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Vietnam War

The Unquiet Reporters: The American Press and the Franco-Viet Minh War, 1950-54

Dien_Bien_Phu002

In Hanoi, Vietnam, correspondents filed into the press camp to hear about the latest military engagement in France’s war against the Communist-led Viet Minh. The French colonel presiding explained that French forces had secured a crushing victory in northern Vietnam, inflicting severe losses on communist combatants, and compelling the remaining enemy troops to flee across the Red River where they were being pummelled by French air power. 

The colonel could not revel for too long in tales of France’s battlefield success, for his announcement was interrupted by Bill Granger, a crude and often inebriated American correspondent. U.S. representation in the press corps had swollen in recent years, following Washington’s 1950 decision to supply French forces with American military hardware. U.S. officials hoped this aid would stave off Vietnam’s fall to communism, preventing the start of a domino effect they feared would see all of Southeast Asia slip into the Soviet Union’s Cold War orbit.

After forcing the evasive colonel to reveal the scale of French losses, Granger turned to France’s next steps. Incensed by the American’s condescending tone and provocative questioning, the colonel eventually snapped, informing Granger that French options were limited by the tardiness of the arrival of U.S. aid. 

Washington’s failure, the colonel sneered, to deliver the helicopters it had promised would probably cost French lives, leaving those wounded in the battle to trek through dangerous terrain in which death by ambush or gangrene likely awaited them. And with that the colonel stormed out of the press conference.[1]

The above account summarising Granger’s tense interaction with the French colonel is a scene from British author Graham Greene’s Indochina novel, The Quiet American. Since its publication in 1955, historians, encouraged by Greene’s own admission that the book contained more direct reportage than any of his other works, have sought to uncover the real-life inspirations behind the novel’s characters and plot.[2]   

Scholars have focused their attention principally on identifying the quiet American of the novel’s title, Alden Pyle, the CIA operative whose idealistic pursuit of a Third Force between communism and colonialism succeeds not in engineering democracy in Vietnam but rather sowing death and destruction in the streets of Saigon

Far less attention has been paid to the novel’s quite accurate portrayal of the tempestuous relationship between American correspondents and the French, one of several issues that fostered an uneasy alliance between Paris and Washington during the Franco-Viet Minh War. 

The press conference Greene depicted in The Quiet American was more fact than fiction, drawn from a December 1951 briefing that Greene himself had attended in Hanoi in which Pulitzer Prize winning American journalist Larry Allen, the model for Granger’s character, baited Colonel Gousset about French casualties.[3]

Such clashes between French officials and American journalists, as I show in my article ‘Press Management and U.S. Support for France in Indochina, 1950-1954’, were frequent events during the early 1950s, with French officials regularly complaining to U.S. diplomats about the behaviour and reporting of American correspondents in Vietnam.[4]

U.S. reporters, Paris noted, fixated more on French military setbacks and the evils of French colonialism than France’s honourable contributions to the causes of the Cold War and Vietnamese development. The French argued that such reporting succeeded only in strengthening the position of those in the French National Assembly calling for France to withdraw from Vietnam and abandon it to the communists.

The novel’s references to the evasiveness of French press officers and the severe restrictions and strict censorship that the French placed on American correspondents also accurately captured the obstacles reporters faced in covering the war, as well as the reasons for journalists’ frustration with their French handlers. 

The antagonistic relationship between American reporters and the French, I show in my article, left American policymakers fearful that U.S. correspondents would initiate a rupture in the Franco-American alliance that would indeed force a premature French departure from Indochina. Washington recognised that non-state actors, as much as government officials, could make or break diplomatic alliances. 

To avert such a Cold War calamity, U.S. diplomats briefed American reporters on their arrival in Vietnam on French sensitivities and the national security importance of avoiding stirring the pot. They also intervened with journalists and editors to kill stories and pressured media outlets to publish rebuttals when reporters refused to fall into line.

Simultaneously, American diplomats urged the French to ease their restrictions on U.S. correspondents. The sum of American reporting was generally supportive of French aims, they accurately informed Paris, and draconian restrictions on press freedoms would only encourage embittered journalists to write critically of French efforts. 

