'Five o'clock Follies'
Remember the Five O'Clock Follies?
That was the nickname given to Saigon press briefings during the Vietnam War. It became famous because of lines like, "We had to destroy the village in order to save it."
A new glitzy hotel seems to appear in Saigon every other day, and the grand old lady can no longer compete on the same terms. The rooms are well appointed, if not spectacular and for government run outfit it is surprisingly efficient and agreeable. Apart from its excellent downtown location, what makes the place special is its place in history.
The Rex Hotel was a regular hangout for American officials and Journalists during the Vietnam War. As they sipped drinks and looked down on the city from the rooftop bar they could see and hear the unrest in the city before their eyes. The Rooftop pool, although small is still a great place to relax in Saigon and can be visited even if you are not staying at the hotel for a reasonable fee. The hotel was also the setting for the daily U.S. military attaché’s press briefing, dubbed the 'Five O’clock Follies'.
War correspondents travel freely through Vietnam, often by military transport.
In 1965 Lyndon Baines Johnson makes three attempts to convince officials to impose censorship on the press. Officials refuse, citing the impossibility of controlling a press corps of hundreds of people from multiple nations. General Westmoreland also wants more control over information, but his efforts to have censorship installed fail because war has not been officially declared.
The Joint United States Public Affairs Office provides information and propaganda to the press. Some journalists as the "5 O’clock Follies" because of the lack of real information refer to the press briefings, released in the late afternoon.
An honor system between military officials and reporters is used. Officials brief correspondents about what action is planned, and the journalists don't report the information until the battles have actually begun. Most of the time, war correspondents honor the agreement.
Communist forces launch a surprise offensive against South Vietnam in 1968 during a cease-fire in honor of the Vietnamese holiday of Tet. The Tet Offensive is a sweeping military campaign that U.S. forces and South Vietnamese troops take weeks to recover from. The offensive is not a tactical victory for the communists, but politically it marks a decline in support for the war at home and contradicts the government's assertion that the conflict in Vietnam is almost won. After the Tet Offensive, politicians, pundits in the press, and the American public begin to criticize U.S. military tactics and policy in Vietnam.
The Vietnam War and Its Legacies
Vietnam has been called the“first TV war,” a test of the American public’s tolerance for battle brought into its living rooms. Journalists were allowed practically unrestricted access, accompanying units and freely filing stories, photographs, and film. The idea that reporters opposed to the war used this freedom to publish negative stories that contributed significantly to the final defeat quickly became standard; it was espoused by Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, as well as by the U.S. commander in Vietnam from 1964 to 1968, General William Westmoreland.
This explanation, however, has been discredited by numerous studies.16 In fact; press coverage was generally favorable until the Tet offensive of 1968. As later became clear, that dramatic campaign was a military disaster for the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong; nonetheless, it blasted the credibility of claims by the White House and Westmoreland that the United States and South Vietnam were on the threshold of victory. The critical tone adopted by the press thereafter“confirm[ed] the widespread public view held well before Tet, that the people had been victims of a massive deception” and that the prospects for success were in fact doubtful.17 Arguably, then, the press did not create public skepticism but simply reflected public concern about casualties and the lack of tangible progress. Certainly, neither the White House nor the military was honest with the press. Official briefings in Saigon—dismissed by the press as the “Five o’clock Follies”—were remarkably uninformative, when not deceptive. On the other hand, coverage of the increasingly violent antiwar protests shored up support for the war, because it showed the peace movement in an unflattering light.
One cannot blame the press for asking searching questions about a poor policy strategy match. That is its duty. Nevertheless, the impact of the Vietnam War on U.S. media-military relations has been profound. The press today regards the practically unrestricted access and uncensored reporting that it enjoyed in Vietnam as the norm, not a historical anomaly. The more superficial, or arrogant, of its members further believe that Vietnam confirmed and validated the power of the press to influence public opinion and, by extension, policy.
