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Three Mississippi Newspapers: From Tonkin to Tet

In November 1982, the Jackson, Mississippi Clarion Ledger published an article that looked back at America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Veterans from Mississippi provided the perspective for the piece. The reporter asked the veterans their take on the negative stereotypes that came out of the war. These stereotypes included soldiers on drugs and random and unnecessary violence against Vietnamese civilians. Frank Godwin, executive secretary of the Mississippi Vietnam Affairs Board, commented that he was not bitter about the stereotypes. Yet he did believe that television contributed to the negative images. Godwin blamed television coverage for bringing the war to American living rooms night after night. Godwin said, “Because it was on television every night in living color, we had to fight with high morals.” Thus, any military mistakes or any necessary brutality shown on the nightly news reflected badly on the soldiers.[1]

Around the same time, the Hattiesburg American ran an article that also recorded veteran’s recollections on their service in Vietnam. Many of these veterans held different perspectives than Godwin’s. Bennie Brown came back home to Mississippi in 1970 carrying a bullet and shrapnel scars. When asked if the war protests or negative publicity affected him while in Vietnam, he stated that he thought little about the “rightness” of the war while fighting in 1968 and 1969. He said personal survival ranked as the “order of the day.” Asked if anyone called him names like “baby killer” upon his return home, Brown offered that those kinds of epithets “came from hard-core protesters. People down here are more conservative. People are more sympathetic around here.” Veteran Bill Lorch responded in the interview that his problem with the war did not center on public reaction but with the way the politicians ran the war. He opined, “It was a war they wanted us to fight but wouldn’t let us win.”[2]

These three perspectives mark the boundaries concerning the realities and myths concerning the national and local press coverage of the Vietnam War. This tragic and divisive conflict became the first American war to be broadcast nightly into American living rooms. Commentators dubbed the Vietnam conflict the first “television war.” An accepted maxim of the Vietnam War revolves around the perception that early on the media (television, newspapers, magazines) opposed President Lyndon B. Johnson’s running of the war and eventually turned popular opinion against the war. The constant harangue of popular journalists, along with searing images on television, eroded the public’s confidence in Johnson’s goals and his successful prosecution of the war.

Contrary to veteran Frank Godwin’s (and many others) assumption, the most recent historiography has done much to dispel the false assumptions about the media and the war. Historians like Daniel Hallin and William M. Hammond have shown that the U.S. press corps took their cues from the official sources for much of the war. Going into the war, the majority of the media held similar assumptions to the government concerning the containment of Communism and the importance of addressing its spread in Vietnam. Between 1962 and 1967, the vast majority of print and television journalists supported the war. Journalists occasionally questioned Johnson and the military’s running of the war, but they did not question the importance of the war itself. Journalists did not challenge the war en masse until after elite and public sentiment began to turn against the war. Other historians like Oscar Patterson III have shown that the major media outlets like the New York Times, Newsweek, and NBC News did not constantly barrage their audience with images of carnage. While media outlets published and showed some alarming images, they still supported the soldiers and the goals of the war. Patterson argued that many people today remember certain vivid images from the war, and now believe that the entire coverage of the war mirrored those stark pictures. [3]

What is remembered is not necessarily what happened. Here lies the significance of this subject. The most recent historiography has shown that many elite (educators, college students, celebrities, politicians) and a majority of the public turned against the war because of President Johnson’s contradictory motives and policies. The media only followed and reported the sentiment of the public, not the other way around. As the body count rose and Johnson’s policies seemed confused and ineffective, the public aversion to the war grew. The media simply reflected this sentiment. The significance of this subject also lies in its revelation of the press as being more the protectors of cultural assumptions than being the objective watchdogs they are commonly thought to be.

What about the press in Mississippi? Did state papers follow the pattern that historians have noted in the national media? This paper looks at three of the biggest Mississippi newspapers, the Greenville Delta-Democrat Times, the Tupelo Daily Journal, and the state capital's afternoon paper, the Jackson Daily News. The scope of this work focuses on how the papers’ coverage of selected military and domestic events during the Vietnam War, starting with the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in August 1964, and ending with the Tet offensive in January-February 1968. This essay argues that these newspapers serve as a microcosm of the larger study performed by scholars such as Daniel Hallin and William Hammond. All three newspapers vigorously supported the war and its aims in 1964. As events unfolded in 1965 and 1966, these local papers used press service reports (such as United Press International) of the war. These press services gathered most of their information from official military spokesmen. The local papers, like the national media, did not question the need for the war, but at times did question the policies and tactics of Johnson and his administration. Like the national media, early on these local papers did not think highly of war protesters. While including some graphic pictures from the war, these papers still supported the troops and the war’s mission. Only after the national and state mood shifted did these local papers begin to question the war itself. As will be shone, the Jackson Daily News, and to a lesser degree the Tupelo Daily Journal, supported the war longer than the Greenville Delta-Democrat Times. None of these papers sought to rally its readers against the war; they only took small steps of protest in what was obviously becoming a losing cause. The comment Bennie Brown made about Mississippians also fits these papers, “People down here are more conservative. People are more sympathetic around here.”[4]