The U.S. mission’s activities met with mixed success. U.S. government intervention ensured that the American media’s coverage of the war was largely favourable but some pessimistic and critical pieces continued to find their way to print. Small numbers of U.S. correspondents found creative ways to bypass French restrictions, locate pessimistic sources, and resist U.S. government intimidation. Meanwhile, American officials experienced little joy with the French, who knew that Washington’s steadfast commitment to containing communism would ensure the flow of U.S. aid to Indochina regardless of whether they liberalised their press policy.

The relationship between American reporters and the French remained frosty right through to the war’s conclusion in 1954, when French war weariness, desire to focus on economic recovery at home and combat nationalist threats in their North African colonies, and further military setbacks forced France to call time on their war in Indochina.[5]

As the French departed and the focus of U.S. efforts shifted to supporting the South Vietnamese government of Ngo Dinh Diem, Washington’s commitment in Vietnam grew, drawing with it increasing numbers of American reporters. 

As historian Kevin Ruane has recently noted, many of these incoming correspondents looked not to history books but to The Quiet American to understand their new surroundings. Sixty-six years on from the novel’s publication, we too can look to The Quiet American for insight into the fragile Franco-American alliance at the centre of early US efforts to contain communism in Vietnam. 

Dr Alex Ferguson is a Teaching Associate in 20th Century U.S. History at the University of Sheffield. He is currently working on a book project examining the U.S. Embassy in Saigon and the Franco-American alliance in Vietnam during the early 1950s. You can find Alex on Twitter @AFerguson1988.

Cover Image: In spring 1954, French soldiers await the Viet Minh attack at Dien Bien Phu, the scene of the climactic battle of the Franco-Viet Minh War. Source: File:Dien Bien Phu002.jpg – Wikimedia Commons


[1] Graham Greene, The Quiet American (New York, 1957), pp. 63-67.

[2] Graham Greene, Ways of Escape (London, 1999), p. 165.

[3] Norman Sherry, The Life of Graham Greene: Volume 2, 1939-1955 (New York, 1994), p. 398; Richard Greene, Russian Roulette: The Life and Times of Graham Greene (London, 2020), pp. 217-218.

[4] Alex Ferguson, ‘Press Management and U.S. Support for France in Indochina, 1950-1954’, Diplomatic History 42.2 (April 2018), pp. 228-253. My thanks go to Oxford University Press and the Society for American Foreign Relations for allowing me to reuse some of this article here. 

[5] Fredrik Logevall, Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam (New York, 2012).

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“Light at the End of the Tunnel”? The Vietnam War, the Credibility Gap, and the COVID-19 Crisis

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Wartime analogies abound in the fight against COVID-19. In the United States, the Surgeon General warned that the nation faced a “Pearl Harbor moment” and Donald Trump, who declared himself a “wartime president”, has invoked the Defense Production Act, a piece of Korean War era legislation which grants the federal government greater control of the economy. Plenty of analysts have commented on these analogies; they work better for some than for others.

But one of the most striking and perhaps overlooked evocations of wartime thus far were Trump’s statements and tweets in April claiming to see “LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL!” Trump was not alone in his use of this phrase. Bill Gates, Boris Johnson,[1] Dominic Raab, and Keir Starmer, to name a few, have recently made similar statements. But absent from much of the commentary on Trump’s use of the phrase, and almost certainly absent from his understanding of it, is that it is most closely associated with American hubris and defeat in the Vietnam War.

During the early years of the American war in Vietnam, U.S. government officials frequently employed the phrase “light at the end of the tunnel” both publicly and privately to suggest that the United States was making slow, steady progress toward a successful resolution of the conflict or, for the less sanguine among them, that the government and the military at least needed to convince the American public that this was the case.

