be the worst event Americans would witness on their own televisions.
In 1968, NBC News broadcasted the execution of a suspected North Viet Cong officer live on the streets of Vietnam. While this type of violence shown on camera was far from normal, it would soon become a regular occurrence following the Tet Offensive, and later the Spring Offensive in 1972.
Early footage and the stories reported alongside them were generally positive, with news of “big victories” and tallies of the Vietnamese soldiers killed, but journalists would soon catch on that many of these claims were false to avoid displaying the negativity to Americans back home. News teams began interviewing actual soldiers, and the world would soon discover just how against the war many of them were in addition to Americans back home. It was also finally revealed that there was much more political motivation behind this war than “an attempt to end Communism.”
Walter Cronkite famously reported on the Tet Offensive and stated that the Vietnam War was unwinnable, and that Lyndon Johnson would have to figure out a way to pull our troops out of the country, which he surprisingly began to do. To have such a powerful figure as Walter Cronkite asking the president to change course shifted the tone throughout the country, with many Americans opposing the United States’ involvement in Vietnam in the first place.
Overall, television’s involvement in the Vietnam War may been seen as a negative, but it shed light on an otherwise dark story, changing the way war was to be portrayed in America.