The military, for its part, saw proof of its long-standing suspicion that the press is an adversary and must be kept at arm’s length during conflicts.18 The Army in particular feels that a new, and distinctly destructive, press was born in Vietnam—skeptical of authority, liberal in political outlook, and invariably hostile to military values and missions. The mistake of Vietnam, many military people feel, was to give the media free rein, license that they used to subvert popular support. A piece of “military wisdom” emerged from Vietnam: “Real men don’t talk to the press.”19
THE ROOTS OF POOR MEDIA-MILITARY RELATIONS
If the poor media-military relations of today are not wholly a product of the Vietnam War but have existed throughout the nation’s history, how does one account for them? First, the institutional cultures of the two communities are virtually antithetical. Whether or not the media have a liberal bias, it is certainly true that journalists see it as their role to expose abuses of power by large institutions, and in the military arena to publicize instances where democratic and military values clash. As a practical matter, however, the press is fragmented into many competing and self-regulating subgroups; there are no broad professional standards. “The great strength of American journalism is its amateur nature,” insists one correspondent. “Anyone can become a reporter. This guarantees many different perspectives.”20 It also guarantees that journalists have a great deal of competition; each must not only collect information but package it in a form that will sell to the general public—and therefore be blessed by editors—before other journalists do. Reporters are therefore under great pressure to bend, even break, rules in pursuit of a “story”—and a by-line.
A member of the 5th Infantry Division looks out over the fog-shrouded A Shau Valley in Vietnam
Thanks for reminding me about the "Five O’clock Follies". I used to look forward to my TDYs out of Laos and Cambodia to brief at the Follies (because it meant a couple of nights in a clean hotel bed and a couple of good French dinners in Saigon). And just last month I ran into our master of ceremonies at the Follies, Barry Zorthian, the long serving PAO in Saigon.
The living room war,
The military held daily briefings to report on progress. Correspondents called them the "Five O'Clock Follies"
By decade's end, Americans had grown weary of "the living room war" that came into their homes daily on the evening news programs, sometimes with vivid film of bloody casualties that evenIMF tually mounted to more than 58,000 American dead, most of them eighteen to twenty years old. For the first time, viewers were seeing war footage - in color - of body bags and burning villages, of napalmed Vietnamese and endless jungle firefights. Each Thursday on the evening news, TV anchormen delivered the week's tally of dead and wounded. Moral exhaustion was setting in on the homefront.
News of the 1970 bombing of Cambodia triggered violent antiwar protests. At Kent State University in Ohio, students burned down an ROTC building. National Guardsmen were caught on film firing on the demonstrators, killing four and wounding eleven, a precipitous act that shocked and outraged the nation. A famous photo of a Kent State student kneeling over a dead companion further radicalized many Americans. Five days later, 100,000 war protesters converged on Washington. In Mississippi, the police shot and killed two students at Jackson State University.
Adding to the public's repugnance toward the war was the well-publicized trial in November of Lieutenant William Calley, whose infantry platoon had killed 500 civilians in the vil[age of My Lai. Calley was personally charged with twenty-two of the murders. Sentenced to life in prison at hard labor, he served none of it; he was paroled after three years of house arrest. Those killings and news reports of the trial and Calley's lenient treatment were the last straw for many who had earlier supported the war.
As the strife wound down, Pentagon officials, Nixon advisers, and hawks among the citizenry grew more vocal in blaming journalists for turning Americans against the war, and for challenging the very rationale for the U.S. presence in Vietnam.
Each evening in Saigon, public information officers held a news briefing - correspondents mockingly called it "the Five o'clock Follies" - to report the government's version of the day's military action. Over the years, correspondents such as David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan, Malcolm Browne, and Peter Arnett regularly pointed out discrepancies between those reports of the war's progress and what they observed firsthand in the rain forests and highlands of South Vietnam.
journalists enjoyed virtually unlimited access to the battlegrounds and the troops, and - unlike World War II and Korea zero censorship of their dispatches. Television correspondents traveled the country at will, hitching free rides on helicopters and cargo transports. Print reporters in the battle zones used the military's field telephones to shout their stories back to Saigon, The Pentagon, dismayed by the putative results of all that generosity, decided that never again would it be so lenient. When the gulf war broke out in 1991, journalists' movements and access were severely circumscribed.
For any future war in which American forces are committed in great numbers, that cat-dog relationship of press and Pentagon will come in for some serious re-evaluation. - N.H.
Copyright Columbia University, Graduate School of Journalism Nov/Dec 2001
Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved
Farewell to the Follies
Monday, Feb. 12, 1973
The cease-fire has been bullet-riddled, and the U.S. withdrawal was far from complete last week. But there was one sure sign of vanishing American involvement: the daily military press briefing, an eight-year-old Saigon spectacle known as the 5 O’clock Follies, had its final performance with an American cast. Army Major Jere Forbus, the last Follies star, sighed, "Well, we may not have been perfect, but we outlasted Fiddler on the Roof." The Associated Press Saigon bureau chief, Richard Pyle, was less benign but more accurate when he called the briefings "the longest-playing...
