Vol. 3, Issue 2
Historical Revisionism and Vietnam War Public Opinion
Author: Mark D. Harmon
Associate Professor, School of Journalism and Electronic Media University of Tennessee
HISTORICAL REVISIONISM AND VIETNAM WAR PUBLIC OPINION
This research debunks the neoconservative claim that the American loss in the Vietnam War can be attributed to a stab in the back from news media and elite protesters. The article shows: 1) creeping disillusionment with the war started with lower classes, not upper ones; 2) even as the U. S. public turned against the war, it retained a dislike for antiwar protesters; 3) news media tend to resist, rather than advance, social movements and protest; and 4) secondary analysis reveals a similar pattern of lower-class war fatigue currently is emerging regarding the Afghanistan War. The article further suggests the oft-quoted Indexing Hypothesis needs to be modified to note that the consensus breakdown necessary to crack mediated resistance need not start with elites, but mediated attention to dissent likely occurs when consensus breakdown expands enough to reach and to include elites.
Bennett (1990), as part of theoretical work in press/state relations, advanced an Indexing Hypothesis, the notion that social movements received mediated attention and can succeed only when elite consensus breaks down. The idea is that mediated content is “indexed” to the acceptable range of debate among political elites. “In this ironic twist on the democratic ideal,” he wrote, “modern public opinion can be thought of as an ‘index’ constructed from the distribution of dominant institutional voices as recorded in the mass media. By adopting such an opinion index, the media have helped create a political world that is, culturally speaking, upside-down. It is a world in which governments are able to define their own publics and where ‘democracy’ becomes whatever the government ends up doing” (p. 125).
The hypothesis certainly has become what Bennett hoped it would be—namely a common framework for those who approach news content from three differing starting points: corporate media interests, organizational efficiency, or the socio-economic backgrounds, assumptions, and biases of news workers (p. 123). A search of Google Scholar at the beginning of May 2010 found 506 citations of his article. Yet, for all that citation, one may need to brush off the Indexing Hypothesis for another purpose, countering current efforts to rewrite the history of public opinion and its influence during the Vietnam War.
The Washington Post (2000) on the 25th anniversary of the fall of Saigon editorialized that the Vietnam War “enjoyed more public support than the blunder theorists care to remember.” The Post’s evidence for this point was oblique and indirect, the election of Richard Nixon in 1968 and his re-election in 1972. The editorial overlooks that Nixon ran as a peace candidate in 1968 with a “secret plan” to end the war. By 1972 American ground combat troops had left, and the issue had been reduced to bombing. The Post also expressed relief the Gulf War “cured the armed forces of the debilitating Vietnam syndrome.”
A Vietnam Syndrome also is invoked by neo-conservatives who claim the U. S. failure is Vietnam was not in joining the war, but in the public being misled by hostile media coverage and the actions of naïve and juvenile protesters. Morley Safer (2003) has lamented that young military officers are being trained based on the myth the only mistake the U.S. military made was allowing press access. Tony Snow (2000), neoconservative and former antiwar protester himself, used the words cowardly, bored, and narcissistic to describe antiwar protesters; he also claimed the movement was merely “a high-minded way to dodge the draft” and “the next best thing to a dating...