As we look at these papers and their coverage of the war, we need to understand that attitudes help comprise worldviews, or the way we look at the world. One must keep in mind that even news editor’s worldviews affect how they shaped the news their papers presented. In the last two decades, historians have come to realize the importance of analyzing mind-set in order to understand the kind of language a subject might use. “Critical theory” can help the historian understand, in regards to a written document or the spoken word, that “language shapes meaning as it is conveying meaning.” An example of what we are meaning will be seen in the description of war protesters. Early on in the war some of the editors used words like “kooky” or “traitors” to characterize war protesters. The historian needs to understand that the majority of Mississippi editors were conservative, which reflected “the state and communities they served.” Many in Mississippi valued the martial tradition. Thus, war protest served as a threat to the social order. These newspapers used language to affirm the social order while identifying those who threatened it. This becomes evident in regards to language used to describe the war: proponents and dissenters.[5]

In regards to Vietnam, the United States had been funneling money and supplies and small numbers of military personnel into the country since 1956. For most Americans, the conflict stayed on backburner for almost a decade. In Mississippi, the civil rights movement served as the major issue of concern. During the summer of 1964, Mississippi roiled under the influx of northern white and black college students intent on aiding local blacks gain the right to franchise. Mississippi spilled across the front pages with the murder of Medger Evers, the state secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Later that summer, the state reeled under national scrutiny over the murder of three college age civil rights activists, Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman., in the small town of Philadelphia. Many in the state rejected the idea of racial equality and the integration of public schools. Mississippians, including newspaper editors, bristled at the negative images that arose from the state’s civil rights resistance. By and large, most Mississippi journalists fell out of step with the nation in regards to civil rights in the 1960s.[6] Yet in regards to the Vietnam War, the paper’s coverage followed national media attitudes.

While the state dealt with civil rights agitation in the state, Vietnam became a major issue of concern in August of 1964. On August 2, three North Vietnamese PT boats unleashed a torpedo attack on the USS Maddox. The attack took place in international waters in the Gulf of Tonkin, thirty miles off the coast of North Vietnam. On August 7, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that gave President Johnson the power to do “all necessary measures to repel any armed attack” from the North Vietnamese. This meant that Johnson could send in combat troops without a Congressional declaration of war. All three papers splashed the crisis across their front pages for several days. All three relied on the accounts supplied by United Press International. Once off the front pages, the editorial sections and local columns revealed each paper’s viewpoint. On August 6, 1964, the JDN reported that Mississippi Senator John Stennis, a member of the Armed Services Committee, strongly urged the United States to “do whatever is necessary to protect our forces, to maintain our position and to demand respect for our rights as well as your flag.” The paper agreed. Bob Howie, the JDN editorial cartoonist, drew an August 6 cartoon showing an angry Uncle Sam standing in the midst of a copy of the Tonkin resolution. In the cartoon, Uncle Sam rolls up shirt sleeve and clenches his fist, preparing to fight. In an August 10 cartoon, Howie shows the legs of Uncle Sam straddling the globe. The word “Democrats” rests on his right leg and “Republicans” on his left. At his feet on the globe lies a sheet of paper entitled “Our position on Viet Nam.” The caption “United We Stand” lies below the drawing. The JDN wanted its readers to know that the United States stood justified in intensifying its presence and might in Southeast Asia.[7]

On August 2, the GDDT published a cartoon from the Baltimore Sun showing Lyndon Johnson seated at a black tie dinner. The implication of the cartoon is that everything is going well. A placard on the table shows the price of the Democratic dinner has been raised from $100 to $1,000 a plate. Before Johnson lie two platters, one entitled “Legislative Victories,” while the other read “Domestic Prosperity.” As Johnson is about to dine, a waiter appears and says, “I hate to spoil your banquet, Sir, but you have an urgent call from Vietnam.” Vietnam would eventually split the Congress and split the nation. Few readers realized how prescient this cartoon actually was. No one owned a crystal ball, and no one in 1964 knew the future outcome of the war. The DDT praised Johnson’s firmness of resolve in its August 6 editorial. The editorial said Johnson showed to the North Vietnamese and its supporter, China, that the United States was no “paper tiger.” The editorial said the conflict between democracy and Communism proved inevitable, “if not in Vietnam, it would have been somewhere else.” The paper printed a King World Syndicate cartoon on August 12 that revealed the necessity of the conflict. In the sketch, U.S. fighter planes take off from the deck of an air craft carrier. The ship’s radio blares “shoot to destroy.” The caption below the cartoon reads, “The Only Possible Answer.”[8]

A month previous to the Tonkin crisis, the TDJ opined that South Vietnam could “become the death bed of communism as we know it” if the U.S. prevailed. After the Tonkin crisis flared up, the paper printed an editorial calling for the state and nation to resolve to stand up against Communism. While acknowledging the cost of foreign aid, the paper warned against ultra-conservatives who would pull all U.S. troops and monies home, thus allowing Red China or Russia a free reign in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The editorial said the United States could make the world a better place if it did not “let the dollar sign completely seal over our love of freedom, both for ourselves and others.” At the outset of a much greater military commitment in Vietnam, these papers supported Johnson and his response to the Tonkin attack.[9]

Yet by 1965, some began to protest the direction of the war. The months of October and November of 1965 saw the first large protests of the war and the first major land battle between U.S. troops and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) regulars. The battle occurred in the Ia Drang Valley in South Vietnam’s central highlands. Using heavy artillery as well as B-52 bombers, U.S. ground forces drove back the NVA regulars into the jungle during the November 14-16 battle. During this battle and the following days, both sides suffered a great number of casualties. Besides publishing reports on the specifics of this battle, all three papers published a variety of Vietnam related articles in the weeks before and after battle.

