Monday, April 13, 2015

The Strange Case of Vietnam PR

Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC. I took this photo in March.
We’re close to naming a title for the 2015 Fall Faculty Series (unofficial name) at Mount Mercy University this year, but even if the name is up in the air, the topic is not.

The series will be on the War in Vietnam. It’s timely due to two anniversaries:

1) The first really big surge of troops came in 1965, 50 years ago. Advisors had been in Vietnam for years, but when the Marines went in big time in 1965, it meant thousands of American combat boots on the ground. A total of 3 million Americans would see service in Vietnam.

2) The war ended in 1975, 40 years ago. American combat troops left in 1973, and in 1975, the American Congress would not vote funding for more advisors and aid. When American support moved out of South Vietnam, the North Vietnamese Army moved in.

This week in my media class, we’re talking about public relations and advertising—in effect, the role of advocacy in PR.

I told the students that judging advocacy—to determine if you agree with it or think it’s positive or ethical, for instance—means basically looking at two sides: the message and the means used to deliver that message.

The War in Vietnam, whatever else it was—and it was a lot, hence the series—was a PR disaster. I think partly that came from the top. President Johnson ran a sometimes-delusional administration, and some of his advisors confidently predicted a quick end to the war if American boots hit the ground.

Well, the boots hit and then sank into a quagmire. The military was hampered by lots of things, among them the creativity of the NVA and the Viet Cong, who understood they were fighting a war of attrition and simply needed to outlast the Americans (this same crew had managed to outlast the French 10 years before). The war did not have clear aims or even a clear enemy; it was never fought “all out” as World War II, for example, was.

And it was a horrible war. There were napalm attacks on villages and “free fire zones” were anybody who wasn’t in an American uniform could end up dead. The policies the U.S. followed and the way they were implemented—defoliate jungle, bomb an agrarian county, prop up a corrupt regime in order to stave off the spread of Communism—added up to a long-term disaster.

It was a disaster partly built on deceit. Congress approved the Tonkin Gulf Resolution in 1964 using hazy evidence of alleged attacks on the U.S. Navy that, it appears, never really happened. And both the Johnson and Nixon administrations did their best to “craft” their message to gain maximum support—which often left both lacking in the honesty department.

In some ways, I supposed, Vietnam was a dress rehearsal for some of the dreary mistakes we’ve made since 9/11.

The media are often, and correctly, criticized for not doing enough to inform Americans about reality behind facades. But, in defense of our dysfunctional news media, it’s also fair to ask how informed people want to be. If Americans cared about facts, there would be no Fox News.

Anyway, students, we talked about the “means” and the “message” to judge PR advocacy. The U.S. Government used dubious means to push an iffy message in the 1960s to promote the Vietnam War. What do you know about that failed PR effort? And what would you like to learn? What topics of conversation could engage you in our fall series?


  1. Honestly, I do not know much about the failed PR effort that occurred during the Vietnam War. However, it may be interesting to compare the failed effort of PR then, to what seems to be failing now. I am reminded of the movie "Wag the Dog" when reading this blog and am intrigued by what length media can go to make events seem worse than what they actually are. Also, maybe focusing largely on one specific example of a PR fail during the time and going more in depth on that one example might engage more individuals rather than just giving a presentation with just an overview.

    1. I think, in general, the "fail" I am talking about is to treat the war as a PR problem--and to be "too clever" in crafting messages to the public. The government at the time did not honestly communicate. Not that it ever 100 percent does, but there was a huge disconnect between what the Johnson Administration actually said and what it actually thought. Nixon was more cagey--didn't share his plan, said he had a "secret plan" to end the war, which basically was to escalate bombing. Media was all over the map in terms of how effectively they covered the war--but like most wars, it was not all that well covered at the time.

  2. There's one pr related topic that I'd love to see covered, and that's the movie industry. A comparison of propaganda movies like The Green Berets (starring ol Johnny Wayne) and Platoon with Charlie Sheen.

    1. I suppose a devil's advocate would say that Platoon is merely propaganda for a different point of view. But "The Green Berets" stands along as, besides maybe the Rambo series, the only "pro-war" Vietnam movies ever made, but one of the worst, too. Then again, although he was a big star and did have some very interesting roles, Good Ol John did not have a good track record in war movies. His WWII ones were popular, but pretty bad by any content measure--and some really irked the men who fought the war. As I've said in class, the difference between John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart was that John played heroes in WWI, while Jimmy was one.