Vietnam made us a television nation. Much has been written and said about the effect TV had on the war. But the war had a great effect on TV. It brought home a new awareness of how complete the influence of television has become. We had already left our media infancy. The war took us through media adolescence into adulthood.
During the Vietnam years we sat and watched a war the same way, from the same chair, we might have watched a parade march down Main Street or seen Ernie Banks hit a homer. We saw one president announce his decision not to seek reelection and another president resign. We lived through years of darkness and emerged from them media-wise. Even media-obsessed.
Television itself was the light at the end of the tunnel.
Some of the most searing visual images of the war were still photographs, not television pictures -- the famous shot of a bullet hitting the head of a captured Viet Cong, publicly executed at point-blank range on a Vietnamese street; photographs of the bodies at My Lai; and a little girl, naked and screaming in pain, running down a road after a napalm attack. That one you can close your eyes and see any time. When they were shown on television, such pictures became iconographic signposts in a long communal ordeal.
Among the most memorable television reports was Morley Safer's stand-up in front of Vietnamese thatched huts being torched with Zippo lighters by U.S. Marines who thought Viet Cong were being sheltered in the village, and the plaintive cries of those whose homes went up in flames. On April 29, "The CBS Evening News With Dan Rather" will include a report Safer filed upon returning recently to Cam Ne, the village where that first report was filmed.
After Vietnam, after the enormous role played by television in ending the war had become a popular truism, a new common resignation about television settled in across the land. You didn't try to fight television any more. You tried to use it. It above all else must be accommodated.
When Walter Mondale lost the election last year, he blamed the defeat on his poor television performance and so, rather ungraciously, did his running mate. The televised debates seemed to obliterate all other campaign coverage in the public's eye. As for the victor, the most proficient television president of all time, journalists often report now not so much on what Ronald Reagan did as on how what Ronald Reagan did was tailored to television.
The biggest news about Grenada was not the mission itself, nor the political goal. The biggest news was that television was excluded. There is no possibility that administration considerations of stepped-up military involvement in Central America ignore the role that television coverage would play in any such effort and in public reaction to it. Pentagon officials have their own interpretation of the phrase "no more Vietnams."
Vietnam changed the medium and it changed the audience. We passed the point of no return. If there was ever the possibility that this country would not develop into a television republic, that possibility was canceled out by Vietnam, because the "living room war," as critic Michael Arlen so indelibly labeled it, reinforced the idea that television is our first and foremost frame of reference, our new mirror.
Certainly the concept of the home front was changed forever.
It is thus inevitable that television would and must return to Vietnam, and in the coming days and weeks it will, as America, perhaps reluctantly, observes the 10th anniversary of its exodus from the only war it ever lost. Some feel television helped lose it.
"Television's role is not overstated," says Ted Koppel, the brilliantly adept host of ABC's "Nightline," on his way to Vietnam right now for a special "Nightline" broadcast. "But it is usually considered out of context. It was within the power of the Johnson administration to go to Congress, ask for a declaration of war, presumably get one, and then impose censorship. Then you wouldn't have had the television coverage everybody writes about. But they wouldn't pay the price. They weren't sure they could get that declaration of war. Johnson was worried about endangering his Great Society programs. They tried to play both ends against the middle, and of course they failed miserably.
"If people felt television genuinely was the ogre, that broadcasting stood in the way of winning -- 'My God, we can't have coverage!' -- then why didn't they get a declaration of war? It wasn't television that defeated the United States in Vietnam." It is argued that television fueled antiwar protests that then crippled the war effort. "Would there have been an antiwar movement without television?" Koppel asks rhetorically. "I think there would. People don't need television to tell them a boy has gone to Southeast Asia and not come back. Television just telescoped what would have happened over a longer period of time and made it happen more quickly."
Koppel's special "Nightline" will air live from Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, on Monday, April 29. In addition, Koppel will broadcast from Bangkok on April 25, 26 and 30. This is just part of the three-network observance of the anniversary of the war's end. NBC News is sending Bryant Gumbel, a contingent of 20 broadcast personnel and a satellite dish to Vietnam for six special editions of the "Today" show from Ho Chi Minh City (starting Friday, April 26) and for reports to air on "NBC Nightly News With Tom Brokaw."