Television Plot Summary for
Military comedy set in 1967 Saigon and revolving around the production of "The AFVN News and Sports", a six o'clock news program produced for the Armed Forces Vietnam Network featuring two GI reporters and a weather girl. The show's director also runs the local Midas Bar where the crew spends most of their off-air time.
Rest of cast listed alphabetically:
Col. Harvey Marvin
Philip Charles MacKenzie
Runtime: USA:30 min (5 episodes)
Sound Mix: Mono
By Margaret Wolf Freivogel
Tuesday, Jan. 13 2004
"The risks that go with entering this war are limitless. At their worst they
include atomic warfare and the destruction of the civilized world. Those are
risks to be run if the United States is attacked or if we are required to go to
war to defend allied forces in Europe. But they are not risks to be indulged in
to support a discredited colonial regime in the jungles of Indochina. We state
it as our profound conviction that the Indochina War is a war to stay out of."
-- Post-Dispatch editorial, May 5, 1954
Irving Dilliard wrote those words long before 3.3 million American soldiers,
sailors, airmen and marines shipped out to fight in a faraway and confusing
Before more than 58,000 died.
Even before the conflict that split this country and reunited that one came
to be known as the Vietnam War.
Later, the era was widely viewed as a painful historical lesson in the
dangers of hubris and self-deception. But in 1954, the Post-Dispatch was at
odds with public sentiment and alone among major newspapers when Dilliard
warned about the limits of U.S. power and the power of an indigenous
Editorial cartoonist Daniel Fitzpatrick reinforced the point in a Pulitzer
Prize-winning cartoon. Uncle Sam, toting a rifle, heads toward a shadowy swamp
labeled French Mistakes in Indochina. The caption asks: "How would another
Over the next 21 years, the faraway war hit home, wrenching the lives of
draftees, volunteers and their families, and sending protesters to the streets
and Canada. President Lyndon B. Johnson was driven from power and President
Richard M. Nixon won election, claiming to have a secret plan to end the war.
For the Post-Dispatch, covering the tumult was a test of vision and will.
Its editorials continued to question the war's purpose. It’s reporting, largely
by Washington correspondent Richard Dudman, questioned the war's conduct,
exposing the gap between official rhetoric and on-the-ground reality.
Dudman's many trips to Southeast Asia began in the early 1960s. With the war
heating up against the backdrop of Cold War tension, his focus was on China. If
Vietnam went communist, the war's backers maintained, other nations would fall
like dominoes to Chinese control.
The American Embassy in Laos had reported that Chinese communists were
involved in an attack on a Laotian village. Dudman visited the village. No
Chinese had been identified there. In fact, no battle had been fought.
Instead, villagers explained that they had heard a military force
approaching and had sent women with flowers to greet the soldiers. Some of the
men spoke a foreign language, which the embassy guessed might be Chinese.
The gap between rhetoric and reality was on display daily in Saigon at the
U.S. military briefing dubbed the Five O’clock Follies. At Dudman's first
briefing, a colonel reported meticulously on American and South Vietnamese
troop casualties, enemy dead and even the number of rifles captured. But when
Dudman asked about civilian casualties, the officer had no information.
Later he pulled Dudman aside. "You're new here, aren't you," he observed.
"Let me explain something. When they're dead, they're Viet Cong."
Dudman recalled, "By and by I began to see what a fraud the whole war was."
The editorial page was looking at the big picture as well. Dilliard's 1954
editorials challenged U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia by arguing that
Vietnam was not essential to the overall objective of containing communism.
In 1965, Robert Lasch, who had replaced Dilliard as editorial page editor,
argued that the containment theory itself was flawed. In a Pulitzer
Prize-winning editorial, Lasch wrote:
"... American policy increasingly has tended to confuse the containment of
Russian (and later Chinese) national power with the containment of Communism.
We undertook to apply the methods appropriate to a national power struggle --
the methods of diplomatic maneuver, armed confrontation and in some cases war
itself -- in a realm where they are totally ineffective. Communism as an idea
cannot be contained by such methods, but only by a better idea."
