Another Vietnam?

Another Vietnam?

The media's relentless opposition to the war in Iraq likely has little effect on public opinion.

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“War Policy, Public Support, and the Media” by William M. Darley, in Parameters (Summer 2005), U.S. Army War College, 122 Forbes Ave., Carlisle, Pa. 17013–5238.

Has the relentless drumbeat of pessimistic reporting by the news media been souring the public on the Iraq war? Bush administration officials at times have suggested as much. But Darley, an army colonel and the editor in chief of Military Review, points out that much scholarly research on past conflicts shows that the public outlook is little affected by the news media’s editorial tone or bias.

Peter Braestrup, a former Vietnam war correspondent (and the WQ’s founding editor), showed in Big Story (1977) that despite the news media’s misinterpretation of the January 1968 Tet Offensive as a U.S. military defeat, public support for the war remained steady—and even increased, according to Louis Harris polls, from 61 percent in December 1967 to 74 percent in February 1968. In War, Presidents, and Public Opinion (1973), Ohio State University political scientist John Mueller demonstrated that over most of the lengthy course of that war, public support followed much the same pattern as it had during the Korean War, which the press covered less extensively and less critically.

Mueller and other researchers have found a habitual “rally round the flag” tendency in times of international crisis, regardless of press criticism or even presidential performance. “The worse I do, the more popular I get,” observed President John F. Kennedy after the 1961 Bay of Pigs debacle.

Darley argues that the public doesn’t tote up casualties and make cost/benefit analyses; rather, it responds viscerally to “bold leadership and action,” out of what military theorist Karl von Clausewitz (1780–1831) called “primordial hatred and enmity” for the foe. But when national policy is seen as weak, that collective emotional response dissipates. It was only when President Lyndon B. Johnson announced his resignation in 1968 and seemed to give up on Vietnam that the supportive public began “an irrevocable, permanent” turn away from the war. The news media’s pessimistic slant on the war had little direct impact on public opinion, but it apparently had “a decisive effect” on Johnson.

“Assuming the correctness of the policy in its articulation and the boldness of its execution,” Darley concludes, “domestic public support will take care of itself.”

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