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Public Affairs the Military and the Media, 1962-1968

Public Affairs the Military and the Media, 1962-1968

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Published by: Bob Andrepont on Aug 05, 2011
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During March, while civilian officials in Washington still assumed a few well-

placed articles and speeches would suffice as a public affairs strategy, pres-

19 Msg, Saigon 1423 to State, DAIN 196127, 29 Jan 64.

20 Memo, Rowan for the President, 26 May 64; Memo, Rowan for Secretary McNamara, 4 JUIl 64,
sub: Improvement of Informational-Psychological Program in South Vietnam, CMH files; Msg, MACV
2854 to Jes, 8 Jun 64, Reorganization of Information Program at MACV, for Cen Taylor and Secre-
tary Sylvester from Westmoreland, Westmoreland History, bk. 2, May-Jull 64, CMH. There were


sures began to build within the Army
and the Defense Department for a
review of the information program in
South Vietnam. At that time Army
Chief of Staff General Earle G. Wheeler
ordered an officer recently returned
from South Vietnam, Brig. Gen. John
M. Finn, to create a special working
group to write a report on "all aspects
of operations and administration that
affect U.S.-GVN operations." Finn took
Wheeler at his word, composing a
study that covered every phase of the
war from what he called its "lack of a
common concept" to the necessity for

an informed press.21

Maximlllll Cnfldor

In the report's detailed section on
relations with the news media, Finn
advised an expansion of the MACV
Public Affairs Office to provide news-

General Wheeler

men with "up-to-date, factual information on current operations and policies."
He pOinted out that the Saigon correspondents frequently went along on mili-
tary operations and were thus "thoroughly knowledgeable" about the war. With
that fact in mind, the U.S. Army ought to assign highly experienced information
officers to positions in the field and to appoint a civilian to head them. More likely
to gain the newsmen's confidence than a strictly military team, the group would
begin its work by determining which reporter wielded the most influence over
his fellows and enlist his assistance in correcting any problems that arose with
the press. The U.S. commander in South Vietnam would meanwhile direct the
press toward areas where favorable publicity was desired by conducting infor-
mal discussions with newsmen and by periodically soliciting their opinions."
Finn's recommendations took on added emphasis shortly after they reached
Wheeler's desk, when the chief of the MACV Public Affairs Office, Lt. Col. B.
Lee Baker, U.S. Air Force, petitioned the Defense Department for a review of
its restrictions on the release of information to the press. Baker said that the rules
obscuring the U.S. Air Force's role in the war, the employment of Army and
Marine Corps helicopters, the use of napalm, and the presence of jet aircraft in
Southeast Asia were naive. Reporters knew that U.S. pilots flew many of the
air strikes supposedly flown by the South Vietnamese and that helicopters were

at the time no full-tim!:! TV news reporters assigned to cover the war, see "TV's First War," Newsweek,

30 Aug 65, p. 32.

21 Rpt, DCSOPS to the Chief of Staff. Army, 21 Mar 64, sub: Actions To Improve U.S.-GVN Oper-
ations in South Vietnam, CMH files.
22 Ibid.


The Military and the Media, 1962-1968

taking offensive action against the enemy despite official attempts to soften that
fact. They had seen napalm in use and had only to visit the observation deck
at Tan Son Nhut Airport to count the jet aircraft continually parked near com-

mercial runways. Continued adherence to unrealistic restrictions, Baker warned,

would only harm military credibility"
The Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, Arthur Sylvester, deferred
action on Baker's request until June, and the Army's Office of the Deputy Chief
of Staff for Operations decided to act only on those of Finn's recommendations
that the Army could handle unilaterally. Events occurring late in March and con-
tinuing through April and May nevertheless proved the accuracy of Baker's predic-
tion while adding urgency to the call for a revision of public affairs policy."
On 28 March the indianapolis News published the letters home of Capt. Edwin
Gerald "Jerry" Shank, u.s. Air Force, who had recently died in battle. Shank
had written his family regularly during the months before he died, sometimes
twice a day. Two months after his death, his relatives released his letters
to the Indianapolis News. U. S. News & World Report picked up the story, giv-
ing it four pages prefaced with the title" A Captain's Last Letters From Vietnam,
'We Are Losing. Morale Is Bad ... If They'd Just Give Us Good Planes .... ' "
Shank's letters revealed the details of U.S. Air Force combat activities in South
Vietnam. Although they dealt mainly with Shank's own vivid experiences in the
war and contained conventional complaints about the quality of equipment, one
detailed the pilot's responsibilities as a "trainer" of South Vietnamese airmen,
the frustrations involved in fighting a war without recognition, and the anger
that sometimes resulted.