The paper's position was unpopular with many readers. Among those who
canceled subscriptions was the White House. Author Daniel Pfaff, who has
researched the paper and the Pulitzer family, says that editor and publisher
Joseph Pulitzer Jr. was not concerned.
"We would be a bland, innocuous and dull newspaper if we tried to compromise
and accommodate such opposition," Pulitzer wrote. "The paper has not yielded to
pressure during other periods of tension and I have no intention of
soft-pedaling our opinions merely for the sake of making circulation easier to
In 1970, Dudman inadvertently undertook his most dangerous and rewarding war
assignment. He and two other reporters were captured by North Vietnamese troops.
The three had set out in a borrowed jeep to report on the war's expansion
into Cambodia. They found themselves on an eerily abandoned highway and were
surrounded and seized. Trying to buck up his younger colleagues, Dudman
whispered, "If we get out of here alive, we're going to have one hell of a good
After initial hours of terror, they ate, slept, and traveled with their
captors, enduring the same dangers. "We got some sense from a worm's point of
view of how they were able to survive in the jungle against this heavy bombing
-- by concealment and dispersal," Dudman said. "We got a sense of their morale
and determination, whereas American soldiers were mostly putting in a year and
counting the days until they could get home. For Americans, it was a limited
war. For them, it was total war."
After 40 days, and a celebratory farewell feast of roast dog, the three
reporters were freed.
In 1975, American troops went home for good. Saigon fell in short order.
"The collapse came all in a rush," Dudman wrote in a special section titled
VIETNAM: Defeat and Disillusion, "collapse of an American-trained army,
collapse of an American-financed government, collapse of an American policy of
"Looking back at it all, the long American engagement can be seen as an
effort to stop a nationalist, ant colonialist revolution. The leaders were
Communists, but their first allegiance was to their own nationalism. None of
the puppet governments set up to stem the tide could ever compete lastingly or
successfully. Failure was probably inevitable."
VIETNAM ON TELEVISION
Vietnam was the first "television war." The medium was in its infancy during the Korean conflict, its audience and technology still too limited to play a major role. The first "living-room war," as Michael Arlen called it, began in mid-1965, when Lyndon Johnson dispatched large numbers of U.S. combat troops, beginning what is still surely the biggest story television news has ever covered. The Saigon bureau was for years the third largest the networks maintained, after New York and Washington, with five camera crews on duty most of the time.
What was the effect of television on the development and outcome of the war? The conventional wisdom has generally been that for better or for worse it was an anti-war influence. It brought the "horror of war" night after night into people's living rooms and eventually inspired revulsion and exhaustion. The argument has often been made that any war reported in an unrestricted way by television would eventually lose public support. Researchers, however, have quite consistently told another story.
There were, to be sure, occasions when television did deliver images of violence and suffering. In August 1965, after a series of high-level discussions, which illustrate the unprecedented character of the story, CBS aired a report by Morley Safer, which showed Marines lighting the thatched roofs of the village of Cam Ne with Zippo lighters, and included critical commentary on the treatment of the villagers. This story could never have passed the censorship of World War II or Korea, and it generated an angry reaction from Lyndon Johnson. In 1968, during the Tet offensive, viewers of NBC news saw Col. Nguyen Ngoc Loan blow out the brains of his captive in a Saigon street. And in 1972, during the North Vietnamese spring offensive, the audience witnessed the aftermath of errant napalm strike, in which South Vietnamese planes mistook their own fleeing civilians for North Vietnamese troops.
These incidents were dramatic, but far from typical of Vietnam coverage. Blood and gore were rarely shown. A bit less than a quarter of film reports from Vietnam showed images of the dead or wounded, most of these fleeting and not particularly graphic. Network concerns about audience sensibilities combined with the inaccessibility of much of the worst of the suffering to keep a good deal of the "horror of war" off the screen. The violence in news reports often involved little more than puffs of smoke in the distance, as aircraft bombed the unseen enemy. Only during the 1968 Tet and 1972 Spring offensives, when the war came into urban areas, did its suffering and destruction appear with any regularity on TV.
For the first few years of the living room war most of the coverage was upbeat. It typically began with a battlefield roundup, written from wire reports based on the daily press briefing in Saigon--the "Five O’clock Follies," as journalists called it--read by the anchor and illustrated with a battle map. These reports had a World War II feel to them--journalists no less than generals are prone to "fighting the last war"--with fronts and "big victories" and a strong sense of progress and energy.
