In early November of 1967, the administration of President Lyndon Johnson ratcheted up a media campaign designed to convince the American people that victory in Vietnam was possible. Dubbed the “Success Offensive,” it began with coordinated leaks to the press of cherry picked reports in order to manufacture the most positive spin possible.
On Meet the Press, Vice President Humphrey asserted that “there has been progress on every front in Vietnam,” and Ambassador Bunker reported that the Saigon government was increasing its territorial control. Most notably, it was LBJ himself who at his November 17 press conference hinted at the complexity of the problem: “We have a lot to do yet. A great many mistakes have been made. We take two steps forward, and we slip back one. It is not all perfect by any means. There are a good many days when we get a C-minus instead of an A-plus. But overall, we are making progress. We are satisfied with that progress.”
Ironically, one of the chief architects of the war did not participate in the public relations blitz. Robert McNamara already had concluded that the U.S. public simply would not tolerate a prolonged war. The last word, however, would belong to the commanding officer of U.S. forces.
General William Westmoreland could not have been more optimistic. For over three years, he had been preoccupied with what he called a “laboratory experiment in pacification” designed to establish security in Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, and the surrounding area. On November 21, at the National Press Club he conceded that the fighting would continue but argued “we have reached an important point where the end begins to come into view.”
He told the gathered reporters: “It is conceivable to me that within two years or less, it will be possible for us to phase down our level of commitment and turn more of the burden of the war over to the Vietnamese Armed Forces.” Basing his remarks on doctored intelligence, he declared: “With your support we will give you a success that will impact not only South Vietnam but every emerging nation in the world.”
With only a few exceptions, politicians of both parties and major news outlets parroted the general’s positive spin. In his book Paper Soldiers: The American Press and the Vietnam War, Clarence Wyatt shows convincingly how the media uncritically reported the administration’s optimistic account with headlines announcing that the “tide was turning in our favor” (U.S. News and World Report).
For the most part, the propaganda worked. By Christmas, support for the war was holding steady at about 50% and even troops in the field surmised that the war would soon be over. But a mere two months after Westmoreland’s appearance at the National Press Club, the Tet offensive put the lie to the rosy predictions the generals and the Johnson administration had foisted on the American public. By July of 1968, Johnson had announced he would not seek reelection and General Westmoreland had been replaced.
“Success Offensive” Redux
Almost forty years later, the administration of George W. Bush has initiated its own propaganda war. Ranging from speeches authored by neoconservative revisionists and delivered by Bush at veterans’ forums to Vice President Cheney doing the talk show circuit to a sleazy radio/TV ad campaign headed by former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, this psychological blitz is designed to soften up the citizenry for the main act-the appearance next month of the military commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus.
The son of a Dutch immigrant father and an impressive Horatio Alger story in his own right, Petraeus is undoubtedly the U.S. military officer caught in the most difficult political squeeze since Westmoreland. The question is whether or not Petraeus will spin the facts to fabricate a deceptively positive assessment in order to please his civilian bosses, as most historians believe Westmoreland did.
What is more likely is that Petraeus will offer an appraisal of the Iraq misadventure that is highly ambiguous and therefore open to numerous interpretations. Last April, he told Charlie Rose that he was a “qualified optimist” and described a situation in which “the change is dramatic” but there is “still a lot to be done.” There has been “incremental progress,” he argued, and “in some neighborhoods, we’re seen as liberators again[but] this is not uniform; in other areas we’re seen as occupiers.”
This sounds remarkably like LBJ’s “two steps forward, one back” speech in 1967. Of course the U.S. war in Southeast Asia lasted another six years. Petraeus openly admits that what he is orchestrating in Iraq is not only a counterinsurgency operation but also an anti-terrorist, law enforcement, and nation building exercise, all of which are long-term projects that ultimately depend on the establishment of a stable Iraqi government.
In all likelihood, then, Petraeus’ report will echo the most recent National Intelligence Estimate for Iraq: “We assess, to the extent that Coalition forces continue to conduct robust counterinsurgency operations and mentor and support the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), that Iraq’s security will continue to improve modestly during the next six to 12 months but that levels of insurgent and sectarian violence will remain high and the Iraqi Government will continue to struggle to achieve national-level political reconciliation and improved governance.”
Modest security gains with high levels of violence and no national unity-a clear-cut recipe for an open-ended U.S. occupation that will last at least as long if not longer than the U.S. debacle in Southeast Asia. Petraeus may not quite be the new Westmoreland but it is clear that Iraq is the American people’s new Vietnam, and just like forty years ago only the American people can stop it.
JORGE MARISCAL is a Vietnam veteran and member of Project YANO. He is the author of Aztlán and Viet Nam: Chicano and Chicana Experiences of the War. Visit his blog at: jorgemariscal.blogspot.com/ He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org