What gets me the most is that they won't tell you people what we do over here. I bet
you that anyone you talk to does not know that American pilots fight this war. We-me
and my buddies-do everything. The Vietnamese" students" we have on board are air-
men basics. The only reason they are on board is in case we crash there is one American
"adviser" and one Vietnamese "student." They're stupid, ignorant,
sacrificial lambs, and
I have no use for them. In fact, I have been tempted to whip them within an inch of their
life a few times. They're a menace to have on board.2S

Although the story failed to take hold at once, by mid-April it was a major
concern of almost every important newspaper in the United States. Congress,
too, took up the issue. Much of what the news media had to say centered upon
a concern that American soldiers were fighting and dying without proper equip-
ment, but everything took on added meaning because U.S. officials had dissem-
bled about the character of American operations in South Vietnam. At a news

23 Memo, B. L. Baker for Arthur Sylvester, 12 Mar 64, sub: Restrictions on Release of Information
in RVN, DDI News from Vietnam file.

2~ Memo, DCSOPS for ACSFOR, Staff Plan [1964), sub: Report to the Chief of Staff on Action To

Improve U.S. Efforts in South Vietnam; MFR, Arthur Sylvester, 1 Oct 64, sub: News Restrictions
in Vietnam. Both in DDI News from Vietnam file.

2S Memo, Col C. R. Carlson, USAF, Chief of Public Information Division, Office of Air Force Infor-
mation, for the Director of Information, 10 Apr 64, sub: Capt. Shank's Letters Home, Air Force Clip-
ping Service files.


Maximum Candor

Captain Shank Poses in Front of His Aircraft

conference on 22 April, House Republican Minority Leader Charles A. Halleck
of Indiana cited the Shank letters as proof that Americans had been misinformed
about the war. "Let's have the whole brutal business out on the table," he said.
"Although the American public is repeatedly assured that our service men are
only ... instructors, there is mounting evidence that many of them are engaged
in actual offensive operations." When U.S. News & World Report published the
letters in full on 4 May, Senator Margaret Chase Sntith of Maine inserted the article
into the Congressional Record with the comment that "there is a genuine need,
a desperate need, for the American people to be told the truth on the Vietnamese
war. They are not getting the facts from their government." Further congressional
comment followed on 8 May, when Life reprinted the letters under the heading
"We Fight and Die, But No One Cares. "26
The Defense Department responded to the charges, but to little effect. Although
the Air Force defended the record of its aircraft in South Vietnam, noting that
each had been rebuilt before consignment to Southeast Asia, and although Arthur

26 Tom Lambert, "GOP Charges U.S. Deceives People on Gl Rote in War," New York Herald-Tribul/e,
22 Apr 64; "A Captain's Last Letters From Vietnam," U.S. News & World Report, 4 May 64, p. 46;
U.S. Congress, Senate, COllgressiollai Record, 88th Cong., 2d sess., 27 April 1964, p. 8889; "We Fight
and Die, But No One Cares," Life, 8 May 64, p. 34B.


The Military and the Media, 1962-1968

Sylvester demonstrated that Life had edited Shank's letters to make them appear
more critical than they actually were, the controversy broadened. Originally
applicable only to the Air Force, it became the concern of all the military services
when a group of relatives of American soldiers and airmen killed in South Viet-
nam bought a full-page advertisement in the Washington Star to list the names
of the 127 Americans who had died in South Vietnam since january 1961. "We
believe this list is not complete," they charged, "and that many more Americans
have been killed by communist bullets in Vietnam than has been reported by the
Department of Defense.""
The director of the U.S. Information Agency, Carl Rowan, returned from a
fact-finding trip to South Vietnam while the controversy was at its height. He
told President johnson that Lodge's one-man rule over the U.S. mission's public
affairs program had harmed coordination of the overall public affairs effort and
that Barry Zorthian should take control of the entire program. Although Zorthian
would be unable to stop critical articles written by newsmen "who go out into
the field, gain the confidence of our soldiers, and then pick up information ... not
at all helpful to our over-all mission," he could at least take the action necessary
to end the confusion plaguing the public relations effort and inaugurate measures
to balance critical war coverage with "the stories we want told. "28
While Rowan's recommendation circulated between the White House, the State
Department, and the Department of Defense, Arthur Sylvester took the first step
toward a reinvigorated information program in South Vietnam. Predicting that
problems with the press would worsen as the war went bad, he cut official red
tape to bring to Washington one of the Army's most experienced public affairs
officers, Col. Rodger Bankson. A veteran of the censorship program during the
Korean War, Bankson was then serving as the chief of information for the U.S.
Strike Command in Florida. Sylvester instructed Bankson to set up a Southeast
Asia Division within the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public
Affairs. He wanted the organization to know everything it could about the war
so that it could maintain liaison with the press corps in Washington while develop-
ing intelligent policy guidance for use in the field."
Shortly after arriving in Washington, Bankson traveled to South Vietnam to
conduct a six-week survey of MACV's public affairs operations. While he was
away, on 2 june, a high-level conference chaired by Rusk and McNamara con-
vened in Honolulu to consider the situation in South Vietnam. As part of that
conference a subcommittee composed of Sylvester, Rowan, Zorthian, and a num-