The battlefield roundup would normally be followed by a policy story from Washington, and then a film report from the field---typically about five days old, since film had to be flown to the United States for processing. As with most television news, the emphasis was on the visual and above all the personal: "American boys in action" was the story, and reports emphasized their bravery and their skill in handling the technology of war. A number of reports directly countered Morley Safer's Cam Ne story, showing the burning of huts, which was a routine part of many search-and-destroy operations, but emphasizing that it was necessary, because these were Communist villages. On Thursdays, the weekly casualty figures released in Saigon would be reported, appearing next to the flags of the combatants, and of course always showing a good "score" for the Americans.
Television crews quickly learned that what New York wanted was "bang-bang" footage, and this, along with the emphasis on the American soldier, meant that coverage of Vietnamese politics and of the Vietnamese generally was quite limited. The search for action footage also meant it was a dangerous assignment: nine network personnel died in Indochina, and many more were wounded.
Later in the war, after Tet and the beginning of American troop withdrawals in 1969, television coverage began to change. The focus was still on "American boys," to be sure, and the troops were still presented in a sympathetic light. But journalists grew skeptical of claims of progress, and the course of the war was presented more as an eternal recurrence than a string of decisive victories. There was more emphasis on the human costs of the war, though generally without graphic visuals. On Thanksgiving Day 1970, for example, Ed Rabel of CBS reported on the death of one soldier killed by a mine, interviewing his buddies, who told their feelings about his death and about a war they considered senseless. An important part of the dynamic of the change in TV news was that the "up close and personal style" of television began to cut the other way: in the early years, when morale was strong, television reflected the upbeat tone of the troops. But as withdrawals continued and morale declined, the tone of field reporting changed. This shift was paralleled by developments on the "home front." Here, divisions over the war received increasing airtime, and the anti-war movement, which had been vilified as Communist-inspired in the early years, was more often accepted as a legitimate political movement.
Some accounts of television's role regarding this war assign a key role to a special broadcast by Walter Cronkite wrapping up his reporting on the Tet Offensive. On 27 February 1968, Cronkite closed "Report from Vietnam: Who, What, When, Where, Why?" by expressing his view that the war was unwinnable, and that the United States would have to find a way out. Some of Lyndon Johnson's aides have recalled that the president watched the broadcast and declared that he knew at that moment he would have to change course. A month later Johnson declined to run for reelection and announced that he was seeking a way out of the war; David Halberstam has written "it was the first time in American history a war had been declared over by an anchorman."
Cronkite's change of views certainly dramatized the collapse of consensus on the war. But it did not create that collapse, and there were enough strong factors pushing toward a change in policy that it is hard to know how much impact Cronkite had. By the fall of 1967, polls were already showing a majority of Americans expressing the opinion that it had been a "mistake" to get involved in Vietnam; and by the time of Cronkite's broadcast, two successive secretaries of Defense had concluded that the war could not be won at reasonable cost. Indeed, with the major changes in television's portrayal of the war still to come, television was probably more a follower than a leader in the nation's change of course in Vietnam.
Vietnam has not been a favorite subject for television fiction, unlike World War II, which was the subject of shows ranging from action-adventure series like Combat to sitcoms like Hogan's Heroes. During the war itself it was virtually never touched in television fiction--except, of course, in disguised form on M*A*S*H. After Hollywood scored commercially with The Deer Hunter (1978), a number of scripts were commissioned, and NBC put one pilot, 6:00 Follies, on the air. All fell victim to bad previews and ratings, and to political bickering and discomfort in the networks and studios. Todd Gitlin quotes one network executive as saying, "I don't think people want to hear about Vietnam. I think it was destined for failure simply because I don't think it's a funny war." World War II, of course, wasn't any funnier. The real difference is probably that Vietnam could not be plausibly be portrayed either as heroic or as consensual, and commercially successful television fiction needs both heroes and a sense of "family" among the major characters.
