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Mandelbaum: "Vietnam: The Television War"

Summary: Michael Mandelbaum, in this article, begins by presenting a popular theory on the television coverage of the Vietnam War: that is, that television was the cause of changes in United States policy during the war.  He covers the common postulate that the United States may have even lost the war because of television, as it helped spread and reinforce public opinion on the war.  Though he recognizes that television did shape the way the war was presented to the public during the Johnson administration, he denies that television made as much of a significant impact on the war as was previously theorized.  By comparing the public's attitude throughout the Vietnam War to other wars, especially the Korean War, he proved that public opinion on both post-WWII wars was similar despite the fact that one was televised and one was not.  He notes, however, that television did play a large role in the spread of the anti-war movement, as televised protests helped solidify the opposition to the war. (Rachel)


"Images themselves ordinarily carry no explicit message."

While this assumption may be technically true, in practice images often carry incredibly persuasive implicit messages.  Mandelbaum later mentions the "interpretive framework" that viewers bring to images or footage, and it is from this framework that images derive their meaning.  Given a relatively common framework (such as, say, the thoughts of the American public during the Vietnam War), newspapers or television stations can easily attempt to manipulate public opinion by using images/footage. (Rachel)

"Between 1914 and 1917 and again between 1939 and 1941, the American public on the whole favored keeping out."

“Peter Braestrup’s exhaustive study of the American media’s coverage of the Tet offensive does show that the public received a distorted picture of the event. For reasons having to do not with political bias but with the habits of journalism, Tet was portrayed as a military defeat for the United States. In fact, from a strictly military point of view, it was a greater setback for the North Vietnamese and especially for the National Liberation Front.”

Here Mandelbaum references a stark contrast between American and European feelings during the two World Wars.  Many Europeans believed that the wars would be quick, decisive, and easy, and thus many supported war and were happy to learn of its outbreak in 1914.  A relatively isolationist America, however, remained wary of both wars until it had few other options but to join the conflict. (Rachel)

This highlights the media’s affect on an event, emphasizing the importance of historiography on how people view something. In The Guns of August, historiography worked the other way – when one official pretended not to understand telephones so his words could not be recorded, he was worried about how the media would eventually portray him. Mendelbaum goes on to say that all forms of media portrayed the Tet incorrectly, thus television was probably not the reason the US lost the Vietnam War. (Amy)

“Through the antiwar movement, television may have exercised an indirect influence on the Vietnam War. … It did not create active opposition to the war, but it did have a profound effect on the way that opposition was expressed. … It became, as well, a forum for propagating antiwar views.  The antiwar movement did not expect to stop the war itself, but rather hoped to persuade the American public that it ought to be stopped” (164).

Mandelbaum highlights the strategic effect television had on the strategy of disseminating viewpoints on the war. Television was a new medium which in this indirect influence may have had a profound effect. (Bertrand)

Connections to Other Texts:
In The Guns of August, General Joffre originally kept secret all of France's actions on the front. The rapidity of communication possible in the Vietnam War with the advent of television made this secrecy impossible, and provided more material for public consideration. The extraordinary nationalism of France during World War I made this secrecy acceptable; the opposite effect was prevalent in Vietnam. (Bertrand)

Connections to Guiding Questions:
There are a number of points about the historiography of war that are highlighted here. The perception of war is based in later times upon the memory of opposition. This, in turn, is based upon the use of television and other media. (Bertrand)

New Questions

Does every form of media have the same impact?

How does media affect wars, both “unbiased” media and propaganda?

Were other antiwar movements as well known, and what were their effects? (Amy)

Evaluation of Usefulness

While the article gave an interesting perspective on the effect of television on the Vietnam War, it waffled between different theories on television’s effect and gave opposing arguments for each without coming to a conclusion. We were also looking for ways media does affect war, instead of not affecting war. The article was written for an intellectual journal. (Amy)

Plans/Predictions for Next Week

For next week, we would like to look into the effect of media, particularly propaganda, on war. (Amy)