27 Ltr, Eugene M. Zuchert, Seey of the Air Force, to Honorable Richard Russell, Chairman of the

Senate Armed Services Committee, 13 May 64, CMH files; Laurence Barrett, "Building in Viet War-
planes," New York Herald-Tribulle, 14 May 64; Jack Raymond, "Air Force Backs Record of Its Planes
in Vietnam, " New York Times, 14 May 64; "Pentagon Hits 'Editing' of Dead Pilot's Letters," Wasllillg-
fOil Star, 23 May 64; Ted Lewis, "Capital Stuff: Kin of Dead GI/s Pose a Question," New York Timcs,
13 May 64; Tom Lambert, "House Quiz for McNamara on Obsolete Planes Used in Vietnam," New
York Herald*Triblille,
13 May 64.
28 Memo, Rowan for the President, 26 May 64.

29 Intervs, author with Col Rodger Bankson, 6 Sep 73 and 16 Jun 75, both in CMH files.


Maximum Candor

ber of other experienced information officers met to evaluate the information pro-
gram. Finding conditions gloomy and unsatisfactory on many counts, the group
reported that the Saigon correspondents were aware of everything that was hap-
pening in South Vietnam and had begun to boast that they had revealed the facts
when U.S. officials were still "pretending" things were going well. Reporters
would continue to write in a negative vein as long as South Vietnamese fortunes
declined. The information program had yet to be devised that could make defeats
look like victory or South Vietnamese lassitude appear as fiery enthusiasm'·
Barry Zorthian observed that the absence of victories was only part of the
problem. The Saigon correspondents were "as skeptical and cynical a group of
newsmen as he had ever seen," mainly because official spokesmen had misled
them in the past. A program of creative press relations was of paramount impor-
tance in such a context, yet the handling of the news media in South Vietnam
was so diffuse and the rules under which military information officers labored
so unrealistic that little chance for originality in dealing with the press remained.31
The assembled information officers set about devising a set of suggestions to
correct what was wrong. Officials at all levels in Washington and in South Viet-
nam, they said, had to understand that the information effort was an integral
part of every program drawn up to meet the crisis in Southeast Asia. With that
principle established, the job of improving official credibility could proceed in
the proper context, and Washington agencies could begin to issue new guidance
designed "to wipe out the several directives now on the books which some mili-
tary information officers interpret as requiring them to lie." Since Colonel Baker
had himself been discredited by those requirements, he too would have to go."
Turning to the lack of cohesion within the overall information effort, the con-
ferees repeated Rowan's earlier suggestion that one man take across-the-board
authority for public relations in South Vietnam. That individual would sit in on
all meetings and briefings and know as much as possible about the war. He would
advise members of the U.S. mission on which newsmen to see and what points
to make. Although he would report to the ambassador, he would possess "Czar"
powers enabling him to marshal whatever resources he needed to the task of mov-
ing the positive side of the story to the news media of the world.
With that foundation in place, the conference directed its attention to the
MACV information apparatus. Military members of the group argued that news-
men serving in South Vietnam required access to immediately available trans-
portation. Colonel Baker was "bumming rides every day," they said, and could
never be certain of his ability to get the press to a news development where report-

30 Quote from MFR, William P. Bundy, 2 Jun 64, sub: Tuesday Afternoon Session at Honolulu,
Chron files, CMH. See also "The War in Asia,"
Newsweek, 8 Jun 64, p. 25; Memo, Carl Rowan for
Secretary Rusk, 4 JUIl 64, sub: Improvement of Informational-Psychological Program in South Viet-
nam, CMH files.

31 MFR, CINCRAC, 1 Jun 64, sub: Special Meeting on Southeast Asia, Plenary Session, 1-36213/64

092SEA, 68A4023, box 5, WNRC.

J2 This section is based on Memo, Rowan for Rusk, 4 Jun 64, sub: Improvement of Informational-
Psychological Program in South Vietnam.


The Military a/1d the Media, 1962-1968

ing could be in the national interest. The military services also had to give high
priority to improving the quality of the military information officers they sent to
South Vietnam. Truly qualified men seemed to consider service in Saigon a stigma
on their careers. Several had even resigned rather than accept an assignment there.
As a result, most of the public affairs officers in South Vietnam lacked either
experience or the general ability to do the job.
The information officers' final recommendation addressed an old but basic
issue. Claiming that most of the damaging articles appearing in the press were
the result of military gripe sessions, the group called upon the military services
to inaugurate a vigorous internal education program designed to reduce the num-
bers of incidents where soldiers sounded off to the press.
Although the participants in the conference believed that effective manage-
ment and realistic information policies could do much to improve reporting of
the war, they had few illusions about the immediate future. In the briefing for
Secretary Rusk that followed the meeting, they predicted that their recommen-
dations would have little if any effect within the next three to six months. Assum-
ing that Khanh avoided assassination, the situation would either continue along
much as it had or, more probably, deteriorate."

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