Lessons Learned From Vietnam: Media, Manipulation & The Gulf War

George Bush Sr. gloated after the success of the Gulf War that America “had kicked ‘Vietnam Syndrome’ once and for all.” Bush’s statement reflects the inextricable connection that is shared between Iraq and Vietnam. A connection that has a lot of historical significance embedded within it.

The Vietnam War

The Vietnam War was perceived as a disaster. The US spent billions of dollars, 58,000 American soldiers were killed, many more were injured and for the first time in history America had lost a war. Vietnam left a black mark on America that ingrained weakness and shame into American society, culture and politics throughout the 1970’s and 80’s. This mark was labelled by President Reagan in 1980 as ‘Vietnam Syndrome’. Reagan was concerned that the aftershock of Vietnam had caused a type of illness that had made America powerless to act in a menacing and uncertain post-Vietnam world.

Throughout history bloody wars between nations have taken place and there has always been winners and losers. Why then is America’s loss in Vietnam so well remembered?

Vietnam: The “First Television War “

There was a unique factor exclusive to the Vietnam War that amplified and dramatized the devastation to such an extent that the horror and shame became instilled in people’s minds for decades to come. This powerful entity was the ‘television.’ TV became a new addition to American homes in the early sixties which was coincidently around the same time as President Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam War in 1965. The timing of ‘war’ and ‘television’ combined led to what was famously remembered as ‘The First Television War.’  Reporters were given free access to the battle-field and as a result the public for the first time became a participant in almost every phase of war. The consequences of this were devastating.


Vietnam was initially portrayed as the “good fight”. However, as the war dragged on and more negative images and reports from the battlefield began to surface through televisions people started to doubt the purpose and progress of the war. The consequences of blood, death and despair streaming into American living rooms damaged public opinion at home and soldier’s morale on the battle-field.  The influence was so strong it caused President Nixon to declare that the American military’s “worst enemy seems to be the press.” The media with its overload of emotion provoking images forged a strong negative memory in the minds of Americans. It was this this inability to forget that made America weak and led President Reagan to diagnose the nation as suffering from the ‘Vietnam Syndrome’.

“The Gulf War” (1990-91)

The Gulf War was the first major conflict abroad since Vietnam. However, before America could “free Kuwait” in 1990 George Bush Sr. had a battle to win at home. The unforgettable memory of Vietnam was still limiting American foreign policy and influencing the American people’s desire to get involved abroad. The war acted as a catalyst that revived the dormant memories of the past. Once again “Vietnam” was all over the newspapers and television and the American people weren’t pleased.

How did George Bush Sr. conquer the memory of Vietnam and get America to support a war in Iraq?

Manufacturing Consent

Bush strategically used the media to his advantage to sway people in favour of war. He achieved this firstly by rallying support in America through the demonization of Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi soldiers. Comparisons between Hussein and Hitler and fabricated stories of Iraqi atrocities dominated American news. It effectively created enough desire amongst the American public to stop the perceived “evil” and it seemed war was the only option available to achieve this. The most famous and significant example of manufactured consent was the “baby story” where it was popularly reported that Iraqi soldiers had entered a Kuwaiti hospital and removed hundreds of new born babies from incubators and threw them onto the floor to die. This was later proven completely untrue, however the American public believed it at the time and supported a “just” war to stop horrible acts like this happening again.

Maintaining Consent

Bush had gotten into Iraq and he wasn’t going to let anything like Vietnam happen again. He didn’t allow the press any opportunity to harm the war effort. He imposed strict restrictions and censorship.

The military controlled the media’s movements far more tightly than it did in Vietnam. They were given virtually no access to soldiers in the battle-field and made much more dependent on official briefers and experts at military organised briefings. The result back in America was the image of a “good” and “clean” war dominated by awesome technology and special effects, a stark contrast to the bloody disaster in Vietnam.

In Conclusion

Vietnam was a lesson for America. Like anything being done for the first time, unforeseen mistakes were made. The ability for Americans at home to see the blood and despair of a war through a television proved to be a powerful influence on support for the war and consequently for troop morale on the battlefield.  “Vietnam Syndrome” and “The Media” shared an inextricable relationship. The media during the Vietnam War helped to create this syndrome through its ability to be remembered and provoke emotions and then ironically, it was used as the vital tool to finally “kick Vietnam Syndrome once and for all” in 1991. However this was not an entirely true statement. The memory of Vietnam is still very much alive today in America. It is commonly used in the media and in debates over policy as a comparison or warning in relation to current or future U.S foreign interventions, such as the current war in Afghanistan.

