“Vietnam: A Television History” contains elements of both pro-‐war and anti-‐war bias: Discuss. "No event in American history is more misunderstood than the Vietnam War. It was misreported then, and it is misremembered now. Rarely have so many people been so wrong about so much. Never have the consequences of their misunderstanding been so tragic."1 Richard Nixon Television and the media have become inseparable in their documentation and promulgation of historical events. Vietnam: A Television History is one such example of this and has been referred to as both a “masterpiece of propaganda”2 and as a “the purest nonfiction, a landmark documentary”3. This essay will discuss elements of both pro-‐war and anti-‐war bias in the PBS series Vietnam: A Television History, additionally through this essay I will discuss and then prove that the PBS series is marred in and beleaguered with anti-‐war bias. Vietnam: A Television History was originally aired in October 1983 and was comprised of thirteen episodes which flowed chronologically, spanning the years of 1945-‐1975. The series was instigated by Executive Producer Richard Ellison4 with Stanley Karnow5 the renowned war correspondent and journalist serving as chief correspondent for the television series. The work for Vietnam: A Television History was carefully orchestrated and constructed in order to maintain objectivity and thus avoid bias6. Numerous writers and producers worked on the series; including names such as Judith
Richard Nixon, No More Vietnams (New York: Arbour House, 1985), 9. John Puzzo, Viet Nam and Hollywood, http://www.loc.gov/today/cyberlc/feature_wdesc.php?rec=3696, nd accessed: 22 November 2011. 3 th Review quote by the Denver Post (26 May 1997) th http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/vietnam/series/press.html Page created on 29 March 2005 by PBS, st accessed: 21 November 2011. 4 th Margalit Fox, (October 9 2004), Richard Ellison, 80, Producer of Documentary on Vietnam, Dies, The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/09/arts/09ellison.html?pagewanted=print&position, accessed: nd 22 November 2011. 5 Library of Congress, Vietnam: 30 Years After, nd http://www.loc.gov/today/cyberlc/feature_wdesc.php?rec=3696, accessed: 22 November 2011. 6 Edwin, Moise, Recent Accounts of the Vietnam War – A Review Article, Journal of Asian Studies, 44.2 (1985), p344. 2
Vecchione7, Austin Hoyt, Elizabeth Deane, Martin Smith, Bruce Palling and Richard Ellison amongst others. At the time of its inception and creation, it was the most expensive8 television series ever to have been made and was reported to have cost $4.5 million dollars9 -‐ following the completion of the television series Stanley Karnow wrote and published his book; Vietnam: A History10, which acted as an accompaniment to the television series. Whilst the series did garner criticism, it was overwhelmingly lauded and celebrated11, eventually winning numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize12. Whilst Richard Ellison, Executive Producer for the television series sought to keep the series free from bias13, and to maintain objectivity, it was neither reached, nor maintained14. Nixon ironically highlighted the challenge of misunderstanding and misreporting the Vietnam War, as mentioned in the opening quotation15. However, there are numerous criticisms which specifically target the anti-‐ war sentiment which permeates throughout the series. One specific argument is proffered by Peter Rollins, who criticises PBS and its producers for using Ngo Vinh Long as a translator in the television series, Long was “exposed as a paid employee of Hanoi”16. Rollins continues on and references James Banerian’s book; Losers are Pirates17, which expounds translation inconsistencies, Banerian
Alan Rosenthal, New Challenges for Democracy (Los Angeles: University Press, Ltd., 1988), 499. M. Frisch, The Memory of History, in (ed.) S. Porter, S. Brier, R. Rosenzweig, Presenting the Past, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986), p. 9. 9 Robert Niemi, History in the Media: Film and Television (California: ABC-‐CLIO Inc., 2006), 157. 10 Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History, (London: Century Publishing Co. Ltd, 1983) 11 John Corry (1983), TV: The Tet Offensive in Vietnam, The New York Times, th http://www.nytimes.com/1983/11/08/arts/tv-‐the-‐tet-‐offensive-‐in-‐vietnam.html, accessed 18 November 2011. 12 E. Brennan and E. Clarage, Who’s Who of Pulitzer Prize Winners (Phoenix: The Oryx Press, 1999), 321. 13 Question 2, untitled document with seventeen questions and answers about the series, with Richard Ellison th answering questions, (Dated: March 17 1981), https://luvle.lancs.ac.uk/11-‐ rd 12/hist/hist256.nsf/courseMaterial.xsp?action=openDocument&documentId=D26, accessed: 23 November 2011. 14 Moise. 343-‐344. 15 Nixon. 9. 16 Peter Rollins, America Reflected: Language, Satire, Film and the National Mind (Washington: New Academia Publishing, 2010), 402. 17 James Banerian, Losers are Pirates: A Close Look at PBS Series “Vietnam”: A Television History (Phoenix: Sphinx Publishers, 1984), 69. 8