In regards to the war, the GDDT sought to set the context in Southeast Asia, along with U.S. justification for being there. The paper editorialized that the Chinese, the supporters of North Vietnam, sought to influence the entire region. The Chinese “fostered hatred of the white race,” hated capitalism, and held “a great contempt” for Christianity. All of these attitudes contradicted American values. Coexistence in 1965 seemed impossible. The GDDT stressed that America’s only resource in the region was “our own strength.” In a November 28 editorial cartoon, the paper showed President Johnson seated before a chess board labeled Vietnam. No one else is seated directly across from him. Instead, a long reed extending from the board a long distance into the forest makes counter moves. Partially hidden behind one of the trees, moving the reed, is a crouching Mao Zedong, leader of Communist China. The cartoon is labeled, “The Non-Player.” In the same issue, the GDDT warned its readers the war would be a “long fight” and last several years, “but given the will of our soldiers and the support of our home folks, we will succeed.” The next day, the paper reminded its readers that the war meant large expenditures of money, supplies, and most importantly, lives. In all this, the paper thought that the country was “acting correctly.” Sprinkled among the news accounts and editorials about the war, the paper also included personal stories about local junior college students running a soap collection drive to send to the needy South Vietnamese. Another piece reported on a student referendum on the war at Delta State College in the nearby town of Cleveland. Ninety percent of those who voted supported the war. In a December 3 editorial, the paper defended Johnson’s strategy of a limited war. It reminded its readers that the U.S. was not trying to fight a bloody and senseless war, and the country was not trying to conquer North Vietnam. Instead, U.S. goals focused on securing peace and democracy for the South Vietnamese. In the reporting of the battles, the editorials, and personal pieces, the GDDT demonstrated its support for the war, mirroring the sentiments of most of its readers.[10]

The TDJ and the JDN covered the Ia Drang battle and ran similar articles and editorials on the war effort. Both echoed the GDDT’s sentiment that the war would be bloody and protracted, but worth it. The war could be won, but it would take sound policy and concentrated effort. The TDJ ran an October 8 UPI interview with a South Vietnamese Army captain who urged the U.S. to realize that guns alone would not win the war. The U.S. had to win the hearts and minds of the people, and convince them that their best future lay with cooperation with the Americans, not the North Vietnamese. On October 13, the paper ran an article on Senator John Stennis’ view of the war. In the article, Stennis warned the state that the U.S. would be entrenched in Vietnam for up to fifteen years, even if the shooting war ended before that. Stennis warned that the “United States alone” could not continue to fight Communism alone. The TDJ ran an editorial on November 16, “U.S. Buildup No Assurance of Short War” which commented on the buildup of U.S. forces in Vietnam. The paper chastised Johnson and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara for predicting how soon the war would end. The editorial warned “the worst and biggest involvement in the Vietnamese war is yet to come,” yet it noted that the U.S. “had the power to contain the forces of Red China if she chooses to do so.” While urging American resolve over the war, the TDJ did not shy away from criticizing the administration of the war or showing its bloody cost. On October 31, the paper ran a front page article recording that U.S. artillery accidentally fired on its own paratroopers, killing six and wounding three others.[11]

Much more than the other two, the JDN ran daily wire service photographs of the war. Readers could see pictures of wounded American troops, a dead American female journalist lying face down in the grass, killed by a sniper. They also could see baby-faced U.S. soldiers scouring for snipers in six foot high grass and others wading across a river in neck-high water. None of the photographs of the wounded or dead showed blood and gore, but they did show the personal cost of the war. The paper countered these with editorials saluting the valor of the fighting man and personal pieces about a Vietnam War blood drive at the University of Mississippi, “649 Pints of Blood Given for Patriotism.” On November 25, the paper published a piece entitled “Referendum Proves Girls Support the War,” recording the vote on the war held at the Mississippi State College for Women. In just over 1400 votes cast, 1368 girls voted “to support American forces in Viet Nam and their concerted efforts to combat communist aggression.” The JDN also published a story on November 14 on the horrors suffered by the South Vietnamese people at the hands of North Vietnamese guerillas. The paper also included stories of young soldiers who died in the line of duty. One young man from the south Mississippi town of Forest wrote a letter to his cousin predicting his death which came in battle on November 8. Like the GDDT and TDJ, the Jackson paper published articles detailing the rising body counts of U.S. troops and articles questioning the administration and pace of the war. Yet the paper did not question the war itself. The JDN’s support for the war ran consistent with the country’s and the state’s. On November 21, the paper reported the latest Gallup Poll findings that said 64% of the nation favored America’s involvement in Vietnam, up from 52% in May. If these Mississippi newspapers accurately gauged public opinion in their communities, and it appears they did, then these numbers would have been higher in Jackson, Greenville, and Tupelo. The paper’s conservatism matched that of its readers.[12]

In 1965, these Mississippi newspapers paralleled the national media in its negative portrayal of war protesters. As scholar Melvin Small has pointed out, the national press “contributed to the development of popular attitudes about antiwar activities.” His study revealed that the national press held “mainstream moderate values” and thus “reacted negatively to the prospect of disorder and to political rhetoric that took the debate beyond the wings of either political party.” His research rejected the notion of a dovish press pushing the country out of Vietnam. The Mississippi papers coverage of war protesters in 1965 echo Small’s arguments.[13]

On November 1, the JDN printed an Associated Press article, “Man in Viet Nam Wants to Leave Too; but After the Job is Done.” The articled commended those who served in the muck, sweat, and blood of Vietnam, while hating everything about it. The article served as a rebuke to those who resisted the draft. All three papers reported the 60 city wide protest in October, but dismissed the protestors through cartoons and editorials.