Further Reading:

Record, J. (2011). Leaving Vietnam: Insights for Iraq? Diplomatic History. (Macquarie University Database).

Neal, D. (2002). Fighting the Last War: The `Vietnam Syndrome’ as a Constraint on U.S. Foreign Policy, 1975-1991. Politics & Society.  Vol. 63 Issue 4, p1512-1513.

Hallin, D. (1986). The “Uncensored War.” The Media and Vietnam. (University of California Press).

Macarthur, j. (1992). Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War. (Hill and Wang)

5 comments on “Lessons Learned From Vietnam: Media, Manipulation & The Gulf War

  1. ali aziz says:

    A wonderful piece of writing. The American propaganda in the Gulf War was unbelievable in the way portraying themselves as very humane and Iraq as evil. I still remember the popular TV footage of a green car was crossing on a bridge in Baghdad in 1991 and the American jet was waiting to bomb the bridge. The bridge, like other hundreds, was destroyed but only after it was empty from civilians! That was on TV. But in reality I saw how American warplanes were demolishing the infrastructure of the cities: building, electricity supply station, towers, hospitals, schools and residential areas. Far from the eye of cameras the American soldiers killed many civilians. The photo above which Saddam Hussein appears with the child of those “western hostages” I watched it on Iraqi TV in 1991 when Saddam had met them in one of his presidential palace. They stayed for a short period and then with the mediating by king Hussein Bin Talal of Jordan those a few western families were sent back, unharmed, to America and Europe. Last year the Iraqi government paid $400 million as compensation for those families because they claimed that they were “scared” and had “stress” during the stay in Saddam’s palace! This money was given from the Iraqi budget while the Iraqi people are suffering from the very basic services such as electricity which America destroyed it in 1991 and 2003 like other aspects of the nation. Even the Iraqi museums were looted by the Americans which contained priceless things from the ancient history!

  2. Thoroughly enjoyed reading this. Your analysis of this “Vietnam Syndrome” is well paced, particularly in explaining the common threads between the Vietnam War and the First Gulf War. As you mentioned the role of the media particularly during Vietnam cannot be understated. Images of wounded 19 year old American G.I.s strewn across tanks, of the U.S. embassy burning in Saigon definitely played into the ‘hearts and minds’ of those back home. I especially liked how you brought in the argument that Vietnam was originally seen as a just war, as ‘the good fight.’ I’ll never forget the first time I saw the news reel of Walter Kronkite in 1968, reporting the Tet Offensive and saying “What the hell is going on? I thought we were winning the war!” Especially interesting as well, is how you explored the extent to which the Bush Snr. administration was able to reverse the effect of media, and manufacture content to win public support. The comparison between Hitler and Saddam Hussein, as well as the story of Iraqi soldiers abusing Kuwaiti babies makes for a fascinating insight into how media can have a two-fold effect on the war effort. Dampening spirits at home just as easy as it can drum up support.

    That being said, comparisons between 21st century Iraq/Afghanistan and Vietnam have always been drawn, but until reading your blog I never assosciated the First Gulf War with Vietnam. It’s intriguing to see the different attitudes towards the media in both conflicts. Whilst the media played an important role in both, you really hammer home your argument about how the First Gulf War manifested that the U.S. military and government had “lessons learned from Vietnam.” Your sentence “A good and clean war dominated by special effects” really provoked me to examine the similarities between the two conflicts, and the employment of shock and awe, napalm strikes in 71, and drone strikes in 91. The determining factor of course, being how the media is or is not restrained, and how they portray the war. A really fascinating and enjoyable read!

  3. dominicsmith1 says:

    I too greatly enjoyed reading this. It’s a very interesting interpretation of the way propaganda compared to free press can influence international conflict. However I can’t help but feel an Anti-American bias in your writing so common today in international commentary. So I guess I just quickly want to point out some things that I agree with and some things I think are better interpreted differently.

