Vietnam the semiinvisible war

Wayne's early campaign to root out communist subversives in the early 1950s coincided with the Korean War - the only instance during the Cold War when armies of two major powers (China and the United States) actually fought each other directly. Hollywood wasted little time in bringing the Cold War's first 'hot' war to the screen. Though some films reflected the ambivalence many Americans felt about sending their boys to a remote land to die for a United Nations 'police action', the majority did to international communism what the film industry had recently done to the Axis powers.42

By contrast, pictures of America's diplomatic and military intervention in Vietnam, which began in the late 1940s and ended with the humiliating withdrawal of US troops in 1973, hardly appeared at all on America's silver screen. This might seem surprising given Hollywood's near-obsession with the Vietnam War in the late 1970s and 1980s, but it is not too difficult to explain. Vietnam was after all the world's first full-scale 'television war', and film-industry moguls reckoned most people wanted to escape from the images they saw nightly in their living rooms rather than seeing more of them at the cinema. Vietnam was also not susceptible to conventional Hollywood treatment, with its preference for clearly identifiable heroes and villains. America's purposes were too vague, its allies too indistinguishable from its enemies, and its methods too questionable.43 As early as 1965, the war was already sufficiently divisive for trade paper Variety to proclaim it 'too hot for Hollywood'.44 Left-wing filmmakers working on Hollywood's fringes did make anti-war documentaries in the late 1960s, the most prominent being Emile de Antonio's In the Year of the Pig (1968).45 At the same time, a small number of stars, like Bob Hope, actively supported the war by performing in shows for the troops in Vietnam organised by the United Service Organisations (USO). A few others joined the peace movement, especially in the early 1970s once anti-war protest had become safely fashionable. Among the latter, Jane Fonda, nicknamed 'Hanoi Jane' following her visit to the North

Vietnamese capital in 1972, created the biggest stir.46 In general, though, Hollywood recoiled when the war led to massive public protest in the late 1960s, preferring to sit it out until a political consensus re-emerged.

However, Hollywood did play some part from the late 1940s through to the mid-1960s in educating the public about why Vietnam was important, thus helping to lay the ground for the subsequent despatch of more than 500,000 troops. Starting with Paramount's Saigon in 1948, all fourteen feature films made about Vietnam during this period exhibited a strong anti-communism. Most echoed John Foster Dulles' influential Domino Theory and emphasised the threat posed by Mao Tse Tung's China to the whole of Southeast Asia. A few, like Sam Fuller's romantic adventure China Gate (1957), anticipated The Green Berets in its use of an innocent boy to connote America's responsibility to Asia's youth. Twentieth Century-Fox's 'B' melodrama Five Gates to Hell (1959) combined Hollywood's well-worn 'yellow peril' theme with images of evil mercenaries employed by Red China kidnapping and raping nuns and Red

Cross nurses.47

Only Joseph Mankiewicz's The Quiet American (1958) and George Englund's The Ugjy American (1962) hinted at the ambiguities of America's role in a politically complex region. Both sanitised best-selling books, the former by the British spy author Graham Greene, who had been banned from the United States in 1952 for Communist party connections, the latter by the American political novelists William Lederer and Eugene Burdick. Greene's novel centred on Alden Pyle, a CIA agent in Southeast Asia whose anti-communist counter-terrorism kills and maims innocent civilians. In the film, Pyle (played by Second World War hero Audie Murphy) works for a private US aid mission, and the ending reverses Greene's critique of American foreign policy into an anti-communist statement by attributing civilian deaths to the Viet Minh, the independence league led by Ho Chi Minh. This rewrite can partly be linked to pre-production contacts between director Joseph Mankiewicz and one of the CIA's legendary Cold War operatives, Edward Lansdale. The man widely believed to be the model for Greene's Pyle, Lansdale was a former advertising executive who was credited during the 1950s with almost single-handedly preventing a communist takeover of the Philippines and with helping to install Ngo Dinh Diem as president of the American-backed government of South Vietnam.48

The Quiet American apart, there are no indications of any government involvement in these movies. But as Washington's military commitment to South Vietnam increased in the early 1960s, officials devised a multi-layered propaganda strategy to defend it. The strategy's message had three core themes. First, the war was a case of North Vietnamese aggression, backed by China, against South Vietnam. In other words, contrary to critics' pleas, the conflict was not a civil war or a war of national self-determination, and the American government had every right to help a sovereign nation defend itself. Second, the war was a test case for all wars of national liberation and was subject to the Domino Theory. This meant that the primary threat to Southeast Asian independence came from Beijing, which was using North Vietnam and principally its terrorist network in the south (the Viet Cong) as a tool for expansion. Finally, the intentions of America and its allies were peaceful and the use of force the last resort. Force was necessary, however, in order to bring an intransigent enemy to the negotiating table and thereby achieve a lasting solution for Vietnam.49 The Kennedy and Johnson administrations disseminated their case assiduously. JFK's press secretary, Pierre Salinger, laid on all-expenses-paid trips to Vietnam for America's most influential correspondents. LBJ was constantly on the phone to television network executives, complaining, cajoling and threatening to make sure the images of 'progress' in Vietnam he thought the public ought to see actually appeared.50

In 1965, the government's Vietnam propaganda campaign was ratcheted up several notches, as Vietnam switched from being a limited war into a fullblown military conflict. Johnson ordered an escalating series of air strikes against North Vietnam (christened Operation Rolling Thunder) and increased the number of US troops on the ground in the south to 200,000. The first major anti-war demonstration took place in Washington, DC, in April that year; October saw protests against the war in forty American cities.51 To cope with the war's intensification, the USIA and Defence Department both produced their first major Vietnam films. Night of the Dragon was a highly polished, colour USIA documentary, narrated by Charlton Heston and directed by Richard T. Heffron. It used faked combat scenes to blame the war squarely on North Vietnam, exposed 'Viet Cong' atrocities through horrific images of dead teachers and village elders, and stressed the endurance of South Vietnamese youngsters, including a 5-year-old boy who had lost his legs in a minefield.52 The Defence Department's Why Vietnam? was modelled on Frank Capra's celebrated Why We Fight series from the Second World War. In what was becoming a familiar theme, it too used South Vietnamese children to evoke an emotional response. The film showed the North Vietnamese leader, Ho Chi Minh, surrounded by children, as the narrator accused him of duplicitously playing the 'kindly grandfather' while 'planning a reign of terror'. Why Vietnam? was required viewing for all GIs shipping out to Vietnam, and with 10,000 prints controversially circulated among schools and colleges, it became the first documentary about Vietnam that a large number of Americans saw. Critics attacked it for its falsifications and 'brainwashing' techniques.53

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