Propaganda in War: Vietnam and (less about the) Falklands


Useful article/resource about War and Propaganda in general for US



Truth the first casualty in War.




Reminder that Propaganda is not overt ideology: that in war the main purpose is to manage public opinion at home such that it is oriented towards supporting the war - 


there is no particular point in engaging in strong propaganda to secure the loyalty of the troops – you can do that via punishment for deserters and for the most anti-war protestors – prosecutions - at least until Vietnam which changed matters with a protest movement that encompassed students and the old left of industrial activist as well as built on the civil rights movements that emerged out of the late 1950s/early 60s.


And propaganda is aimed to gain support or at least sow seeds of doubt I the enemy’s mind. This encompasses leaflets, radio, TV, films, and moreover small everyday objects and things such as putting messages on banknotes!

US Leaflets dropped in Vietnam


With the latter, propaganda is not just the action of those in power but of a counter-hegemony of oppositional propaganda…and this is enabled more and more by new and cheaper technologies as well as a softening of the democratic state.


e.g. International Times (IT) and Poster Workshop - The Poster Workshop was set up in the summer of 1968  in a basement in Camden Road, Camden Town, London. It was inspired by the Atelier Populaire, set up in the Ecole des Beaux Arts, Paris, in May 1968. And see here for a wider view of the role of radicalism and poster art


and Vietnam posters collection.


Propaganda is argument at one remove in that it tries to establish conviction – a simulacrum of truth – the image of how it is that secures your consent and thus you to accept meaning to the point of our acting upon it.


Propaganda is usually coded in words – discourse and in images often reinforced by visualised words – enlarged/emphasised words etc that are linguistic metonyms that persuade – in fascist germany – the linkage of words referring to motherhood and nation + image of nazi as guardian of the stated concepts



It may build out of a presumed patriotism/jingoism


But with the decline of European wars and also colonialism/Empire and the public acceptance/expectation that nations will fight for their place in the world and their territories, increasingly public support for war split. Perhaps the first real show of this was the 1956 Suez Crisis. And of course the anti-Vietnam protests in the UK – 1968; anti Iraq protest were clear indicators of this tendency.


Russell and Co protested against WWI and found themselves challenged by very angry pro-war mobs in 1914. But we were part of Empire and the military might of the BE was so much ingrained in the public mind that pride was a driving force for public support.



The ‘truth as the first casualty’ was inverted in the Vietnam War partly because many Generals e.g. Westmoreland and others complained that they were losing the war  at home precisely because of too much truth being told  too many distressing images of US or Sth Vietnamese atrocities.  (show)


‘The Vietnam War was complicated by factors that never before occurred in America’s conduct of war… More than ever before, television showed the terrible human suffering and sacrifice of war… raising questions whether America would ever again be able to fight an enemy abroad with unity and strength of purpose at home.’ (Nixon, 1978, p.50)

The ‘Vietnam Syndrome’ to which US President Richard Nixon was referring has largely been proven a myth (McLaughlin, 2002; Keeble, 1997; Herman and Chomsky, 1988) however, its perceived effect, especially in military circles, has helped shape government and military relations with the media during times of conflict ever since.

…since the Vietnam War, information received by the mass media and conveyed to readers/viewers has been restricted, manipulated and censored by the military and government . (and this is especially true of the way Government shaped and controlled news flow directly or indirectly (via obstruction from armed forces) in the Falklands War – see Robert Harris’s ‘Gotcha!’

source of quote:  See this article which challenges the conventional Nixon and Generals view that media undermined legitimacy of US involvement in Vietnam War




There are degrees of support for war even in the recent times (post-WW2) but whereas in the past political ideological often socialist/leftist movements were in the forefront of protest against the majority, in more recent times this is more nuanced with a continuum of support from outright to no support and all points of questioning and doubt in between being expressed..and this itself is result of weakening of belief in govts, greater media-savvy, access via more pluralistic systems of info-distribution (technology). Simple for/anti position linked to an ideologically committed position of a pre-WW2 era is not so typical despite the attempts b the popular press/tabloids to effect precisely this binary split in pop. (the jingo-ism of The Sun)