claims that this was in an attempt to hide “Communist rhetoric”18, which is claimed to pervade throughout the North Vietnamese interviews and materials translated by Long. However, whilst numerous academics and intellectuals criticised and condemned the anti-‐war bias within the series, others have praised and applauded the series producers for seeking to be ‘fair minded’19 and balanced in their approach to the series. Following the initial PBS series airing, there were numerous reviews both praising and criticising the series, one such example of these criticisms was proposed by Tuan Tran who was a teenager living in South Vietnam during the war and grew up under Communist rule. Tran complained that it was a very “one-‐sided story”20 which portrayed the North Vietnamese as working to “save the South”21. He argues that the series was biased with pro-‐war sentiment, he argued that the series gave the opportunity to “show America that they are right to invade the South”22, this upset Tran and other expatriate Vietnamese23 who experienced and witnessed the Vietnam war in all it’s painful gore. Tran concludes by insisting that the South Vietnamese perspective was not adequately presented and that it did not show “what the north did to the South”24. Thus, we can conclude that whilst this series did contain anti-‐war sentiments, there are still traces of pro-‐war bias which have been observed in the television series by its viewers, particularly those who were involved at a relatively under-‐reported angle25.
Rollins. 402. Niemi. 157. 20 PBS, Viewer Mail, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/vietnam/series/viewers.html, accessed: 25th November 2011. 21 ibid 22 ibid 23 Manh Hung Nguyen, “Vietnam: A Television History” A Case Study in Perceptual Conflict Between the American Media and Vietnamese Expatriates, World Affairs (147), (1988), p69. 24 PBS, Viewer Mail, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/vietnam/series/viewers.html, accessed: 25th November 2011. 25 Nguyen. 69. 19
An argument is put forward by George Sciabbala26 who analysed and critiqued the use of specific language within the documentary series. He recounts how the series’ narrator (Will Lyman27) refers to large parts of South Vietnam as “Indian country”28. Sciabbala mentions also that “American barbarianism and American innocence come together for an instant” 29 – these remarks appear to take a swipe at previous American imperialism, specifically relating to the Native American Indians. The narrative by Lyman is often short and without explanation, the remark Scoabbala claims “appears out of nowhere and leads nowhere; yet it leaves one breathless”30. Significantly, the language communicates unsaid anti-‐war feelings; these feelings are in turn reflected upon and perceived as bias. For instance, many Conservatives, including David DiLeo there was a strong opinion that Vietnam: A Television History was a “transparently liberal interpretation of the war”31, DiLeo continues by arguing that the series put too much emphasis upon the wrong things, he describes it best in his owns words; “…the justice of North Vietnam’s struggle, the ineptitude and corruption of South Vietnam’s transitory regimes and the questionable morality of the world’s greatest military force unleashing an unprecedented display of firepower in a local civil war half-‐way around the planet… objective appraisal of the role of American forces in Southeast Asia is unquestionably prejudiced.”32 DiLeo’s negative appraisal of the television series is not the first and neither shall it be the last. To clarify, as a rule it seems apparent that – Conservatives view Vietnam: A Television History as a form of apologetic justification for the Vietnam War. Some key conservative academics that fit into this 26
George Scialabba (1983), Vietnam: A Television History, PBS, th www.georgescialabba.net/mtgs/1983/10/vietnam-‐a-‐television-‐history-‐p.html, accessed: 25 November 2011. 27 WGBH/Boston (1983), Vietnam: A Television History America’s Mandarin (1954-‐1963) Transcript, http://karws.gso.uri.edu/Marsh/Vietnam/103ts.html, accessed: 25th November 2011. 28 Scialabba, Vietnam: A Television History, PBS. 29 ibid 30 ibid 31 David DiLeo, Vietnam: A Television History, The History Teacher, 18.1 (1984), p127. 32 Ibid p128
category include; Reed Irvine33, David DiLeo34 and Peter Rollins35, who have each published works which have criticised the television series in one form or another. It can be argued that those who champion a conservative perspective are of a pro-‐war mentality, whilst those who are of a liberal persuasion uphold an anti-‐war perspective. Thus, in conclusion, the aforementioned arguments purport that there exist both elements of bias, both pro-‐war and anti-‐war, in the PBS series, Vietnam: A Television History. These existing arguments support my initial thesis, which was that overwhelmingly the series is encapsulated in anti-‐war bias, although – I do not deny the presence of elements of pro-‐war bias within the television series, we must remember after all that this series was not the production of one man and his ideological perceptions, rather it was a team of individuals with varying understanding, beliefs and opinions regarding the military and political endeavour into Indo-‐China. On analysis, the titles of the individual programs offer an interesting perspective and insight into the minds of the producers and writers of the episodes’. With titles such as ‘America Takes Charge’36 and ‘LBJ Goes To War’37 there is an inference that the United States was an aggressive, controlling and militant nation. There is validity in the covering of these particular topics, however, it is worth reflecting upon and considering, why for instance, the third program was named ‘LBJ Goes to War’, instead of ‘America goes to War’ or maybe even ‘LBJ and Vietnam’. The naming of the programs therefore gives a clue into the mentality and attitude of the producers and writers; on closer examination we can identify that certain statements within the program notes can further extrapolate and reveal ideologies and mentalities of those involved with the series’ production.