An important change did take place in 1980, just as shows set in Vietnam were being rejected. Magnum. P.I. premiered that year, beginning a trend toward portrayals of Vietnam veterans as central characters in television fiction. Before 1980 vets normally appeared in minor roles, often portrayed as unstable and socially marginal. With Magnum. P.I. and later The A-Team, Riptide, Airwolf and others, the veteran emerged as a hero, and in this sense the war experience, stripped of the contentious backdrop of the war itself, became suitable for television. These characters drew their strength from their Vietnam experience, including a preserved wartime camaraderie, which enabled them to act as a team. They also tended to stand apart from dominant social institutions, reflecting the loss of confidence in these institutions produced by Vietnam, without requiring extensive discussion of the politics of the war.
Not until Tour of Duty in 1987 and China Beach in 1988 did series set in Vietnam find a place on the schedule. Both were moderate ratings successes; they stand as the only major Vietnam series to date. The most distinguished, China Beach, often showed war from a perspective rarely seen in post-World War II popular culture: that of the women whose job it was to patch up shattered bodies and souls. It also included plenty of the more traditional elements of male war stories, and over the years it drifted away from the war, in the direction of the traditional concern of melodrama with personal relationships. But it does represent a significant Vietnam-inspired change in television's representation of war.
Anderegg, Michael A. Inventing Vietnam: The War In Film And Television. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Temple University Press, 1991.
Berg, Rick. "Losing Vietnam: Covering The War In An Age Of Technology." In, Rowe, John Carlos and Rick Berg, editors. The Vietnam War And American Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.
Braestrup, Peter. Big Story: How the American Press and Television Reported and Interpreted the Crisis Of Tet 1968 in Vietnam And Washington. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1977.
Gibson, James William. "American Paramilitary Culture And The Reconstruction Of The Vietnam War." In, Walsh, Jeffrey and James Aulich, editors. Vietnam Images: War And Representation. New York: St. Martin's, 1989.
Hallin, Daniel C. The "Uncensored War": The Media And Vietnam. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.
Hammond, William M. Public Affairs: The Military And The Media, 1962-1968. Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, U.S. Army, 1988.
Heilbronn, Lisa M. "Coming Home A Hero: The Changing Image Of The Vietnam Vet On Prime Time Television." Journal of Popular Film and Television (Washington, D.C.), Spring 1985.
Martin, Andrew. "Vietnam And Melodramatic Representation." East-West Film Journal (Honolulu, Hawaii), June 1990.
Rollins, Peter C. "Historical Interpretation Or Ambush Journalism? CBS Vs Westmoreland In The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception." War, Literature, and the Arts (U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colorado), 1990.
_______________. "The Vietnam War: Perceptions Through Literature, Film, And Television." American Quarterly (Washington, D.C.), 1984.
Rowe, John Carlos. "'Bringing It All Back Home': American Recyclings of the Vietnam War." In, Armstrong, Nancy and Leonard Tennenhouse, editors. The Violence of Representation: Literature and the History of Violence. London: Routledge, 1989.
_______________. "From Documentary to Docudrama: Vietnam on Television in the 1980s." Genre (Norman, Oklahoma), Winter 1988.
Rowe, John Carlos, and Rick Berg, editors. The Vietnam War and American Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.
Springer, Claudia. "Vietnam: A Television History and The Equivocal Nature Of Objectivity." Wide Angle (Athens, Ohio), 1985.
Trotta, Liz. Fighting For Air: In The Trenches With Television News. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991.
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The event was "Rendezvous with War" -- a discussion in early April at the College of William and Mary meant to bring some context to a conflict that still inspires scores of questions.
A slowly building battle
Gulf to Persian Gulf
Veteran AP correspondent considers how war reporting has changed
From the day in early 1963 when a U.S. admiral in Saigon chastised an American reporter for not being "on the team", relations were tense between officials running the Vietnam War and the reporters covering it.
The press in those early days was not particularly critical of the United States commitment to the small Southeast Asian country, but it was beginning to question the methods -- and to doubt much of what U.S. leaders insisted was true.
Again and again, official assertions of "progress" on the battlefield proved hollow; the "body count" became a metaphor for exaggerated victory claims.
That "credibility gap" remained a fixture of the Vietnam War. It took on new meaning in the communists' Tet Offensive of early 1968, in the later invasions of Cambodia and Laos, right up to May 1975, when North Vietnamese tanks finally crashed the gates of South Vietnam's Presidential Palace and helicopters lifted the last desperate evacuees from the U.S. Embassy roof.
Disillusioned by the first loss of a war in its history, battered by low morale and a host of other problems, the U.S. military establishment looked for reasons. Many officials accused the media of having undermined the cause by emphasizing the negative and even encouraging a communist triumph.