The possibility of the rhetoric of a ‘just war’


Just by morality – Nazis bad…treatment of the jewsWW2


a) Just because of unjust invasion – WW2 – Czechoslovakia; Falklands from UK view


b) unwarranted occupation of rightful sovereignty – Falklands/Malvinas from Argentinian view


More complex view in poster from 1967 that links invasion to racism to cultural and military ( fordefense’) imperialism







Equally the protest movement on moral grounds rather than legal argued that Vietnam was an unjust anti-communist invasion…


And these arguments link into arg that are already accepted or go against established pol values namely of anti-colonialism/imperialism – viz portray Vietnam as imperialist so not only to appeal to a radicalised student movement but to move wider into populist residues of isolationist anti-imp discourses from the inter-war period that hang on into post WW2 despite Truman doctrine


Try to re-direct any justification of anti-communism as part of international strategy/diplomacy into a language about the arrogance of the state and big govt – the not-in-my-name tactic. It was not voted for etc – Iraq war arg ran like this and then when it was debated and had the veneer of democratic acceptance, the govt cheated   - the WMDs


And if anti-big govt ideas are part of the culture (spoke of this last week re: rise of new cons movement) then moral arg runs along with moral anti-imp…


But if you link big govt and capitalism and violence – you get a mixed discourse that problematises the war – see image below – this mixes state, coca-cola and napalm all of which adds up to what Paul Goodman the gentle anarchist intellectual to about the military-industrial complex.


These are cross-cutting images in that they portray big state which many in US dislike esp non-elite ordinary folks – who associate it with uprooting their traditions (racism etc!) – the metropolitan elite…with anti-capitalism which does have a folksy popularity of anybody’s entitled to become rich – the US dream – embodied in Coke.






But propaganda that is mixed like this tends to exclude ordinary folks precisely because it is too clever by half – ad thus aims at the middle class educated ant-war protestor


So for propaganda you do need to draw on anchoring myths of the people - images that they have culturally engrained in them - as well as a meaning/interpretive linkage to the current situation


But this needs immediacy of connotation – so gap with denotation must not require too many steps – signifying chains to arrive at the correct interpretation – in Hall’s terms the preferred meaning.


Realistic versus moral world view – former complex; latter often bi-polar and thus simplistic but easy to grasp and easy to assign oneself or the side or the other. Tends to polarise. Confirms identity and belonging if one knows where one stands.



But you can also have anti-war realism…a propaganda that portrays Uncle Sam as losing the war and on practical rounds and avoidance of any more unnecessary deaths US should withdraw.





and… sort of mainstream establishment ‘objectivity’ realism that broadly supports the war but debates the issues seriously on public TV and opens up the possibility of changing the war strategy. But all within an official discourse. It give the illusion of democratic debate whilst excluding too much radical opinion.



The Vietnam War is a classic example of America's propaganda system. In the mainstream media--the New York Times, CBS, and so on-- there was a lively debate about the war. It was between people called "doves" and people called "hawks." The hawks said, "If we keep at it we can win." The doves said, "Even if we keep at it, it would probably be too costly for use, and besides, maybe we're killing too many people." Both sides agreed on one thing. We had a right to carry out aggression against South Vietnam. Doves and hawks alike refused to admit that aggression was taking place. They both called our military presence in Southeast Asia the defense of South Vietnam, substituting "defense" for "aggression" in the standard Orwellian manner. In reality, we were attacking South Vietnam just as surely as the Soviets later attacked Afghanistan. (extract from Chomsky article)



Mainstream TV channels all part of the general constrained system of criticism that accepts a trade-off with Govt over what they say and a system of accountability within parameters. Discourse organised within a doves/hawks binary opposition that excludes radial war rejectionist voices – who when interviewed are set up as outsiders – interviewed on campuses rather than studios that might otherwise legitimate them.

You Write What You're Told, Micah Wright


This is typical of the propaganda imagery that the Situationists used in France in the 50s and 60s – a paradoxical play of images that use the codes of official propaganda to invert their message – what the SI called ‘detournement’. This is somewhere between irony and satire.