CBS is the only network that will have no programs anchored from Vietnam, but on March 8 it began a series of reports, "Vietnam Remembered," on the "Evening News." These will continue until April 30. One of the correspondents featured is Walter Cronkite, whose name we associate with both the beginning and the end of the war -- the beginning, when his reports as anchor had that old-fashioned gung-ho, "our boys" tone (now a quaint part of history), and the beginning of the end, when Cronkite's expressions of dismay with the results of the Tet offensive reflected and enhanced public opinion polls that showed growing dissatisfaction with a grievous and ruinous escapade.
On Thursday night at 10 on CBS, special correspondent Cronkite will conduct a one-hour tour of the present and the past called "Honor, Duty, and a War Called Vietnam." During the broadcast, Cronkite accompanies Rep. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to the cell in which McCain spent more than five years after his capture by the Viet Cong. A Navy pilot during the war, McCain tells Cronkite, "I not only think of my friends, who didn't return, but I also appreciate more than I have in a long time that there was a great deal of pain here, a great deal of suffering, a great deal of loneliness. There was also a lot of courage displayed. And a lot of love, love for one another, that I think Americans are uniquely capable of."
"Vietnam is an intensely personal story," says Lawrence K. Grossman, president of NBC News, "not only for the participants, but for those who covered it." Yet in the media stampede to Vietnam, the specter of overkill certainly arises, and overkill on a discomforting subject that has already been exhaustively, perhaps excessively, considered.
It is not as if television has avoided the subject of Vietnam. The 13-hour 1983 Public Broadcasting Service series "Vietnam: A Television History" made history itself. There have been seminal dramatic treatments like ABC's cathartic "Friendly Fire" in 1979. Arguably the most controversial television documentary of all time, subject of a $130 million libel suit by retired Army general William C. Westmoreland, was George Crile's "The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception," which CBS aired in 1982. Before he mysteriously withdrew the suit in February, mere days before the trial's end, Westmoreland and the war had been dragged through the headlines and across the video landscape again. There is every possibility the American people do not want to wade waist deep into the big muddy once more and that the networks have seriously overestimated the public's desire to know.
"That's a fair question," says NBC's Grossman when asked. "It is a big concern of mine. I am worried about it. I have noticed that with all the coverage that has been on the air so far -- and ours has not -- you don't get the feeling that the people out there are responding. There's just no feedback on it. It is still a painful subject, and this may be overkill. On the other hand, it is the 10th anniversary of the withdrawal. And we are trying a different approach, confining our coverage to the actual week."
"I tend to agree with your thesis," says ABC's Koppel when the rush to bad news is mentioned to him. "What we will do is try very hard not to fall victim to it. What we will try not to do is spend four days in an orgy celebrating the fact that the United States was defeated 10 years ago. That is not going to be the point of what we do over there. We have a much broader outlook. We will not spend four days on how it was then; instead we'll say, 'Here's how it is now.' "
Among the guests tentatively scheduled to face television's most formidable inquisitor: former South Vietnamese premier Nguyen Cao Ky (from Rome), Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia (from Paris), Richard M. Nixon and Henry Kissinger (both from New York, but on separate nights) and Alexander Haig (from Washington). "Nightline" producers are lining up guests in Vietnam and hoping for a Chinese official to appear live on the show from Peking.
"I want to go, for personal reasons," Koppel says of the trip. He was a correspondent in Vietnam in 1967 and later served as chief of ABC's Southeast Asian bureau. "I want to see what's happened. Much in the way we thought about our South African trip, there is enormous potential here for things not to work. If we don't get cooperation from North Vietnam, there's not much we can get out of this. But you only find out by going."
It is no snap for the networks to go to Vietnam. Grossman says the $1 million reported cost of the satellite dish NBC has sent over is too high, but the effort represents a sizable investment of money and manpower. Sources at NBC and ABC say the Vietnamese are being extremely difficult, if not impossible, about the trip. NBC News vice president Gordon Manning is credited by Grossman with bringing the project to fruition with tactful and sometimes very forceful network diplomacy. Networks are worried about the shortage of cars, drivers, hotel rooms, interpreters and, yes, restaurants in Vietnam. They are also worried about the extent of cooperation they'll get from Vietnamese officials.