In his personal column, “Covering the Crossroads” JDN editor Jimmy Ward called the war protestor’s “kooky.” On November 21, the JDN editorialized about war protesters and draft card burners, saying they served no purpose except to gain publicity and undermine the war effort. After a protest in Washington, D.C. on November 24, the next day’s JDN revealed the paper’s views. The headline called the protesters “Vietniks” and the counter protesters “Patriots.” and “Boosters of the U.S.”[14]

The TDJ argued that while people may disagree about the war, draft protesters were “too serious to ignore.” The editorial argued that the protest involved “an international conspiracy to weaken the U.S.” and needed to be prosecuted. The GDDT reminded its readers that most soldiers in Vietnam didn’t want to be there, but they went and performed their duty. Avoiding the draft served as a “blatant disservice and disrespect to the United States.” On October 19, the paper editorialized that the most recent public opinion polls showed a greater desire to pursue the war and that war demonstrators were actually giving more incentive to Communist forces to fight than protect U.S. forces as the protesters claimed. On October 25, the GDDT published an editorial cartoon by famous war cartoonist Bill Maudlin. The picture showed a long haired war protester at a gas station. On the front his cars were the words “Dodge the Draft. He had embossed “Peace” on the door and “Get out of Vietnam” signs stuck out of his back seat. While the protester dug in his pocket for some money, two mechanics worked on his engine. One mechanic said to the other, “He says he must have burned his credit card by mistake.” In response to the draft protesters, the paper published an editorial praising the men who served in Vietnam. In an October 26 editorial, the paper suggested that war protesters belonged “spank in the middle of a Viet Cong ambush” to learn what the war was about. It suggested that courses needed to be taught to young people instructing them what the country and the fighting was about. The editorial said, “An hour a day might help . . . semi-traitors. It’s worth a try.”[15] These papers all agreed in 1965 that war protesters were dangerous and needed to repent and support the country.

As the war moved into 1966, more questions arose about the war and a portion of the country’s elites began to voice dissatisfaction with the war’s effectiveness. Mississippi papers, like the national media, reported this. In February 1966, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by Arkansas Senator William J. Fulbright, began to hold public televised hearings on the war. On February 5, the TDJ published a report on the hearings and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s refusal to testify. The report noted that several Senators rebuked him for his reticence and desire for secrecy. The paper balanced this kind of reporting with a piece on B52 bomber pilot Nails Floren and his squadron’s desire to increase the bombing of North Vietnam. On February 9, the paper printed a UPI report of the hearings and retired General James M. Gavin’s testimony that a massive involvement in Vietnam was a mistake. Gavin testified that a full involvement meant inevitable nuclear war with China. Also, if the U.S. sent 700,000 troops to Vietnam, he surmised that China would open another front in Korea. Again, the paper balanced a story like this with a piece on American medics helping Vietnamese civilians and the medics overcoming the initial Vietnamese belief that the Americans were “devil dogs from the sea.” On February 11, the paper published an article on the views of George Kennan, the architect of the U.S. cold war policy of containment. The report recorded Kennan’s report to the Armed Services Committee hearings. Kennan suggested that the U.S. get out of Vietnam “as gracefully and orderly as possible.” Like Gavin, Kennan feared a bigger escalation in Vietnam would lead to a bigger war with Communist China. On February 17, a TDJ editorial cautioned against an escalated bombing strategy against the North Vietnamese capital of Hanoi. The editorial noted that at the time, Communist China and Russia were at odds with each other, and that an increased bombing strategy might backfire and unite these rivals.[16] William M. Hammond and Daniel Hallin’s research revealed that the national media began to look negatively at the war as elite and public opinion changed. These three papers were not ready to challenge the war in 1966, but they reported the challenges raised by the elite, and this heralded the change in the coverage of the war.

While the most conservative of the three papers, the JDN still used images that revealed uncertainty and horror of war. On February 9, the paper placed a gripping picture on its front page entitled, “This Weary, Weary War.” Whether or not this was the intended purpose, this picture symbolized the pain, the frustration, and the emotional toil brought on by the war. The photograph recorded a scene in the aftermath of a battle between American forces and North Vietnamese guerillas in the village of Bong Son, 290 miles north of Vietnam. In the caption, an American soldier buries his face in one hand while clutching his rifle in the other. Seated beside him is an old Vietnamese woman clutching her tattered straw hat, her face lined with wrinkles and filled with misery. The snapshot showed the cost the war was inflicting on all sides. A week earlier on February 2, the paper used another photograph to show the brutal nature of the war. In a picture entitled, “A Buddy Mourns,” an eighteen year old Marine artilleryman stares dully into space, contemplating the death of his twenty-one year old buddy. In 1966, the JDN still supported the war, but it began to show some ambivalence about the nature of the war.[17]

The most moderate of the three papers, the GDDT still pushed for the war’s continuation. On February 3, the paper included a piece from Senator John Stennis. Stennis said whether or not America should have entered the war was a mute point. While opposed to U.S. involvement as far back as 1956, Stennis pointed out that indecision and doubting had no place in American thinking. The country need to press for “a military victory” or achieve “an honorable diplomatic settlement.” The U.S. could not just pull out its troops, for this would bring dishonor “to our national purpose and our national image.” Stennis rejected the Johnson’s administration’s view of engaging in a limited war. Stennis warned that total victory, which meant escalated and widespread attack, stood as the only solution. Stennis prophesied if the country lacked the nerve, then they faced a prolonged conflict of up to fifteen years. The GDDT agreed with Stennis’ conclusions. The paper stated that it took no pleasure over a more intense war, or the fact that escalation might lead to conflict with China, not to mention that innocent civilians would die under U.S. bombs. The paper stated that until a tolerable and peaceful solution could be found, “we see no alternative…we must fight.” All three papers, while expressing displeasure about aspects about war, still remained hawkish on the war.[18]

