|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:
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?