Lyndon Johnson’s War Propaganda

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General William Westmoreland presented an optimistic view of the Vietnam War in November 1967Credit Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

In 1967, the expensive and bloody war in Vietnam was not obviously producing an American victory. Journalists and politicians began to speak of a stalemate. President Lyndon Johnson, and the men leading the American effort in Vietnam, found this intolerable. They felt that maintaining public support for the war required persuading the press and the public that the war was being won. And so, that fall, they undertook what has sometimes been called the “Optimism Campaign.”

Walt Rostow, the national security adviser, coordinated efforts in Washington through an office called the Vietnam Information Group. Once a week, representatives of several relevant agencies met, with Rostow as chairman, to consider how American successes in Vietnam could be publicized. George Allen, who sometimes represented the C.I.A., later commented that in the group’s efforts “to manipulate public opinion,” there was “no consideration of objective truth, honesty or integrity” and “surprisingly little concern about credibility.” (George Carver, the regular representative from the C.I.A., sometimes managed to introduce some realism, but he had a difficult task.)

The core of the Optimism Campaign was the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, which ran the war effort in South Vietnam. Headed by Gen. William Westmoreland, it used its voluminous battlefield data to persuade the media that the Communist forces were declining in strength. The MACV leadership put heavy pressure on intelligence officers at MACV to make even their classified estimates of enemy strength conform to the optimistic picture that their superiors were presenting to the media. On Aug. 15, Brig. Gen. Phillip Davidson, chief of intelligence for MACV, issued a directive: “The figure of combat strength and particularly of guerrillas must take a steady and significant downward trend as I am convinced this reflects true enemy status.”

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The Women Who Covered Vietnam

This year Australia put the journalist Kate Webb on a stamp to commemorate the country’s Veterans Day. It is a reproduction of a famous photo of Kate wearing a safari shirt, holding open her notebook while looking intently at the subject of an interview.

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Kate Webb earned a reputation as a fearless reporter during the Vietnam War. Credit  Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

By recognizing Kate, who covered the Vietnam War for United Press International, as a “woman in war,” the stamp quietly acknowledges what has been glossed over in the annals of the conflict. Female reporters covered that war, rewriting the rules so that the phrase “woman war correspondent” would never again be an oxymoron.

Reporters like Kate and me didn’t go to Vietnam because of enlightened decisions by newsrooms; in the 1960s, news organizations weren’t sending women to cover the most important story of our generation. Instead, we had to find our own way to the battle zone. Kate quit her newspaper job and flew to Saigon from Sydney; U.P.I. hired her only later. Jurate Kazickas went on the quiz show “Password” to win the $500 she needed for her ticket to Saigon. The French photojournalist Catherine Leroy, inspired by photos of the war she had seen in Paris Match, arrived in Vietnam as a freelancer. I used money from a fellowship grant to buy a one-way ticket from Seattle to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. It seemed almost natural, since the women’s movement was helping us imagine we could have the same opportunities as men.

Once we got to Indochina, we had to seek out news organizations so desperate for reporters on the spot that they would employ a woman. Then again, it’s not as if we were better off at home; if we had stayed in America or Europe or Australia, we would have been confined to covering society, food, fashion and the home.

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