In his report on the "Evening News" March 14, Walter Cronkite stood on a street in Hanoi and called it "one of the world's most depressing capitals." He did not give postwar Vietnam a rave review. "The communist regime has failed miserably to put the nation's economy on anything like a viable basis," Cronkite said. "It is a bicycle economy in a computer world." Cronkite called public transportation in Vietnam "decrepit," agriculture "primitive" and poverty "overwhelming."
As "Today" show senior producer Marty Ryan says, "It's not going to be like Rome," a reference to the program's recent and cushy trip to Italy.
ABC is going to great lengths, and links, just to get its pictures from Vietnam to American television screens. ABC News has leased facilities from the communist government America tried for 10 futile years to displace. With Soviet funding, the Vietnamese built the ground station needed for satellite TV transmissions. ABC will be the first to use the new ground station, paying the Vietnamese at rates to be determined, but sure to be at least $1,000 per hour. And possibly in gold francs as specified by the Geneva Convention.
After the ABC signal leaves Vietnam and hits a Soviet satellite over the Indian Ocean, it bounces back to earth in the Soviet Union, then up to another satellite over the Atlantic Ocean (the Soviets have to be paid for this, too) then back to North America -- specifically, a ground station in Andover, N.H. Bob Murphy, vice president of news coverage for ABC, says there is nothing unusual about this arrangement. It's similar to what's done when a Soviet expert appears from the Kremlin on "Nightline," he says.
"Does it bother me that we have to do business with the Vietnamese in order to do these broadcasts?" Murphy asks. "I don't have a problem with that. We're covering events in Vietnam that we feel are newsworthy and complying with U.S. government and international treaty regulations for accomplishing that."
Koppel says, "Why should it make me uncomfortable? In a communist country, you use whatever facilities are available, and these happen to be the facilities that are there." Murphy says the building of the ground station was "planned and organized long before we decided to go there" and that ABC did not contribute funds to the project.
In a way, these broadcasts will bring the country in which the television war was fought into the television age, make it an active member of the global village. Until you have an earth station, you don't quite exist. "This will be the first time the Vietnamese have done this," says Murphy. He also says that NBC's decision to bypass the Soviets by bringing over its own satellite dish is much more expensive than the ABC avenue and thus less practical.
But Grossman says NBC rejected using Soviet facilities. "We considered that alternative. But I think it's dicey. And I don't think it will save any money."
The trip to Vietnam will be costly, arduous and fraught with difficulties both technical and political. There is good reason to believe the majority of the American viewing audience is not anxious to be reminded of Vietnam and, in fact, might prefer the anniversary of the withdrawal not be so elaborately observed. So, why go?
Because it's there? "In a sense, it becomes that," Koppel says. "There are interesting programs to be done, not so much about what was, but about what is."
The "Evening News" series of reports is called "Vietnam Remembered." There are those who can't remember because they were born as the war was winding down; much of this will be new information to them. One of the best television pieces so far aired last week on the "Evening News." Correspondent Bob Schieffer went to Bardstown, Ky., which had the highest Vietnam casualty rate of any U.S. city (16 deaths out of a population of 6,000) and asked high school students about the war. Most of them knew little or nothing. They answered Schieffer with the equivalent of "What war?"
While NBC is sending Gumbel to Vietnam, "Today" cohost Jane Pauley will do some reporting from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. Senior producer Ryan says the memorial is really the centerpiece for all the coverage from Vietnam. Ryan is 38. His Army hitch ended just one week before he would have been sent to Southeast Asia.
"There are 58,000 reasons we should be doing this -- the names on that granite wall," Ryan says. "We will be broadcasting from Vietnam, but we'll really be focused on that memorial."
For Ryan, it is a personal story. For Koppel, it is a personal story. It is for Safer, Grossman, Cronkite and the others as well. Because of television, it is a national personal story. Because of Vietnam, we are more willing to concede that the old pronouncements about how this society will live or die by the tube probably are true.