This hawkish attitude continued into the late summer of 1966. On June 29, 1966, U.S. bombers began to rain destruction on North Vietnamese oil depots near Hanoi and Haiphong. To avoid alarming China and Russia, the Johnson administration refrained from sending in a ground invasion force. All three dailies praised even this limited action. The TDJ published a July 1 editorial entitled “More to Gain than Lose by Bomb Raids.” The paper argued that the destruction of oil supplies could possibly speed up the end of the war. Against the charge that the bombing would draw Russia and China into open conflict, the editorial countered that a prolonged conflict would certainly draw them in. The daily pointed out that the body count was continuing to rise and so too was the amount of funds needed to subsidize the war. A rise in taxes seemed imminent by 1967. Yet, the TDJ pointed out that the threat of Chinese or Russian intervention had existed since day one of the war. Possibly the bombing would prove a short cut to victory. The country needed decisive and concentrated action. To cut and run meant losing face, and if the country stayed in the fight, at least they would know “that we tried to curb Communist expansion, which is about as good a reason for being in a war as we know.” By July 18, the paper opined that it appeared that neither China nor Russia would directly enter the war. The editorial warned that as unlikely as it seemed, the dirt poor North Vietnamese would continue to fight. While it might take a few more years, the paper surmised that the U.S. forces would accomplish victory.[19]

The JDN also published an editorial that commended the commencement of the bombings; in fact the paper said they should have occurred much earlier. The daily rejected the dovish attitude of Senators like William Fulbright. Against criticism of the war, the JDN countered, “The Communist respect strength and the use of it. That’s the time they retreat.” Yet, the editorial staff understood that the war lay before country like a pit of quicksand. On July 14, the paper published a piece by syndicated columnist Sylvia Porter entitled “Nam Plagues Forecasters.” Porter reported that she had queried several experts about the country’s financial future. She received nothing but conflicting prognostications. All the answers kept coming back “If Viet Nam.” Porter concluded that Vietnam hovered like a black cloud over every aspect over American life. She wrote in conclusion, “Vietnam is Hell.”[20]

The GDDT weighed in on the intensification of the war. In a July 12 editorial, the paper said the United States never sought to be the world’s policeman, but the country would continue to meet its obligations to battle Communism that went all the way back to Korea. Other countries may pull up stakes and go home and abandon United Nation peace keeping goals in places like Korea, but the United States would stay the course in Asia; whether it was pleasant or not. Leadership came at a price. In an editorial “Reflection of a ‘Decadent Society,” the paper challenged the notion propagated by Communists, and strangely enough, ultra-conservatives in America, that American young men lacked the patriotism, the courage, and the commitment to persevere in combat. The GDDT rebuffed this view and said that American young men reflected “credit upon themselves and upon their nation day after dirty day in the jungles and rice paddies of Vietnam.” The editorial also rejected white supremacist who claimed blacks were inferior and could not be competent soldiers, as well as the “New Left” which argued that no black American should “put his life on the line” for the imperial white man.[21] All three papers admitted that the war was confusing, disgusting, aggravating, and incurring a great cost of men and materials, but in 1966, doves found no rest in their hawkish roosts. Conventional wisdom today says that the media led the nation by its nose in eventual protest against Johnson and the war. These Mississippi newspapers reveal otherwise.

The worm turned for President Johnson in regards to war sentiment by the fall of 1967. In October, massive anti-war, anti-draft protests roiled across the nation, culminating in a protest of over 50,000 in the nation’s capital. Many in Congress began to publicly oppose the war. Numerous state governors began to publicly blast President Johnson’s handling of the war. More and more educational elites, novelists, and prominent physicians spoke out against the war. Some Mississippians active in the military only gave left handed compliments to Johnson and the war. In other words, they agreed to serve and perform their duty, but they admitted they had no idea where the war was headed and what, if anything, it would accomplish. As war sentiment increasingly turned sour, Mississippi and national newspapers reported this. As the protest moved more into the mainstream, this allowed newspapers to be more critical of the war. The papers followed the public, not the other way around.

All three Mississippi dailies plastered the October protests on their front pages. The front page headline of the October 17 JDN read “Anti-Draft Demonstrations Loom from Coast to Coast.” The paper also included photos of protester and police clashes. While reporting the protests, this did not mean that the JDN approved. In his column, “Covering the Crossroads,” Editor Jimmy Ward reported on the national teenage Future Farmers of America convention held in Kansas City during the same week of the protests. Ward quoted these young high school student delegates disparaging the “hippie” protesters. Ward claimed the future of the country lay in “the hands of the intelligent, mannered youngsters…not in the ranks of the unwashed, beatnik element that so often makes the headlines.” After the massive protest around the Pentagon in late October, the GDDT published an editorial entitled, “The Washington Peace Demonstration.” The editorial affirmed the protesters right to dissent, but it rejected their attempt to shut down the Pentagon. This rejection of authority could lead to anarchy. Yet, the editorial also added that many of protesters were not fools, communists or anarchists, but “good Americans who are sick of the war and think our policy there is totally wrong.” Obviously, these papers were not banging the drum for withdrawal of Vietnam, but they did report that the anti-war sentiment that was growing exponentially. As protest became more conventional, newspapers grew in their questioning of the war. Even the JDN admitted that war only grew more dark and confusing for the nation. On October 17, the JDN published an editorial cartoon showing a giant question mark, embossed with the phrase “What to do about Vietnam,” pinning President Johnson to the ground. Below the cartoon read the phrase, “Heavier and Heavier.”[22]

