Peter Braestrup

By William M. Hammond. Army Centerfor Military History, GovernmentPrinting Office. 659 pp. $43 cloth,$33 paper

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By William M. Hammond. Army Center for Military History, Government Printing Office. 659 pp. $43 cloth, $33 paper

"Our worst enemy is the press!" exclaimed Richard Nixon during the controversial U.S.-backed incursion into Laos in 1971. Such sentiments came easily to the beleaguered president who inherited the bloody stalemate in Vietnam from Lyndon Johnson. But were his sentiments justified? Did the news media contribute significantly to America’s defeat in Vietnam?

Not according to this unusual official history commissioned by the U.S. Army. In the present volume (his second), civilian historian Hammond finds that President Nixon’s tortuous effort to achieve "peace with honor" was marked by so many contradictions that widespread skepticism among journalists was almost guaranteed.

Attempting to placate the "doves" in Congress and the clamorous middle-class peace movement, Nixon began in 1969 to withdraw American troops and "Vietnamize" the war. At the same time, he sought to pressure Hanoi into a settlement by ordering secret B-52 bomber raids and (in 1970) the invasion of communist bases in Cambodia. Many newspeople, who expected the troop withdrawals to lead soon to a U.S. disengagement, were outraged. The credibility of Nixon and his top advisers further declined among journalists just as the White House began to treat reporters as implacable foes, rebutting their coverage and seeking to control information. When the 1972 "Christmas bombing" occurred, the media were ready to believe the worst—including unwarranted enemy claims of massive civilian losses.

Given access to hitherto classified Nixon papers, Hammond dwells overmuch on the White House’s machinations. The strengths of his chronicle are clarity, detail, and balance. While granting the accuracy of much reporting—on Cambodia, on drug abuse and racial clashes among U.S. soldiers, on the enemy’s abortive 1972 Easter offensive—he also traces the media’s shift of focus from combat reporting in Vietnam to feeding frenzies at home over horror stories such as the Mylai massacre.

Hammond concludes that adversary journalism as such did not undermine domestic support for Nixon’s war. As the casualty list grew, the public’s patience slowly ran out. Nevertheless, he adds that by "remaining in Vietnam to retrieve the nation’s honor," many in the military "fixed their anger on the most visible element of the society that appeared to have rejected them, the press, rather than on the failed policies that had brought them to that point. When reporters took up the challenge, anger and recrimination on all sides were the inevitable result."

—Peter Braestrup


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