The old soldier, a veteran of three wars, sat in his compact, sunny living room here, sipping a Coke, reflecting on the impact of television’s coverage of the long, drawn-out conflict that became known as “the living room war.”
Vietnam: a war to which U.S. ground combat units were committed in 1965, withdrawn in 1972, and which ended 10 years ago today with the fall of Saigon to North Vietnamese troops.
Gen. William C. Westmoreland, 71, who commanded Americans there from mid-1964 to mid-1968, was asked a what-if question--namely, what might have happened had there been no television coverage of the war? His reply was surprising.
“Probably the same thing that happened now, except it probably would have been stretched out,” he said. “In other words, the end product probably would have been the same, but it would have been elongated, so to speak. . . . Public opinion (against the war) would not have reached its high point until maybe a year or two later.”
Westmoreland was an artilleryman in World War II, the first major war ever covered by radio. He commanded the 187th Regimental Combat Team in the Korean War. Print and radio still predominated then. But television’s coverage of war began there.
The general was mildly surprised to learn that. “As a matter of fact, I’m not aware that television was on the scene in Korea,” he said. “As I reflect back on it, I never remember seeing a TV crew the whole time I was there.”
Television didn’t make much of an impression on the home front, either. Only 4.2 million American homes had television in 1950 when the Korean War broke out. Twenty years later, with the Vietnam War still raging and 284,000 U.S. troops still there, there were 60.1 million homes with television sets.
The televised sights and sounds of Vietnam, seen by both opponents and supporters of the U.S. military involvement there, brought home as never before the costs of war, the American effort that ultimately failed.
Westmoreland has no doubt that television brought a “new dimension” to war coverage. “It was the first time the violent side of war was displayed in living color in the bedrooms and living rooms of America. It had to have an impact.”
And that impact, over the long run?
“Well, I think that it--rightly or wrongly--accelerated our pullout. The impact of this (television) in turn had an impact on the body politic, which in turn had an impact on the legislative representatives, to include the President.
“And in consideration of the practicalities of politics and the impact of public opinion, there’s no question . . . that it accelerated the pullout of our troops.”
He noted that when he was ordered back from Vietnam in November, 1967, to report on the war, he said in speeches that South Vietnamese troops were improving to the point that soon it would be possible to put more of the war’s burden on them, and then begin to “phase down” the number of American units in the war.
“That was my message,” he said. But “the Johnson Administration did not accept that. The Nixon Administration did,” and its relatively rapid pullout of American ground combat units “was a function of how they perceived the attitude of the American public.”
Americans, he said, “were getting pretty damned fed up with the war. They were sick of it, tired of it, couldn’t see that the end product was worth what we were putting into it.”
Was that war-weariness attributable mainly to television?
“There were many factors,” Westmoreland said. “But TV was probably the most sensational.”
In January, 1968, the Communist command launched the bloody Tet Offensive across Vietnam. Westmoreland later was to write in his memoirs that Tet “added up to a striking military defeat for the enemy on anybody’s terms.”
But CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite, a United Press correspondent during World War II, disagreed in a major broadcast aired shortly after he returned from a trip to Vietnam during the Tet fighting, where he had reported on the bitter battle for Hue. His assessment:
“To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past. For it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate.”
It “is increasingly clear,” the influential anchorman said, that the only rational way out of Vietnam “will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.”
Westmoreland didn’t know if, as some have written, Cronkite’s unexpectedly gloomy analysis helped lead to President Johnson’s decision not to seek reelection in 1968.
“It is so alleged,” the general dryly observed, speaking without rancor or bitterness. “I know there were those of us who were rather horrified that a commentator was announcing national policy. We were not too happy about that.”
Westmoreland disagrees with those who say that Cronkite simply was offering his conclusions. It’s Westmoreland’s opinion that the anchorman was combining straight news reporting with editorializing, and “I think it’s bad.”
In any event, the general said: “I guess it’s pretty much accepted that this did have an impact. People much more knowledgeable, people in a higher position than I was, have come to that conclusion. We felt that this was very presumptuous on his part.
“But quite obviously, it did have a profound effect.”
It has been suggested that the real impact of TV reporting from Vietnam lay more in what was shown than in what a correspondent said--that even when reports on American combat troops could be construed as favorable, the bloodshed and suffering that viewers saw on TV at first horrified them and ultimately turned a majority of them against the war.
“I’m not sure,” Westmoreland softly replied when asked about that. Television’s massive coverage of Vietnam made it “the first war of its type. What impact it’s going to have on future wars, I don’t know. That’s what you’re trying to analyze in your own mind.”