The papers also reported more and more politicians coming out in protest against the war, or at least, against Johnson’s running of it. All three reported of a refusal by Republican governors, Robert Romney of Michigan, Ronald Reagan of California, and Nelson Rockefeller of New York, to sign a resolution supporting Johnson’s war administration. Not only were students protesting the war, now top echelon politicians dissented against what appeared to be a confused and murky war strategy. All three papers mirrored this dissatisfaction with Johnson’s intransigence, his constant craving of approval, and his limited war strategies which seemed to only cause more bloodshed and little sign of victory. In an October 26 editorial, the JDN chastised Johnson and asked why he needed to be affirmed by the governors for “umpty-umpth time.” The editorial surmised this obsessive desire for approval made him look “less and less like the masterful politician he is thought to be.” On October 28, the paper noted that 71% of the U.S. people in the latest Gallup poll desired more military involvement from the South Vietnamese. That meant less involvement, and thus less danger for U.S. troops. The paper editorialized that Johnson did not see the growing discontent. It noted that while Johnson and his administration continued to claim success, “popular disenchantment” with the war was “reaching unprecedented heights.”[23]

The TDJ also reported on the Republican governors’ refusal to publicly support Johnson and the draft protests. The paper ran photographs of police beating war protesters from different venues. It also included a report on Theodore Sorenson and his calling for a major change in Vietnam policy. Once a key adviser in the John F. Kennedy administration, Sorenson said the U.S. should stop the bombing of North Vietnam, get the United Nations involved in negotiations, and pull the majority of U.S. troops out of Vietnam. On October 17, the daily published an editorial entitled, “Congressional Sell-Out No Guide for War.” It rebuked many in Congress who had suddenly come out against the war. The editorial offered respect for those who had consistently opposed the war from early on, but ridiculed the “late comers to the anti-war ranks” who were banking on their opposition to garner votes in the upcoming 1968 elections. While chastising these congressmen, the paper admitted, “We feel that the war in Vietnam is sufficiently shadowy in purpose and in evidence of progress to justify honest differences of opinion…There may come a time, we feel, when a definite change of U.S. policy in Vietnam is not only justified but almost essential.” The editorial went on to report that even North Vietnamese leader, Ho Chi Minh, had admitted that U.S. bombing had brought great damage. While ambivalent about the war’s aims, the paper urged the government and the armed forces to keep up the pressure until definite signs of progress became evident. The editorial warned that the North Vietnamese would no doubt keep fighting as long as they saw U.S. Congressmen abandoning the war . On October 27 the paper published an editorial, “Bigger Saigon Role Key to US staying” which commended the Saigon government for lowering the draft age and cutting down on draft deferments. The piece noted that the U.S. was growing tired of the high number of American casualties and the amount of troops engaged in combat. On the other hand, a large number of Vietnamese had grown tired of the number of Americans in the country. The paper noted that Americans would support the war for another year “only if American casualties are reduced greatly.” The paper reminded its readers that every time the U.S. escalated its presence, the South Vietnamese shrank more into the background. If the conflict remained a guerilla war, then the fighting belonged to the South Vietnamese, not America.[24] Once again, the paper’s dissatisfaction with the war reflected the groundswell of public frustration. The paper did not create the frustration, it only reported it.

The GDDT proved to be most stout critic of Johnson and the prosecution of the war by October 1967. Like the JDN and the TDJ, the paper published reports of the war protests, as well as reports concerning gubernatorial and congressional frustration with the war. The paper also reported thousands across America who came out in recognition of the military’s service in an October 23 article. Labeled, “Operation Gratitude,” over 100,000 alone in New York and New Jersey marched in honor of the young men and women serving in Vietnam. In the same edition, the paper published an AP report on Johnson’s anger over the war protests. The October 25 publication reported that “300 writers, editors won’t pay war tax.” Novelist and World War II veteran Norman Mailer, along with famous baby doctor Benjamin Spock joined other elites in their refusal to pay a proposed ten percent tax surcharge that would go to Vietnam. The paper showed that many supported the troops, but a growing number of Americans rejected the war. In an October 26 editorial, “After the Demonstration, More Escalation,” the paper said that Johnson capitalized on the excesses of war protesters to push the nation toward all out war. To the editorial staff, this reeked of hubris and stupidity. The editorial asked what else beside population centers and flood dikes did the North Vietnamese have to be bombed? More and more U.S. troops were dying. The South Vietnamese administration appeared to be incompetent bunglers who boasted of more direct involvement, but the paper mocked this assertion. The paper thought Johnson’s policies were hopeless and decided, “There is apparently no hope for any other kind of solution so long as this administration remains in power.” The article urged peace at home and peace abroad and hoped a Republican administration could effect positive changes.[25]

The GDDT also let Mississippi veterans express their frustration. In an October 26 article, the paper reported on a speech by Lieutenant Governor-elect Charles Sullivan. Sullivan also served in the Mississippi Air National Guard. Sullivan served in Vietnam, and flew dead soldiers back to the United States. What struck him the most were the stacks of gray coffins that were filled with the country’s brightest. He said the war was the country’s obligation, even if most the soldiers did not really know why they fighting or what they were fighting for. Sullivan said that since Korea, the country had developed the negative attitude that it would fight wars, but not to win. Regardless of the rightness or wrongness of the war, the United States had to fulfill its commitments. Obviously the paper admired the duty of one such as Sullivan, but from its editorials and other articles, it became clear that the paper had come to see the war as a bloody quagmire.[26]