But it dos pick up on something that has not been sufficiently commented on in the analysis of press in war which is that corporate-ness of the press in terms of the concentration of media ownership enables a degree of control by government that would not be so characteristic if there was a more varied range of owners.


PR and press officers within the government seek to ‘establish close and mutually beneficial working relationships with journalists’ (Franklin, 1994, p.14). In the build-up to conflicts, I would argue, that the government uses this relationship to increase public support for their actions. (Franklin, B., 1994. Packaging Politics. New York: Routledge)



And in the Falklands War:

journalists had to sign accreditation papers that ruled out certain topics for reporting. Furthermore, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) issued editors with more guidelines and briefed crewmembers on what they were allowed to discuss with the reporters on board. Harris (1983) cited in Carruthers (2000, p.124) highlights eight topics which were off limits: ‘speculation about possible future action; plans for operational capabilities and readiness of individual units; details about military techniques and tactics; logistical details; intelligence about Argentine forces; equipment capabilities and defects; and communications.’ The ambiguity of these topics meant that much of the information which journalists wanted to include in their reports was not allowed.

Journalists were compromised further by the fact that they had to rely on military personnel to transmit their copy back to London. This created two stages of verification where articles were subject to the possibility of censorship. Firstly, ‘it fell to the MoD’s civilian public relations officers … to strike offensive passages from their charges’ copy’ before transmitting it back to London ‘where [secondly] it was vetted again by press officers’ (Carruthers, 2000, The Media at War. Basingstoke: Palgrave.)


Article on coverage and propaganda of Iraq War


Key tactics of propagandas in War - 2  lists

Each implicitly suggests more explicit remedies.

  1. Decontextualizing violence: focusing on the irrational without looking at the reasons for unresolved conflicts and polarization.
  2. Dualism: reducing the number of parties in a conflict to two, when often more are involved. Stories that just focus on internal developments often ignore such outside or “external” forces as foreign governments and transnational companies.
  3. Manicheanism: portraying one side as good and demonizing the other as “evil.”
  4. Armageddon: presenting violence as inevitable, omitting alternatives.
  5. Focusing on individual acts of violence while avoiding structural causes, like poverty, government neglect and military or police repression.
  6. Confusion: focusing only on the conflict arena (i.e., the battlefield or location of violent incidents) but not on the forces and factors that influence the violence.
  7. Excluding and omitting the bereaved, thus never explaining why there are acts of revenge and spirals of violence.
  8. Failure to explore the causes of escalation and the impact of media coverage itself.
  9. Failure to explore the goals of outside interventionists, especially big powers.
  10. Failure to explore peace proposals and offer images of peaceful outcomes.
  11. Confusing cease-fires and negotiations with actual peace.
  12. Omitting reconciliation: conflicts tend to reemerge if attention is not paid to efforts to heal fractured societies. When news about attempts to resolve conflicts are absent, fatalism is reinforced. That can help engender even more violence, when people have no images or information about possible peaceful outcomes and the promise of healing.

Danny Schechter, Covering Violence: How Should Media Handle Conflict? July 18, 2001 (Emphasis Added)

Arthur Siegel, a social science professor at York University in Toronto, describes four levels of varieties of propaganda:

No matter how it is spread, propaganda comes in four basic varieties, said Arthur Siegel, social science professor at York University in Toronto, whose 1996 book Radio Canada International examines World War II and Cold War propaganda.

“The first level is the Big Lie, adapted by Hitler and Stalin. The state-controlled Egyptian press has been spreading a Big Lie, saying the World Trade Center was attacked by Israel to embarrass Arabs,” said Siegel.

“The second layer says, ‘It doesn’t have to be the truth, so long as it’s plausible.’

“The third strategy is to tell the truth but withhold the other side’s point of view.

“The fourth and most productive is to tell the truth, the good and the bad, the losses and the gains.

“Governments in Western society take the last three steps. They avoid the Big Lie, which nobody here will swallow,” Siegel said.