While the press made mistakes and had its excesses, such allegations were essentially unfounded. The so-called "living room war" of television was actually lost through flawed policy decisions and the inability of the Saigon regime, even with U.S. support, to match the resoluteness of the communist forces seeking to overthrow it.
Historically, the U.S. military has followed a public information policy that tilts toward disclosure rather than suppression but is tailored to the demands of a particular conflict. In World War II, Allied leaders enforced strict censorship for obvious reasons of military security. Censorship again was imposed in Korea, although less effectively since journalists were not subject to it outside the war zone.
Some senior officials, including President Lyndon Johnson, advocated censorship in Vietnam. The idea was studied repeatedly -- at least three times in 1965 alone -- and each time was rejected as impractical, even counter-productive. Though frustrated by freewheeling disclosures of information, officials conceded there was no way to control an international press corps of several hundred people from dozens of countries.
Yet operational security needed to be protected as much as possible. The answer was an honor system under which American and South Vietnamese military officials briefed journalists under "embargoes" to be lifted when the first shots were fired. Violators risked loss of their press credentials, and some violations did occur, but they were fairly rare and usually minor. Responsible journalists recognized security as a valid concern, not worth violating for a cheap headline.
In fact, the very issue of security in Vietnam was all but moot. Hanoi had agents and sympathizers in key positions of South Vietnamese society, including the military and -- as were dramatically revealed after the fall of Saigon -- in the press corps as well. When Saigon's forces invaded Laos in early 1971, the enemy already knew the entire plan, right down to which mountain tops would be used as artillery and helicopter bases. The information came from official South Vietnamese documents, not press reports.
'Five o'clock Follies'
The foundation of reporting in Vietnam was the famous -- or infamous -- "Five o'clock Follies," the daily briefing where military officials provided news releases and verbal accounts of battlefield and air activity. These briefings were much ridiculed, and there were many valid criticisms. But some of the loudest complainers in the press were those who rarely, or never, went into the field.
For all their failings, the Follies were not the pack of lies that some critics suggested. The best reporters and news organizations recognized the value of an on-the-record, official version of events to compare with information from field reporters and other sources.
As important as it was to get the official version, there was no substitute for hands-on coverage, and reporters and photographers were always in the field. We drove down roads until the emptiness told us not to go any further. We trudged and sweated with the infantry and Marines, made harrowing helicopter assaults into landing zones, cowered behind paddy dikes as bullets cracked overhead. We waited long hours at isolated helicopter pads, saw B-52 strikes blossom like giant brown flowers, learned the culinary tricks of a C-ration diet, interviewed generals, lieutenants, sergeants and privates in their natural habitat, where the truth at least was bullet-proof.
Field officers and soldiers welcomed journalists; they wanted people at home to know what they were doing and enduring, and recognized our readiness to share their perils to tell their story. Some 75 reporters, photographers and camera crewmembers were killed covering Indochina from 1962 to 1975.
Little to show for Gulf War
Flash forward to 1991, the year of the Persian Gulf War. Only a handful of reporters (including this writer) covered both, and thus could see the similarities and the differences.
By that time, war -- and ways of covering it -- had changed dramatically. Along with new weapons and concepts came a new media. A massive influx of journalists flooded into Saudi Arabia, many of them relying for the first time on instant communications with computers and satellites. This revolutionized the means of reporting and transmitting news, making control of the battlefield more difficult and the old rules of operational security irrelevant. Vietnam, by comparison, had been simple.
The military struggled to solve these problems and essentially failed. Assigned to rigid "pools" that limited mobility and impeded the delivery of news, reporters clashed heatedly with military officials, accusing them of censorship. Temporary news blackouts in the name of security caused further tensions. Perhaps the most glaring failure of Gulf War news coverage was the shocking paucity of television footage and photographs: Given the vast size of the allied commitment, there was precious little to show that the war had actually taken place.
In the end, military officials said the media restrictions would have ended after a few days if the fighting had continued. It was the very swiftness of the sword in a "100-hour war" that left both media and military dissatisfied -- and wondering whether a more satisfactory policy would be in place for any future conflict.
Richard Pyle is a correspondent for The Associated Press. He covered the Vietnam War for five years, 2 1/2 of those years as the AP's Saigon bureau chief. Pyle also reported from Saudi Arabia during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.