This is further seen in a veteran’s personal account published in the October 29 edition. In an article entitled, “When GI’s talk among GI’s, the war isn’t worth dying in,” a Greenville native and soldier told of his experiences in Vietnam. Dial Parrottt, a 1962 graduate of Greenville High School and later Princeton University, said a great disparity existed between American government’s official pronouncements and the reality for the troops on the ground. Parrott said U.S. troops proved more than willing to fight for their country, but contrary to government pronouncements, the random soldier was not fighting for the liberty of the Vietnamese. Parrott bluntly stated that most American troops did not view the indigenous population as Vietnamese but only as “Gooks.” To Parrott and his peers, the epithet “Gooks” connoted “backwardness, dirtiness, and general second-class status in the human race.” Parrott mocked the army of the South Vietnamese, pointing out their impotence and unwillingness to fight. He said the average U.S. soldier suspected almost every Vietnamese of being “Charlie,” code name for the enemy. He also noted that most “Gooks” looked at all Americans with suspicion and envy. Despite government claims of a partnership between U.S. and Vietnamese forces verses Communism, Parrott thought that most Vietnamese did not give a damn about the war effort.[27] These two Mississippians did not match the “kook” description by JDN editor Jimmy Ward. One served as Lieutenant Governor and the other graduated from an elite Ivy League school. The GDDT began to question the war because Mississippians questioned or outright rejected the projections of the official administration.

The North Vietnamese gave further evidence of their intransigence with a surprise attack on January 30, 1968 during the Vietnamese holiday of Tet. Catching U.S. and South Vietnamese forces totally off-guard, Viet Cong guerillas attacked several key cities and provinces. Their attack in Saigon also stunned American forces. Yet, superiority in U.S. firepower quickly turned the tide of battle and inflicted some major damage on the North Vietnamese. By the fourth day of February, North Vietnamese forces suffered almost 13,000 dead and U.S. losses totaled over 300. Conventional wisdom points to Tet as a huge momentum builder for the North Vietnamese and a major factor that turned Americans against the war. However, we have seen that the anti-war sentiment across several fronts was already growing before Tet. While the JDN reported the administration belief that U.S. and South Vietnamese forces were crushing the surprise attack, the paper also published an AP retrospective on the Vietnamese ousting of the French back in 1954. The report said that Americans had to give grudging admiration to the Viet Cong, nick-named Victor Charley. The article intimated that just as the French met an intractable foe in 1954, the U.S. was finding the North Vietnamese just as intractable in 1968.[28]

After ten days of fighting, the JDN published an editorial cartoon with that show’s Uncle Sam’s head poked through a hole in a canvas target like at a county fair. At his feet are three balls. Each had found their target. One gave Uncle Sam a black eye labeled “France.” Two bumps stuck out on his head, one labeled “North Korea” and the other “Viet Cong.” The caption at the bottom of the cartoon read, “How much more?” On February 9 the paper published an interview with pollster George Gallup. Gallup said his poll found Americans “confused, disillusioned and cynical” and they wanted to “desperately find a way to resolve international problem without going to war.” Gallup said only a handful of Americans wanted a complete pullout from Vietnam or end the war by dropping nuclear bombs, yet seventy percent wanted the South Vietnamese to increase their amount of soldiers. This in turn would lead to the U.S. “phasing out our own operations.” Gallup said American’s dissatisfaction stemmed from the belief that the country had inadequate leadership; in other words, Johnson and his administration. Gallup and the survey of these three daily’s coverage of the war show that Americans turned against the war, not because of a dovish press, but because of a flawed war strategy and a flawed president.[29]

In the same vein, the TDJ and the GDDT ran daily front page stories on the Tet offensive. The GDDT, now convinced that public opinion had turned against the war, left no doubt about its views. A day after the Tet offensive occurred, the paper ran an editorial entitled “The Communist Offensive.” While admitting the immediate necessity of crushing the attack to have any chance for peace, the editorial admitted, “This is a war which increasingly we find abhorrent.” By February 4, the paper printed three syndicated columns with the titles, “US Should Adjust to Reality that Viet War is Unwinnable; The Reality of Vietnam Situation is that We Can’t Win: Period; US has been Involved in Vietnam for 18 Years; No End in Sight.” The paper left no doubt concerning its sentiment. In the one of the last issues reviewed, the paper included a Bill Maudlin cartoon showing Johnson in military fatigues, carrying an M16 rifle. Johnson’s helmet jumps off in his surprise at a voice behind him. The voice belongs to North Vietnames leader Ho Chi Minh dressed as a Viet Cong guerilla. Ho Chi Minh says to the shocked Johnson, “Come Let Us Reason Together.” Papers like the GDDT, the TDJ, and the JDN did not turn its readers against the war. The American public, nationally and locally turned against the war, and a press committed to mainstream thought followed their lead.[30]

As veteran Bennie Brown mused, Mississippi stood as a bastion of conservatism in the 1960s. Mississippi newspapers mirrored the sentiments of their readers. Overwhelmingly positive about the war in 1964, all three questioned the nature and direction of the war in 1968. Yet these papers did not sway their readers, their readers and the nation swayed them.

