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Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Friday, November 14, 2003

The JFK Media Onanism Marathon - Part I of God-knows-how-many...

War Party idol Winston Churchill said of Clement Attlee (two Ts please!) that he was
a modest man with much to be modest about

The US media has scarcely suited its self-opinion to its own modest achievements [1]. And any excuse to roll out the seventy-six trombones - more like a thousand and seventy-six - in the cause of boosting their organisations and their egos is accepted with alacrity.

Anthony Violanti (I kid you not!) is puffing out his chest with pride to siliconed Pamela Anderson dimensions in the Buffalo News (I think you're ahead of, here!). The opening graf excites the retching reflex:
In the year of Jayson Blair, it's a revelation to go back and read New York Times' coverage of four days in November 1963.

That Golden Age when shirts - and guys - were buttoned-down, pop idols sang in suits and ties, TV was black-and-white (well, white, except for minstrels, servants and demonstrators) and, with Robert F Kennedy as Attorney-General, the US Supreme Court was still right behind the Red-baiting Smith Act and McCarran Act [2].

And when objective journalism ruled, OK. That whited sepulchre under which the gentlemen of the press were pleased (most of them) to print on successive days the wildly divergent estimates of Senator Joseph McCarthy of the number of Communists in the State Department (with each estimate, the number and the formulation were different, of course) without sullying the news pages with any comment drawing attention to the discrepancies.

JFK, RFK or any damned K could say what he liked, and know it would be reported dutifully, in obeisance to authority in comparison to which the most grovelling kow-tow in the Chinese Imperial Court was positively off-hand.

And when, less than a year after the assassination, they were faced with the journalistic slam-dunk that was the Gulf of Tonkin affair, the Great and the Good of American journalism assumed the position - and allowed Lyndon Johnson to deploy his very un-secret weapon [3].

The Holy Jack had set the tone shortly after taking office [4], telling the media in April 1961:
Every newspaper now asks itself with every story: 'Is it news?' All I ask is that you add the question: 'Is it in the interest of national security?'

Thus, on the morning of August 5 1964, the day after the second attack on the USS Maddox in the Tonkin Gulf (the one that almost certainly did not happen), the New York Times reported (Hallin p15) that
President Johnson has ordered retaliatory action against gunboats and 'certain supporting facilities in North Vietnam' after renewed attacks against American destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin.

In a television address tonight, Mr Johnson said air attacks on the North Vietnamese ships and facilities were taking place as he spoke, shortly after 11.30 pm…

This 'positively reply', as the President calls it, followed a naval battle in which a number of North Vietnamese PT boats attacks two US destroyers with torpedoes. Two of the boats were believed to have been sunk. The US forces suffered no damage or loss of life.

Mr Johnson termed the North Vietnamese attacks 'open aggression on the high seas'.

Washington's response is 'limited and fitting', the President said, and his administration sees no general extension of the guerrilla war in South East Asia.

And, writing in the Washington Post that morning, the noted hack Chalmers Roberts said (Hallin p16)
The US turned loose its military might on North Vietnam last night to prevent the Communist leaders in Hanoi and Peking from making the mistaken decision that they could attack American ships with impunity.

But the initial US decision was for limited action, a sort of tit for tat retaliation, and not a decision to escalate the war in South East Asia.

Those views came last night from official American sources who would not let themselves be otherwise identified, but there was no doubt that they reflected the views of President Johnson and what was described as the unanimous decision of all the policymakers meeting in the Security Council.

No one was prepared to say where the President's decision might lead. Yet no one doubted the historical immensity of the step and its possible vast consequences.

The great mystery here was whether the attacks by North Vietnamese PT boats on the American vessels were part of some larger scheme on the Communist side to escalate the war. It was said by American sources that the attacks, clearly not accidental, could be part of some overall plan.

Pretty much complete bollocks!

It is, of course, easy to assume that the stuff now in the public domain - notably the Pentagon Papers material - was known at the time. The hacks reported what they were told by USG - and they weren't much in the way of leaks!

What, so far as I know, they didn't do is to do any actual journalism: like looking at the Hanoi version of events, for instance. Le Monde of August 8 1964 apparently (Hallin p20) had a piece which did so and raised the possibility that reports of the August 4 attack might have been the result of confusion.

(The truth is that the OPLAN-34 raids by South Vietnamese forces against the North were designed to trigger exactly such a response as occurred on August 2, and was supposed to have done two days later.)

It's not that a critical NYT or WaPo story on the Tonkin Gulf incidents could in one fell swoop have stopped the Vietnam War, much in the way as Errol Flynn reconquered Burma single-handedly. But at least such a piece would have shown the hacks doing their job.

Much as there were free American Negroes long before the end of slavery, there were critical pieces in the American press long before the before the media turned against the War. Pieces by David Halberstam on Ap Bac, for instance; pieces hostile to (sink or swim with) Ngo Dinh Diem [5], especially after the Pagoda Raids.

But somehow, in running such pieces, the top papers managed to marginalise them. A critical approach to the Tonkin Gulf might have brought them in as capital to support a campaign raising wider questions of US foreign policy in South East Asia. Journalists doing their job - no more, no less.

Instead, the top papers chose to stay buttoned-down.

  1. Has any country's? It's just that I'm focussing here on the US.

  2. Scales v US 367 US 203 was argued by the Eisenhower Justice Department - but decided on June 5 1961 - by which time Saints JFK and RFK had had four clear months to throw in the towel.

  3. From memory, Robert Caro's Master of the Senate goes into some detail about LBJ's habit of waving his dick around proudly, even in mixed company. Not something I've seen the present Texan incumbent accused of, even in Counterpunch.

  4. The Uncensored War Daniel C Hallin (1986) p13.

  5. A crack of journo Homer Bigart.

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