    One of the first points made at the very top suggests that this phenomena is unique to America to which I have to say, it isn’t. While the media may have played a part in this example, as shown in your research, the idea of national shame resulting from a a military loss and of that shame affecting future conflicts in not only seen when television is involved, which makes you think if it plays any part at all. At the end of WW1 the german people felt shame and defeat at their loss. Arguably those emotions fostered the environment required for the Nazi’s to take power years later. In a way the same happened at the end of WW2 when the shame was related to how the German people treated the jews and in Japan over the shame related to their defeat. In none of these cases did television popularly exist but the same emotions occurred which influenced their future conflicts.

    Perhaps then it is the Culture of a people that most influences shame from military loss. Perhaps television was such a large part of American culture that similar effects would have experienced from books, art or interpretative dance had that been at the centre of their national culture as television was. I think America thought of themselves as the biggest and best and most powerful and it was the realisation that that were not unbeatable that resulted in ‘Vietnam Syndrome’.

    People have always been shocked by the loss of life wars bring and if it wasn’t on the television it was in the newspapers, church sermons and expressed by those who return. No doubt at all that the media played a part and that the live nature of the reporting affected interpretation and that the americans learnt from the Vietnam on controlling media expression but acknowledgement is important so that your argument is well rounded. Seriously though great piece of writing.

  4. Ali, firstly your comments interest me from a real life perspective on the War in iraq. its amazing the things you have seen. I dont like to talk about the politics of it though, its complicated beyond my understanding, whether they should or should not have gone to war in Iraq and Vietnam? And how they did it was it right or wrong? I cant say. I read Tony Bliars book recenlty and i liked in it where he says every body likes to be critical of decisions after its happenned, but they dont see the unintended consequences of not going to war, they dont see what would of happened if they didnt go. Perhaps both results would have been bad. Perhaps the best possible out come was jsut the lesser of 2 evils. Bad or worse. Death now or more dealth later. A war now or a nuclear war later. I cant say judge on this, but i can also never justify seeing innocent people die. I think the perspectives on the “right tihng” changed from nations perspectives. Right for America? Western World? Asia? Iraq? Muslim World? I tihnk its complicated is all i can say… Id like to see an option that is “right for humanity” but im pessimistic that it exists.

    Any way that rant was a bit off track, but that was something that interested me throught out my research, but unfortunately it wasnt along the path of my argument.

    Dominic, i think my blog is jsut not positive in general its about deception and loss, and not a good moment in American History and the focus is quite narrow. Im not looking at the reasons they went and the good tihngs they achieved or wanted from war im jsut focusing on the media side of things and the deception. However, I dont feel bias against america for doing what they did, i know deception is wrong but im not against that for the right cause, i would be more concerned about the overall cause or reason for being in Iraq and as i said before im not sure if i support or dont support this, it is too complex for me to say.

    You brought up a good point about germany and Japan its a big contradiction to my argument in my blog. That television caused shame, when obviously shame was felt after wars before television. Id like to learn more about these examples. I agree Japan, Germany and America were proud and loss somewhat insulted them.

    I dont want to say too much, as i dont think i am qualified to do so, but i feel that Japan had the atomic bomb which adds a massive component to memory and Germany slaughtered 6 million Jews. I think the dynamics of a war and slaughter are seen in a different light and add complicated new dimensions to how it is rememebred and the shame it brings. in comparison to Japan and Germany after their losses i dont think America lost that much after Vietnam, at home there was no bombing of cities, no death, no country take over life went on as normal. They werent made out as “evil” as the nazis or japanese, although their was some of that i dont tihnk anywhere near as extreme. America was left with the images and memory and i feel that television (or what i should have emphasised originally “the media in general and images”) was the major reason for this.

    When i read 100 people die i dont feel much, but when i watched the footage of children killed in gaza recently i felt sick, forget the poltical reasons for war, the emotion of seeing what it really is, was so strong… Politically it may be right, but no human can see that. there is a quote i read from a government official while researchign this year and it went like this. Reporter: “Why dont you let the people see whats happenning at home (in regards to war)? Official: “If people could see that sort of thing there would never be another war again.”

  5. argon3103 says:

    I like how you make the link between the media and both the reasons for the disdain of the Vietnam war and the consent given for the first Iraq war. I like how your article shows how the US quickly learnt how to use the media for their benefit, although it came rather late to the party. this article is very interesting for me because it rams home the point that a war can be made just or unjust simply by the spin that you put on it. Vietnam started out as a just war, and the US weren’t about to go and let the same thing happen to the Iraq war

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