NOTES

[1] “Vietnam War veterans remember their own,” Jackson Clarion Ledger 2 November 1982. During the 1960s, the Clarion Ledger and Jackson Daily News were sister papers, owned by the same company. In the 1980s, the Jackson Daily News merged with the Clarion Ledger.

[2] “Anger fades: Vietnam vets relive era,” Hattiesburg American, 21 April 1985.

[3] Daniel Hallin, “The Media, the War in Vietnam, and Political Support: A Critique of the Thesis of an Oppositional Media,” Journal of Politics 46 (February 1984), 2-24, The Uncensored War: The Media and Vietnam (Berkley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1989); William C. Hammond, Public Affairs: The Military and the Media: 1962-1968 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1989), Public Affairs: The Military and the Media: 1968-1973, (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1996), Reporting Vietnam: Media and Military at War (Lawrence, Kan.: University Press of Kansas, 1998); Oscar Peterson III, “Television’s Living Room War in Print: Vietnam in News Magazines,” Journalism Quarterly 61 (1984), 35-39, 136; see also Melvin Small, Covering Dissent: The Media and the Anti-War Movement (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1994); James Landers, The Weekly War: Newsmagazines and Vietnam (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2004).

[4] “Vietnam War veterans remember their own,” Jackson Clarion Ledger 2 November 1982; For the rest of this work, all three papers will be referred to with initials, GDDT for Greenville Delta-Democrat Times, TDJ for Tupelo Daily Journal, and JDN for Jackson Daily News.

[5] Frank Constigliola, “Reading for Theory, Language, and Metaphor,” Michael J. Hogan and Thomas G. Paterson, eds., Explaining the History of American Foreign Relations, 2nd edition (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 279-281; David R. Davies, “Introduction” in David R. Davies, ed., The Press and Race: Mississippi Journalists Confront the Movement (Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 2001), 11.

[6] Ibid, 13.

[7] "Should repel armed attack, Stennis says" Bob Howie, Editorial cartoons, Jackson Daily News, 6, 10, 12 August 1964. What actually happened was something quite different from what the media and much of Congress was led to believe, See "The Gulf of Tonkin Incident, 40 Years Later: Flawed Intelligence and the Decision for War in Vietnam," National Security Archive. http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB132/index.htm.

[8] Greenville Delta-Democrat Times, 2, 6 August 1964.

[9] Tupelo Daily Journal, 5 August 1964.

[10] Greenville Delta Democrat-Times, 8 October, 25, 26, 28, 29 November, 3 December 1965.

[11] Tupelo Daily Journal 8, 13, 31 October, 16 November 1965.

[12] Jackson Daily News 4,5,8,10, 11, 14, 1965 (photos); 5, 14, 19, 25 November  1965(articles).

[13] Melvin Small, Covering Dissent: The Media and the Anti-War Movement (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1994), 2, 167-168.

[14] Jackson Daily News, 1, 21, 25 November 1965.

[15] Tupelo Daily Journal, 21 October 1965; Greenville Delta Democrat-Times, 8, 19, 25 26 October, 17 November (editorial praising troops).

[16] Tupelo Daily Journal, 2,5, 10, 11, 17 February 1966; see also Jackson Daily News 8 February 1966 for Gavin testimony and McNamara’s refusal to testify during the Armed Services Comm. Hearings.

[17] Jackson Daily News 2, 9 February 1966.

[18] Greenville Delta Democrat-Times 3, 8 February 1966.

[19] Tupelo Daily Journal, 1, 18 July 1966.

[20] Jackson Daily News, 1, 14 1966.

[21] Greenville Delta Democrat-Times, 12, 25 1966.

[22] Jackson Daily News, 17, 22 1967; Greenville Delta Democrat-Times, 23 October 1967.

[23] Jackson Daily News, 17, 26, 28 1967.

[24] Tupelo Daily Journal, 16, 17, 20, 22, 27 October 1967.

[25] Greenville Delta Democrat-Times, 19, 23, 25, 26 October 1967.

[26] Ibid, 26 October 1967.

[27] Ibid, 29 October 1967.

[28] Jackson Daily News 2, 4 February 1968.

[29] Ibid, 8,9 February 1968. In the cartoon, North Korea refers to the North Korean capture and imprisonment of men from the USS Pueblo

[30] Greenville Delta Democrat-Times, 31 January, 4, 6 February 1968.

Bibliography

Primary Sources

Greenville Delta Democrat-Times, 1964-1968.
Hattiesburg American, 1985.
Jackson Clarion Ledger, 1983.
Jackson Daily News, 1964-1968
Tupelo Daily Journal, 1964-1968.

Secondary Sources

Davies, David R. “Introduction,” in David R. Davies, ed. The Press and Race: Mississippi Journalists Confront the Movement. Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 2001, 3-15.
Hallin, Daniel. “The Media, the War in Vietnam, and Political Support: A Critique of the Thesis of an Oppositional Media.” Journal of Politics 46 (February 1984): 2-24.
__________. The Uncensored War: The Media and Vietnam. Berkley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1989.
Hammond, William C. Public Affairs: The Military and the Media: 1962-1968. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1989.
__________. Public Affairs: The Military and the Media: 1968-1973. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1996.
__________. Reporting Vietnam: Media and Military at War. Lawrence, Kan.: University Press of Kansas, 1998.
Landers, James. The Weekly War: Newsmagazines and Vietnam. Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 2004.
Peterson, III, Oscar. “Television’s Living Room War in Print: Vietnam in News Magazines.” Journalism Quarterly 61 (1984): 29-35, 136.
Small, Melvin. Covering Dissent: The Media and the Anti-War Movement. (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1994.

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