Yet by 1967, the U.S. had deployed over 400,000 troops and there was little indication of a resolution in sight. Although anti-war protests grew throughout the United States, public opinion polls indicated that many Americans continued to support the war effort, but they were not convinced that the United States was making progress and were not happy with President Lyndon Johnson’s handling of the conflict. In the summer and autumn of 1967, Johnson’s team therefore launched a public relations offensive to sell the war and requested that top American civilian and military officials in Vietnam “search urgently for occasions to present sound evidence of progress” to the American people. Walt Rostow, Johnson’s National Security Advisor, suggested that the administration could employ “ways of guiding the press to show light at the end of the tunnel”.

Ellsworth Bunker, the U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam, appeared on CBS’ Face the Nation and once again used the phrase to convey progress, although when pressed on the matter, he refused to say how much of the tunnel remained to be traversed. The U.S. military commander in Vietnam, General William Westmoreland, also returned to the U.S. to make several public appearances. On 21 November, he told an audience at the National Press Club that the war had reached a point “where the end begins to come into view”. A few days later, Westmoreland sent a cable to his deputy saying that he thought it was an appropriate time to “portray to the American people ‘some light at the end of the tunnel’”.[2]  Although there was skepticism among the American press corps in Vietnam about these pronouncements, the PR campaign did temporarily boost public support for the American war effort.

Then, in late January and early February 1968, came the Tet Offensive, the massive, coordinated North Vietnamese and National Liberation Front attacks on South Vietnam’s towns and cities, including an attack on the U.S. embassy in the heart of Saigon. The light at the end of the tunnel, some joked, had been an oncoming train. The prominent CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite speculated that the United States was now “mired in stalemate” and the fragile consensus within the Johnson administration fell apart. The offensive also shattered the progress narrative that Johnson’s team had tried to promote and the so-called “credibility gap”, between how the government presented the war and how the American media and public witnessed it, widened even further.

In late March, amidst plummeting public support, Johnson announced a partial bombing halt of North Vietnam, indicated his willingness to engage in negotiations, and announced that he would not stand for re-election. The light at the end of tunnel, if it had existed at all, rapidly receded and the war would grind on for another seven years.

It should perhaps come as little surprise that American political leaders are so quick to employ wartime analogies. As the late Marilyn Young argued, war is “the substance of American history”. Although the United States has not formally declared war on another nation since the 1940s, it has engaged in near permanent military conflict for the past 75 years.[3] War has also served as the dominant metaphor in major policy campaigns against poverty, drugs, cancer, and terrorism.

Of course, American political leaders usually consciously invoke such metaphors. What is remarkable about the recent usage of this phrase is the apparent ignorance of its historical baggage. While “light at the end of the tunnel” is an idiom with an etymology and application that extends beyond the Vietnam War, the expression is now freighted with irony due to its close association with that conflict.

More than a month has passed since Trump first promised “light at the end of the tunnel” but a conclusion to the crisis does not appear in sight. As the U.S. and U.K. governments prepare to lift some restrictions amid confused messaging and unclear evidence of progress, they are at risk of widening the “credibility gap” even further.

Simon Toner is a Lecturer in Modern American History at the University of Sheffield.

Cover image: Situation Room: Walt Rostow shows President Lyndon B. Johnson a model of the Khe Sanh area

[1] In a confusing twist on the metaphor at a 30 April press conference, Boris Johnson claimed the UK had “come through the peak. Or rather we’ve come under what could have been a vast peak, as though we’ve been going through some huge alpine tunnel. And we can now see the sunlight and pasture ahead of us.”

[2] Westmoreland is often thought to have used the phrase publicly, but I don’t think this was ever the case. However, his association with the phrase was fixed in the popular memory during a 1984 trial in which he sued CBS for libel. CBS had produced a documentary which claimed Westmoreland had misled the Johnson administration about the true strength of enemy forces in Vietnam in order to indicate progress in the war. During the trial, Westmoreland claimed never to have used the phrase “light at the end of the tunnel”. When a lawyer representing CBS showed him the above cable, he said that he had been optimistic, but he had not forecast the end of the war. The case was eventually settled out of court.

[3] Most American military engagements since 1945 have occurred under Congressional and/or UN resolutions authorizing the use of force following a presidential request, rather than formal declarations of war.

 

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