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Life Goes to Vietnam

A *Life* cover image of a U.S. Marine and South Vietnamese child walking down a road with fishing rods in hand.

Image Courtesy of Google Books.

Perhaps more than any other publication, the Life magazine that went to war in the 1940s helped mold Americans’ opinions of a global conflict that ultimately would propel the United States to superpower status during the Cold War years that followed. A pioneer in photojournalism, Life also helped to solidify the “good war” narrative in the American mindset. It aided in establishing the framework for a mythical, if not fictional, storyline that would endure for decades to come. For example, the week after the attack on Pearl Harbor, more than 3.4 million copies of the December 15th, 1941 issue went into circulation.

Of course, lasting peace did not follow World War II. When Life went off to war in the late 1950s and early 1960s, this time in Southeast Asia, the magazine would attempt to replicate another “good war” tale. It achieved far less success, in large part because the journalists and photographers themselves had the unenviable task of making sense of an incredibly complex, even convoluted, political-military conflict.

Yet far from manipulating public attitudes against American Cold War objectives, or undermining policymakers and military leaders in Washington and Saigon, Life did its best to share a view of the U.S. war in Vietnam that was at once as honest as it was troubling. In many ways, reviewing the magazine today reveals how Life reflected rather than shaped the American narrative arc of war in Vietnam—from wonder to hope; from disillusionment to anger; and finally, from despair to defeat.

Articles in the 1950s sought to uncover what many Americans thought of as an exotic yet vulnerable Asian country, a “traditional” society caught in a struggle between communist forces and French colonialists intent on maintaining their empire. In August 1953, for example, the magazine positioned French war weariness against “Ho Chi Minh’s Reds” who were “building up” for a major offensive. Yet it was clear the war was taking its toll on all sides. Photographer David Douglas Duncan offered readers glimpses of wounded Vietnamese staring into the camera from their hospital beds, Saigon opium dens, and U.S. military vehicles crowding transport depots. Duncan also foresaw what Americans might soon be up against. As a Vietnamese bookseller warned him, “When our people are aware that they are fighting for their own interests, they will be willing to make more of the sacrifices that seem to be necessary for freedom’s birth.”

Despite such conversations hinting at the importance of Vietnamese independence, the Cold War contest never sank far below the surface as Life explained what was at stake if communism spread across Southeast Asia. By the early 1960s, the magazine relayed the supposed importance of maintaining barriers against further communist expansion in Asia. The domino theory appeared in full force in articles such as “The Lovely Land that Might Blow Up.” This 1961 piece told readers that communists, “mapping their strategy in Moscow,” coveted “South Vietnam above any prize in the Orient.” Two years later, the magazine offered cautious optimism that America’s “experiment in rice-roots diplomacy” was at last staunching the communist tide. But such confidence did not last long. In November 1963, when South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem was overthrown and murdered in a coup, Life pivoted once more. America’s chief ally clearly had failed against an enemy “who aimed to overthrow democracy by subversion, guerrilla warfare and outright attack.”

As more and more American advisors and equipment arrived in Southeast Asia, the magazine echoed mainstream opinion back home. Life hardly questioned the apparent necessity to defend South Vietnam from both northern aggression and internal subversion. U.S. military escalation seemed imperative, even unavoidable. In June 1964, Life’s Ahihiko Okamura shared grisly photographs of “Vietcong” guerrillas who attacked a small hamlet, killing thirty-two villagers and wounding some eighty more. The article included a graphic photo of a young baby being treated for severe burns in the deadly aftermath of the raid. Unlike in World War II, especially before the autumn of 1943, the editors of Life seemed far less reticent in sharing the carnage of the Vietnam War with their readers. By November, the magazine showcased famed photographer Larry Burrows who followed Americans and their “significant and urgent efforts … to stave off defeat.” In an accompanying essay, “The Fight on the People Front,” John Flynn highlighted heroic U.S. advisors who were aiding local peasants “desperately weary of endless war.” There seemed little doubt as to who wore the white hats in these battles along freedom’s frontier.

Yet, looking back among these earlier stories and photographs, something clearly was amiss. No front lines emerged in this internecine war. Vietcong guerrillas seemed no different, at least outwardly, from America’s South Vietnamese allies. Children and families appeared ever present on undefined battlefields. Why were Buddhist monks burning themselves in opposition to a Saigon regime that the United States was supporting? When Burrows accompanied a marine helicopter squadron flying out of Da Nang in early 1965, he witnessed U.S. choppers being riddled with communist machine-gun fire and, worse, the death of young Americans aboard. How was it that a world superpower was taking such damage from a supposedly inferior enemy? Ever so perceptibly, Life began asking related questions that would bedevil Americans for the remainder of their war in Vietnam.

