The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

Written by Carmen Hoang. Edited by Isaac Evans.

In 1970, poet and writer Gil Scott-Heron coined the phrase ‘the revolution will not be televised’. However, by the mid-1960s, a revolution in attitudes had already begun to stir in homes across America – due to the power of television. What had once been a war with overwhelming support faced increasing discontent. Week after week Americans saw, in their own living rooms with their very own eyes, the terror, abuse and death that American soldiers and the Vietnamese alike were facing. This was the Vietnam War.

The Vietnam War was a conflict which extended across South East Asia, beginning in November 1955 and coming to an end with the fall of Saigon in April 1975. The war was fought between North Vietnam and its communist allies, and South Vietnam which was backed by the US and other anti-communist countries. Americans had initially supported the war, believing the containment of communism to be of the utmost priority in preventing the Domino Effect.

Although television had been around long before the Vietnam War, it wasn’t until the 1960s that broadcast television really became the popular form of news. In 1950 there were approximately 6 million television sets in American households. This figure rose to almost 60 million by 1960. Television rapidly replaced newspapers as the most cited news outlet. As the images of war were a constant, omniscient presence on screens, it became that much harder to ignore the fact that, by 1968, the war could not be won.

Pioneer broadcast journalist and CBS anchorman Walter Conkrite became distinguished through his reporting of life-changing stories throughout the 1960s and 1970s, including the JFK’s assassination, the Civil Rights movement and the Watergate Scandal. His reputation as “the most trusted man in America” gave him much integrity and power, with Americans taking his word as gospel. Originally supporting the war, the Tet Offensive in 1968 compelled Conkrite into making a dramatic turn:

Walter Cronkite in Vietnam

“It seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate… To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past.”

In response, President Lyndon B Johnson famously said “If I’ve lost Walter Conkrite, I’ve lost middle America.” Indeed, the accumulated experience of watching the death of another Vietnamese child, jungles burning from chemical weapons, the body bags of American soldiers, stirred an angry, influential counterculture.

On July 30th 1968, during a proposed cease-fire for the lunar holiday Tet, the North Vietnamese army launched attacks across Vietnam, with over 100 towns and cities, including Saigon,  targeted. It is valid to argue that public opinion made the US lose the war. Although the Tet Offensive had actually been a military victory for the US, with the North sustaining a massive casualty toll that they could not afford, the political ramifications of the offensive were far greater. It uncovered the false statements made by General Westmorland that the North were too weak to continue fighting and their defeat was in sight.

What counterculture of the 1960s (consisting mostly of white, middle class youths) saw was a ruthless defeat. The war was no longer statistics on a page; television images created an emotionally visceral connection with the victims. In 1965, the percentage of Americans agreeing with the war was 65%, but this dropped to 32% by 1969. Vietnam had created a factional split in the Democratic Party, and Lyndon Johnson declined running in the next election. Johnson’s ‘credibility gap’ had widened with every year the war dragged on. The public became resentful of his administration’s foreign policy and took to the streets. Protests spread not just in America, but around the world – in West Berlin, at Kent State University, in Grosvenor Square.

It may be hard to imagine the importance of television as it was during the Vietnam War, having in many ways become desensitised to the images of war. We have grown up with more ways to access news than all other generations before us. Having said that, there’s no doubt that Twitter, Facebook and other sites have played a momentous part in war coverage. You only have to think back to the 2009-2010 Iranian Election Protests to see the impact Twitter and Youtube created (Nedā Āghā-Soltān’s death, twitter feeds from protesters).

Lyndon Johnson stepped down from office with a remarkable speech, part of which had an acute observation on the role of televised war:

“No one can say exactly what effect those vivid scenes have on American opinion. Historians must only guess at the effect that television would have had during earlier conflicts on the future of this Nation: during the Korean war, or World War II, the Battle of the Bulge, or when our men were slugging it out in Europe.”

It is imperative, however, to consider the other reasons as to why the Vietnam War ended. The sheer length of the war along with the rising death toll on both sides became unfeasible to sustain. Westmorland’s request for 400,000 more troops after the Tet Offensive was quickly dismissed and Nixon proceeded to use mass bombing as a cheaper alternative.  The Fulbright Hearings, led by important political officials who had themselves begun to change their outlook on the war, exposed many atrocities facing and caused by soldiers. The role of media however, made these exposures real and tangible. Footage of the My Lai incident in 1969 uncovered war crimes led by American soldiers and the Pentagon Papers made public through The New York Times revealed the government’s systematic lies concerning the Vietnam War, all of which cause worldwide protests and denouncements. Undoubtedly, television made the war feel so close to home that it caused a radical change in people’s minds. For the first time they could not escape the harsh realities of war, as they could with the First and Second World War – they could not keep calm and carry on. Instead, they started a revolution.