Reed Irvine: A Biography, http://www.reedirvine.net/biography.html, accessed: 25 November 2011. David DiLeo, George Ball, Vietnam, and the rethinking of containment (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1991) 35 Rollins. 274. 36 th PBS, Program Notes, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/vietnam/series/fd.html, accessed: 16 December 2011. 37 ibid 34
Statements such as the two following examples38 will demonstrate how the prevalent mind-‐set was of one dripping in anti-‐war bias; “With Ho Chi Minh determined to reunite Vietnam, President Lyndon Baines Johnson determined to prevent it, and South Vietnam on the verge of collapse, the stage was set for massive escalation of the undeclared Vietnam War.” – LBJ Goes to War39 By mentioning and making the point that the Vietnam War was undeclared, there is a subtle attempt to delegitimise and condemn the incursion into Vietnam. “Despite technical neutrality, both of Vietnam's smaller neighbors were drawn into the war, suffered massive bombings, and, in the case of Cambodia, endured a post-‐war holocaust of nightmarish proportions.” – Cambodia and Laos40 Language used to describe the Cambodia and Laos program, implicates that there were negative and seriously detrimental after-‐effects from the Vietnam War. Thus, from these two examples, we can ascertain that even the program notes contained anti-‐war bias, which in turn infers that Vietnam: A Television History also contains anti-‐war bias. Despite this, in the series, the program notes for ‘America’s Enemy (1954-‐1967)’41 do provide a counter argument; “The Vietnam War as seen from different perspectives by Vietcong guerrillas and sympathizers, by North Vietnamese leaders and rank and file, and by Americans held prisoner in Hanoi.” – America’s Enemy42
Louis Peake, The United States In The Vietnam War, 1954-‐1975 (New York: Routledge, 2008), 269-‐270. th PBS, Program Notes, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/Vietnam/series/fd.html, accessed: 16 December 2011. 40 ibid 41 ibid 42 ibid 39
This brief for the program appears to be an attempt to show that the series is an unbiased and balanced television history; however, it appears to be directly inserted into the series, apparently for that reason, to generate the appearance of neutrality. Conclusively, the program notes appear to maintain and sustain the appearance of objectivity. However, on closer analysis and with investigation, the notes appear to be injected with balanced material in an attempt to ‘objectify’ the television series. Despite the appearance of bias in the aforementioned argument, it seems that historians question the methodology and apparatus of the material within Vietnam: A Television History, rather than the material which is presented. For instance, Michael Frisch43 puts forward a two pronged criticism of the television history, primarily the casualness of the presentation and secondly, that there is a reliance upon ‘personal experience’ throughout the series. Frisch lampoons the series for its “near-‐ exclusive reliance”44 upon people who were participants in Vietnam, those he dubs as “self-‐ apologists”45, individuals who were attempting to distance themselves, atone for and apologise for their participation in the conflict46, most notably US soldiers. Historians such as Frisch consider this reliance upon personal or oral stories and experiences as impractical when; “the topic is a political or military event”47. Invariably, when cross examining this argument with our discussion, ‘Vietnam: A Television History contains elements of pro-‐war and anti-‐war bias’; there are similarities and parallels, namely that when relying upon such subjective material, there will always be traces of bias, both for and against. Frisch’s argument is very accurate and apt, and is one that conclusively highlights the need to be objective when obtaining sources and the need for the use of a variety of sources, not the sole reliance upon one type of source. Thus, due to the biased nature of oral
Frisch, M., ‘The Memory of History’, in (ed.) S. Porter, S. Brier, R. Rosenzweig, Presenting the Past, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986), p. 13 44 ibid 45 ibid 46 ibid 47 ibid
