Propaganda images and manufacturing consent in "Free" Vietnam, 1950-1963

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2017-08

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Abstract

Propaganda was necessary to sustaining American action in Vietnam and a major obstacle to successful action; it represented a deliberate attempt to manipulate the political environment but was often subverted or transformed by that environment; it was developed to solve problems, but it created new ones that demanded new solutions. Propaganda drove America toward more effort to solve the problems it had created. Unlike previous studies related to propaganda and Vietnam that consider propaganda types or organizations in isolation, this dissertation attempts to reconcile the interrelated phenomena of propaganda and their contexts into a single comprehensive story. The story that emerges is how Cold War propaganda was applied to Indochina and Vietnam, how that propaganda defined problems and solutions, and how those definitions created a political environment that demanded the march towards the Vietnam War. This dissertation is not only an examination of American actions, however. The anticommunist Vietnamese political context must be considered as well. It was a crucial part of the American political environment concerning Vietnam, while also being a casualty of American propaganda and the consequences of the propaganda’s oversimplifications. The two political contexts were inextricably linked, especially because the propaganda of both nations bled back and forth between each other. Both the United States and Vietnamese anticommunists created propaganda geared mostly toward manufacturing consent in America, not Vietnam. Anticommunist Vietnamese and Americans’ lack of interest in pursuing policies that were actually attractive and sellable to the majority of Vietnamese people only exacerbated the problem and made political failure in South Vietnam all the more likely. United States propaganda had insisted that America was helping Vietnam to develop democracy and freedom, even though that was patently not the case when working with the French. The United States called for a so-called third force that could be an alternative to colonialism and communism, even as it supported colonialism. When the obstacle of their French allies was finally gone in 1954, the United States thought it found that democratic, nation-building alternative in Ngo Dinh Diem. For both Americans and anti-communist Vietnamese, Diem appeared to be a way out of the dilemmas of the Indochina War and the Cold War in Indochina. They built up the overly optimistic image of Diem as a champion of democracy even as the untruth of it was becoming obvious. That miracle image of Diem, however, survived for some time until outside political circumstances shifted against it. As the weaknesses of Diem’s rule and the propaganda that supported it were exposed, Diem’s government descended into a more clearly authoritarian direction, buttressed by nothing other than coercion and American assistance. The naked repression of the regime, its relative ineffectiveness, and the perhaps exaggerated perception of the repression threatened the Kennedy Administration’s Cold War image at home in America, in South Vietnam, and around the world. That damage, particularly after the embarrassments of the Buddhist crisis in 1963, led the Kennedy Administration to abandon Diem. The resulting coup and assassination of Diem ended the political crisis and its fundamental threat to America’s propaganda image, but it did not solve America’s deeper problems in Vietnam. In fact, it helped to perpetuate them and repeat them, leading to the Vietnam War. With the long-term political failure of the destruction of the imagined Diem miracle, America turned more and more toward achieving its propaganda-defined goal of a Vietnam that aligned with American ideals through the use of military force.

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Keywords

Propaganda, Manufacturing consent, Vietnam, USIA, American Friends of Vietnam, AFV, Ngo Dinh Diem, Indochina, Vietnam War, US Information Agency, Information policy, Republic of Vietnam, RVN

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