Looking Back: How the Washington Post Watched the Country March Off to Another War

By Jack Limpert

In March 2003, President George W. Bush sent U.S. troops into Iraq, deposing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and searching for weapons of mass destruction. In the next nine years, hundreds of thousands of people were killed, including almost 5,000 U.S. troops. Last week journalist Greg Mitchell attacked the Washington Post, saying, “The Washington Post killed my assigned piece for its Outlook section this weekend which mainly covered media failures re Iraq and the current refusal to come to grips with that yet ran this misleading, cherry-picking piece by Paul Farhi claiming that the media didn’t  fail.” Mitchell also pointed out that “neither the Post nor the New York Times published an editorial admitting any shortcomings in their Iraq coverage.”

In 1961, newly elected President John F. Kennedy sent large numbers of U.S troops—called military advisers—to South Vietnam to help the South Vietnamese prevent a takeover by communist guerrilla fighters from North Vietnam. President Lyndon Johnson then committed U.S. troops to combat after the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident where the administration claimed that Northern Vietnamese torpedo boats had attacked a Navy destroyer. By 1973, when U.S. military involvement ended, 58,220 U.S. soldiers had been killed, with the Vietnamese casualties estimated at well over one million.

How did the Washington Post do with the Vietnam war?

In February 1970, The Washingtonian looked into that question. A reporter, Barbara Raskin, read though ten years of Washington Post coverage and selected 36 examples of Post editorials on Vietnam. This sampling shows how long it took the Washington Post back then to acknowledge the “miscalculation—or failure—in the strategy” that took the country to war.

April 7, 1961: The United States has a major interest in the defense of Vietnam, not only because of the vast amounts of economic and military aid (which only recently has been turned to the all-important guerrilla warfare training), but also because American prestige is very much involved in the effort to protect the Vietnamese people from Communist absorption.

December 18, 1963: A curious situation prevails in the dirty war and murky politics of Vietnam. The United States, which supports the regime in the South, can’t afford to lose. Defeat would undermine its positions in Southeast Asia and its prestige everywhere.

May 15, 1964: An on-the-spot military judgment made at the highest level preceded the assignment of 75 bombers to South Vietnam and the assumption must be that this is what the situation requires. Those who have a different view may lack the information on which the decision was made.

February 18, 1965: The violent words and violent acts of the past few days disclose with a dreadful clarity that Vietnam is not an isolated battlefield but a part of a long war which the Communist world seems determined to continue until the last vestige of Western power and influence has been driving from Asia.

March 26, 1965: There is a considerable amount of pious hypocrisy in some of the moans of outrage over the use of nontoxic gases in South Vietnam.

August 15, 1965: During the course of actual fighting, civilians may be wounded and killed and the tide of battle may engulf and destroy civilian homes. These are calamities commonly incident to such warfare. But these tragedies differ from the wilful and deliberate destruction of homes in reprisal. Thank goodness the Marines are not engaged in that kind of barbarism.

April 27, 1966: This newspaper has long supported the basic aims and objectives of Administration policy in Vietnam.

September 5, 1966: This is, in a very real sense, the defense of the United States. The Administration has not made enough of the point that we are in Southeast Asia, fundamentally because our own vital interest is at stake….The stark fact remains that this is a struggle about the organization of the world.

January 12, 1967: Congress and the country heard from the President a careful, calm, and measured discussion of the outlook in South Vietnam. One might search the archives for utterance of a wartime leader that would exceed it in candor and restraint.

October 22, 1967: (About the Peace March on the Pentagon.) It is a tragedy enough for dissent to bring violence and violations of the law. It is a double tragedy when dissent growing out of a yearning for peace raises a very real threat of prolonging the war.

October 26, 1967: There is nothing that says generals must answer irrelevant and hypothetical questions from Senators.

February 29, 1968: The tone and temper of the Vietnam debate is getting uglier at just the moment when the need is greatest for a national display of unity and resolve.

In March 1968 the Post began to reverse its position on the war and on March 31, 1968, President Johnson announced that he would not run for re-election.

March 6, 1968: It may even be necessary to begin by acknowledging miscalculation—or failure—in the strategy that has carried us from the Tonkin Resolution of 1964, to the first tentative landing of combat troops in early 1965 and the beginning of the bombing of the North, and on to the present involvement of more than 500,000 United States combat troops in a struggle with no clearly visible end-result in sight.

After Richard Nixon was elected President in November 1968, the Post concluded:

February 28, 1969: Optimism. Progress. Victory. There has been optimism from John F. Kennedy in 1963, from General Maxwell Taylor in 1964, from Robert McNamara in 1965, Henry Cabot Lodge in 1966, General William Westmoreland in 1967, and Robert Komer in 1968. These were the men in charge, but their predictions were not believed: not by the press, and ultimately not by the public. Too many of the predictions have been wrong. Since 1963, the record of the skeptics and the pessimists has been excellent.

December 2, 1969: In the process of saving the country, the allies are destroying it.

December 10, 1969: When will it end?

U.S. military involvement ended in August 1973 and the fall of Saigon in April 1975 marked the end of the war.










Speak Your Mind