sources and the ‘near exclusive reliance’48 upon them in Vietnam: A Television History, there is evidence which indicates that there is a degree of both anti-‐war and pro-‐war bias within the series. This essay has thus far shown that bias does exist within Vietnam: A Television History, both pro-‐war and anti-‐war bias. However, a critical argument relies on the idea of proportions. Historians have questioned why certain portions of the film received so much air-‐time, whilst other key aspects of the conflict received little or none. By choosing to allocate time to specific topics and events, there is a form of indirect implication; in this case, as the moral standing point of the PBS series is not overtly stated, it leads minds to wonder if the series has an ulterior thesis and opinions of the conflict which are not specifically stated. Correspondingly, historians have commented and speculated that there is a ‘liberal undertone’49 which is apparent throughout the series, with particular episodes receiving specific criticism. DiLeo as aforementioned was a particular critic of the series who paid close attention to the ideas and notions of proportions, relativism and objectivity, within the series. DiLeo draws attention to program six, ‘America’s Enemy, 1954-‐1967’50, which he describes51 as being overly explicit and subjective, especially in the portrayal of the “American fighting man”52 and of combat conditions in Vietnam. For program six, there seems to be an inordinate and disproportional amount of material related to; “interrogation and torture” of Vietnamese53, the “indiscriminate killing of civilians” and the “exultations of American pilots riddling an enemy with bullets and rockets”54, amongst additional incriminating evidence of various descriptions. Therefore, the proportion of material indicates and infers that the American’s were a savage, militaristic and imperialistic force. Thus, the active choice to give the aforementioned material such a key position
ibid Darryl Hamamoto, Monitored Peril: Asian Americans and the Politics of TV Representation (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994), 208. 50 Peake. 269-‐270. 51 David DiLeo, ‘Vietnam: A Television History’, The History Teacher, 18.1 (1984), p. 128 52 ibid 53 ibid 54 ibid 49
and dominant existence in the program, would indicate that the series is victim and subject to anti-‐ war bias55. With the airing of Vietnam: A Television History in 1983, the memory of Vietnam was still very much present in the minds of many American’s, the production of the series began just a few years after the war officially had ended, and there still existed a considerable amount of animosity and controversy regarding the war. Politically there had been a storm which swept over the United States as a direct result of the Vietnam conflict56, Robert Buzzanco described the effects of the political situation as “a rupture in the social fabric unlike any in the twentieth century”57, for instance; anti-‐war protests, student demonstrations, draft card burnings all contributed and reflected a considerable aspect of societies feelings58 during and after the war. Therefore, with the concurrent political events within the United States there existed considerable anti-‐war feelings during the research, production and airing of Vietnam: A Television History, thus, the series would invariably be marred with anti-‐war bias as a natural by-‐product of the time it was put together. In conclusion, Vietnam: A Television History has been used and studied in academic circles for many years, specifically in educational institutions. However, this essay has provided evidence to show that the series does contain evidence of both pro-‐war and anti-‐war bias, specifically this essay has drawn attention to a number of key issues expressly; the in-‐balance in the proportion of time spent on specific topic within the programs, the concurrent political and social issues at the time of production and development of the series, the use and near-‐sole reliance upon oral and personal experiences, the dependence upon North Vietnamese both for production and in gathering personal accounts, and finally the injection and use of language throughout the series. Therefore, in 55
PBS, Transcript America’s Enemy (1954-‐1967), http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/vietnam/series/pt_05.html accessed: 19th December 2011. 56
John Kerry, testimony to the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations (1971), http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/vietnam/psources/ps_against.html accessed: 19th December 2011. 57 Robert Buzzanco, Vietnam and the transformation of American Life (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 1999), 3. 58 Ibid. 5.
understanding and in analysis there appears to be an overwhelming amount of evidence to show that the series does contain anti-‐war bias, the series still retains valuable use in understanding the war, but it must be twinned with an understanding of the aforementioned principles, in order to be of considerable use. Thus, to return to the initial statement by Richard Nixon59, the Vietnam War has continually been misreported and misunderstood since its inception60, and the greatest source of this misreporting can be found in the prevailing feelings and attitudes of those who constitute and produce history. Conclusively, and with this in mind, Vietnam: A Television History is a biased history of the Vietnam War. James Perry Word count: 3,038 59 Nixon. 9. 60 PBS, Viewer Mail, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/vietnam/series/viewers.html, accessed: 25th December 2011.
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