And then, in the spring of 1965, U.S. ground combat troops landed as a dual narrative began to emerge from the magazine’s pages. Defending Vietnam mattered, but Americans weren’t sure if they were winning or losing there. Southeast Asia, readers were told, was an important, if not vital, battlefield in the larger Cold War. Yet the traditional metrics of success and progress were nowhere to be found. By July, veteran photojournalist Horst Faas was showing young GIs grimacing from “the shock of 30 hours of nightmarish combat.” In November, the magazine’s lead story ran under the ominous byline “With the Marines in Vietnam: No Front, No Rear, Who’s the Enemy?” Revisiting the article today, readers might see editor Michael Mok as prophetic. He hit upon an “inescapable paradox” not long after these combat troops arrived in Vietnam. As Mok observed, “We cannot defeat this armed enemy, unless we win the people; yet unless we defeat the armed enemy, we cannot win the people.”

Worse, by 1967 the American home front visibly began turning against the war. Compared to idealized visions of World War II–era domestic unity—always more historical myth than reality—what did this collapsing support suggest about the viability of America sustaining its long-term political-military mission in Southeast Asia? Life had little positive to say about the antiwar movement, even “infiltrating” a photojournalist into the University of California at Berkeley in 1965. But by late 1967, it seemed difficult to watch American marines suffering under enemy artillery and mortar barrages at Con Thien and not ask whether this truly was a war worth fighting.

More and more Americans were beginning to use descriptors like “stalemate” and “quagmire” to describe the war in Vietnam, and the 1968 Tet Offensive further undermined many constituents’ faith in U.S. policymakers. In February, Life readers confronted photos of American GIs fighting to maintain control of the U.S. embassy in Saigon. In its coverage of events in Da Nang, Life featured a photograph of a small child, covering his ears from gunfire, racing past the body of a slain civilian lying in the street. The issue even offered a “timetable of terror in the cities.” Such grim reporting surely presented antiwar advocates back home an opportunity to openly question U.S. foreign policy in Southeast Asia.

Like other media outlets, Life magazine began to probe the costs and tally of a war that seemed increasingly to have neither purpose nor endgame. The June 27, 1969 cover story, “One Week’s Toll,” proved to be an irreversible break from the hope and optimism that Life shared in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In twelve successive pages, the magazine shared headshots of the 242 Americans killed in Vietnam between May 28 and June 3. Twenty-one-year-old Mario Lamelza from Philadelphia. Twenty-two-year-old Joseph L. Rhodes from Memphis. Nineteen-one-year-old Edward O’Donovan from Chicago. Page after page, young faces peered out, frozen in time, never to age.

By the early 1970s, Life had come to question not just the war’s political assumptions but its moral implications as well. The May 22, 1970 issue included not only a plea by former Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford to maintain and strengthen the “enormous upswing in antiwar sentiment,” but a shocking photo essay of veterans residing in squalid VA hospitals. One vet shared the agony of “living with the misery of six neglected guys who can’t wash themselves . . . who are left unintended for hours . . . it’s sickening.” In these wounded veterans’ experiences, Life had found a way to articulate the awfulness of a bloody war gone horribly wrong.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the magazine only occasionally placed the Vietnamese themselves center stage, reflecting yet another pattern in American media coverage of the war during the 1960s and early 1970s. This was not a Vietnamese civil war in which the local population suffered most. Rather, this was a war harming young Americans more than anything else. The January 29, 1971 issue did highlight the “disrupted lives and uncertain futures of two crippled Vietnamese children,” but the story centered on compassionate Americans volunteering their time and resources to aid these young victims of war. Even as U.S. troops were withdrawing from an unwon war, Life apparently could not resist painting the American endeavor in benevolent strokes.

This snapshot hardly does justice, as others have, to the sacrifices Life journalists and photographers endured to bring a complex war home to the American public. What it suggests, however, is that claims of the mainstream American media losing the war in Vietnam are specious at best. Life reflected more than it shaped public opinion back home, a trend shared by most media outlets as Americans went to Vietnam with the highest of hopes and returned home disillusioned by defeat.

Gregory A. Daddis is the USS Midway Chair in Modern U.S. Military History at San Diego State University and the author of Pulp Vietnam: War and Gender in Cold War Men’s Adventure Magazines.

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